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White Elephant Cult in Burma
Elephants outside Pagoda in Saigang

White Elephant Cult in Burma

It is assumed that the adoption of the White Elephant Cult in Burma originated in India, where different faiths considered the elephant, a divine creature existing before the birth of Buddha. The white elephant is generally considered an “auspicious elephant”, being “white” in terms of their purity. Historically they are prized as symbols of power and good fortune, and the status of a king was measured by the number of white elephants he own.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Burmese culture is the reverence for white elephants, which are rare, they symbolize royal power, national prosperity and good luck. However, white elephants are not a separate species of elephant, but rather albinos that have soft reddish-brown or pinkish skin, fair eyelashes and toenails, and sometimes four or five tusks. They are extremely rare and hard to find in the wild, as they are often targeted by poachers or predators. White elephants are also called chang samkhan in Thai, which means ‘auspicious elephant’, rather than ‘white elephant’.

Why are white elephants important in Burma?

White elephants have been historically treasured by Burmese monarchs and leaders, who saw them as a sign of their innate superiority and divine favour. According to Burmese traditions, white elephants are associated with Sakka, the chief god of Mount Meru in Buddhist cosmology, who rides a white elephant named Airavata. Airavata is also the vehicle or mount of Indra, the king of gods in Hindu mythology, who has the ability to fly and create rain, some Buddhist iconography shows the Buddha riding on three elephants.

Because of these religious and mythological associations, white elephants were seen as symbols of the country’s sovereignty, prosperity and spiritual merit. They were kept and pampered by kings in special stables, adorned with gold and jewels, and given offerings of food and flowers. They were also used in ceremonies and processions to display the glory and power of the monarchy.

How many white elephants are there in Burma?

As of 2023, Burma has ten white elephants in captivity, which are considered national treasures and state property. The first white elephant was captured in 2001 by the former military junta, which claimed it as a positive omen for their rule. The second one was captured in 2002, followed by two more in 2010. The fifth one was captured in 2012, followed by three more in 2015. The ninth one was captured in 2018, and the tenth one was captured in 2021.

The white elephants are kept in different locations across the country, such as Naypyidaw, Yangon and Mandalay. They are guarded by soldiers and caretakers, who feed them rice, bananas, sugarcane and other fruits. They are also visited by tourists and pilgrims, who believe that touching or seeing them can bring good fortune. Nevertheless, it is a sad sight to see such magnificent creatures chained to a post.

Not everyone is happy about the capture and treatment of white elephants in Burma. Some critics argue that white elephants belong to the wild and should not be exploited for political or religious purposes. They also point out that white elephants face many health problems in captivity, such as stress, depression, skin infections and eye diseases. They urge the government to release them back to their natural habitats or transfer them to sanctuaries where they can live more freely and comfortably.

White elephants are an important part of Burmese culture and history, but they also face many challenges and threats in the modern world. As Burma undergoes political and social changes, the role and status of white elephants may also change. Some people may see them as relics of the past or symbols of oppression, while others may see them as sources of pride or hope. Some people may want to protect them and preserve their traditions, while others may want to exploit them or neglect their welfare.

Whatever the case may be, white elephants deserve respect and care as living beings that have a unique place in Burmese culture. They are not just objects of superstition or propaganda, but animals with feelings and needs. They are not just symbols of power or prosperity, but creatures with dignity and beauty. They are not just white elephants, but chang sam khan – auspicious elephants.

The White Elephant in the Jataka Tales

Eighteen of the 550 Jataka tales related to Buddha’s past lives reference elephants. Among the twenty-eight previous Buddhas, some rode the elephant in their renunciation.

In Buddhist legends and mythology, elephants played a key role in some of the jataka tales which reference the previous lives of the Buddha (Siddharta). Chief among them was the dream where Queen Maya the wife of King Suddhodhana of Kapilvastu (Guadama’s father and mother), dreamt of a white elephant with six white tusks entering her right side on the night he was conceived. This dream was interpreted by soothsayers as a prophecy that her son would be born a Buddha or a universal ruler.

The Brahmin courtiers interpreted the dream as that there would be a son born to her, who would become, if he dwells in the house, a universal monarch, if not, a Buddha, the world renouncer, and the world conqueror.

Historically in Burma, the white elephant cult was adopted by the Pyu, a Tibeto-Burmese tribe, who founded an empire of small city-states in the Irrawaddy Valley in the early centuries of the Common Era (2nd – 11th century), by the 10th – 11th century very few native Pyu people remained and eventually integrated with the people of the Pagan Empire.

After King Anawrahta (1044 -77 AD) ascended the throne, he sacked the Mon city of Thaton, bringing back with him the Buddha’s hair relics. He oversaw the building of the Shwesandaw Pagoda (1057 AD) to enshrine the hair relics of the Buddha.  Anawrahta’s respect for elephants is represented on the corners of the pagoda’s five terraces which were decorated with statues of Ganesha, the Hindu god with the elephant head referred to as Maha Peinne in Burma.

A stone inscription in Bagan dated to the 13th century erected by the Buddhist monk Kassapa Mahathera claimed that he had been an elephant in one of his previous lives.

One of the most famous stories told in Theravada Buddhism relating to the historical Buddha and the elephant was at the moment of Sirddharta’s enlightenment under the banyan tree when the demon Mara riding Girimekhala the elephant with his myriad of demon followers tried to distract him from achieving Buddhahood.

Another famous incident related to the white elephant is the tale of Siddhartha’s cousin Devadatta who purposely got the Nalagiri elephant intoxicated to make him angry in order to kill the Buddha. During this event when Nalagiri was charging toward the Buddha, the Buddha mentally directed his love and kindness towards him, whereupon Nalagiri became calm and subdued, bowing down before the in reverence. The elephant is also seen in many carvings in Burmese Buddhist Iconography.

Elephants outside Sinmyashin Yadanar Pagoda Saigang
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