Lords of Life - The Royal Dynasties of Thailand

Story posted: Saturday, 28. May 2011 by CPA Media

Pictures From History / Themes /   SIAMESE MONARCHS





Lords of Life - The Royal Dynasties of Thailand



Thai people take the institution of the monarchy very seriously. Ever since the first independent Thai kingdom was established at Sukhothai some seven and a half centuries ago, the Thais have been ruled over by kings. It is true that, since the revolution of 1932, the monarchy has been constitutional – but the Thais continue to love and honour their royal family, and especially its father figure, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, with a consuming passion.

 Nor is it only Thais who find the monarchy an endless source of fascination and interest. Foreign visitors to the Kingdom, whether en route to the palm-fringed beaches of Phuket or the mist-enshrouded mountains of the north, have long enjoyed an enduring love affair with the royal palaces, pagodas and pageantry of Bangkok.


The Monarchy in Thailand

Thailand – until 1932 better known as Siam – has been a monarchy throughout its long history. The first royal capital, Sukhothai, was succeeded by Ayutthaya in 1351, and then by Bangkok in 1782. Perhaps as a consequence of this continuity, the Thai people are confirmed monarchists, with the throne making up one of the three central pillars of the national polity – in Thai chat, sat, pramahakasat – Thai Nation, Buddhist Religion, and Chakri Dynasty. It would be hard to overestimate the affection and respect Thais feel for their kings, and this applies to non-Buddhist minorities as well. In many Muslim homes, for example, it is common to find a framed print of the king – or indeed of the whole Chakri Dynasty – hanging next to a picture of the Kaaba at Mecca in a convincing statement of both spiritual and mundane loyalties.


The Time of King Taksin

 The era of Bangkok as the royal capital of Thailand really began in 1767, when the forces of King Alaungpaya of Burma – a hereditary foe of the Siamese – captured and burned the city of Ayutthaya. According to the Thai chronicles, the Burmese behaved with great brutality, killing, looting and carrying away great booty including members of the Siamese royal family. King Suriyamarin, the last ruler of Ayutthaya, is said to have fled the capital in a small boat and to have died of starvation ten days later.

Suriyamarin was to be avenged by a young soldier called Phya Tak Sin, the son of a Chinese father and a Siamese mother who had been adopted by a noble family and raised in Ayutthaya. Recognising the inevitability of Siam's defeat, Taksin – as he is popularly known – broke through the Burmese lines at the head of his troops and escaped to Chantaburi on the southeast coast, by the Gulf of Siam. Here he rebuilt the Siamese army, returning to drive out the Burmese and liberate Ayutthaya just seven months later. Yet Taksin was not to stay more than one night in krung kao, the ‘old capital’. Instead, he revealed to his generals that the old kings had appeared to him in his dreams and advised a move elsewhere. Just 86 kilometres to the south, on a strategic bend in the Chao Phraya River, lay a small settlement known as Bang Makok, or Wild Olive Village, in the lee of an old fortress. Here, on the west bank of the river in what is now Thonburi, Taksin established his new capital and was proclaimed king.

Unfortunately all did not go well with the new administration. Taksin was a strong monarch, who certainly earned the title Maharat, or ‘Great King’, bestowed posthumously on a mere six of all Thailand's kings. He successfully reunited the country and held back the Burmese. In the latter part of his reign, however, Taksin became increasingly eccentric, busying himself with transcendental matters and leaving the affairs of state more and more to two trusted generals, the brothers Chao Phraya Chakri and Chao Phraya Surasi who were given absolute command in matters military. In 1782 Taksin's unpredictable and often violent nature provoked a revolt. The king was forced to abdicate and enter a monastery; subsequently he was executed.


The Rise of the Chakris

At the time of the revolt against Taksin, his great general Chao Phraya Chakri was away campaigning in Cambodia. On his return to the capital he was asked to become king, and on April 6, 1782, having taken the reign name Ramathibodi, he ascended the throne and became the founding father of the reigning Chakri Dynasty. More popularly known as King Rama I, he reigned from 1782 to 1809, during which time he laid the firm foundations for modern Thailand's security and prosperity.

Rama I's first action was to transfer his royal capital across the Chao Phraya River to the east bank. Here he built his new grand palace and laid out the ground plan for a new artificial island, eventually protected by three rings of concentric canals, which is known as Rattanakosin Island – the heart of the Chakri realm and of royal Bangkok. Architects and craftsmen were assembled from all over the country, whilst everything from Buddha figures to bricks were floated down the river from the old capital at Ayutthaya. Besides the royal palace, the most important Rattanakosin building, Wat Phra Kaew, or the ‘Temple of the Emerald Buddha’ was constructed at this time to house the national palladium, which was brought from Thonburi in 1785.

Rama I consolidated Siamese control over the frontiers of the kingdom, and was also responsible for a considerable cultural revival. His immediate successors, Rama II and III, completed the work he had begun, making Rattanakosin Island and the surrounding area resplendent with grand new buildings such as Wat Arun, the ‘Temple of the Dawn’, and Wat Suthat – structures which still grace the heart of Bangkok today, and add immensely to the cultural richness of the Thai capital.


King Mongkut

Rama III may be seen as the last of the traditional Thai monarchs, for his successor, Rama IV (frivolously misrepresented by Hollywood in the film 'The King and I'), was a modern-minded scholar who learned English and Latin as well as Pali and Sanskrit. A monk for many years before his accession to the throne, he studied history, geography and the sciences, especially astronomy.

Rama IV, better known as King Mongkut, realised that traditional Thai values alone would not save his country from Western encroachments. Instead, he took the momentous decision to Westernise many of the country's institutions. As such, together with his son and successor Chulalongkorn, he is chiefly responsible for Thailand's continued independence throughout the colonial period. Thai people know this, and to this day reserve a special place in their hearts for both monarchs.


King Chulalongkorn

Mongkut's son, King Rama V – also widely known as King Chulalongkorn – came to the throne in 1868 when he was only fifteen years old. By the time of his death, 42 years later, he had become the ‘beloved monarch’, a father-figure for his people and perhaps the most popular Thai monarch ever. A man of remarkable foresight, Chulalongkorn instituted a veritable revolution from above, abolishing serfdom and ending the ancient custom of ritual prostration in the presence of the ruler. He brought in foreign advisers from abroad, and sent his sons to study at universities across Europe.

Chulalongkorn's contributions to the cultural heritage of Bangkok included the construction of Dusit Palace, Rajadamnoen Avenue and – on the Chao Phraya River north of the capital – the palace and pleasure-gardens of Bang Pa-in. When King Chula passed away in 1910 a stunned nation posthumously awarded him the title Phya Maharaj, ‘Beloved Great King’. Today his popularity remains undimmed.

King Rama V was succeeded, in turn, by Kings Vajiravudh (Rama VI), King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) and King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII). Under these monarchs Thailand continued its transition to modernity, passing through the constitutional revolution of 1932, the difficult period of military rule and alliance with Japan in World War II, and finally the tragic early death by presumed accident of King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII) in 1946.


King Bhumibol Adulyadej

On the death of Rama VIII the succession passed to Thailand's present monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Born not in Thailand, but in distant Cambridge, Massachusetts where his father Prince Mahidol was studying medicine at Harvard University, the new king soon proved to be a worthy successor to his grandfather Rama V. For fully six decades, often accompanied by his enduringly popular wife Queen Sirikit, he has travelled the length and breadth of the kingdom, equally at home with peasants from the poor north-east, hill tribes in the northern hills, or at high-tech research laboratories in the major cities. When not engaged in promoting ecological awareness or some major new agricultural work, he enjoys jazz music and yachting. An accomplished musician himself, he plays several instruments and has written many popular numbers. Perhaps because of this ability to reach the common man, he enjoys an extraordinary popularity shared in the past only by King Chulalongkorn. Now, on the occasion of his Diamond Jubilee, King Bhumibol Adulyadej is truly beloved of, and by the Thai people.




 Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA Media 2011.

Category:  Thailand

Go back to the list of news stories