Thailand 19 century: His Lordship white elephant Chang Phoouk


It is commonly supposed that the Buddhists of Siam and Birmah regard the Chang Phoouk, or white elephant, as a deity, and worship it accordingly. The notion is erroneous, especially as it relates to Siam. The Buddhists do not recognize God in any material form whatever, and are shocked at the idea of adoring an elephant.

Even Buddha, to whom they undoubtedly offer pious homage, they do not style ” God,” but on the contrary maintain that, though an emanation from a ” sublimated ethereal being,” he is by no means a deity. According to their philosophy of metempsychosis, however, each successive Buddha, in passing through a series of transmigrations, must necessarily have occupied in turn the forms of white animals of a certain class, — particularly the swan, the stork, the white sparrow, the dove, the monkey, and the elephant.

But there is much obscurity and diversity in the views of their ancient writers on this subject. Only one thing is certain, that the forms of these nobler and purer creatures are reserved for the souls of the good and great, who find in them a kind of redemption from the baser animal life.

Thus almost all white animals are held in reverence by the Siamese, because they were once superior human beings, and the white elephant, in particular, is supposed to be animated by the spirit of some king or hero.

Having once been a great man, he is thought to be famliar with the dangers that surround the great, and to know what is best and safest for those whose condition in all respects was once his own. He is hence supposed to avert national calamity, and bring prosperity and peace to a people.

From the earliest times the kings of Siam and Birmah have anxiously sought for the white elephant, and having had the rare fortune to procure one, have loaded it with gifts and dignities, as though it were a conscious favorite of the throne.

When the governor of a province of Siam is notified of the appearance of a white elephant within his bailiwick, he immediately commands that prayers and offerings shall be made in all the temples, while he sends out a formidable expedition of hunters and slaves to take the precious beast, and bring it in in triumph.

As soon as he is informed of its capture, a special messenger is despatched to inform the king of its sex, probable age, size, complexion, deportment, looks, and ways ; and in the presence of his Majesty this bearer of glorious tidings undergoes the painfully pleasant operation of having his mouth, ears, and nostrils stuffed with gold.

Especially is the lucky wight — perhaps some half- wild woodsmc… — who was first to spy the illustrious monster munificently rewarded. Orders are promptly issued to the woons and wongses of the several districts through which he must pass to prepare to receive him royally, and a wide path is cut for him through the forests he must traverse on his way to the capital. Wherever he rests he is sumptuously entertained, and everywhere he is escorted and served by a host of attendants, who sing, dance, play upon instruments, and perform feats of strength or skill for his amusement, until he reaches the banks of the Meinam, where a great floating palace of wood, surmounted by a gorgeous roof and hung with crimson curtains, awaits him.

The roof is literally thatched with flowers ingeniously arranged so as to form symbols and mottoes, which the superior beast is supposed to decipher with ease. The floor of this splendid float is laid with gilt matting curiously woven, in the centre of which his four-footed lordship is installed in state, surrounded by an obsequious and enraptured crowd of mere bipeds, who bathe him, perfume him, fan him, feed him, sing and play to him, flatter him.

His food consists of the finest herbs, the tenderest grass, the sweetest sugar-cane, the mellowest plantains, the brownest cakes of wheat, served on huge trays of gold and silver ; and his drink is perfumed with the fragrant flower of the dok mallee, the large native jessamine.

Thus, in more than princely state, he is floated down the river to a point within seventy miles of the capital, where the king and his court, all the chief personages of ihe kingdom, and a multitude of priests, both Buddhist and Brahmin, accompanied by troops of players and musicians, come out to meet him, and conduct him with all the honors to his stable-palace.

A great number of cords and ropes of all qualities and lengths are attached to the raft, those in the centre being of fine silk (figuratively, ” spun from a spider’s web “). These are for the king and his noble retinue, who with their own hands make them fast to their gilded barges ; the rest are secured to the great fleet of lesser boats. And so, with shouts of joy, beating of drums, blare of trumpets, boom of cannon, a hallelujah of music, and various splendid revelry, the great Chang Phoouk is conducted in triumph to the capital.

Here in a pavilion, temporary but very beautiful, he is welcomed with imposing ceremonies by the custodians of the palace and the principal personages of the royal household. The king, his courtiers, and the chief priests being gathered round him, thanksgiving is offered up ; and then the lordly beast is knighted, after the ancient manner of the Buddhists, by pouring upon his forehead consecrated water from a chank-shell.

The titles reserved for the Chang Phoouk vary according to the purity of the complexion (for these favored creatures are rarely true albinos, — salmon or flesh-color being the nearest approach to white in almost all the historic “white elephants” of the courts of Birmah and Siam) and the sex ; for though one naturally has recourse to the masculine pronoun in writing of a transmigrated prince or warrior, it often happens that prince or warrior has, in the medlied mask of metempsychosis, assumed a female form.

Such, in fact, was the case with the stately occupant of the stable-palace at the court of Maha Mongkut ; and she was distinguished by the high-sounding appellation of Maa Phya Seri Wongsah Ditsarah Krasaat, — ” August and Glorious Mother, Descendant of Kings and Heroes.”

For seven or nine days, according to certain conditions, the Chang Phoouk is feted at the temporary pavilion, and entertained with a variety of dramatic performances ; and these days are observed as a general holiday throughout the land. At the expiration of this period he is conducted with great pomp to his sumptuous quarters within the precincts of the first king’s palace, where he is received by his own court of officers, attendants, and slaves, who install him in his fine lodgings, and at once proceed to robe and decorate him.

First, the court jeweller rings his tremendous tusks with massive gold, crowns him with a diadem of beaten gold of perfect purity, and adorns his burly neck with heavy golden chains. Next his attendants robe him in a superb velvet cloak of purple, fringed with scarlet and gold ; and then his court prostrate themselves around him, and offer him royal homage.
When his lordship would refresh his portly person in the bath, an officer of high rank shelters his noble head with a great umbrella of crimson and gold, while others wave golden fans before him. On these occasions he is invariably preceded by musicians, who announce his approach with cheerful minstrelsy and songs.

If he falls ill, the king’s own leech prescribes for him, and the chief priests repair daily to his palace to pray for his safe deliverance, and sprinkle him with consecrated waters and anoint him with consecrated oils.

Should he die, all Siam is bereaved, and the nation, as one man, goes into mourning for him. But his body is not burned ; only his brains and heart are thought worthy of that last and highest honor. The carcass, shrouded in fine white linen, and laid on a bier, is carried down the river with much Availing and many mournful dirges, to be thrown into the Gulf of Siam.

Text: Anna Harriette Leonowens
The English governess at the Siamese court:
recollection of six years in the royal palace at Bangkok
Publisher: FIELDS, OSGOOD, & CO., Boston, 1870.
Photo: image of Siam flag in 19 century, internet


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