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.
White elephants do exist in nature, as it is possible for an albino elephant to be white, as well as pink.
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. 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 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 named 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 favour, 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.
The Order of the White Elephant consists of eight grades of medals issued by the government of Thailand. There are also white elephants in Nepal.
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.