White Elephant : a Rarity and a Beast of Joy
The White Elephant
In South East Asia in the arc from India to Vietnam, the elephant holds sway. It is an animal that is loved by the people and forms part of religious culture. I recollect seeing elephants in Thai temples and also in South Indian temples. In India, the elephant is also a god in the form of Lord Ganesh who has the trunk of an elephant in place of a nose. Though a white elephant has not been sighted in India yet the Hindu God Indira is supposed to ride a white elephant named Airavata. This elephant has the ability to fly and is the king of all elephants.
The Indian elephant is steel color and at one time over 500,000 roamed the jungles of India. There are lots of elephants in Burma also and they were put to good use by the famous "elephant" Bill during World War II.
Burma has a distinction, as this species of elephant has been located there. The color of this elephant is not exactly white but a light color and is often referred to as white elephant. Actually, this elephant has a pinkish skin color, but it stands out. This white elephant is a rarity and just about 6/7 have been sighted in over a 100 years. The white elephant, when seen, is supposed to portend good luck for the nation. This can be taken with a pinch of salt as the white elephant has not changed the fortunes of Burma. Never the less it’s a species to be prized and preserved.
More about the White Elephant
I think Burma is the only country in the world to have the white elephant. Earlier there were a few in Thailand , but the last died in 2006.It is similar to the Indian elephant except for the color of its skin, which is a shade of pink. This by itself is a rarity as nowhere an elephant in either Africa or Asia is known to have this skin color. Burma I would say is lucky as it has 9 white elephants in its zoos. The last elephant captured was in the Ayeyarwaddy region.
The white elephant is supposed to bring good luck. One can stretch the myth and surmise that perhaps the downfall of the military regime in Burma was because of the discovery and capture of the 9th white elephant.
White elephants in Burmese history are prized possessions and a few hundred years back a war was fought between Burma and Thailand for possession of 4 white elephants. White elephants have an intimate connection with Buddhism as legend tells us that the mother of Gautama Siddhartha – Buddha had a dream of a white elephant who entered her womb. Her dream led to the birth of Gautama Buddha.
White elephants are similar to other elephants and they can be domesticated and tamed easily. Burma is a Buddhist country and the white elephant there also has a religious connotation. The very fact that it is a rare species has made the elephant special for the Burmese who look after these beasts with great care and love. They are also not ready to partake of any beast to any other zoo in the world. The white elephants have a special place in Burmese life and kings and generals looked after them and also decorated them with jewels. However, they have never been used for war like the Indian elephant which was the mainstay of Indian armies for close to 3000 years. White elephants are also docile by nature and don’t mind interacting with humans.
The white elephant because of its rarity is an endangered species. Nobody is aware as to how many of these beasts are in the jungles of Burma. At a conservative estimate, they cannot be more than 7 or 8 and the largest number are in captivity in the zoos of Burma where 9 of them reside. I had seen the white elephant at the Rangoon zoo and he was a lovely beast as he bathed in a pool of water.
White elephants have been bred in captivity, but it's a long drawn tortuous process that involves a lot of hard work. I hope these experiments succeed. The capture and killing of white elephants is banned in both India and Burma. This is a good thing and is needed to protect the animal from poachers.