90th Anniversary of the Visit of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore to Siam

On 16 October 2017, the Royal Thai Embassy and Sahitya Akademi commemorated the 90th anniversary of the visit of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore to Siam at the Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.

 

The Royal Thai Embassy in New Delhi presented to Sahitya Akademi the two poems about Thailand by Tagore, as well as the replica of the postcard Tagore had written, in his own handwriting and bearing his signature, to Their Majesties the King and Queen of Siam.  The postcard was sent from Shantiniketan, on the 22 December 1929, two years after his visit to Bangkok.

On 17 October 2017, the Royal Thai Consulate-General in Kolkata also presented the same set of gifts to Jorasanko Thakur Bari Museum at Rabindra Bharati University, the Gurudev’s birthplace and ancestral home, where he also departed from this world.

Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore was a Poet of the World.  He had travelled far and wide in his lifetime, and on his ninth foreign tour, he visited Siam during 8 – 16 October 1927 as part of his visit to Southeast Asia.  Siam had impressed the great poet with its history, culture, and its close ties with Indian civilisations of yore, especially its embrace of Buddhism, to the point that he had composed two poems dedicated to Siam. One is titled “To Siam”, and the other “Farewell to Siam”.

To Siam

When the great prayer of the Three Refuges
rang from sky to sky across deserts and hills and distant shores,
the awakened countries poured their rejoicings
in great deeds, and noble temples,
in the rapture of self-dedication
in mighty words,
in the breaking of the bond of self.

At an unheeded, unconscious moment,
that prayer, wafted by some wandering breeze,
touched thy heart, O Siam, lived in thy life
and shaded it with a branching wealth of well-being.

A centre to thy revolving centuries,
an end to thy endeavours, which is Freedom of Spirit –
it helped to bind thy people in a common bond of hope,
to strengthen them with the power of a single-pointed devotion
to one Dharma, one Sangha and one immortal Teacher.

Let these words, potent with an inexhaustible creative urge,
ever direct thee to the adventures of new ages,
light up new truths with their own radiant meaning,
and in one single garland string all the gems of knowledge newly gathered.

I come today to the living temple that is one with thee,
to the altar of united hearts
in which is seated on His lotus seat Lord Buddha,
whose silence is peace, whose voice consolation.

I come from a land where the Master’s words
lie dumb, in desultory ruins, in the desolate dust,
where oblivious ages of the pillared stones,
the records of a triumphant devotion.

I come, a pilgrim, at thy gate, O Siam,
to offer my verse to the endless glory of India
sheltered in thy home, away from her own deserted shrine,
to bathe in the living stream that flows in thy heart,
whose water descends from the snowy height of a sacred time
on which arose, from the deep of my country’s being,
the Sun of Love and Righteousness.

Historians do not know exactly when this poem “To Siam” was composed, but we can surmise that it was written upon his arrival in Siam on 8 October 1927, about ninety years and a week ago today.  We do know for certain, however, that when His Majesty King Prajadhipok, or Rama VII of Siam, graciously granted Tagore an audience on the night of 13 October 1927 at Dusit Palace in Bangkok, this poem was read in the royal presence of Their Majesties the King and Queen of Siam, before the gathering of princes and ministers of the Siamese court.
First it was read out in the original Bengali version, and then in the English version as translated by Tagore himself.  He also presented to the King this poem in his own manuscript, printed on blue satin encased in Varanasi brocade.

Then, on 16 October 1927, exactly ninety years ago today, Rabindranath Tagore and his party departed Bangkok by train for Penang, Malaya. On this occasion, the Gurudev wrote another poem to offer his message of farewell.

Farewell to Siam

The signet ring of a primaeval friendship

had secretly sealed thy name, O Siam, on my mind, in its unconscious depth.

This is why I felt I had ever known thee,

the moment I stood at thy presence,

and why my traveller’s hasty hours

were constantly filled with the golden memory of an ancient love,

and centuries’ silent music overflowed

the brink of the seven short days

that surprised me with the touch

of an immemorial kinship

in thy words, worship and aspiration,

in thy numberless offerings to Beauty’s shrine

fashioned by thy own hands,

in thy fragrant altars

with their candles lighted

and incense breathing peace.

Today at this sad time of parting

I stand at thy courtyard,

gaze at thy kind eyes,

and leave thee crowned with a garland from me

whose ever fresh flowers had blossomed ages ago.

That was how, almost a century ago, Thailand was given an everlasting accolade by the Gurudev of India, for which we are most grateful.

A few observations on these poems.  First, it is clear that Tagore must have felt that Buddhism had sadly been all but forgotten in the land of its origin, so he was delighted and impressed to find the presence of Indian civilizational heritages, especially Buddhism, still well preserved and cherished across the Indian Ocean, in Siam.  This was of course the time before the earnest revival of Buddhism in India such as the movement led by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Father of the Indian Constitution, in the 1950s, and the establishment of the Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee under the Bodh Gaya Temple Act of 1949, which stipulates that ambassadors from eight Buddhist countries, including Thailand, be members of the Committee’s Advisory Board.

Tagore would probably be pleased if he knew that in 1956 the independent Republic of India hosted a grand celebration of Buddha Jayanti to mark
2,500 years of Buddhism, and on this occasion India invited various foreign governments and international Buddhist community to build their temples in Bodh Gaya.  The Royal Thai Government was the first government to respond to such invitation, and a Thai temple, modelled after Wat Benchamabopitr or the Marble Temple in Bangkok where Tagore had also visited, still stands in
Bodh Gaya unto this day.  Tagore would probably be pleased too to note that, ninety years after his visit to Siam, Shri Ram Nath Kovind, the current President of India himself, made a reference to Lord Buddha in his speech when he was sworn in as President last July, and also in his first Independence Day speech
last August.  No longer would “the Master’s words lie dumb, in desultory ruins, in the desolate dust…” in modern day India.

Secondly, Tagore understood well that the word “Thai”, the name of the Thai nation, which later became the official name of the Kingdom of Thailand, actually means “free”.  The Thai people are proud of their freedom and independence, and Tagore actually mentioned this free spirit in his poem,
“To Siam”, and suggested that this quest for freedom of our people has been guided over the centuries by the liberating tenets of Lord Buddha.  It is also remarkable that, twenty years before the Independence of India, the poet whose poem was to become the national anthem of the new republic, would mention both the spirit behind the name of Thailand and the “…pillared stones: the records of a triumphant devotion…” – that is, Emperor Ashoka’s Lion Capital of Sarnath, later to be adopted as State Emblem of India, in the same poem!

Thirdly, in his farewell message, Tagore again stressed the common cultural heritage Thailand shared with India from thousands of years ago.
He spoke of “a primaeval friendship”, “the golden memory of an ancient love”, and “immemorial kinship” between us, which had touched and moved him.
In his letter to Prince Dhani Niwat, then Minister of Education of Siam and one of his main hosts in Thailand, Tagore said, “I shall always cherish the memory of my most pleasant stay… I must say I have been greatly impressed by the warm hospitality accorded me by the Thai people as a whole.”

Apart from marking the 90th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore to Thailand, this year also marks the 70th anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between Thailand and India. After India gained Independence, Thailand was among the first group of friendly nations which recognised the new Republic and formalised our intergovernmental relationship. But as Tagore himself had so eloquently pointed out, the historical ties between us, especially at the people-to-people level, can actually be traced back more than a millennium, and it is indeed the relationship between peoples which is the true foundation of state-to-state diplomatic relations.

This year is the 25th anniversary of ASEAN-India relations as well. Tagore himself was not a stranger to Southeast Asia.  Apart from Thailand, he also visited Batavia, Java and Bali in Indonesia, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and Penang in Malaya, Rangoon in Burma, and Saigon in Vietnam during his lifetime.  His visits reinforced his awareness of the common heritage and civilizational influences that India had with Southeast Asia.