White Elephant

A white elephant is an idiom for a valuable but burdensome possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth. The term derives from the story that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance. In modern usage, it is an object, scheme, business venture, facility, etc., considered to be without use or value.

The term derives from the sacred white elephants kept by Southeast Asian monarchs in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. To possess a white elephant was regarded (and is still regarded in Thailand and Burma) as a sign that the monarch reigned with justice and power, and that the kingdom was blessed with peace and prosperity.

The opulence expected of anyone that owned a beast of such stature was great. One must imagine golden palaces built to house the beast, attendant staff not limited to cooks, artisans, musicians …temples, keeping in mind the holy aspect of the white elephant, it would be akin to housing and caring for an entire church or congregation and having to devote every resource to its needs. Monarchs often exemplified their possession of white elephants in their formal titles (e.g., Hsinbyushin, lit. ‘Lord of the White Elephant’ and the third monarch of the Konbaung dynasty).

White elephants are linked to Hindu cosmology, the mount of Indra, king of the Vedic dieties is Airavata, a white elephant. White elephants are also intricately linked to Buddhist cosmology, the mount of Sakka’s (a Buddhist deity and ruler of the Tavatimsa heaven) is a three-headed white elephant also called Airavata.

The tradition derives from tales which associate a white elephant with the birth of the Buddha, as his mother was reputed to have dreamed of a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower, a common symbol of wisdom and purity, on the eve of giving birth. Because the animals were considered sacred and laws protected them from labor, receiving a gift of a white elephant from a monarch was simultaneously both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because the animal was sacred and a sign of the monarch’s favor  and a curse because the animal had to be retained and could not be put to much practical use, but cost a significant amount to maintain.

In the nineteenth century the phrase became commonplace, in common use at church bazaars called ‘white elephant sales’ where donors could unload unwanted bric-a-brac, generating profit from the phenomenon that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Many organizational and church fairs still use the term today. In general use a ‘white elephant’ usually refers to an item that’s not useful (decorative) but may be expensive and odd.

A famous ‘white elephant’ is the incomplete Neuschwanstein Castle, one of many opulent retreats created by Bavarian King Ludwig II. Such was the beauty of the palace that Walt Disney was enthralled and the castle was the inspiration for the castle in his animated film Sleeping beauty which also became the trademark of his company. Ludwig decorated the interior of the castle, with whimsical garish extravagance drawing upon chivalrous mythic Christian and Germanic Motifs such as Murals of Saint George and the Dragon. The dome of the throne room was adorned with golden murals of Jesus and his disciples looking down upon the hall and never built throne. In a letter to composer Richard Wagner, whom he dedicated the castle to, Ludwig explained his intention to build his principal residence by rebuilding the ruins of a fortress overlooking Hohenschwangau Castle where he spent much of his childhood.

Relationships between Ludwig and his ministers strained as his apathy with the realities of governing grew. He devoted more attention patronizing his projects and retreating into fantasy world away affairs of government following a disastrous war with Prussia, and his diminishing powers as a Monarch. Contrary to belief, Ludwig uses his own funds and borrowed heavily to build his projects and enjoy his lavish lifestyle. Ludwig’s obsessive devotion to his projects and excessive spending while neglecting his Royal responsibilities forced his ministers to declare him insane and remove him from office.

A more contemporary ‘white elephant’ is the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river in China. It is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, designed to control a once in thousand year flood. The structure consumed 28 Billion USD and 12 years to complete, becoming operational in 2003. Despite its benefits, the Chinese government has admitted to many unforeseen problems. 1.4 Million people had to initially be relocated with an addition 300,000 more in the near future as they are at risk of landslides and future flooding. There were 97 cases of embezzlement, as well as claims of compromised construction standards with unqualified contractors. In 2002, multiple 2 meter deep cracks appeared on the facade of the dam so soon after construction raising suspicion of ‘tofu construction.’

Additionally, sewage and litter from the cities and natural debris run off has accumulated in the reservoir and formed Islands of garbage. Despite the intention for the dam’s design to relieve drought, it may have altered the natural tributaries of the Yangze that feed lakes and other massive waterways causing the worst drought in 50 years in 2011. The altered still waters of the Yangze reservoir became a breeding ground for waterborne diseases such as Malaria and Snail Fever, which reemerged after successful eradication efforts in past decades. More than 1300 Classical Chinese heritage sites, such as the ancestral homeland of the Ba people, are submerged by the reservoir.

Hughes H-4 Hercules (or ‘Spruce Goose’), often called Howard Hughes’ white elephant before and during the Senate War Investigating Committee. Hughes’ associate Noah Dietrich called it a ‘plywood white elephant.’ In modern times, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is being increasingly viewed as a ‘white elephant’ by the US military, due to its astounding price tag of some $380 billion for nearly 2,500 aircraft in three differing versions, to equip nine nations’ air forces. The lifetime cost of the F-35 program has since been estimated by the Pentagon at $1.45 trillion.

The Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea, designed as the world’s tallest hotel, began construction in 1987. Due to financial difficulties, construction ceased prematurely in 1992. Since then, the structure has remained as a massive concrete hulk, unfit for habitation. Construction resumed in 2008.

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