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Der königliche weiße Elefant

von Torben Larsen

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Newsgroups: soc.culture.thai
Subject: The Royal white Elephants
From: saeoya@image.dk (Torben Larsen)
Date: 31 Dec 1999 00:00:00 GMT
X-Trace: news030.image.dk 946629664 (Fri, 31 Dec 1999 08:41:04 WET)
NNTP-Posting-Date: Fri, 31 Dec 1999 08:41:04 WET

Not everyone privileged enough to meet a white elephant has been impressed. In 1895, one forthright Englishman commented in his journal (for private circulation only): The romantic descriptions have no counterpart in the reality, and the white elephant himself proves to be more or less a 'fraud.' He is not white at all, but dust colored. The expert tries to persuade (one) that the color is somewhat ashy, and draws attention to the pink eyes, and to the white toenails. But all in vain!"

One can only wonders at how this gentleman assuming he ever dared utter such heinous opinions - must have exasperated his Siamese hosts. Pity them their task. How on earth does one set about justifying a white elephant to an Englishman of all people?

White elephants had, however, long "imposed on the credulity of foreigners," and in 1831 one Captain James Low felt impelled to reassure members of the Royal Asiatic Society in London on the matter. "No doubt can now remain respecting the existence of this deviation from the common course of nature," he lectured gravely. "In the stables of the king of Siam there are elephants, the color of which, although not pure white, is yet sufficiently light-colored to admit of the appellation they have received being with propriety bestowed upon them."

Despite Captain Low's stolid testimony, the notion of a white elephant is in some respects more European than Asian. In Thai, for example, this most rare of all pachyderms is much more accurately described as a chang phuek an albino elephant.

The white elephant has nevertheless enjoyed a life of its own in the English language as an expression describing an "expensive, though useless, object not easily disposed of." Adding insult to injury, Roget's Thesaurus includes 'white elephant' alongside words like bane, encumbrance, burden and incubus. Such sentiments would certainly never be remotely echoed by honored recipients of one of the eight classes of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, founded in 1861.

The Thai language has no counterpart (involving elephants, at least) to the English expression, which supposedly alludes to the practice of ancient Siamese kings in the former capital at Ayutthaya (1350-1767 AD) of giving lesser white elephants to privileged subjects.


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