A white elephant is something that is costly to maintain and difficult to get rid of, although it is typically also rare and very valuable, complicating the situation for their owners. Any number of things can be referred to by this term, from a palatial home to an extravagant necklace. The word has even inspired a form of gift exchange in which people attempt to get rid of their white elephants by finding other people who might want them.
According to legend, the concept of the white elephant has its roots in Southeast Asia. Historically, Southeast Asians regarded the animal as lucky, because one supposedly appeared to the mother of the Buddha right before his birth to present her with a sacred lotus flower. It represented purity and knowledge, and because these animals were very rare, the sight of one was supposed to be lucky.
Some Asian monarchs actively sought out these elephants, because owning such an animal was supposed to convey prosperity and good fortune, and to suggest that the ruler was wise and just. Since albino elephants don't exactly grow on trees, not every monarch had access to one to bless the monarchy, while others had multiple elephants to choose from.
Supposedly, monarchs would offer gifts of the sacred white elephants to their courtiers. The elephants were exempt from work due to their sacred status, and they could not be sold, slaughtered, or given away. For their owners, the animals were extremely costly possessions, and even though they were valuable, they could be a curse more than a blessing.
In some versions of the story, kings would give them to courtiers who had fallen out of favor, with the goal of bankrupting and humiliating the recipient of the gift. In other stories, the animal was intended as a gift of genuine good will, to favored members of the court or their families. In either case, the legend of the white elephant had entered common slang, and when European explorers entered the region, they were introduced to the concept.
One of the most classic examples of the modern version is a large country home. Such homes are typically extremely costly to maintain, but very difficult to sell, because potential buyers may be resistant to taking on the work and expense. In cultures where owning such a home is a sign of social status, members of a family may bankrupt themselves to keep the house going, as in the case of some English families and their stately homes. One response to this problem in some regions is the opening of private homes to periodic tours, filming, and other events, with the family using the earned income to maintain the house and grounds.