The elephant has been a national icon of Thailand since ancient days. Inhabiting the lush mountain forests long before the rise of the first civilizations in the land that is now modern-day Thailand, these intelligent pachyderms (as zoologists insist on calling them) were found apt to domestication by man. Their great size and enormous strength were harnessed in many ways, and they became man’s ally in labour and warfare. It is doubtful if the abundant teak trees of the northern woodlands could have been exploited so fully without these leviathans to haul the trunks to the rivers that were the highways of old. Elephants played their part too in the numerous battles fought between the armies of Thailand and Myanmar. Towering over the field of combat, fully panoplied and girded for war, they must have been an awesome sight.
But the elephant came to mean much more to the Thai people than a mere beast of burden. It has become a symbol of fortune, and the superstitious will pay to pass beneath the animal’s body and receive a share of the luck that it carries. White elephants, through their very scarcity, adopted an importance of their own, and became the rightful property of the reigning monarch. This led to the super imposition of a white elephant on the red field of the national flag of Siam, as Thailand was once known. Early Siamese coins featured an engraved elephant, and their images can be found in abundance in the compounds of many of the older temples.
The Asian elephant, the species found in Thailand, is renowned for its intelligence and is known to actively think about its actions, rather than merely memorize instructions. The creature also has a fine memory and the expression “An elephant never forgets” entered the English language long ago. The term “White elephant”, meaning something given that is not wanted, entered western speech many years back, and it is reputed that this originated in old Siam. It was the custom of the monarch to bestow the highest praise by giving a royal white elephant to a courtier as a mark of especial favour, together with a tithe of land to support the animal’s needs of grazing and forage. The same gift could also be given by these shrewd rulers to show displeasure, as no land would be provided, and the gift that could not be refused had to be fed at the offender’s expense.
Nowadays the elephant is more fully occupied entertaining the multitude of tourists who visit Thailand, but its magnificent image lives on, advertising many modern events or attracting visitors to the numerous shops and factories that cater to their demands.