“The Kings and I(ndia)” : The Royal Thai Family and the Siam-Bharat relations

28 July  is  the  Royal  Birthday  Anniversary  of  His  Majesty  King  Maha  Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, or Rama X, the present monarch of Thailand. On this occasion, the Royal Thai Embassy in New Delhi invites readers to explore the historical and civilizational links between the Thai Kings, the Royal Family of Thailand, and India.

The relationship between Thailand and India is deep-rooted, longstanding and multi-dimensional, ranging from the ties among the peoples, governments, armed forces, businesses, scholars and educators, to the bond India has had with the Thai Monarchy.

The link goes back centuries. The very concept of Thai Kingship itself has been greatly influenced by Buddhist and Brahmin philosophies, and one can still notice Indian cultural traces in many ceremonies and rituals of the Royal Court of Thailand to this day. Historically, Thai kings of various eras have always tried to follow the Buddhist ideal of the  “Ten Virtues (or Dharmas) of Kingship” (Dasabidh Raja Dham). The traditional names of many ruling Thai kings at least since the period of the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351-1767) was either “Ramesuan” or “Ramathibodi” (Rama the Ruler), and of course, the old capital city of Ayutthaya itself was named after Rama’s city Ayodhya. Theoretically, the kings were considered to be the incarnation of the Hindu Lord Vishnu, as well as the Buddhist Bodhisattwa. By royal tradition that has been observed unto the modern day, all Thai Kings are Buddhists, with the role of the supreme Patrons of Buddhism in the land, as well as the Defenders of all the Faiths that the Thai people observe.

In the Rattanakosin or Bangkok era (starting from 1782), the first King who founded the City of Bangkok and established the Royal House of Chakri – Thailand’s current reigning dynasty, was King Phra Buddha Yotfa Chulalok, or Rama I. He took the traditional name “Ramathibodi” and decided to name his dynasty “Chakri“, in reference to the discus or Chakra of Vishnu. The emblem of the Chakri Dynasty is Vishnu’s discus intersecting with Shiva’s Trisula or trident.

The Emblem of the Royal House of Chakri

Apart from being a Buddhist, a warrior, and an administrator, King Rama I was also interested in the arts and literature. With help from Brahmins, scholars and poets, he translated and composed a completed Thai version of Ramayana (called “Ramakian” – or “the honor of Rama”, in Thai) and built the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in his own Grand Palace. The 2-km long walls of the temple’s compound are decorated in murals telling the story of Ramakian in its entirety.

The Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the Ramakian murals

Ramakian seems to be a favorite epic of Thai kings. There are a few surviving remnants of the Thai Ramayana from the time of the Ayutthaya kingdom. During the Thonburi era before the Bangkok period, King Taksin the Great also tried his hand at composing four short plays based on the story. Arguably, the most popular versions of Ramakian in Thailand are the ones authored by King Rama I, and the version composed by his artistic son, King Phra Buddha Loetla, Rama II, which was intended to be the script for the “Khon” mask dance play.

One of Rama II’s sons who became King Mongkut, Rama IV (referenced in the “The King and I” films and musical plays, although the historical Rama IV was quite different from the character depicted in the films and musicals plays) was ordained as a Buddhist monk for 27 years before ascending the throne, and was therefore very familiar with Pali language (one of the Prakrit languages of India) as well as with Buddhism. He also composed a few short Ramakian plays, using the text of King Rama I. One of his favorites was the episode of Rama’s Vanvas journey.

King Mongkut, Rama IV of Siam

It was recorded that, on his deathbed, to show that he was still of sound mind despite his physical illness, the King deliberately communicated some verses and sentences in foreign languages before going on to settle his personal affairs and the affairs of the State in Thai. The two foreign languages chosen by him were Pali and English.

King Chulalongkorn the Great or Rama V, King Mongkut’s son, added his work on the Thai Ramakian in the form of Thai sonnets along the compound walls of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. These sonnets served as a kind of caption or description to each mural painting, telling the story of Ramayana in that particular part of the walls. Altogether, there are 178 murals with thousands of accompanying sonnets composed by the Siamese princes, ministers, nobles and poets of the time. The King himself contribute 224 sonnets.

King Chulalongkorn, the illustrious great-grandfather of the present King, visited India under the British Raj in 1872. As a young king of Siam then, he visited Calcutta, Delhi (even before “New” Delhi was founded) Bombay, Agra, Lucknow, Cawnpore and Benares, and met Lord Mayo, Viceroy of India, only weeks before his death in Port Blair. King Chulalongkorn’s experiences in India had greatly impressed him, and inspired him later in his reign for his endeavor to modernize Siam.

King Chulalongkorn in India, 1872

His son and heir, King Vajiravudh, Rama VI, was a scholar well-versed in Sanskrit and Hindu literature, including the Ramayana and the Mahabharata epics. As a hobby, he translated many stories from these epics into Thai and also penned Thai plays inspired by Indian literature, such as the Thai versions of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala and King Harsha’s Priyadarshika, the tale of King Nala and Princess Damayanti, and a short play on how the God Ganesha lost one of his tusks. Based on his own research, the King also wrote a book of an academic study on the origins of the Thai Ramakian, tracing back to the Sanskrit and Bengali sources in India.  It was he who first standardized the title and style of the Chakri Kings in English, to be henceforth rendered as “Rama” (from the Thai word Ramathibodi). He himself was Rama the Sixth.

King Vajiravudh in his fancy dress as Rama the warrior-hermit (1923)

King Vajiravudh’s younger brother succeeded him and became King Prajadhipok, Rama VII. Another great-uncle of the present King, he received one of the greatest poets of India and of humankind, “Gurudev” Rabindranath Tagore, at his palace in Bangkok in 1927, on which occasion the Gurudev composed two poems (in Bengali and English) dedicated to Siam. One is entitled “To Siam”, which was read out in the presence of Their Majesties the King and Queen of Siam, before the gathering of princes and ministers of the Siamese Court. The other is called “Farewell to Siam” and was written on the eve of his departure to Penang. Two years later, the Gurudev sent a postcard to the Siamese King from Santiniketan.

More recently, in October 2016 when His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, passed away, condolences came pouring in from our Indian friends, and were cherished by the Thais at the time of our national mourning. President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and various other Indians expressed their sorrow and respect. The Indian Prime Minister Tweeted “People of India and I join the people of Thailand in grieving the loss of one of the tallest leaders of our times, King Bhumibol Adulyadej“. He also led BRICS and BIMSTEC leaders to observe a minute of silent in memory of the late King at the BRICS-BIMSTEC Summit in Goa. In November 2016 Prime Minister Modi, on his way to Tokyo, deliberately made a brief stopover in Bangkok and paid his respects to the late King, which touched the hearts and souls of the Thai people.

During his lifetime, King Bhumibol had expressed his wish to visit India and see the Royal Thai Monastery at Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, which was built for him in 1994 to mark the 50th anniversary of his reign and was since placed under his royal patronage, but his frail health prevented him from ever coming to India. In the 1950s, His Majesty was also the patron of the first Thai Buddhist Temple in India, i.e. the Royal Thai Monastery at Bodh Gaya (Wat Thai Bodh Gaya), Bihar, which was built by the Thai Government in response to the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Nehru for the international Buddhist community to come and build their temples in the land of the Buddha. The invitation was issued at the occasion of the grand celebration of the 2500 years of Buddhism, the Buddha Jayanti, which was held in India in 1956. Thailand was the first Buddhist country to respond to India’s invitation, and today the Royal Thai Monastery in Bodh Gaya still stands and serves as the headquarters of the official Dhammaduta or Thai Buddhist missionary network in India and Nepal.

Wat Thai Bodh Gaya and its chief Buddha statue

The chief Buddha statue in the main Congregational Hall of Wat Thai Bodh Gaya was cast in Thailand in a ceremony presided over by King Bhumibol himself. He also gave the name “Phra Buddha Dharmishra Jambudipaniwat Sukhodaya”, (meaning “Buddha, Lord of Dharma, who returns to the Continent of Jambudvipa for the happiness to occur”) to the statue.

In performing his duty as king of Thailand, King Bhumibol (and Queen Sirikit) played host to President V.V. Giri, the fifth President of India, when the president and his wife made a State Visit to Thailand in 1972. Some years earlier, the King received in audience an Indian diplomat who was appointed as India’s Ambassador to Thailand during 1967-1969. The Ambassador, K.R. Narayanan, later went on to become India’s tenth President and its first Dalit president.

His children are not strangers to India, as his son, His Majesty King Rama X, Thailand’s present King, visited India three times when he was the Crown Prince (in 1992, 1998 and 2010) and mentioned that fact in his replying letter to the then president of India, President Mukherjee, when the latter offered his condolences at the time King Bhumibol passed away. The King stated that he “fondly recall my three trips to India and the warm and gracious hospitality always extended to me, which is a true reflection of the warmth between our two nations”. An avid aviator, in 2010 His Majesty himself piloted his aircraft to Gaya Airport, and paid his respect to the Mahabodhi Temple as well as the Royal Thai Monastery in Bodh Gaya.

His Majesty the present King (then HRH the Crown Prince) at Qutub Minar

King Bhumibol’s daughters and younger sisters to the  present King, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and Princess Chulabhorn, are also frequent visitors to India. Princess Sirindhorn is a Sanskrit and Indologist expert in her own right and the recipient of the World Sanskrit Award and the Patma Bhushan Award from the Government of India, as well as the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Literature (Sanskrit) from Delhi University and the Indira Gandhi Peace Prize. A true friend of India, she has already visited the country 18 times since her first visit in 1987. Princess Chulabhorn, a biochemist and toxicologist with keen interest in public health, comes to New Delhi to attend meetings with the World Health Organisation South East Asian Regional Office (WHO-SEARO) every year.

HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn received the Padma Bhushan Award

   HRH Princess Chulabhorn at WHO-SEARO

The affection for India runs deep in the Royal Thai Family, generation after generation. King Bhumibol’s mother and the present King’s grandmother, Her Royal Highness Princess Sri Nagarindra the Princess Mother, a commoner who was trained as a nurse before marrying into the Royal Family, once wrote in a family document that her wish was to one day become Thailand’s Ambassador to India. Fascinated by Indian cultures, she went on to be the mother of two Thai Kings, Rama VIII and Rama IX, and a keen student in Pali and Sanskrit and Buddhist philosophy later in her life. Perhaps Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s intense interest in all things Indian may have been inherited from her grandmother.

The cordial ties between India and the Royal Family of Thailand are one of the most important factors contributing to the everlasting friendship between Thailand and India.