Bhaddavati, the White Elephant of Myanmar

In the Western world the expression ‘white elephant’ would mean something that is expensive to keep, troublesome and without really getting something in return. Its possession and maintenance would far outweigh its value. The idiom must have come from a tale of Siamese royalties who would impart mottled white elephants to stubborn courtesans. As animals that are being treated as holy and royally, the expense of feeding and taking care of them does not make up for the fact it cannot do anything else except laze around. The courtesans unable to get rid of such noble gifts would predictably go penniless.

Burma being a particular believer of omens and portents would keep the white elephants because they are considered as symbols of prosperity and power to whoever is its caretaker. In recent years, several white elephants were held in captivity. Bhaddavati, the white elephant was the fourth one.

Its name translates to “One Who is Endowed with Goodness” was captured in the jungles of the northwest part of Burma. It was transported by boat to Naypyitaw and its arrival caused a sensation. It was treated like royalty and paraded around. Bhaddavati was 38 years old when it had its formal naming ceremony in August of 2010.  The 7ft white elephant was sprinkled with scented water as it circled the pagoda together with other elephants in procession.

White elephants are not actually white but more like soft reddish-brown in hue. They are considered as albinos of their species. They turn light pink when they are wet complementing their fair eyelashes and toenails. White elephants are likewise linked to the Indian Airavata who is depicted as a three-headed flying elephant, a favourite of the god Indra.

Thailand is another country that holds white elephants with religious significance. There is even the Order of the White Elephant which consists of eight levels of medals given by the government for chivalrous acts.

Buddha in two of his past lives also appeared as a supernatural white elephant. Buddha’s mother was also reputed to have the white elephant appear in her dreams before he was born. She dreamt of the white elephant giving her a lotus flower which the latter is highly symbolic of purity and untarnished wisdom. So it is of no surprise that the Burmese revere white elephants. And just to commemorate its existence, the Burmese government has the white elephant appear on one side of the kyat.

Hsinbyushin was the king of Burma during the Konbaung dynasty well known for his military prowess by preserving Burma’s independence from four Chinese invasions has named himself ‘Lord of the White Elephant’. One must picture the grand golden palaces that these revered animals were kept in. Noting the divine aspect of the white elephant, it must have had a throng of attendants not limited to just cooks and servants but entertainers as well.

Bhaddavati also has three cousins currently being housed in a zoo in the outskirts of Rangoon. Will Bhaddavati be able to successfully help Burma regain its prosperity and power? Will the good omen spread to all Burma and it peoples?

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