The Gurudev and his “Golden Memory of an Ancient Love” in Old Siam

If he were still alive, on 7th May this year “Gurudev” Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian Nobel Laureate and author of Jana Gana Mana, would be 157 years old. Ninety years ago, in his late 60s, the Great Poet visited Siam (as Thailand was called back then) and fell in love with the kingdom.

Each year, about 1.2 million Indians journey to Thailand to attend to their businesses, visit the country’s tourist destinations, shop, get married, eat Thai food, and generally enjoy themselves and the world-renowned Thai hospitality.

The love of Indian travellers for Thailand is not new. As recorded in Buddhist literature the Jataka tales, millennia ago Indian traders sailed to ports in what they called “Suvarnabhumi” or golden land. The name lives on, and present-day voyagers to Thailand often find that their flying dhows would first land at Suvarnabhumi International Airport near Bangkok.

Rabindranath Tagore, one of the greatest Indian poets/artists who penned the lyrics of the National Anthem Jana Gana Mana was, in his lifetime, a cosmopolitan traveller. As Suvarnabhumi Airport did not exist ninety years ago, the great poet made the trip to Bangkok via railway from Singapore through Malaya, staying in Thailand from 8 to 16 October 1927. Siam (as Thailand was then called) welcomed him with open arms, and the Gurudev was so impressed with the Kingdom’s history, culture, and its close bonds with ancient Indian civilisations, especially its embrace of Buddhism, to the point that he had composed two poems dedicated to Siam. One is titled “To Siam” upon his arrival, and the other “Farewell to Siam” on his departure.

The poem “To Siam” was read in the presence of H.M. King Prajadhipok of Siam, before the gathering of princes and ministers of the Siamese court, when the Gurudev was given audience with the King on 13 October 1927. Part of it reads:

“…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.”

The Gurudev had a busy and fruitful week in Siam exploring the two countries’ shared heritages. For readers who might be interested in following his footsteps, here are some places he visited almost a century ago. Some are still very popular with modern day tourists – others might be a bit off the beaten tracks, but worthy of exploration anyway.

The Grand Palace and its vicinity. A visit to the Grand Palace and the most sacred royal chapel of the land – the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is a must on any tourist’s itinerary, and the Gurudev also visited the Grand Palace complex and paid his respect to the Royal Pantheon or Prasat Phra Thepbidorn, where statues of past rulers of the Chakri Dynasty are enshrined. Next to the Grand Palace is the Royal Ground or Sanam Luang, and adjacent to it on the Na Phralan Road are the National Museum or the former Front Palace (where Tagore studied Thai historical artifacts on display, and gave his lecture on history of Indian arts), the red building of the Vajiravudh Library (the National Library at the time), and the Temple of the Great Relics or Wat Mahadhat. To the south of the palace is Wat Phra Chetupon, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, with many sculptures of the Rishis (hermits), demonstrating various positions of exercises, which probably reminded the Gurudev of Yoga Asanas.

Chao Phraya River and the Temple of Dawn The Grand Palace itself is on the bank of the Chao Phraya River – the famed “River of Kings” of Bangkok. On the other side of the river stands the beautiful pagoda of the Temple of Dawn, or Wat Arun (“Arun” means, of course, dawn). This famous iconic pagoda (which was designed after Mount Sumeru) has been adopted as part of the emblem of the present-day Tourism Authority of Thailand. In his time, Tagore explored the river, the temple, and Thai life in nearby canals in a boat ride, an option that is still available today.

The Giant Swing area In front of today’s Bangkok Metropolitan Administration office, (where today’s visitors can read the full ceremonial name of the city of Bangkok – which is the longest place name in the world according to the Guinness World Records) there is a red teak giant swing, previously used in the Royal Court’s Hindu ritual to worship Lord Shiva. Nearby is the Hindu Shrine of the Royal Court’s Brahmins. Tagore visited both landmarks and also a Buddhist Temple, Wat Suthat (the same word as ‘sudarshan’) with its big Sukhothai-era Buddha statue. To the east is the small but extremely beautiful Wat Ratchabophit, residence of the then Supreme Patriarch of Siam, the highest Buddhist spiritual leader of the Kingdom. The Gurudev met the 11th Supreme Patriarch of Siam here. Incidentally, His Holiness the 20th and present Supreme Patriarch of Thailand is also the abbot of this temple. He is an alumni of Benaras Hindu University as well.

The Royal Plaza area The Ambara Palace, where Tagore met King Prajadhipok, is now the residence of H.M. the current King of Thailand and thus close to public. So is the Italianate Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, Thailand’s former parliament house, still can be seen from outside on the Plaza. However, Wat Benchamabophit, or the Marble Temple (so called because it was constructed out of Italian white marble), is open to visitors, and one can enjoy its unique Thai architecture (designed by HRH Prince Naris, Bangkok’s great artist and scholar, who also met the Gurudev during his visit to Siam) and its vast collection of Buddha statues, like Tagore did. The Wat Thai Bodh Gaya (Royal Thai Monastery) in Bihar is later modelled after this temple.

Phya Thai Palace Which hotel did Tagore stay in Bangkok? Not the famous Mandarin Oriental Hotel (although they do have the “Authors’ Lounge” to honour literary giants – Noël Coward, James Michener, Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad, who used to stay there.) In the Gurudev’s case, the Siamese Government put him up in Hotel Phya Thai, formerly King Vajiravudh’s Phya Thai Royal Palace, converted to a hotel during King Prajadhipok’s reign, and now a museum in the compound of Phra Mongkutklao Army Hospital, near the Victory Monument. Do visit Café de Norasingha in the museum for the graceful early 20th century ambiance. I don’t know if there might be a special discount for any guest named Narasimhan or not, you can try and ask at your own risk!

Bangkok’s Chinatown It is remarkable that, a day before the Modi-Xi “informal summit” in Wuhan, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army quoted Tagore on the Sino-Indian friendship. The Gurudev visited China twice, and always expressed his belief that the two great cradles of Asian civilisations should work together to contribute to humanity in the world of falling western imperialism. In almost every Asian city he visited, Tagore always try to meet local Chinese community. In Bangkok, he was the guest at a Chinese reception in Pei Ying School on Songwad Road, and delivered a speech to several hundred Chinese merchants, scholars and students. The School is still open today. While in the neighbourhood, you may want to take a stroll on Yaowarat Road, and try some street food delicacies.

Tagore did meet the Indian community in Siam too. Records showed that apart from the Hindu Shrine near the Giant Swing, he also visited the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple on Silom Road, and attended a Hindu Reception. Bangkok’s Indian Muslim merchants also played important role in welcoming him, among them was Mr. A. E. Nana from Surat, whose surname became, decades later, the name of two alleys in the Sukhumvit area. As a prominent educator from Santiniketan, the Gurudev visited many schools and educational institutes in Bangkok, one is Poh Chang College of Arts and Crafts (now a university) adjacent to the “Indiantown” of Pahurat.

Outside Bangkok, Tagore spent a day exploring Thai history and culture in the old capitals of Ayutthaya and Lopburi. Ayutthaya was named after Lord Rama’s Ayodhya, and was the capital from 1351 to 1767. Lopburi was much older, being one of the earliest places to accept Indian civilisation in Southeast Asia since 648, and later shared strong Khmer influence. For modern-day visitors, a good place to start is the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum in Ayutthaya.

To the Gurudev, the close cultural bond between Thailand and India was the main reason, in his own words upon his departure, that explained –

“…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.”

I hope our Indian visitors today may find peace, love, and “immemorial kinship” sprouting from common cultural heritages of yore waiting for them in Thailand. Bon voyage.

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By Apirat Sugondhabhirom,

Minister and Chargé d’affaires,

Royal Thai Embassy, New Delhi.