Legends of the White Elephant

Legends of the White Elephant
Legends of the White Elephant

The animal kingdom abounds with white and albino creatures and many of these animals are shrouded in myth and legend. The white lion is rooted in mythology concerning the presence of a fallen star that caused the animals to be born white, there is the legend of Moby Dick, the albino Sperm whale fictionalised by Herman Melville and, when it comes to the white elephant, the legends are numerous.

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A profile of the white elephant

These rare pachyderms known as white elephants are actually albino elephants and are not a distinct species. Their skin colour is typically a reddish-brown hue which looks pink when wet. Their eyelashes and toes are fair in colour and some white elephants suffer from blindness and skin problems on account of this. This rare genetic mutation occurs more frequently in Asian elephants and for centuries the white elephant has been revered as a good omen to many Asian cultures and kingdoms.

White elephants in history

According to Hindu legend, Airavata is the name of the mythological white elephant that belonged to the god Indra. Also known as “elephant of the clouds”, “the fighting elephant” and “the brother of the sun”, this legendary creature was depicted as having four tusks, seven trunks, and sporting a shade of pure, spotless white. For the kingdoms of Burma, Siam, Laos and Cambodia, the white elephant has been held in high regard for centuries and is seen as a symbol of great blessings and fortune for the lands. The kings of these nations would collect rare, white elephants because possessing these sacred animals was seen as a good omen for a prosperous kingdom. Alternatively, when a royal white elephant died it was seen a symbol of disaster for both the king and his kingdom.

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One such tale of good and bad omens involves the last king of the Burmese monarchy, Thibaw, who possessed a white elephant which he loved dearly. The creature was dying and the king desperately tried to keep it alive by adorning the beast with gold and diamonds to ward off evil spirits. Despite his efforts, the animal passed away and the following year the Burma kingdom was colonised by the British and Thibaw was overthrown. Although spotting a white African elephant is far rarer than in Asian elephants, if you’re keen to witness the grandeur of these creatures for yourself, head to Woodall Addo Country House & Spa for an elephant park safari.