By Dacota Shell and Meg Villalobos
History of elephants in Thailand
The role of elephants in Thai culture began in the 1500s and the animals have been praised for their longevity, durability, and strength throughout the country. Because of the sheer size and power of these animals, they were used in the fights involving the Burmese, the Malays, and the Khmer. Kings were often known to ride their elephants into battle and the more elephants a king had, showed his power.
During the Civil War that took place in the U.S.A. (1861 – 1865) the Thai king offered many elephants to current President Lincoln to help win the war. But because certain land and water vehicles were gaining popularity, the offer was declined. Along with participating in acts of war, elephants were also considered to be working animals; they were used in place of farming equipment, used for logging, and used for the construction of temples. Elephants were also prominently pictured on the Thai flag (1850s – 1920s), which had the elephant in the middle of a red background. While the national flag may not feature an elephant today, the sacred animal is still feature in the Thai naval and diplomatic flags. The use of elephants for war purposes came to an end once gunpowder became popular and the animals were rendered useless on the battlefield.
White elephants are not only considered to be a symbol of royalty in Thailand, but they are also sacred symbols in both Buddhism and Hinduism. This belief stemmed from the Buddhist legend that said that Buddha’s mother was visited by a white elephant before his birth. This is why the white elephant is revered and considered to be a royal symbol.
Because white elephants are so symbolic, all white elephants are considered to be property of the King and the number of white elephants the King had determined their power and status. The white elephants are also believed to be well-bringers of the country’s well-being and prosperity.
White elephants were also given as gifts by Thai kings to their friends and their enemies. Because white elephants are rare, the elephants that were given as gifts were not to be used for work and they were not to be given away – this left the burden of taking care of the elephants as pets on the receiver of the gift. This was quite problematic because not many were financially stable enough to afford to keep these animals and were often led to crippling debt. Although if the receiver of the gift was a friend or had the favor of the Thai king, along with the elephant they were given land to house and feed the elephant, saving the receiver from financial ruin.
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Thai Elephant Conservation Center. (n.d.) Royal elephant stable. Retrieved from
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