Thick-skinned royalty

by Volker Grabowsky

Im Dorf. Auf der Suche nach einem besseren Leben (Ausgabe II/2012)

As in other parts of Southeast Asia, the white elephant is worshipped in Thailand as a holy animal. Although locals call him "Chang Phüak" (from chang = "elephant" and phüak = "albino"), the white elephant is not necessarily pure albino. Usually it is light grey than white. It is important, however, that the animal fulfils a raft of physical traits as precisely defined in old texts. For example, it is expected to have a white or pink eye colour around the cornea and a characteristic cleft in the skin on its shoulders. Every white elephant is registered by the authorities in Thailand and checked for authenticity. It is prohibited to use white elephants for work. It is very expensive to keep them because they are extremely susceptible to disease.

The fact that one of the highest Thai orders of merit is called Order of the White Elephant underlines the high esteem in which they are held. In Siam (as Thailand was officially called until 1939) the white elephant had already become a symbol of royal power. A textbook of Thai cosmology from the 14th century lists the "Chang Phüak" as one of the seven characteristics of a worthy sovereign. The noblest and most valuable of the white elephants were therefore exclusively reserved for kings; they held the honorary title "ruler of the white elephant" (Cao Chang Phüak). King Chulalongkorn is said to have had nineteen of the animals in his stables. Until 1917 a white elephant on a red background decorated the national flag of Siam. The venerated animal also decorated coins, bank notes and the royal seal. It is not without reason that Thailand was long considered the "kingdom of the white elephant".

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