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A royal white elephant
A white elephant (also albino elephant) is a rare kind of elephant, but not a distinct species. Although often depicted as snow white, their skin is normally a soft reddish-brown, turning a light pink when wet. They have fair eyelashes and toenails.

White elephants are only nominally white. Of those currently kept by the Burmese rulers — General Than Shwe regards himself as the heir of the Burmese kings — one is grey and the other three are pinkish, but all are officially white. The king of Thailand also keeps a number of white elephants. There are none in Laos at present, nor in Cambodia, but former U.S. vice-President Spiro Agnew once presented a white elephant to King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia.

Indian culture

The white elephant is considered to belong to the god Indra. The name of the elephant is Airavata and it is a flying elephant. Airavata is made the King of all elephants by Lord Indra.

In Thailandmarker, white elephants are sacred and a symbol of royal power; all those discovered are presented to the king (usually this is ceremonial — they are not taken into captivity) and the more white elephants the king has, the greater his standing. The current king Bhumibol Adulyadej owns ten — considered a great achievement, and probably due to modern communications.

A white elephant in Thailand is not necessarily albino, although it must have pale skin. Candidate animals are assessed according to a series of physical and behavioural criteria (including eye colour, the shape of the tail and ears, and intelligence). Those which pass the tests are then assigned to one of four categories and are offered to the king, although the lower grades are sometimes refused.

In the past, lower grade white elephants were given as gifts to the king's friends and allies. The animals needed a lot of care and, being sacred, could not be put to work, so were a great financial burden on the recipient - and only the monarch and the very rich could afford them.
According to one story, white elephants were sometimes given as a present to some enemy (often a lesser noble with whom the king was displeased). The unfortunate recipient, unable to make any profit from it, and obliged to take care of it, would suffer bankruptcy and ruin .


In Burmamarker too, white elephants have been revered symbols of power and good fortune. The announcement by the ruling military regime of the finding of white elephants in 2001 and 2002 was seen by opponents as being aimed at bolstering support for their regime. A total of four white elephants are currently (2006) to be seen in a pavilion on the outskirts of Yangon.

Western cultural references

The term "white elephant" came, in English, to mean a spectacular and prestigious thing which is more trouble than it is worth, or has outlived its usefulness to the person who has it. While the item may be useful to others, its current owner would usually be glad to be rid of it. By reason of this, commercially, a "white elephant" might be available to purchase at a very favorable price. An example of such an item might be a mansion whose maintenance costs exceed the capacity of its owners.

In the UKmarker, Australia and New Zealandmarker a "white elephant stall" at a fair or market has unusual or miscellaneous items for sale which have been donated, as they were "white elephants" to their owners.

See also


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