The White Elephant


A Folktale from Thailand

There once was a prince in Thailand who wanted a rare white elephant to ride through the city so he could show everyone that he was as rich as other princes. However, though he sent men into the jungle to hunt, he was unable to obtain such a rare animal. At last he proclaimed that he would give a hundred pieces of gold to anyone who could find a white elephant for him.

In a village not far from the prince’s castle there lived a potmaker who, hoping to receive the reward, went to the prince.

“My neighbor is a famous washerman,” the potmaker told the prince. “He washes the whitest clothes in the world. Even the king sends clothes to him. If you give him a gray elephant, I am sure he can wash it white.”

The prince was excited when he heard this and he sent for the washerman at once.

“One hundred pieces of gold will be yours if you can wash my gray elephant so it is white,” the prince told the washerman.

“But your highness … ,” protested the washerman.

“Say nothing more,” replied the prince. “Go now and prepare. I will bring you the elephant tomorrow.”

The next day the prince brought a gray elephant to the village where the washerman and the potmaker lived.

“I will need a large pot in which to bathe the elephant,” said the washerman.

“Very well,” the prince agreed, “I will ask the potmaker to make one.”

So the potmaker was ordered to make a large pot. He was very frightened, because he had never made such a large pot before. He asked his relatives and friends to help him, and together they worked all day and all night until the pot was finished.

With the prince and all of the villagers watching, the washerman prepared to wash the elephant. He poured water into the pot and led the elephant up to it. But when the elephant put one leg into the pot, the pot broke into a thousand pieces!

The prince was angry. He ordered the potmaker to immediately make a stronger pot.

After many days of hard work, the second pot was ready. The elephant put one leg inside the pot. Nothing happened. Then the second leg went inside, and the pot broke into a hundred pieces!

The angry prince ordered a new pot to be made at once.

In a few days the third pot was ready. The elephant put one leg into it, and nothing happened. Another leg went in, and nothing happened. Finally the whole elephant was inside the pot, and still it did not break. Everyone cheered.

Then the washerman began to make a fire to heat the water in the pot.

“I must now have hot water to scrub the gray color off the elephant,” explained the washerman to the prince.

But the water remained as cold as ever.

“Your highness,” said the washerman, “the water does not get hot because the pot is too thick. I need another pot.”

This made the prince furious. Turning to the frightened potmaker, he cried, “If you do not have the right pot ready in three days, I will throw you into prison.”

Three days later when the prince returned, he was surprised to find the village deserted except for some old women and children who told him that the rest of the villagers had gone to bathe in a nearby river. Hurrying there in anger, the prince found the potmaker, the washerman, and the other villagers scrubbing their hair with all of their might.

“What on earth are you doing?” cried the prince.

“We are trying to wash our hair white,” answered the villagers.

“You must be fools! You cannot turn your hair white by washing!” replied the prince scornfully.

Then the washerman said, “If we cannot turn our hair white by washing, how do you expect me to turn your gray elephant white by washing?”

Then the prince realized that what he had asked the washerman to do was impossible. And sadly he took his gray elephant home.

[illustration] Illustrated by Nina Grover