In Surin 300 elephants to join ceremony honoring King Bhumibol

surin2Thailand’s national symbol will join in honoring King Bhumibol Adulyadej this November when 300 elephants, many in traditional battle garb and regalia, will join a procession in Surin province to pay homage to the beloved late monarch who passed away on October 13.

The procession will be held November 16-20 in lieu of the annual elephant roundup, which is a major tourist attraction that draws foreigners and Thais from all around the Kingdom. It will be a fitting gesture for the King who worked to protect and conserve Thailand’s environment and wildlife and who owned several elephants.

In keeping with the customs of a monarch in Southeast Asia, King Bhumibol possessed a stable of 10 white elephants, which are considered sacred and symbols of royalty. A king’s status is elevated by the number of white elephants he owns, and a war was once fought centuries ago between the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya and its neighbor over several white elephants.

White elephants are exceedingly rare. They are not actually white, but a reddish brown color that turns to pink when they are wet. They are called white because white is a symbol of purity. In Hindu lore, white elephants belonged to the god Indra, making them extremely auspicious, and elements of Hinduism can be found mixed in with Buddhism in the region.

“White elephants are believed to be vital to the wellbeing and prosperity of the Kingdom. A white elephant was on the national flag until 1917,” according to the website of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), which has been home to King Bhumibol’s elephants for the past 30 years.

There are several grades of white elephants depending upon their coloring and markings, and whenever one is found, they are offered to the king by custom. Lower grade white elephants are given to the monarch’s friends or allies, or may be refused entirely. “Only palace experts can determine what qualifies as an auspicious elephant and then assign it a rank,’’ the TECC wrote.

King Bhumibol and the royal family gave generously to the conservation center, which also receives funds from the government. Located in the northern province of Chiang Mai, it is home to about 50 elephants and operates an elephant hospital and mobile clinic. It also conducts scientific research into the pachyderms.

The greatest threat to Thailand’s elephants is loss of habitat. Deforestation has been robbing wild elephants of their homes. King Bhumibol was a passionate advocate of preserving Thailand’s forests, and it is not uncommon to see major corporations, such as PTT, planting millions of new trees as a way of honoring the King.