1865 - Anna Leonowens
Anna and the King and the Ways of the Palace
The city of Bangkok is commonly supposed to have inherited the name of the ancient capital, Ayudia; but in the royal archives, to which I have had free access, it is given as Krung Thép'ha Maha-Nakhon Si-ayut-thia Maha-dilok Racha-thani, "The City of the Royal, Invincible, and Beautiful Archangel." lt is ramparted with walls within and without, which divide it into an inner and an outer city, the inner wall being thirty feet high, and flanked with circular forts mounted with cannon, making a respectable show of defence. Centre of all, the heart of the citadel, is the grand palace, encompassed by a third wall, which encloses only the royal edifice, the harems, the temple of Watt P'hra Keau, and the Maha P'hrasat.
The Maha Phrasat is an immense structure of quadrangular facades, surmounted by a tall spire of very chaste and harmonious design. It is consecrated; and here dead sovereigns of Siam lie in state, waiting twelve months for their cremation; here also their ashes are deposited, in urns of gold, after that fiery consummation. In the Maha Phrasat the supreme king is crowned and all court ceremonies performed. On certain high holidays and occasions of state, the high-priest administers here a sort of mass, at which the whole court attend, even the chief ladies of the harem, who, behind heavy curtains of silk and gold that hang from the ceiling to the floor, whisper and giggle and peep and chew betel, and have the wonted little raptures of their sex over furtive, piquant glimpses of the world; for, despite the strict confinement and jealous surveillance to which they are subject, the outer life, with all its bustle, passion, and romance, will now and then steal, like a vagrant, curious ray of light, into the heart's darkness of these tabooed women, thrilling their childish minds with eager wonderment and formless longings.
Within these walls lurked lately fugitives of every class, profligates from all quarters of the city, to whom discovery was death; but here their "sanctuary" was impenetrable. Here were women disguised as men, and men in the attire of women, hiding vice of every vileness and crime of every enormity, - at once the most disgusting, the most appalling, and the most unnatural that the heart of man has conceived. It was death in life, a charnel-house of quick corruption; a place of gloom and solitude indeed, wherefrom happiness, hope, courage, liberty, truth, were forever excluded, and only mother's love was left.
The king Maha Mongkut was the disk of light and life round which these strange flies swarmed. Most of the women who composed his harem were of gentle blood, the fairest of the daughters of Siamese nobles and of princes of the adjacent tributary states; the late queen consort was his own half-sister. Beside many choice Chinese and Indian girls, purchased annually for the royal harem by agents stationed at Peking, Foo-chou, and different points in Bengal, enormous sums were offered, year after year, through "solicitors" at Bangkok and Singapore, for an English woman of beauty and good parentage to crown the sensational collection; but when I took my leave of Bangkok, in 1868, the coveted specimen had not yet appeared in the market. The cunning commissionnaires contrived to keep their places and make a living by sending his Majesty, now and then, a piquant photograph of some British Nourmahal of the period, freshly caught, and duly shipped, in good order for the harem; but the goods never arrived.
Had the king's tastes been Gallic, his requisition might have been filled. I remember a score of genuine offers from French demoiselles, who enclosed their cartes in billets more surprising and enterprising than any other "proposals" it was my office to translate. But his whimsical Majesty entertained a lively horror of French intrigue, whether of priests, consuls, or lionnes, and stood in vigilant fear of being beguiled, through one of these adventurous sirens, into fathering the innovation of a Franco-Siamese heir to the throne of the celestial P'hrabatts.
The king, as well as most of the principal members of his household, rose at five in the morning, and immediately partook of a slight repast, served by the ladies who had been in waiting through the night; after which, attended by them and his sisters and elder children, he descended and took his station on a long strip of matting, laid from one of the gates through all the avenues to another. On his Majesty's left were ranged, first, his children in the order of rank; then the princesses, his sisters; and, lastly, his concubines, his maids of honor, and their slaves. Before each was placed a large silver tray containing offerings of boiled rice, fruit, cakes, and the seri leaf; some even had cigars.
A little after five, the Patoo Dharmina (" Gate of Merit," called by the populace "Patoo Boon ") was thrown open and the Amazons of the guard drawn up on either side. Then the priests entered, always by that gate, one hundred and ninety-nine of them, escorted on the right and left by men armed with swords and clubs, and as they entered they chanted: "Take thy meat, but think it dust! Eat but to live, and but to know thyself, and what thou art below! And say withal unto thy heart, It is earth I eat, that to the earth I may new life impart."
Then the chief priest, who led the procession, advanced with downcast eyes and lowly mien, and very simply presented his bowl (slung from his neck by a cord, and until that moment quite hidden under the folds of his yellow robe) to the members of the royal household, who offered their fruit or cakes, or their spoonfuls of rice or sweetmeats. In like manner did all his brethren. If, by any chance, one before whom a tray was placed was not ready and waiting with an offering, no priest stopped, but all continued to advance slowly, taking only what was freely offered, without thanks or even a look of acknowledgment, until the end of the royal train was reached, when the procession retired, chanting as before, by the gate called Dinn, or, in the Court language, Prithvi, "Gate of Earth."
After this, the king and all his company repaired to his private temple, Watt Sasmiras Manda-thung ("Temple in Memory of Mother", so called because it was dedicated by his Majesty to the memory of his mother. This is an edifice of unique and charming beauty, decorated throughout by artists from Japan, who have represented on the walls, in designs as diverse and ingenious as they are costly, the numerous metempsychoses of Buddha.
Here his Majesty ascended alone the steps of the altar, rang a bell to announce the hour of devotion, lighted the consecrated tapers, and offered the white lotos and the roses. Then he spent an hour in prayer, and in reading texts from the P'ra-jana Para-mita and the P'hra-ti-Moksha.
This service over, he retired for another nap, attended by a fresh detail of women, - those who had waited the night before being dismissed, not to be recalled for a month, or at least a fortnight, save as a peculiar mark of preference or favor to some one who had had the good fortune to please or amuse him; but most of that party voluntarily waited upon him every day.
His Majesty usually passed his mornings in study, or in dictating or writing English letters and despatches. His breakfast, though a repast sufficiently frugal for Oriental royalty, was served with awesome forms. In an antechamber adjoining a noble hall, rich in grotesque carvings and gildings, a throng of females waited, while his Majesty sat at a long table, near which knelt twelve women before great silver trays laden with twelve varieties of viands - soups, meats, game, poultry, fish, vegetables, cakes, jellies, preserves, sauces, fruits, and teas. Each tray, in its order, was passed by three ladies to the head wife or concubine, who removed the silver covers, and at least seemed to taste the contents of each dish; and then, advancing on her knees, she set them on the long table before the king.
But his Majesty was notably temperate in his diet, and by no means a gastronome. In his long seclusion in a Buddhist cloister he had acquired habits of severe simplicity and frugality, as a preparation for the exercise of those powers of mental concentration for which he was remarkable. At these morning repasts it was his custom to detain me in conversation relating to some topic of interest derived from his studies, or in reading or translating. He was more systematically educated, and a more capacious devourer of books and news, than perhaps any man of equal rank in our day. But much learning had made him morally mad; his extensive reading had engendered in his mind an extreme scepticism concerning all existing religious systems. In inborn integrity and steadfast principle he had no faith whatever. He sincerely believed that every man strove to compass bis own ends, Per fas et nefas. The mens sibi conscia recti was to him an hallucination, for which he entertained profound contempt; and he honestly pitied the delusion that pinned its faith on human truth and virtue. He was a provoking mélange of antiquarian attainments and modern scepticism. When, sometimes, I ventured to disabuse his mind of his darling scorn for motive and responsibility, I had the mortification to discover that I had but helped him to an argument against myself: It was simply "my peculiar interest to do so." Money, money, money! That could procure anything.
But aside from the too manifest bias of his early education and experience, it is due to his memory to say that his practice was less faithless than his profession, toward those persons and principles to which he was attracted by a just regard. In many grave considerations he displayed soundness of understanding and clearness of judgment, - a genuine nobility of mind, established upon universal ethics and philosophic reason,- where his passions were not dominant; but when these broke in between the man and the majesty, they effectually barred his advance in the direction of true greatness ; beyond them he could not, or would not, make way.
Ah, if this man could but have cast off the cramping yoke of his intellectual egotism, and been loyal to the free government of his own true heart, what a demi-god might he not have been among the lower animals of Asiatic royalty!
At two o'clock he bestirred himself, and with the aid of his women bathed and anointed his person. Then he descended to a breakfast-chamber, where he was served with the most substantial meal of the day. Here he chatted with his favorites among the wives and concubines, and caressed his children, taking them in his arms, embracing them, plying them with puzzling or funny questions, and making droll faces at the babies: the more agreeable the mother, the dearer the child. The love of children was the constant and hearty virtue of this forlorn despot. They appealed to him by their beauty and their trustfulness, they refreshed him with the bold innocence of their ways, so frolicsome, graceful, and quaint.
From this delusive scene of domestic condescension and kindliness he passed to his Hall of Audience to consider official matters. Twice a week at sunset he appeared at one of the gates of the palace to hear the complaints and petitions of the poorest of his subjects, who at no other time or place could reach his ear. It was most pitiful to see the helpless, awestricken wretches, prostrate and abject as toads, many too terrified to present the precious petition after all.
At nine he retired to his private apartments, whence issued immediately peculiar domestic bulletins, in which were named the women whose presence he particularly desired, in addition to those whose turn it was to "wait" that night.
And twice a week he held a secret council, or court, at midnight. Of the proceedings of those dark and terrifying sittings I can, of course, give no exact account. I permit myself to speak only of those things which were but too plain to one who lived for six years in or near the palace.
In Siam, the king - Maha Mongkut especially - is not merely enthroned, he is enshrined. To the nobility he is omnipotence, and to the rabble mystery. Since the occupation of the country by the Jesuits, many foreigners have fancied that the government is becoming more and more silent, insidious, secretive; and that this midnight council is but the expression of a " policy of stifling." It is an inquisition, - not overt, audacious, like that of Rome, but nocturnal, invisible, subtle, ubiquitous, like that of Spain; proceeding without witnesses or warning; kidnapping a subject, not arresting him, and then incarcerating, chaining, torturing him, to extort confession or denunciation. If any Siamese citizen utter one word against the "San Luang" (the royal judges), and escape, forthwith his house is sacked and his wife and children kidnapped. Should he be captured, he is brought to secret trial, to which no one is admitted who is not in the patronage and confidence of the royal judges. In themselves the laws are tolerable; but in their operation they are frustrated or circumvented by arbitrary and capricious power in the king, or craft or cruelty in the Council. No one not initiated in the mystic séances of the San Luang can depend upon Siamese law for justice. No man will consent to appear there, even as a true witness, save for large reward. The citizen who would enjoy, safe from legal plunder, his private income, must be careful to find a patron and protector in the king, the prime minister, or some other formidable friend at court. Spies in the employ of the San Luang penetrate into every family of wealth and influence. Every citizen suspects and fears always his neighbor, sometimes his wife. On more than one occasion when, vexed by some act of the king's, more than usually wanton and unjust, I instinctively gave expression to my feelings by word or look in the presence of certain officers and courtiers, I observed that they rapped, or tapped, in a peculiar and stealthy manner. This I afterward discovered was one of the secret signs of the San Luang; and the warning signal was addressed to me, because they imagined that I also was a member of the Council.
En passant, a word as to the ordinary and familiar costumes of the palace. Men and women alike wear a sort of kilt like the pu'sho of the Birmans, with a short upper tunic, over which the women draw a broad silk scarf, which is closely bound round the chest and descends in long, waving folds almost to the feet. Neither sex wears any covering on the head. The uniform of the Amazons of the harem is green and gold, and for the soldiers scarlet and purple.
There are usually four meals: breakfast about sunrise; a sort of tiffin at noon; a more substantial repast in the afternoon; and supper after the business of the day is over. Wine and tea are drunk freely, and perfumed liquors are used by the wealthy. An indispensable preparation for polite repast is by bathing and anointing the body. When guests are invited, the sexes are never brought together; for Siamese women of rank very rarely appear in strange company; they are confined to remote and unapproachable halls and chambers, where nothing human, being male, may ever enter. The convivial entertainments of the Court are usually given on occasions of public devotion, and form a part of these.
The English Governess at the Siamese Court
Boston 1870; Reprint 1988