India and the Royal Grandmother of the King of Thailand

October 21st, 2020 marks the 120th Birthday Anniversary of Her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra of Thailand (1900-1995), who was the grandmother of the current King Maha Vajiralongkorn (Rama X) and the mother of two Thai kings before him, His Late Majesty King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII) and His Late Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX).

Her second son King Bhumibol, the father of King Rama X, passed away in October 2016. At the time of his demise, Prime Minister Narendra Modi 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”.

HRH Princess Srinagarindra, the Princess Mother of King Bhumibol, was born a commoner who was professionally trained as a nurse before her marriage into the Royal Family of Thailand. She was well known during her lifetime for her works in the field of medicine, nursing and healthcare, in particular the promotion of availability of access to health services for people in remote parts of the country. Her birthday is still celebrated every year in the Kingdom as Thailand’s National Nurses Day. As Her Royal Highness usually used helicopters to visit hard-to-reach areas in the mountains, bringing along her mobile flying units of health volunteers to treat the villagers, she was affectionately and widely known among the rural Thai people as “Mae Fah Luang” or “the Royal Mother from the Sky.”

At the global level, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, honored the Princess as one of the world’s “Great personalities in public service in the fields of education, applied science, and human, social, and environmental development” in the year 2000 at the occasion of the centenary anniversary of her birth, five years after her demise.

In Thailand itself, a foundation bearing her name, the “Princess Srinagarindra Award Foundation” has been established in 2000 to honor her works and her contribution to the advancement of nursing and social services, and to annually recognize and acknowledge exemplary nurses from countries around the world, including India. The laureate for the year 2003 is Professor Dr. (Mrs.) Sulochana Krishnan, from Chennai, the former Vice-President of Indian Nursing Council and of Trained Nurses Association of India, and the 1995 recipient of the esteemed Sorojini Khosla Nightingale Award.  In recognition of her “accomplishment in the development of nursing education as an important factor in promoting the health of the people of India, for her vision, courage, and scholarship”, Dr. Krishnan was conferred with the Princess Srinagarindra Award and went to the Grand Palace in Bangkok to receive the Award from Princess Srinagarindra’s granddaughter, Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn – – who is herself a great “Friend of India”, an Indologist and a Sanskrit scholar in her own right, and the recipient of the World Sanskrit Award and the Padma 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.

One can say that affection for India runs deep in the Royal Thai Family, generation after generation, and that Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s deep interest in all things Indian might very well have been inherited from her own grandmother. While raising up two future Thai Kings in Lausanne, Switzerland, some years before the Second World War, Princess Sri Nagarindra once wrote in a family diary that her wish was “to one day become Thailand’s Ambassador to India”. Fascinated by Indian civilization and cultures, the Princess Mother went on to be a keen student in Pali and Sanskrit (and also Buddhist philosophy later in her life). She began her study of Pali and Sanskrit at the University of Lausanne, under Professor Constantin Regamey, the Swiss linguist, orientalist, musician, and composer. Among the Indian and Buddhist literatures that had impressed the Princess Mother were Kalidasa’s play Shakuntala, the tale of Prince Nala in the Mahabharata, and the Buddhist text “King Milinda’s Questions”. Later, she was able to use her knowledge in Pali and Sanskrit to read and understand the texts of the “Tipitaka” Buddhist Canon.

Princess Srinagarindra may have not realized her dream to become the Thai Ambassador to India, as her life has been instead destined to be filled with the great responsibility of caring for two Kings of Thailand, and dedicated service, in particular in public health and education, to the Thai people. But in one soft spot of her heart, there was the evergreen cherishment of Indian civilization there.

* * * * * * *

Mr. Apirat SUGONDHABHIROM is a Consul-General of Thailand in Ho Chi Minh City, Socialist Republic of Viet Nam. Formerly, he held the position of Minister at the Royal Thai Embassy in New Delhi.