All stories start with a king. This one, however, must begin with a princess. A princess of ‘pure’ royal blood; born out of a marriage between a king and his step sister; a princess with kohl rimmed eyes, long, straight hair, and a heart full of sorrow and longing.
This princess was the eldest daughter of King Thibaw, the last king of Burma, who was exiled by the British in 1885. The royal family – the king, his two queens, and four daughters – were banished to the coastal town of Ratnagiri in Maharashtra. Thibaw, or “Thiba Raja”( as the king was known locally) lived here for over three decades. He died in 1916, and was entombed with his junior queen.
By 1919, however, the royal family left for Myanmar, never to turn back. Except Princess Phaya, who pleaded (to British) to be sent back. Eventually, despite the royal family’s opposition, Phaya and her “half-caste” daughter, Tutu, were sent back to Ratnagiri, where the two lived for the rest of their lives. So why is the town having a hard time remembering its princess?
The lost royals
Inside the modest house of Chandrakant Pawar, 74, the grandson of Phaya, the search for a suitable explanation is on. The family of Chandu, as Chandrakant is known here, is engrossed in an animated discussion with a local reporter who is trying hard to piece together the details of the Pawar family’s past. ‘What was Phaya like?’ ‘Did Tutu speak about her?’ ‘What about life in the palace?’ The questions are flying thick and fast.
“No one came looking for us before,” the family claims, as they grapple with the answers. Unable to dish out historically accurate details, they hand out the Marathi translation of the book titled ‘The King in Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma’ to their visitors. Published in 2012, ‘The King...’ is author Sudha Shah’s detailed account of the life of the Burmese royals – in and after exile – and is based on extensive research on the Burmese royal family in India and Myanmar.
Chandu, one of Tutu’s eleven children, who works as an auto mechanic, says that his mother hardly spoke about her past. It must have been a difficult subject for Tutu; the king’s grand daughter who married a local man in Ratnagiri, grew up in poverty, had no education, and was never accepted by her father.
Life in Ratnagiri was no bed of roses either: Gopal bought a house for Phaya, but he would go on to squander her pension (that she received from the British). This pension, says Shah, was significantly less than what Phaya’s sisters got because unlike her, they were “married”.
Author Sudha Shah who has written a book on the fall of the royal family of Burma. For her work on the subject, Shah has been felicitated with a medal by commander- in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces.
Consequently, Phaya and her daughter Tutu spent their life in poverty – Chandu and Malti More, one of Tutu’s daughters, recall that their mother made “paper flowers” to get by. The stigma of being “half-caste” and “illegitimate” also took its toll on Tutu, who, Shah says, shared a “difficult relationship” with her mother.
Despite the financial strain, Tutu was known as a kind woman who spoke “good Marathi” and a smattering of Burmese, and gave shelter to “unwanted” children in town. The goodwill didn’t work for her though: towards the fag end of her life, Tutu was turned out of her house by her landlord and ended up spending a couple of nights on the street before Chandu’s family took her in.
For Tutu’s children in Ratnagiri, life became a tad less ‘ordinary’ only in the recent past, after there was a revival of interest in the royal legacy in 2012, post the end of military rule in Myanmar. More recently, in December 2016, a few state dignitaries and descendants of the royal family in Myanmar visited King Thibaw’s tomb in Ratnagiri to mark his death centenary. Aside of rekindling relations between the royal cousins, the visit also gave credence to plans of taking the King’s tomb to Burma.
But Mangesh More, Malti’s son, disagrees. “How can they take away his remains? It is part of our legacy too..!,” says Mangesh, who drives an auto-rickshaw to make a living. For all these years, the king’s descendants in Ratnagiri have been ignored, and now, Mangesh and his mother feel that their stake in Thibaw’s legacy must be recognised.
“Just like our cousins from Burma came here, we also want to visit the Mandalay palace in Myanmar. We have heard it’s very beautiful. But we don’t have the money to visit Myanmar; perhaps the government, or our cousins, should make the arrangements for us,” he says.
The families, however, are not the only stakeholders in the royal legacy. The state government too, has had its interests – the Thibaw palace building has served as a government office, and a sub-centre of the Bombay University, before the state archaeology department took over in 1999.
If the town has not forgotten the palace and the tomb, it has also not remembered to take good care of them – locals point to the palace’s creaking staircases made of Burmese teak, its crumbling walls, the cobwebs that run along its ceilings, the bird droppings that line its floors, and its “haunted” presence next to a beach.
“Unlike Shivaji, Thibaw didn’t fight the British. So the town doesn’t have much connect with his heritage,” says Nitin Kanvinde, director, Ratnagiri Arts Circle. Kanvinde, who runs an annual arts festival at the palace – the only time the building is lit up and comes to life – feels that the government ought to turn it into a public space for residents.
Apart from the narrative of neglect, the town’s residents also rue the government’s move to rename the road that leads to the palace (earlier known as the Thibaw Palace road) after a local BJP leader, Dr J S Kedekar. “We didn’t like it; if the king didn’t do anything for us, neither did Dr J S Kedekar,” says a resident, who didn’t wish to be named.
Locals are not just possessive about the road, but the king’s belongings too. Objects from the palace can be found in some of their homes; you can look at a set of twin silver peacocks in one, and a couple of wooden cabinets and almirahs in another.
You might have to wait, though, if you want to see the royal jewels that are resting safely in the “bank locker” of local advocate, Pradip Parulekar. Or, if you wanted to see the box of Princess Phaya’s ashes, which is nowhere to be found. (Unlike the king, whose mortal remains are kept in a coffin, the princess was cremated, and her ashes were kept in a box).
Even inside the palace, at the King Thibaw gallery, I notice that a portrait of the princess is conspicuous by its absence. Outside the palace, Nitin tells me: “More than the king, we owe it to Phaya; she was the one who came back, and made this town her home.”
King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat ruled their kingdom from the intrigue-infused Golden Palace in Mandalay. Although their life in the palace was one of great splendour and opulence, it was complex and there was much to occupy their attention apart from the actual governance of the kingdom.
Power struggles and politics were constant and vexing affairs. Customs, rituals and superstition dominated their existence. There were many religious and family functions that the king had to preside over himself. The queen had the additional daunting tasks of producing the all-important male heir, and ensuring the king did not acquire countless queens as his forefathers had. The king and queen lived as demigods during their seven-year reign, up until the war with Britain in 1885, which led to their defeat and exile.
After his deposition, King Thibaw, the heavily pregnant Queen Supayalat, their very young daughters, and the king's junior queen, were exiled to the remote coastal town of Ratnagiri in India, where they lived for over 30 years as state prisoners. The decision to exile the family to Ratnagiri was clearly made with the objective of safeguarding the interests of the British Empire.
The kingdom was being added to the Empire and the British government wanted its deposed king tucked away as far away as possible to ensure his inability to stir up any mischief. Steadily and systematically their ties with Burma were undermined. Police officers specifically assigned to the family micromanaged their lives. The family had been permitted to carry some of their jewellery and for several years was able to supplement their meagre government pension by the furtive sale of these items.
But as they ran out of their valuables, the once proud and uncompromising king wrote endless and increasingly ingratiating letters to the British government requesting a larger allowance, better accommodation, and most poignantly, for the right to be addressed as His Majesty instead of His Highness, because, as he said, "I do not seek for shadow when I have lost the substance. But I feel it very much when they address me as His Highness, as it reminds me of my fall."
The queen regained some of her former feisty spirit and humour in Rangoon as a daily stream of visitors came to sit reverentially before her. Each of the princesses had to adapt to a world that none of them had any knowledge of.
The beautiful First Princess returned with her daughter from Rangoon to live in Ratnagiri. Her married lover, Gopal, who had been her father's gatekeeper, had begged her to return, but then did not honour his end of the bargain. Her isolation after the exile was therefore more pronounced than it had been during the exile.
Not having gone through any "normal" process of socialisation while growing up, deprived of any education to stretch her mind and broaden her interests, and lacking any depth of knowledge of either the language or culture of the people of Ratnagiri, she was ill-equipped to make any appropriately friendly overtures or to find any way of integrating herself.
The Second Princess and her husband settled in the idyllic setting of remote Kalimpong (in Eastern India), where she and her adoring husband set about reinventing themselves. The couple quickly assimilated into its life and society, entertaining and being entertained.
Like her older sisters, the Third Princess's years of isolation and lack of education made her seem out of touch with reality, and bestowed on her a surreal aura of innocence. It was probably her simplicity and lack of exposure, says her son-in-law, that led her to fall in love with Hteik Tin Kodaw Gyi, a young handsome ladies' man, a minor prince, 17 years her junior. Her second marriage was to a man 17 years her senior.
The Fourth Princess was the most intelligent, independent and strong willed of the sisters. Although her sisters were more or less ignored by the government after the exile ended, the Fourth Princess was watched warily when she moved to Mandalay and was forbidden from interacting with Burmese nationalists, was not allowed to use her title (which for her was her name), and the government selected the school that her children were to attend.
She stirred up a hornet's nest in the early 1930s by making a dramatic bid for the return of her father's kingdom. Not surprisingly, the British government came down like a sledgehammer and attempted to muzzle her by exiling her and her family to Moulmein, in Lower Burma.
Here, distant from the influences and energy of the city that had been her father's capital, they hoped she would quietly settle down and not cause any more trouble. It was in Moulmein that the Fourth Princess met an untimely death that raised many suspicions.
Generations Of Burmese Hate King Thibaw
In the year 1878 more than 200 Burmese princes and princesses were rounded up and mercilessly killed in the palace massacre that marked the young Prince Thibaw’s accession to Burmese throne. His father King Mindon had just died leaving no designated heir out of all his capable sons. The sexually promiscuous King had no less than 50 wives and concubines and more than 200 sons and daughters.
His trusted brother Crown Prince Kanaung was brutally murdered in the palace revolt led by his two eldest sons in 1866. Since then he had refused to name another crown prince to avoid similar bloodshed among his no fewer than seventy sons. While he was on his death bed his chief queen Sin-byu-ma-shin and senior ministers picked Prince Thibaw who was then a young Buddhist monk, and the weakest of all the sons, to marry the queen’s daughter Su-pha-ya-lat and become the next king.
And to avoid future disturbances all other princes and princesses were put to death. As tradition prohibits dropping of royal blue blood onto the ground, everyone including the very young ones was put in a velvet bag and his or her throat crushed with a short bamboo truncheon. Also to drown out the hapless cries and the death screams of their half brothers and sisters the new king and queen celebrated their accession to the throne with many loud concerts for seven days and nights.
News of the cold-blooded massacre was received with horror throughout the civilized world especially in England as more than half of Burma then was already in British hands after two Anglo-Burmese wars. 19th century was no longer a dark age and the English newspapers and politicians in London called for a British invasion to end the barbarous little kingdom of Burma. Also there were many commercial reasons to invade Upper Burma and the rival French were suspected of helping Burmese to develop weapon manufacturing plants and other industries.
The rest of Burma fell into English hands in 1885 without a serious fight but it took five years and nearly 100,000 British and Indian troops to quell the simmering Burmese rebellions and finally pacify the Upper Burma. The spirit of violent nationalism to kick the British out of Burma was then dormant for a long while but resurfaced in the 1930s first as a violent peasant rebellion and then as a student revolt in Rangoon University.
Unlike the nationalists from other nations the Burmese nationalists did hate King Thibaw for; 1) killing all his half brothers and sisters and, 2) subsequently losing the country to the British without a single fight. Those are the two main reasons Burmese nationalists such as General Aung San never proposed for the return of Monarchy, even a constitutional one and every Burmese government has refused even to officially acknowledge the existence of King Thibaw’s direct descendants.
But recently the Burmese Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing, who claimed to be an adopted son of former Thai Army Chief late Prem Tinsulanada, is actively promoting royal descendants. He seems to be copying the Thai Army's playbook of protecting their self-interest by promoting and defending the monarchy.
|King Thibaw was taken away like a chicken by British soldiers without a fight.|
The family of Myanmar’s last king spoke out on Sunday against a Thai soap opera inspired by the palace intrigue of their ancestors. They are accusing Thailand of double standards in how it treats another country’s royals.
Soe Win, the great grandson of Myanmar’s last monarch King Thibaw, told AFP his family was angered by “Plerng Phra Nang, which translates to “A Lady’s Flame,” a new hit prime-time soap that recounts a bloody dynastic power struggle. It features top TV star Patcharapa “Aum” Chaichua as the leading lady.
The show is set in a fictional kingdom but almost entirely mimics the final years of the Konbaung dynasty in the 19th century in the country formerly known as Burma. It portrays the scheming among a key queen and princesses who orchestrated the massacre of nearly a hundred people to ensure Thibaw had no rivals to the throne following his father’s death in 1878.
Thailand ferociously enforces a lese majeste law that bans scrutiny or criticism of its monarchy. Neighbors Thailand and Myanmar were bitter rivals for centuries and fought a number of bloody wars. One of the most momentous battles saw Myanmar attack the city of Ayutthaya, second capital of the Siamese kingdom, and raze it to the ground in 1767, forcing the inhabitants to abandon the city.
In Thai historical soaps and dramas, the Burmese are often portrayed as having villainous or treacherous tendencies, something that has previously caused anger in Thailand’s western neighbor. Soe Win said he was particularly incensed by scenes in “A Lady’s Flame” in which royal family members slapped each other. “It’s quite insulting, as if we are wild,” he said.
For many Burmese, the fall of its monarchy at the hands of the British just a few years after Thibaw took the throne was a deep psychological scar. He died in exile in India though there are plans to return his remains to his homeland. His family are playing a much more visible role now that the military, who suppressed them, have given way to a civilian-led government.