The greatest of the curiosities to which our attention was directed were
the white elephants, well known in Europe to be objects of veneration,
if not of worship, in all the countries where the religion of Buddha
The present King has no less than six of these, a larger number than ever was possessed by any Siamese monarch; and this circumstance is considered peculiarly auspicious to his reign. Four of them were shown to us.
They approached much nearer to a true white colour than I had expected: they had, indeed, all of them more ‘or less of a flesh-coloured tinge; but this arose from the exposure of the skin, owing to the small quantity of hair with which the elephant is naturally covered. They showed no signs of disease, debility, or imperfection; and as to size, they were of the ordinary stature, the smallest being not less than six feet six inches high.
Upon inquiring into their ‘history, we found that they were all either from the kingdom of Lao or Kambodia, and none from Siam itself, nor from the Malay countries tributary to it, which last, indeed, had never been known to afford a white, elephant.
The rareness of the white elephant is, no doubt, the origin of the consideration in which it is held. The countries in which, it is found, and in which, indeed, the elephant in general exists in greatest perfection, and is most regarded, are those in which the worship of Buddh and the doctrine of the metempsychosis prevail.
It was natural, therefore, to imagine that the body of so rare an object as a white elephant must be the temporary habitation of the soul of some mighty personage in its progress to perfection. This is the current belief, and accordingly every white elephant has the rank and title of a king, with an appropriate name expressing this dignity-such as the “pure king,” the “wonderful king,” and so forth.
One of the Jesuits, writing upon this subject, informs us with some naivete, that his Majesty of Siam does not ride the white elephant, because he, the white elephant, is as great a king as himself!
Each of those which we saw had a separate stable, and no less than ten keepers to wait upon it. The tusks of the males, for there were some
of both sexes, were ornamented with gold rings. On the head they had
all a gold chain net, and on the back a small embroidered velvet cushion.
Notwithstanding the veneration with which the white elephants are considered in some respects, it does not seem to be carried so far in Siam as to emancipate them from occasional correction. Two of them were
described as so vicious, that it was considered unsafe to exhibit them.
A keeper pricked the foot of one, in our presence, with a sharp iron
until blood came, although his majesty’s only offence was stealing a bunch of bananas; or rather, snatching it before lie had received permission!
In the stables of the white elephants, we were shown two monkies,
whose presence, the keepers insisted, preserved their royal charges from sickness. These were of a perfectly pure white colour, of considerable size, and of the tribe of monkics with long tails. They were in perfect health, and had been long caught; but we were advised not to play with them.
Text: John Crawfurd
Journal Of An Embassy To The Courts Of Siam And Cochin China
Publication date 1828
Photo: old photo from internet
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