Where does the term “White Elephant” really come from?
An here, an excerpts of The Journeyer by Gary Jennings.
He explained. When a white elephant was caught, it was always presented to the local king, because only a king could afford to keep one. Being sacred, the elephant could never be put to labor, but had to be pampered with a fine stable and dedicated attendants and a princely diet, and its only function was to march in religious processions, when it had to be festooned with gold-threaded blankets and jeweled chains and baubles and such. That was a burdensome expense even for a king. However, said the mahawat, suppose a king got displeased with some one of his lords, or feared his rivalry, or simply took a dislike to him. … “In the old days,” he said, “a king would have sent him poisoned sweetmeats, so that the recipient would die when he ate them—or a beautiful slave girl poisoned in her pink places, so that the noble would die after he lay with her. But those stratagems are now too well-known. So the king nowadays simply sends the noble a white elephant. He cannot refuse a sacred gift. He can make no profit from it. But he has the ruinous expense of maintaining it in proper style, so he is soon bankrupted and broken—if he waits to be. Most commit suicide on first receiving the white elephant.”