The English Governess At The Siamese Court
Anna Harriette Leonowens
Part 3 out of 5
disabled at sea, are repaired more thoroughly and cheaply than in any
other port in the East. There are, likewise, several dry-docks, and, in
fact, an establishment completely equipped and intelligently managed. A
short distance below the dock-yards is the American Mission, comprising
the dwellings of the missionaries and a modest school-house and chapel,
the latter having a fair attendance of consuls and their children. Above
the dock-yards is the Roman Catholic establishment, a quiet little
settlement clustered about a small cross-crowned sanctuary.
Yet one more bend of the tortuous river, and the strange panorama of the
floating city unrolls like a great painted canvas before us,--piers and
rafts of open shops, with curious wares and fabrics exposed at the very
water's edge; and beyond and above these the magnificent "watts" and
pagodas with which the capital abounds.
These pagodas, and the _p'hra-cha-dees_, or minarets, that crown some of
the temples, are in many cases true wonders of cunning workmanship and
profuse adornment--displaying mosaics of fine porcelain, inlaid with
ivory, gold, and silver, while the lofty doors and windows are overlaid
with sculptures of grotesque figures from the Buddhist and Brahminical
mythologies. Near the Grand Palace are three tall pillars of elegant
design, everywhere inlaid with variegated stones, and so richly gilt
that they are the wonder and the pride of all the country round. These
monuments mark the places of deposit of a few charred bones that once
were three demigods of Siam,--the kings P'hra Rama Thibodi, P'hra Narai,
and P'hra Phya Tak, who did doughty deeds of valor and prowess in
earlier periods of Siamese history.
The Grand Royal Palace, the semi-castellated residence of the Supreme
King of Siam, with its roofs and spires pointed with what seem to be the
horns of animals, towers pre-eminent over all the city. It is a great
citadel, surrounded by a triplet of walls, fortified with many bastions.
Each of the separate buildings it comprises is cruciform; and even the
palace lately erected in the style of Windsor Castle forms with the old
palace the arms of a cross, as the latter does with the Phrasat,--and so
on down to an odd little conceit in architecture, in the Chinese style
In front of the old palace is an ample enclosure, paved, and surrounded
with beautiful trees and rare plants. A gateway, guarded by a pair of
colossal lions and two gigantic and frightful nondescripts, half demon,
half human, leads to the old palace, now almost abandoned. Beyond this,
and within the third or innermost wall, is the true heart of the
citadel, the quarters of the women of the harem. This is in itself a
sort of miniature city, with streets, shops, bazaars, and gardens, all
occupied and tended by women only. Outside are the observatory and
Some of the grandest and most beautiful temples and pagodas of Siam are
in this part of the city. On one side of the palace are the temples and
monasteries dedicated to the huge Sleeping Idol, and on the other the
mass of buildings that constitute the palace and harem of the Second
King. From these two palaces broad streets extend for several miles,
occupied on either side by the principal shops and bazaars of Bangkok.
Leaving the Grand Palace, a short walk to the right brings us to the
monuments, already mentioned, of the three warrior kings. From noble
pedestals of fine black granite, adorned at top and bottom with cornices
and rings of ivory, carved in mythological forms of animals, birds, and
flowers, rise conical pillars about fifty feet high.
The columns themselves are in mosaic, with diverse material inlaid upon
the solid masonry so carefully that the cement can hardly be detected.
No two patterns are the same, striking effects of form and color have
been studied, and the result is beautiful beyond description. Close
beside these a third pillar was lately in process of erection, to the
memory of the good King P'hra-Phen-den Klang, father of his late
Majesty, Somdetch P'hra-Paramendr Maha Mongkut.
On the outer skirt of the walled town stands the temple Watt Brahmanee
Waid, dedicated to the divinity to whom the control of the universe has
been ascribed from the most ancient times. His temple is the only shrine
of a Brahminical deity that the followers of Buddha have not dared to
abolish. Intelligent Buddhists hold that he exists in the latent forces
of nature, that his only attribute is benevolence, though he is capable
of a just indignation, and that within the scope of his mental vision
are myriads of worlds yet to come. But he is said to have no form, no
voice, no odor, no color, no active creative power,--a subtile,
fundamental principle of nature, pervading all things, influencing all
things. This belief in Brahma is so closely interwoven with all that is
best in the morals and customs of the people, that it would seem as
though Buddha himself had been careful to leave unchallenged this one
idea in the mythology of the Hindoos. The temple includes a royal
monastery, which only the sons of kings can enter.
Opposite the Brahmanee Watt, at the distance of about a mile, are the
extensive grounds and buildings of Watt Sah Kate, the great national
burning-place of the dead. Within these mysterious precincts the
Buddhist rite of cremation is performed, with circumstances more or less
horrible, according to the condition or the superstition of the
deceased. A broad canal surrounds the temple and yards, and here, night
and day, priests watch and pray for the regeneration of mankind. Not
alone the dead, but the living likewise, are given to be burned in
secret here; and into this canal, at dead of night, are flung the rash
wretches who have madly dared to oppose with speech or act the powers
that rule in Siam. None but the initiated will approach, these grounds
after sunset, so universal and profound is the horror the place
inspires,--a place the most frightful and offensive known to mortal
eyes; for here the vows of dead men, howsoever ghoulish and monstrous,
are consummated. The walls are hung with human skeletons and the ground
is strewed with human skulls. Here also are scraped together the horrid
fragments of those who have bequeathed their carcasses to the hungry
dogs and vultures, that hover, and prowl, and swoop, and pounce, and
snarl, and scream, and tear. The half-picked bones are gathered and
burned by the outcast keepers of the temple (not priests), who receive
from the nearest relative of the infatuated testator a small fee for
that final service; and so a Buddhist vow is fulfilled, and a Buddhist
"deed of merit" accomplished.
Bangkok, the modern seat of government of Siam, has (according to the
best authorities) two hundred thousand floating dwellings and shops,--to
each house an average of five souls,--making the population of the city
about one million; of which number more than eighty thousand are
Chinese, twenty thousand Birmese, fifteen thousand Arabs and Indians,
and the remainder Siamese. These figures are from the latest census,
which, however, must not be accepted as perfectly accurate.
The situation of the city is unique and picturesque. When Ayudia was
"extinguished," and the capital established at Bangkok, the houses were
at first built on the banks of the river. But so frequent were the
invasions of cholera, that one of the kings happily commanded the people
to build on the river itself, that they might have greater cleanliness
and better ventilation. The result quickly proved the wisdom of the
measure. The privilege of building on the banks is now confined to
members of the royal family, the nobility, and residents of acknowledged
influence, political or commercial.
At night the city is hung with thousands of covered lights, that
illuminate the wide river from shore to shore. Lamps and lanterns of all
imaginable shapes, colors, and sizes combine to form a fairy spectacle
of enchanting brilliancy and beauty. The floating tenements and shops,
the masts of vessels, the tall, fantastic pagodas and minarets, and,
crowning all, the walls and towers of the Grand Palace, flash with
countless charming tricks of light, and compose a scene of more than
magic novelty and beauty. So oriental fancy and profusion deal with
things of use, and make a wonder of a commonplace.
A double, and in some parts a triple, row of floating houses extends for
miles along the banks of the river. These are wooden structures,
tastefully designed and painted, raised on substantial rafts of bamboo
linked together with chains, which, in turn, are made fast to great
piles planted in the bed of the stream. The Meinam itself forms the main
avenue, and the floating shops on either side constitute the great
bazaar of the city, where all imaginable and unimaginable articles from
India, China, Malacca, Birmah, Paris, Liverpool, and New York are
displayed in stalls.
Naturally, boats and canoes are indispensable appendages to such houses;
the nobility possess a fleet of them, and to every little water-cottage
a canoe is tethered, for errands and visits. At all hours of the day and
night processions of boats pass to and from the palace, and everywhere
bustling traders and agents ply their dingy little craft, and proclaim
their several callings in a Babel of cries.
Daily, at sunrise, a flotilla of canoes, filled with shaven men in
yellow garments, visits every house along the banks. These are the
priests gathering their various provender, the free gift of every
inhabitant of the city. Twenty thousand of them are supported by the
alms of the city of Bangkok alone.
At noon, all the clamor of the city is suddenly stilled, and perfect
silence reigns. Men, women, and children are hushed in their afternoon
nap. From the stifling heat of a tropical midday the still cattle seek
shelter and repose under shady boughs, and even the prows cease their
obstreperous clanging. The only sound that breaks the drowsy stillness
of the hour is the rippling of the glaring river as it ebbs or flows
under the steaming banks.
About three in the afternoon the sea-breeze sets in, bringing
refreshment to the fevered, thirsty land, and reviving animal and
vegetable life with its compassionate breath. Then once more the
floating city awakes and stirs, and an animation rivalling that of the
morning is prolonged far into the night,--the busy, gay, delightful
night of Bangkok.
The streets are few compared with the number of canals that intersect
the city in all directions. The most remarkable of the former is one
that runs parallel with the Grand Palace, and terminates in what is now
known as "Sanon Mai," or the New Road, which extends from Bangkok to
Paknam, about forty miles, and crosses the canals on movable iron
bridges. Almost every other house along this road is a shop, and at the
close of the wet season Bangkok has no rival in the abundance of
vegetables and fruits with which its markets are stocked.
I could wish for a special dispensation to pass without mention the
public prisons of Bangkok, for their condition and the treatment of the
unhappy wretches confined in them are the foulest blots on the character
of the government. Some of these grated abominations are hung like
bird-cages over the water; and those on land, with their gangs of living
corpses chained together like wild beasts, are too horrible to be
pictured here. How European officials, representatives of Christian
ideas of humanity and decency, can continue to countenance the apathy or
wilful brutality of the prime minister, who, as the executive officer of
the government in this department, is mainly responsible for the
cruelties and outrages I may not even name, I cannot conceive.
The American Protestant missionaries have as yet made no remarkable
impression on the religious mind of the Siamese. Devoted, persevering,
and patient laborers, the field they have so faithfully tilled has
rewarded them with but scanty fruits. Nor will the fact, thankless
though it be, appear surprising to those whose privilege it has been to
observe the Buddhist and the Roman Catholic side by side in the East,
and to note how, even on the score of doctrine, they meet without a jar
at many points. The average Siamese citizen, entering a Roman Catholic
chapel in Bangkok, finds nothing there to shock his prejudices. He is
introduced to certain forms and ceremonies, almost the counterpart of
which he piously reveres in his own temple,--genuflections,
prostrations, decorated shrines, lighted candles, smoking incense, holy
water; while the prayers he hears are at least not less intelligible to
him than those he hears mumbled in Pali by his own priests. He beholds
familiar images too, and pictures of a Saviour in whom he charitably
recognizes the stranger's Buddha. And if he happen to be a philosophic
inquirer, how surprised and pleased is he to learn that the priests of
this faith (like his own) are vowed to chastity, poverty, and obedience,
and, like his own, devoted to the doing of good works, penance, and
alms. There are many thousands of native converts to Catholicism in
Siam; even the priests of Buddhism do not always turn a deaf ear to the
persuasions of teachers bound with them in the bonds of celibacy,
penance, and deeds of merit. And those teachers are quick to meet them
half-way, happily recommending themselves by the alacrity with which
they adopt, and make their own, usages which they may with propriety
practise in common, whereby the Buddhist is flattered while the
Christian is not offended. Such, for example, is the monastic custom of
the uncovered head. As it is deemed sacrilege to touch the head of
royalty, so the head of the priest may not without dishonor pass under
anything less hallowed than the canopy of heaven; and in this Buddhist
and Roman Catholic accord.
The residences of the British, French, American, and Portuguese Consuls
are pleasantly situated in a bend of the river, where a flight of wooden
steps in good repair leads directly to the houses of the officials and
European merchants of that quarter. Most influential among the latter is
the managing firm of the Borneo Company, whose factories and warehouses
for rice, sugar, and cotton are extensive and prosperous.
The more opulent of the native merchants are grossly addicted to
gambling and opium-smoking. Though the legal penalties prescribed for
all who indulge in these destructive vices are severe, they do not avail
to deter even respectable officers of the government from staking heavy
sums on the turn of a card; and long before the game is ended the
opium-pipe is introduced. One of the king's secretaries, who was a
confirmed opium-smoker, assured me he would rather die at once than be
excluded from the region of raptures his pipe opened to him.
XVI. THE WHITE ELEPHANT.
It is commonly supposed that the Buddhists of Siam and Birmah regard the
Chang Phoouk, or white elephant, as a deity, and worship it accordingly.
The notion is erroneous, especially as it relates to Siam. The Buddhists
do not recognize God in any material form whatever, and are shocked at
the idea of adoring an elephant. Even Buddha, to whom they undoubtedly
offer pious homage, they do not style "God" but on the contrary maintain
that, though an emanation from a "sublimated ethereal being," he is by
no means a deity. According to their philosophy of metempsychosis,
however, each successive Buddha, in passing through a series of
transmigrations, must necessarily have occupied in turn the forms of
white animals of a certain class,--particularly the swan, the stork, the
white sparrow, the dove, the monkey, and the elephant. But there is much
obscurity and diversity in the views of their ancient writers on this
subject. Only one thing is certain, that the forms of these nobler and
purer creatures are reserved for the souls of the good and great, who
find in them a kind of redemption from the baser animal life. Thus
almost all white animals are held in reverence by the Siamese, because
they were once superior human beings, and the white elephant, in
particular, is supposed to be animated by the spirit of some king or
hero. Having once been a great man, he is thought to be familiar with
the dangers that surround the great, and to know what is best and safest
for those whose condition in all respects was once his own. He is hence
supposed to avert national calamity, and bring prosperity and peace to a
[Illustration: A WAR ELEPHANT ]
From the earliest times the kings of Siam and Birmah have anxiously
sought for the white elephant, and having had the rare fortune to
procure one, have loaded it with gifts and dignities, as though it were
a conscious favorite of the throne. When the governor of a province of
Siam is notified of the appearance of a white elephant within his
bailiwick, he immediately commands that prayers and offerings shall be
made in all the temples, while he sends out a formidable expedition of
hunters and slaves to take the precious beast, and bring it in in
triumph. As soon as he is informed of its capture, a special messenger
is despatched to inform the king of its sex, probable age, size,
complexion, deportment, looks, and ways; and in the presence of his
Majesty this bearer of glorious tidings undergoes the painfully pleasant
operation of having his mouth, ears, and nostrils stuffed with gold.
Especially is the lucky wight--perhaps some half-wild woodsman--who was
first to spy the illustrious monster munificently rewarded. Orders are
promptly issued to the woons and wongses of the several districts
through which he must pass to prepare to receive him royally, and a wide
path is cut for him through the forests he must traverse on his way to
the capital. Wherever he rests he is sumptuously entertained, and
everywhere he is escorted and served by a host of attendants, who sing,
dance, play upon instruments, and perform feats of strength or skill for
his amusement, until he reaches the banks of the Meinam, where a great
floating palace of wood, surmounted by a gorgeous roof and hung with
crimson curtains, awaits him. The roof is literally thatched with
flowers ingeniously arranged so as to form symbols and mottoes, which
the superior beast is supposed to decipher with ease. The floor of this
splendid float is laid with gilt matting curiously woven, in the centre
of which his four-footed lordship is installed in state, surrounded by
an obsequious and enraptured crowd of mere bipeds, who bathe him,
perfume him, fan him, feed him, sing and play to him, flatter him. His
food consists of the finest herbs, the tenderest grass, the sweetest
sugar-cane, the mellowest plantains, the brownest cakes of wheat, served
on huge trays of gold and silver; and his drink is perfumed with the
fragrant flower of the _dok mallee_, the large native jessamine.
Thus, in more than princely state, he is floated down the river to a
point within seventy miles of the capital, where the king and his court,
all the chief personages of the kingdom, and a multitude of priests,
both Buddhist and Brahmin, accompanied by troops of players and
musicians, come out to meet him, and conduct him with all the honors to
his stable-palace. A great number of cords and ropes of all qualities
and lengths are attached to the raft, those in the centre being of fine
silk (figuratively, "spun from a spider's web"). These are for the king
and his noble retinue, who with their own hands make them fast to their
gilded barges; the rest are secured to the great fleet of lesser boats.
And so, with shouts of joy, beating of drums, blare of trumpets, boom of
cannon, a hallelujah of music, and various splendid revelry, the great
Chang Phoouk is conducted in triumph to the capital.
Here in a pavilion, temporary but very beautiful, he is welcomed with
imposing ceremonies by the custodians of the palace and the principal
personages of the royal household. The king, his courtiers, and the
chief priests being gathered round him, thanksgiving is offered up; and
then the lordly beast is knighted, after the ancient manner of the
Buddhists, by pouring upon his forehead consecrated water from a
The titles reserved for the Chang Phoouk vary according to the purity of
the complexion (for these favored creatures are rarely true
albinos,--salmon or flesh-color being the nearest approach to white in
almost all the historic "white elephants" of the courts of Birmah and
Siam) and the sex; for though one naturally has recourse to the
masculine pronoun in writing of a transmigrated prince or warrior, it
often happens that prince or warrior has, in the medlied mask of
metempsychosis, assumed a female form. Such, in fact, was the case with
the stately occupant of the stable-palace at the court of Maha Mongkut;
and she was distinguished by the high-sounding appellation of Maa Phya
Seri Wongsah Ditsarah Krasaat,--"August and Glorious Mother, Descendant
of Kings and Heroes."
For seven or nine days, according to certain conditions, the Chang
Phoouk is feted at the temporary pavilion, and entertained with a
variety of dramatic performances; and these days are observed as a
general holiday throughout the land. At the expiration of this period he
is conducted with great pomp to his sumptuous quarters within the
precincts of the first king's palace, where he is received by his own
court of officers, attendants, and slaves, who install him in his fine
lodgings, and at once proceed to robe and decorate him. First, the court
jeweller rings his tremendous tusks with massive gold, crowns him with a
diadem of beaten gold of perfect purity, and adorns his burly neck with
heavy golden chains. Next his attendants robe him in a superb velvet
cloak of purple, fringed with scarlet and gold; and then his court
prostrate themselves around him, and offer him royal homage.
When his lordship would refresh his portly person in the bath, an
officer of high rank shelters his noble head with a great umbrella of
crimson and gold, while others wave golden fans before him. On these
occasions he is invariably preceded by musicians, who announce his
approach with cheerful minstrelsy and songs.
If he falls ill, the king's own leech prescribes for him, and the chief
priests repair daily to his palace to pray for his safe deliverance, and
sprinkle him with consecrated waters and anoint him with consecrated
oils. Should he die, all Siam is bereaved, and the nation, as one man,
goes into mourning for him. But his body is not burned; only his brains
and heart are thought worthy of that last and highest honor. The
carcass, shrouded in fine white linen, and laid on a bier, is carried
down the river with much wailing and many mournful dirges, to be thrown
into the Gulf of Siam.
In 1862 a magnificent white--or, rather, salmon-colored--elephant was
"bagged," and preparations on a gorgeous scale were made to receive him.
A temporary pavilion of extraordinary splendor sprang up, as if by
magic, before the eastern gate of the palace; and the whole nation was
wild with joy; when suddenly came awful tidings,--he had died!
No man dared tell the king. But the Kralahome--that man of prompt
expedients and unfailing presence of mind--commanded that the
preparations should cease instantly, and that the building should vanish
with the builders. In the evening his Majesty came forth, as usual, to
exult in the glorious work. What was his astonishment to find no vestige
of the splendid structure that had been so nearly completed the night
before. He turned, bewildered, to his courtiers, to demand an
explanation, when suddenly the terrible truth flashed into his mind.
With a cry of pain he sank down upon a stone, and gave vent to an
hysterical passion of tears; but was presently consoled by one of his
children, who, carefully prompted in his part, knelt before him and
said: "Weep not, O my father! The stranger lord may have left us but for
a time." The stranger lord, fatally pampered, had succumbed to
astonishment and indigestion.
A few days after this mournful event the king read to me a curious
description of the defunct monster, and showed me parts of his skin
preserved, and his tusks, which in size and whiteness surpassed the
finest I had ever seen. His (that is, the elephant's) eyes were light
blue, surrounded by salmon-color; his hair fine, soft, and white; his
complexion pinkish white; his tusks like long pearls; his ears like
silver shields; his trunk like a comet's tail; his legs like the feet of
the skies; his tread like the sound of thunder; his looks full of
meditation; his expression full of tenderness; his voice the voice of a
mighty warrior; and his bearing that of an illustrious monarch.
That was a terrible affliction, to the people not less than to the king.
On all occasions of state,--court receptions, for example,--the white
elephant, gorgeously arrayed, is stationed on the right of the inner
gate of the palace, and forms an indispensable as well as a conspicuous
figure in the picture.
When the Siamese ambassadors returned from England, the chief of the
embassy--a man remarkable for his learning and the purity of his
character, who was also first cousin to the Supreme King--published a
quaint pamphlet, describing England and her people, their manners and
customs and dwellings, with a very particular report of the presentation
of the embassy at court. Speaking of the personal appearance of Queen
Victoria, he says: "One cannot but be struck with the aspect of the
august Queen of England, or fail to observe that she must be of pure
descent from a race of goodly and warlike kings and rulers of the earth,
in that her eyes, complexion, and above all her bearing, are those of a
beautiful and majestic white elephant."
XVII. THE CEREMONIES OF CORONATION.
On the morning of the 3d of April, 1851, the Chowfa Mongkut, after being
formally apprised of his election by the Senabawdee to the supreme
throne, was borne in state to a residence adjoining the Phrasat, to
await the auspicious day of coronation,--the 15th of the following
month, as fixed by the court astrologers; and when it came it was hailed
by all classes of the people with immoderate demonstrations of joy; for
to their priest king, more sacred than a conqueror, they were drawn by
bonds of superstition as well as of pride and affection.
The ceremony of coronation is very peculiar.
In the centre of the inner Hall of Audience of the royal palace, on a
high platform richly gilded and adorned, is placed a circular golden
basin, called, in the court language, _Mangala Baghavat-thong_, "the
Golden Circlet of Power." Within this basin is deposited the ancient
_P'hra-batt_, or golden stool, the whole being surmounted by a
quadrangular canopy, under a tapering, nine-storied umbrella in the form
of a pagoda, from ten to twelve feet high and profusely gilt. Directly
over the centre of the canopy is deposited a vase containing consecrated
waters, which have been prayed over nine times, and poured through nine
different circular vessels in their passage to the sacred receptacle.
These waters must be drawn from the very sources of the chief rivers of
Siam; and reservoirs for their preservation are provided in the
precincts of the temples at Bangkok. In the mouth of this vessel is a
tube representing the pericarp of a lotos after its petals have fallen
off; and this, called _Sukla Utapala Atmano_, "the White Lotos of Life,"
symbolizes the beauty of pure conduct.
The king elect, arrayed in a simple white robe, takes his seat on the
golden stool. A Brahmin priest then presents to him some water in a
small cup of gold, lotos-shaped. This water has previously been filtered
through nine different forms of matter, commencing with earth, then
ashes, wheaten flour, rice flour, powdered lotos and jessamine, dust of
iron, gold, and charcoal, and finally flame; each a symbol, not merely
of the indestructibility of the element, but also of its presence in all
animate or inanimate matter. Into this water the king elect dips his
right hand, and passes it over his head. Immediately the choir join in
an inspiring chant, the signal for the inverting, by means of a pulley,
of the vessel over the canopy; and the consecrated waters descend
through another lotos flower, in a lively shower, on the head of the
king. This shower represents celestial blessings.
A Buddhist priest then advances and pours a goblet of water over the
royal person from the bed of the Ganges. He is then arrayed in regal
On the throne, which is in the south end of the hall, and octagonal,
having eight seats corresponding to eight points of the compass, the
king first seats himself facing the north, and so on, moving eastward,
facing each point in its order. On the top step of each seat crouch two
priests, Buddhist and Brahmin, who present to him another bowl of water,
which he drinks and sprinkles on his face, each time repeating, by
responses with the priests, the following prayer:--
_Priests_. Be thou learned in the laws of nature and of the universe.
_King_. Inspire me, O Thou who wert a Law unto thyself!
_P_. Be thou endowed with all wisdom, and all acts of industry!
_K_. Inspire me with all knowledge, O Thou the Enlightened!
_P_. Let Mercy and Truth be thy right and left arms of life!
_K_. Inspire me, O Thou who hast proved all Truth and all Mercy!
_P_. Let the Sun, Moon, and Stars bless thee!
_K_. All praise to Thee, through whom all forms are conquered!
_P_. Let the earth, air, and waters bless thee!
_K_. Through the merit of Thee, O thou conqueror of Death! [Footnote:
For these translations I am indebted to his Majesty, Maha Mongkut; as
well as for the interpretation of the several symbols used in this and
other solemn rites of the Buddhists.]
These prayers ended, the priests conduct the king to another throne,
facing the east, and still more magnificent. Here the insignia of his
sovereignty are presented to him,--first the sword, then the sceptre;
two massive chains are suspended from his neck; and lastly the crown is
set upon his head, when instantly he is saluted by roar of cannon
without and music within.
Then he is presented with the golden slippers, the fan, and the umbrella
of royalty, rings set with huge diamonds for each of his forefingers,
and the various Siamese weapons of war: these he merely accepts, and
returns to his attendants.
The ceremony concludes with an address from the priests, exhorting him
to be pure in his sovereign and sacred office; and a reply from himself,
wherein he solemnly vows to be a just, upright, and faithful ruler of
his people. Last of all, a golden tray is handed to him, from which, as
he descends from the throne, he scatters gold and silver flowers among
The following day is devoted to a more public enthronement. His Majesty,
attired more sumptuously than before, is presented to all his court, and
to a more general audience. After the customary salutations by
prostration and salutes of cannon and music, the premier and other
principal ministers read short addresses, in delivering over to the king
the control of their respective departments. His Majesty replies
briefly; there is a general salute from all forts, war vessels, and
merchant shipping; and the remainder of the day is devoted to feasting
and various enjoyment.
Immediately after the crowning of Maha Mongkut, his Majesty repaired to
the palace of the Second King, where the ceremony of subordinate
coronation differed from that just described only in the circumstance
that the consecrated waters were poured over the person of the Second
King, and the insignia presented to him, by the supreme sovereign.
Five days later a public procession made the circuit of the palace and
city walls in a peculiar circumambulatory march of mystic significance,
with feasting, dramatic entertainments, and fireworks. The concourse
assembled to take part in those brilliant demonstrations has never since
been equalled in any public display in Siam.
XVIII. THE QUEEN CONSORT.
When a king of Siam would take unto himself a wife, he chooses a maiden
from a family of the highest rank, and of royal pedigree, and, inviting
her into the guarded circle of his women, entertains her there in that
peculiar state of probation which is his prerogative and her
opportunity. Should she prove so fortunate as to engage his preference,
it may be his pleasure to exalt her to the throne; in which event he
appoints a day for the formal consummation of his gracious purpose, when
the principal officers, male and female, of the court, with the priests,
Brahmin as well as Buddhist, and the royal astrologers, attend to play
their several parts in the important drama.
The princess, robed in pure white, is seated on a throne elevated on a
high platform. Over this throne is spread a canopy of white muslin,
decorated with white and fragrant flowers, and through this canopy are
gently showered the typical waters of consecration, in which have been
previously infused certain leaves and shrubs emblematic of purity,
usefulness, and sweetness. While the princess is thus delicately
sprinkled with compliments, the priests enumerate, with nice
discrimination, the various graces of mind and person which henceforth
she must study to acquire; and pray that she may prove a blessing to her
lord, and herself be richly blessed. Then she is hailed queen, with a
burst of exultant music. Now the sisters of the king conduct her by a
screened passage to a chamber regally appointed, where she is divested
of her dripping apparel, and arrayed in robes becoming her queenly
state,--robes of silk, heavy with gold, and sparkling with diamonds and
rubies. Then the king is ushered into her presence by the ladies of the
court; and at the moment of his entrance she rises to throw herself at
his feet, according to the universal custom. But he prevents her; and
taking her right hand, and embracing her, seats her beside him, on his
right. There she receives the formal congratulations of the court, with
which the ceremonies of the day terminate. The evening is devoted to
feasting and merriment.
A Siamese king may have two queens at the same time; in which case the
more favored lady is styled the "right hand," and the other the "left
hand," of the throne. His late Majesty, Maha Mongkut, had two queens,
but not "in conjunction." The first was of the right hand; the second,
though chosen in the lifetime of the first, was not elevated to the
throne until after the death of her predecessor.
When the bride is a foreign princess, the ceremonies are more public,
being conducted in the Hall of Audience, instead of the Ladies' Temple,
or private chapel.
The royal nuptial couch is consecrated with peculiar forms. The mystic
thread of unspun cotton is wound around the bed seventy-seven times, and
the ends held in the hands of priests, who, bowing over the sacred
symbol, invoke blessings on the bridal pair. Then the nearest relatives
of the bride are admitted, accompanied by a couple who, to use the
obstetrical figure of the indispensable Mrs. Gamp, have their parental
quiver "full of sich." These salute the bed, sprinkle it with the
consecrated waters, festoon the crimson curtains with flowery garlands,
and prepare the silken sheets, the pillows and cushions; which done,
they lead in the bride, who has not presided at the entertainments, but
waited with her ladies in a screened apartment.
On entering the awful chamber, she first falls on her knees, and thrice
salutes the royal couch with folded hands, and then invokes protection
for herself, that she may be preserved from every deadly sin. Finally,
she is disrobed, and left praying on the floor before the bed, while the
king is conducted to her by his courtiers, who immediately retire.
The same ceremony is observed in nearly all Siamese families of
respectability, with, of course, certain omissions and variations
adapted to the rank of the parties.
After three days the bride visits her parents, bearing presents to them
from the various members of her husband's family. Then she visits the
parents of her husband, who greet her with costly gifts. In her next
excursion of this kind her husband (unless a king) accompanies her, and
valuable presents are mutually bestowed. A large sum of money, with
jewels and other finery, is deposited with the father and mother of the
bride. This is denominated _Zoon_, and at the birth of her first child
it is restored to the young mother by the grandparents.
The king visits his youthful queen just one month after the birth of a
prince or princess. She present the babe to him, and he, in turn, places
a costly ring on the third finger of her left hand. In like manner, most
of the relatives, of both families, bring to the babe gifts of money,
jewels, gold and silver ornaments, etc., which is termed _Tam Kwaan_.
Even so early the infant's hair is shaved off, except the top-knot,
which is permitted to grow until the child has arrived at the age of
XIX. THE HEIR-APPARENT.--ROYAL HAIR-CUTTING.
The Prince Somdetch Chowfa Chulalonkorn [Footnote: The present Supreme
King.] was about ten years old when I was appointed to teach him. Being
the eldest son of the queen consort, he held the first rank among the
children of the king, as heir-apparent to the throne. For a Siamese, he
was a handsome lad; of stature neither noticeably tall nor short; figure
symmetrical and compact, and dark complexion. He was, moreover, modest
and affectionate, eager to learn, and easy to influence.
His mother dying when he was about nine years old, he, with his younger
brothers, the Princes Chowfa Chaturont Rasmi and Chowfa Bhangurangsi
Swang Wongse, and their lovely young sister, the Princess Somdetch
Chowfa Chandrmondol ("Fa-ying"), were left to the care of a grand-aunt,
Somdetch Ying Noie, a princess by the father's side. This was a
tranquil, cheerful old soul, attracted toward everything that was bright
and pretty, and ever busy among flowers, poetry, and those darlings of
her loving life, her niece's children. Of these the little Fa-ying
(whose sudden death by cholera I have described) was her favorite; and
after her death the faithful creature turned her dimmed eyes and
chastened pride to the young prince Chulalonkorn. Many an earnest talk
had the venerable duchess and I, in which she did not hesitate to
implore me to instil into the minds of her youthful wards--and
especially this king that was to be--the purest principles of Christian
faith and precept. Yet with all the freshness of the religious habit of
her childhood she was most scrupulous in her attendance and devotions at
the temple. Her grief for the death of her darling was deep and lasting,
and by the simple force of her love she exerted a potent influence over
the mind of the royal lad.
[Illustration: THE HEIR-APPARENT.]
A very stern thing is life to the children of royalty in Siam. To watch
and be silent, when it has most need of confidence and freedom,--a
horrible necessity for a child! The very babe in the cradle is taught
mysterious and terrible things by the mother that bore it,--infantile
experiences of distrust and terror, out of which a few come up noble,
the many infamous. Here are baby heroes and heroines who do great deeds
before our happier Western children have begun to think. There were
actual, though unnoticed and unconscious, intrepidity and fortitude in
the manoeuvres and the stands with which those little ones, on their own
ground, flanked or checked that fatal enemy, their father. Angelic
indeed were the spiritual triumphs that no eye noted, nor any smile
rewarded, save the anxious eye and the prayerful smile of that sleepless
maternity that misery had bound with them. But even misery becomes
tolerable by first becoming familiar, and out of the depths these royal
children laughed and prattled and frolicked and were glad. As for the
old duchess, she loved too well and too wisely not to be timid and
troubled all her life long, first for the mother, then for the children.
Such was the early training of the young prince, and for a time it
availed to direct his thoughts to noble aspirations. From his studies,
both in English and Pali, he derived an exalted ideal of life, and
precocious and inexpressible yearnings. Once he said to me he envied the
death of the venerable priest, his uncle; he would rather be poor, he
said, and have to earn his living, than be a king.
"'Tis true, a poor man must work hard for his daily bread; but then he
is free. And his food is all he has to lose or win. He can possess all
things in possessing Him who pervades all things,--earth, and sky, and
stars, and flowers, and children. I can understand that I am great in
that I am a part of the Infinite, and in that alone; and that all I see
is mine, and I am in it and of it. How much of content and happiness
should I not gain if I could but be a poor boy!"
He was attentive to his studies, serene, and gentle, invariably
affectionate to his old aunt and his younger brothers, and for the poor
ever sympathetic, with a warm, generous heart. He pursued his studies
assiduously, and seemed to overcome the difficulties and obstacles he
encountered in the course of them with a resolution that gained strength
as his mind gained ideas. As often as he effectually accomplished
something, he indulged in ecstasies of rejoicing over the new thought,
that was an inspiring discovery to him of his actual poverty of
knowledge, his possibilities of intellectual opulence. But it was clear
to me--and I saw it with sorrow--that for his ardent nature this was
but a transitory condition, and that soon the shock must come, against
the inevitable destiny in store for him, that would either confirm or
crush all that seemed so fair in the promise of the royal boy.
When the time came for the ceremony of hair-cutting, customary for young
Siamese princes, the lad was gradually withdrawn, more and more, from my
influence. The king had determined to celebrate the heir's majority with
displays of unusual magnificence. To this end he explored the annals and
records of Siam and Cambodia, and compiled from them a detailed
description of a very curious procession that attended a certain prince
of Siam centuries ago, on the occasion of his hair-cutting; and
forthwith projected a similar show for his son, but on a more elaborate
and costly scale. The programme, including the procession, provided for
the representation of a sort of drama, borrowed partly from the
Ramayana, and partly from the ancient observances of the kings of
The whole royal establishment was set in motion. About nine thousand
young women, among them the most beautiful of the concubines, were cast
for parts in the mammoth play. Boys and girls were invited or hired from
all quarters of the kingdom to "assist" in the performance. Every nation
under the sun was represented in the grand procession. In our school the
regular studies were abandoned, and in their place we had rehearsals of
singing, dancing, recitation, and pantomime.
An artificial hill, of great height, called Khoa-Kra-Laat, was raised in
the centre of the palace gardens. On its summit was erected a golden
temple or pagoda of exquisite beauty, richly hung with tapestries,
displaying on the east the rising sun, on the west a moon of silver. The
cardinal points of the hill were guarded by the white elephant, the
sacred ox, the horse, and the lion. These figures were so contrived that
they could be brought close together and turned on a pivot; and thus the
sacred waters, brought for that purpose from the Brahmapootra, were to
be showered on the prince, after the solemn hair-cutting, and received
in a noble basin of marble.
The name given to the ceremony of hair-cutting varies according to the
rank of the child. For commoners it is called "Khone Chook"; for the
nobility and royalty, "Soh-Khan," probably from the Sanskrit _Soh Sahtha
Kam_, "finding safe and sound." The custom is said to be extremely
ancient, and to have originated with a certain Brahmin, whose only
child, being sick unto death, was given over by the physicians as in the
power of evil spirits. In his heart's trouble the father consulted a
holy man, who had been among the earliest converts to Buddhism, if aught
might yet be done to save his darling from torment and perdition. The
venerable saint directed him to pray, and to have prayers offered, for
the lad, and to cause that part of his hair which had never been touched
with razor or shears since his birth to be shaved quite off. The result
was a joyful rescue for the child; others pursued the same treatment in
like cases with the same effect, and hence the custom of hair-cutting.
The children of princes are forbidden to have the top-knot cut at all,
until the time when they are about to pass into manhood or womanhood.
Then valuable presents are made to them by all who are related to their
families by blood, marriage, or friendship.
When all the preparations necessary to the successful presentation of
the dramatic entertainment were completed, the king, having taken
counsel of his astrologers, sent heralds to the governors of all the
provinces of Siam, to notify those dignitaries of the time appointed for
the jubilee, and request their presence and co-operation. A similar
summons was sent to all the priests of the kingdom, who, in bands or
companies, were to serve alternately, on the several days of the
Early in the forenoon of the auspicious day the prince was borne in
state, in a gorgeous chair of gold, to the Maha Phrasat, the order of
the procession being as follows:--
First came the bearers of the gold umbrellas, fans, and great golden
Next, twelve gentlemen, superbly attired, selected from the first rank
of the nobility, six on either side of the golden chair, as a body-guard
to the prince.
Then, four hundred Amazons arrayed in green and gold, and gleaming
These were followed by twelve maidens, attired in cloth of gold, with
fantastic head-gear adorned with precious stones, who danced before the
prince to the gentle monotonous movement of the _bandos_. In the centre
of this group moved three lovely girls, of whom one held a superb
peacock's tail, and the two others branches of gold and silver,
sparkling with leaves and rare flowers. These damsels were guarded by
two duennas on either side.
After these stalked a stately body of Brahmins, bearing golden vases
filled with _Khoa tok_, or roasted rice, which they scattered on either
side, as an emblem of plenty.
Another troop of Brahmins with bandos, which they rattled as they moved
Two young nobles, splendidly robed, who also bore gold vases,
lotos-shaped, in which nestled the bird of paradise called Nok
Kurraweek, the sweetness of whose song is supposed to entrance even
beasts of prey.
A troop of lads, the rising nobility of Siam, fairly covered with gold
collars and necklaces.
The king's Japanese body-guard.
Another line of boys, representing natives of Hindostan in costume.
Malayan lads in costume.
Chinese lads in costume.
Siamese boys in English costume.
The king's infantry, headed by pioneers, in European costume.
Outside of this line marched about five thousand men in long
rose-colored robes, with tall tapering caps. These represented
guardian-angels attending on the different nations.
Then came bands of musicians dressed in scarlet, imitating the cries of
birds, the sound of falling fruit, and the murmur of distant waters, in
the imaginary forest they were supposed to traverse on their way to the
The order of the procession behind the golden sedan in which the prince
was borne, was nearly as follows:--
Next after the chair of state came four young damsels of the highest
rank, bearing the prince's betel-box, spittoon, fan, and swords. Then
followed seventy other maidens, carrying reverently in both hands the
vessels of pure gold, and all the insignia of rank and office proper to
a prince of the blood royal; and yet more, holding over their right
shoulders golden fans.
In the train of these tripped troops of children, daughters of the
nobility, dressed and decorated with fantastic splendor.
Then the maids of honor, personal attendants, and concubines of the
king, chastely dressed, though crowned with gold, and decorated with
massive gold chains and rings of great price and beauty.
A crowd of Siamese women, painted and rouged, in European costume.
Troops of children in corresponding attire.
Ladies in Chinese costume.
Japanese ladies in rich robes.
Malay women in their national dress.
Women of Hindostan.
Then the Kariens.
And, last of all, the female slaves and dependants of the prince.
At the foot of the hill a most extraordinary spectacle was presented.
On the east appeared a number of hideous monsters, riding on gigantic
eagles. These nondescripts, whose heads reached almost to their knees,
and whose hands grasped indescribable weapons, are called Yaks. They are
appointed to guard the Sacred Mount from all vulgar approach.
A little farther on, around a pair of stuffed peacocks, were a number of
youthful warriors, representing kings, governors, and chiefs of the
several dependencies of Siam.
Desirous of witnessing the sublime ceremony of hair-cutting, they
cautiously approach the Yaks, performing a sort of war dance, and
chanting in chorus:--
_Orah Pho, cha pai Kra Laat_. "Let us go to the Sacred Mount!"
Whereupon the Yaks, or evil angels, point their wonderful weapons at
them, chanting in the same strain:--
_Orah Pho, salope thang pooang_. "Let us slay them all!"
They then make a show of striking and thrusting, and princes, rajahs,
and governors drop as if wounded.
The principal parts in the drama were assumed by his Majesty, and their
excellencies the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The
king was dressed for the character of P'hra Inn Suen, the Hindoo Indra,
or Lord of the Sky, who has also the attributes of the Roman Genius; but
most of his epithets in Sanskrit are identical with those of the
Olympian Jove. He was attended by the Prime Minister, personating the
Sanskrit Sache, but called in Siamese "Vis Summo Kam," and the Minister
of Foreign Affairs as his charioteer, Ma Talee. His imperial elephant,
called Aisarat, caparisoned in velvet and gold, and bearing the
supernatural weapons,--_Vagra_, the thunderbolts,--was led by
allegorical personages, representing winds and showers, lightning and
thunder. The hill, Khoa Kra Laat, is the Sanskrit Meru, described as a
mountain of gold and gems.
His Majesty received the prince from the hands of his nobles, set him on
his right hand, and presented him to the people, who offered homage.
Afterward, two ladies of the court led him down the flight of marble
steps, where two maidens washed his feet with pure water in a gold
basin, and wiped them with fine linen.
On his way to the Maha Phrasat he was met by a group of girls in
charming attire, who held before him tufts of palm and branches of gold
and silver. Thus he was conducted to an inner chamber of the temple, and
seated on a costly carpet heavily fringed with gold, before an altar on
which were lighted tapers and offerings of all descriptions. In his hand
was placed a strip of palmyra leaf, on which were inscribed these mystic
words: "Even I was, even from the first, and not any other thing: that
which existed unperceived, supreme. Afterwards, I am that which is, and
He that was, and He who must remain am I."
"Know that except Me, who am the First Cause, nothing that appears or
does not appear in the mind can be trusted; it is the mind's Maya or
delusion,--as Light is to Darkness."
On the reverse was inscribed this sentence:--
"Keep me still meditating on Thy infinite greatness and my own
nothingness, so that all the questions of my life may be answered and my
mind abundantly instructed in the path of Niphan!"
In his hands was placed a ball of unspun thread, the ends of which were
carried round the sacred hill, and thence round the temple, and into the
inner chamber, where it was bound round the head of the young prince.
Thence again nine threads were taken, which, after encircling the altar,
were passed into the hands of the officiating priests. These latter
threads, forming circles within circles, symbolize the mystic word _Om_,
which may not escape the lips even of the purest, but must be meditated
upon in silence.
Early on the third day all the princes, nobles, and officers of
government, together with the third company of priests, assembled to
witness the ceremony of shaving the royal top-knot. The royal sire
handed first the golden shears and then a gilded razor to the happy
hair-cutter, who immediately addressed himself to his honorable
function. Meanwhile the musicians, with the trumpeters and
conch-blowers, exerted all their noisy faculties to beguile the patient
The tonsorial operation concluded, the prince was robed in white, and
conducted to the marble basin at the foot of the Sacred Mount, where the
white elephant, the ox, the horse, and the lion, guarding the cardinal
points, were brought together, and from their mouths baptized him in the
sacred waters. He was then arrayed in silk, still white, by women of
rank, and escorted to a golden pagoda on the summit of the hill, where
the king, in the character of P'hra Inn Suen, waited to bestow his
blessing on the heir. With one hand raised to heaven, and the other on
the bowed head of his son, he solemnly uttered words of Pali, which may
be translated thus:--
"Thou who art come out of the pure waters, be thy offences washed away!
Be thou relieved from other births! Bear thou in thy bosom the
brightness of that light which shall lead thee, even as it led the
sublime Buddha, to Niphan, at once and forever!"
These rites ended, the priests were served with a princely banquet; and
then the nobility and common people were also feasted. About midday, two
standards, called _baisee_, were set up within a circle of people. These
are not unlike the _sawekra chat_, or royal umbrella, one of the five
insignia of royalty in Siam. They are about five cubits high, and have
from three to five canopies. The staff is fixed in a wooden pedestal.
Each circle or canopy has a flat bottom, and within the receptacle thus
formed custom requires that a little cooked rice, called _k'ow k'wan_,
shall be placed, together with a few cakes, a little sweet-scented oil,
a handful of fragrant flour, and some young cocoanuts and plantains.
Other edibles of many kinds are brought and arranged about the _baisee_,
and a beautiful bouquet adorns the top of each of the umbrella-like
Then a procession was formed, of princes, noblemen, and others, who
marched around the standards nine times. As they went, seven golden
candlesticks, with the candles lighted, were carried by princes, and
passed from one to another; and as often as they came in front of the
prince, who sat between the standards, they waved the light before him.
This procession is but another form of the _Om_ symbol.
Afterwards the eldest priest or brahmin took a portion of the rice from
the _baisee_, and, sprinkling it with cocoanut water, gave the lad a
spoonful of it. Then dipping his finger, first in the scented oil and
then in the fragrant flour, he touched the right foot of the prince, at
the same time exhorting him to be manly and strong, and to bear himself
bravely in "the conflict of feeling."
Now presents of silver and gold were laid at the feet of the lad,--every
prince not of the royal family, and every nobleman and high officer in
the kingdom, being expected to appear with gifts. A chowfa might
receive, in the aggregate, from five hundred thousand to a million
ticals. [Footnote: A tical is equivalent to sixty cents.] It should be
remarked in this connection, that the late king commanded that careful
note be kept of all sums of money presented by officers of his
government to his children at the time of Soh-Khan, that the full amount
might be refunded with the next semi-annual payment of salary. But this
decree does not relieve the more distinguished princes and endowed
noblemen, who have acquired a sort of complimentary relationship to his
Majesty through their daughters and nieces accepted as concubines.
The children of plain citizens, who cannot afford the luxury of a public
hair-cutting, are taken to a temple, where a priest shaves the tuft,
with a brief religious ceremony.
Hardly had the prince recovered his wonted frame of mind, after an event
so pregnant with significance and agitation to him, when the time
arrived for his induction into the priesthood. For this the rites,
though simpler, were more solemn. The hair, which had been suffered to
grow on the top of his young pate like an inverted brush, was now shorn
close, and his eyebrows were shaven also. Arrayed in costly robes and
ornaments, similar to those worn at a coronation, he was taken in charge
by a body of priests at his father's palace, and by them conducted to
the temple Watt P'hra Keau, his yellow-robed and barefooted escort
chanting, on the way, hymns from the Buddhist liturgy. At the threshold
of the temple another band of priests divested him of his fine robes and
clad him in simple white, all the while still chanting. The circle being
characteristic of a Buddhist ceremonial, as the cross is of their
religious architecture, these priests formed a circle, standing, and
holding lighted tapers in their folded palms, the high-priest in the
centre. Then the prince advanced meekly, timidly, bowing low, to enter
the holy ring. Here he was received by the high-priest, and with their
hands mutually interfolded, one upon the other, he vowed to renounce,
then and there, the world with all its cares and temptations, and to
observe with obedience the doctrines of Buddha. This done, he was clad
afresh in sackcloth, and led from the temple to the royal monastery,
Watt Brahmanee Waid; with bare feet and eyes downcast he went, still
chanting those weird hymns.
Here he remained recluse for six months. When he returned to the world,
and to the residence assigned him, he seemed no longer the impressible,
ardent boy who was once my bright, ambitious scholar. Though still
anxious to prosecute his English studies, he was pronounced too old to
unite with his brothers and sisters in the school. For a year I taught
him, from seven to ten in the evening, at his "Rose-planting House"; and
even from this distant place and time I look back with comfort to those
XX. AMUSEMENTS OF THE COURT.
Of all the diversions of the court the most polite, and at the same time
the most engrossing, is the drama.
In a great sala, or hall, which serves as a theatre, the actors and
actresses assemble, their faces and bodies anointed with a creamy,
maize-colored cosmetic. Fantastic extravagance of attire constitutes the
great gun in their arsenal of attractions. Hence ear-rings, bracelets,
massive chains and collars, tapering crowns with wings, spangled robes,
curious finger-rings, and, strangest of all, long tapering nails of
gold, are joined to complete their elaborate adornment. The play, in
which are invariably enacted the adventures of gods, kings, heroes,
genii, demons, and a multitude of characters mythical and fabulous, is
often performed in lively pantomime, the interludes being filled by a
strong chorus, with songs and instrumental accompaniment. At other times
the players, in grotesque masks, give burlesque versions of the graver
epics, to the great amusement of the audience.
Chinese comedies, termed Ngiu, attract the Siamese in crowds; but the
foreign is decidedly inferior to the native talent. "Nang," so called,
is a sort of tableau, masked, representing characters from the Hindoo
mythology. Parts of the popular epic, Ramayana, are admirably rendered
in this style. In front of the royal palace an immense transparent
screen, mounted on great poles, is drawn across the esplanade, and
behind this, at a moderate distance, great fires are lighted. Between
the screen and the fire masked figures, grotesquely costumed, enact the
story of Rama and Sita and the giant Rawuna, with Hanuman and his army
of apes bridging the Gulf of Manaar and piling up the Himalayas, while
the bards, in measured story, describe the several exploits.
A great variety of puppet-shows are contrived for the delectation of the
children; and the Siamese are marvellously ingenious in the manufacture
of toys and dolls, of porcelain, stone, wood, bark, and paper. They make
pagodas, temples, boats, and floating houses, with miniature families to
occupy them, and all true to the life in every apartment and occupation;
watts, with idols and priests; palaces, with kings, queens, concubines,
royal children, courtiers, and slaves, all complete in costume and
The royal children observe with grave formalities the eventful custom of
"hair-cutting" for their favorite dolls; and dramas, improvised for the
occasion by ingenious slaves, are the crowning glory of those high
holidays of toddling princes and princesses.
The ladies of the harem amuse themselves in the early and late hours of
the day by gathering flowers in the palace gardens, feeding the birds in
the aviaries and the gold-fishes in the ponds, twining garlands to adorn
the heads of their children, arranging bouquets, singing songs of love
or glory, dancing to the music of the guitar, listening to their slaves'
reading, strolling with their little ones through the parks and
_parterres_, and especially in bathing. When the heat is least
oppressive they plunge into the waters of the pretty retired lakes,
swimming and diving like flocks of brown water-fowl.
Chess and backgammon, Chinese cards and dice, afford a continual
diversion to both sexes at the court, and there are many skilful players
among them. The Chinese have established a sort of "lottery," of which
they have the monopoly. It is little better than a "sweat-cloth," with
thirteen figures, on which money is staked at the option of the gambler.
The winning figure pays its stake thirty-fold, the rest is lost.
Kite-flying, which in Europe and America is the amusement of children
exclusively, is here, as in China and Birmah, the pastime of both sexes,
and all ages and conditions of people. At the season when the south-wind
prevails steadily, innumerable kites of diverse forms, many of them
representing gigantic butterflies, may be seen sailing and darting over
every quarter of the city, and most thickly over the palace and its
appendages. Parties of young noblemen devote themselves with ardor to
the sport, betting bravely on results of skill or luck; and it is most
entertaining to observe how cleverly they manage the huge paper toys,
entangling and capturing each other's kites, and dragging them disabled
to the earth.
Combats of bulls and elephants, though very popular, are not commonly
exhibited at court. At certain seasons fairs are held, where exhibitions
of wrestling, boxing, fencing, and dancing are given by professional
The Siamese, naturally imaginative and gay, cultivate music with great
zest. Every village has its orchestra, every prince and noble his band
of musicians, and in every part of Bangkok the sound of strange
instruments is heard continually. Their music is not in parts like ours,
but there is always harmony with good expression, and an agreeable
variety of movement and volume is derived from the diversity of
instruments and the taste of the players.
The principal instrument, the _khong-vong_, is composed of a series of
hemispherical metallic bells or cups inverted and suspended by cords to
a wooden frame. The performer strikes the bells with two little hammers
covered with soft leather, producing an agreeable harmony. The hautboy
player (who is usually a professional juggler and snake-charmer also)
commonly leads the band. Kneeling and swaying his body forward and
backward, and from side to side, he keeps time to the movement of the
music. His instrument has six holes, but no keys, and may be either
rough or smoothly finished.
The _ranat_, or harmonicon, is a wooden instrument, with keys made of
wood from the bashoo-nut tree. These, varying in size from six inches by
one to fifteen by two, are connected by pieces of twine, and so fastened
to a hollow case of wood about three feet in length and a foot high. The
music is "conjured" by the aid of two small hammers corked with leather,
like those of the khong-vong. The notes are clear and fine, and the
instrument admits of much delicacy of touch.
Beside these the Siamese have the guitar, the violin, the flute, the
cymbals, the trumpet, and the conch-shell. There is the _luptima_ also,
another very curious instrument, formed of a dozen long perforated reeds
joined with bands and cemented at the joints with wax. The orifice at
one end is applied to the lips, and a very moderate degree of skill
produces notes so strong and sweet as to remind one of the swell of a
The Laos people have organs and tambourines of different forms; their
guitar is almost as agreeable as that of Europe; and of their flutes of
several kinds, one is played with the nostril instead of the lips.
Another instrument, resembling the banjo of the American negroes, is
made from a large long-necked gourd, cut in halves while green, cleaned,
dried in the sun, covered with parchment, and strung with from four to
six strings. Its notes are pleasing.
The _takhe_, a long guitar with metallic strings, is laid on the floor,
and high-born ladies, with fingers armed with shields or nails of gold,
draw from it the softest and sweetest sounds.
In their funeral ceremonies the chanting of the priests is usually
accompanied by the lugubrious wailing music of a sort of clarionet.
The songs of Siam are either heroic or amatory; the former celebrating
the martial exploits, the latter the more tender adventures, of heroes.
Athletic games and the contests of the arena and the course form so
conspicuous a feature in all ceremonies, solemn or festal, of this
people, that a description of them may not with advantage be wholly
omitted here. The Siamese are by nature warlike, and their government
has thoughtfully and liberally fostered those manly sports and exercises
which constitute the natural preparation for the profession of arms. Of
these the most popular are wrestling, boxing (in which both sexes take
part), throwing the discus or quoit, foot-shuttlecock, and racing on
foot or horseback or in chariots; to which may be added vaulting and
tumbling, throwing the dart, and leaping through wheels or circles of
The professional athletes and gymnasts are exercised at a tender age
under male or female trainers, who employ the most approved methods of
limbering and quickening and strengthening and toughening their
incipient champions, to whom, though well fed, sleep is jealously
allowanced and intoxicating drinks absolutely forbidden. Their bodies
are rubbed with oils and unguents to render them supple; and a short
langoutee with a belt forms the sum of their clothing. None but the
children of Siamese or Laotians are admitted to the gymnasia. The code
of laws for the government of the several classes is strictly enforced,
and nothing is permitted contrary to the established order and
regulations of the games. Excessive violence is mercifully forbidden,
and those who enter to wrestle or box, race or leap, for the prize, draw
lots for precedence and position.
The Siamese practise wrestling in its rude simplicity, the advantage
being with weight and strength, rather than skill and address. The
wrestlers, before engaging, are rubbed and shampooed, the joints bent
backward and all the muscles relaxed, and the body and limbs freely
oiled; but after the latter operation they roll in the dust, or are
sprinkled with earth, ground and sifted, that they may be grappled the
more firmly. They are matched in pairs, and several couples contend at
the same time. Their struggles afford superb displays of the anatomy of
action, and the perfection of strength and skill and fierce grace in the
trained animal. Though one be seized by the heel and thrown,--which the
Siamese applaud as the climax of the wrestler's adroitness,--they still
struggle grandly on the ground, a double Antaeus of arms and legs, till
one be turned upon his back and slapped upon the breast. That is the
accepted signal of the victor.
In boxing, the Siamese cover their hands with a kind of glove of ribbed
leather, sometimes lined with brass. On their heads they wear a leather
turban, to protect the temples and ears, the assault being directed
mainly at the head and face. Besides the usual "getting away" of the
British bruiser, blows are caught with surprising address and strength
in the gloved hand. The boxer who by overreaching, or missing a blow he
has put his weight into, throws himself, is beaten; or he may surrender
by simply lowering his arms.
The Siamese discus, or quoit, is round, and of wood, stone, or iron.
Their manner of hurling it does not differ materially from that which
all mighty players have practised since Caesar's soldiers pitched quoits
Quite otherwise, in its curious novelty, is their spirited and
picturesque sport of foot-shuttlecock,--a game which may be witnessed
only in Asia, and in the perfection of its skill and agility only in
Birmah and Siam.
The shuttlecock is like our own, but the battledore is the sole of the
foot. A number of young men form a circle on a clear plot of ground. One
of them opens the game by throwing the feathered toy to the player
opposite him, who, turning quickly and raising his leg, receives it on
the sole of his foot, and sends it like a shot to another, and he to
another; and so it is kept flying for an hour or more, without once
falling to the ground.
Speed, whether of two legs or four, is in high estimation among the
Siamese. Their public festivals, however solemn, are usually begun with
races, which they cultivate with ardor and enjoy with enthusiasm. They
have the foot-race, the horse-race, and the chariot-race. In the first,
the runners, having drawn lots for places, range themselves across the
course, and, while waiting for the starting signal, excite themselves by
leaping. At the word "Go," they make play with astonishing speed and
The race of a single horse, "against time," with or without saddle, is a
favorite sport. The rider, scorning stirrup or bridle, grips the sides
of his steed with his knees, and, with his right arm and forefinger
stretched eagerly toward the goal, flies alone,--an inspiring picture.
Sometimes two horsemen ride abreast, and at full speed change horses by
vaulting from one to the other.
In the chariot-races from two to four horses are driven abreast, and the
art consists in winning and keeping the advantage of ground without
collision. This kind of racing is not so common as the others.
The favorite pastime of the late Second King, who greatly delighted in
equestrian exercises and feats, was Croquet on Horseback,--a sport in
which he distinguished himself by his brilliant skill and style, as he
did in racing and hunting. This unique equestrian game is played
exclusively by princes and noblemen. There are a number of small balls
which must be croqueted into two deep holes, with the aid of long
slender mallets. The limits of the ground are marked by a line drawn
around it; and the only conditions necessary to render the sport
exciting and the skill remarkable are narrow bounds and restive steeds.
The Siamese, like other Orientals, ride with loose rein and short
stirrups. Their saddles are high and hard, and have two large circular
flaps, gilded and otherwise adorned, according to the rank of the rider.
Cavaliers of distinction usually dress expensively, in imported stuffs,
elaborately embroidered with silk and gold thread. They wear a small
cap, and sometimes a strip of red, like the fillet of the Greeks and
Romans, bound round the brows.
Prizes for the victors in the games and combats are of several
kinds,--purses of gold and silver, suits of apparel, umbrellas, and,
more rarely, a gold or silver cup.
In concluding this imperfect sketch, I feel that a word of praise is due
to the spirit of moderation and humanity which seems to govern such
exhibitions in Siam. Even in their gravest festivals there is an element
of cheerfulness and kindness, which tends to promote genial fellowship
and foster friendships, and by bringing together all sorts of people,
otherwise separated by diversity of custom, prejudice, and interest,
unquestionably avails to weld the several small states and dependencies
of Siam into one compact and stable nation.
XXI. SIAMESE LITERATURE AND ART.
At the head of the Siamese writers of profane history stands, I think,
P'hra Alack, or rather Cheing Meing,--P'hra Alack being the generic term
for all writers. In early life he was a priest, but was appointed
historian to the court, and in that capacity wrote a history of the
reign of his patron and king, P'hra Narai,--(contemporary with Louis
XIV.)--and left a very curious though unfinished autobiography.
Seri Manthara, celebrated as a military leader, wrote nine books of
essays, on subjects relating to agriculture and the arts and sciences.
Some of these, translated into the languages of Birmah and Pegu, are
Among a host of dramatic writers, Phya Doong, better known as P'hra
Khein Lakonlen, is entitled to the first rank. He composed about
forty-nine books in lyric and dramatic verse, besides epigrams and
elegies. Of his many poems, the few that remain afford passages of much
elegance and sweetness, and even of sublimity,--almost sufficient to
atone for the taint of grossness he derived from the licentious
imagination of his land and time. While yet hardly out of his infancy,
he was laid at the feet of the monarch, and reared in the palace at
Lophaburee. Some dramatic pieces composed by the lad for his playmates
to act attracted the notice of the king, who engaged teachers to
instruct him thoroughly in the ancient literature of India and Persia.
But he seems to have boldly opened a way for himself, instead of
following (as modern Orientals, timid or servile, are so prone to do)
the well-worn path of the old Hindoo writers. In his tragedy (which I
saw acted) of _Manda-thi-Nung_, "The First Mother," there are passages
of noble thought and true passion, expressed with a power and beauty
peculiarly his own.
The entertainments of the theatre are devoured by the Siamese with
insatiable appetite, and the popular preference is awarded to those
intellectual contests in which the tragic and comic poets compete for
the prize. The laughter or the tears of the sympathetic groundlings are
accepted as the expression of an infallible criticism, and by their
verdict the play is crowned or damned. The common people, such is their
passion for the drama, get whole tragedies or comedies "by heart." Every
day in the year, and in every street of Bangkok, and all along the
river, booths and floating salas may be seen, in which tragedy, comedy,
and satirical burlesques, are enacted for the entertainment of great
audiences, who are thrilled, delighted, or amused. In compositions
strictly dramatic the characters, as with us, speak and act for
themselves; but in the epic the poet recites the adventures of his
Judges are appointed by the king to determine the merits of new plays
before they are performed at court; and on the grand occasion of the
hair-cutting of the heir-apparent (now king) his late Majesty caused the
poem "Kraelasah" to be modernized and adapted to grace the ceremonies.
P'hra Ramawsha, a writer highly esteemed, did wonders for the Siamese
drama. He translated the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and portions of the
Cambodian lyrics into Siamese; introduced masks, with magnificence of
costume and ornament; substituted theatres, or rather salas, for the
temporary booth or the open plain; and elevated the matter and the style
of dramatic compositions from the burlesque and buffoonery to the
sentimental and majestic. He was also the first to impart spirit and
variety to the dialogue, and to teach actors to express like artists,
and not like mere animals, the strong _human_ passions of anger, love,
and pity. The plays of P'hra Ramawsha are highly esteemed at court. In
his management of amorous incidents and intrigues, he is, if not
positively refined, at least less gross than other Siamese dramatists.
[Illustration: SIAMESE ACTOR AND ACTRESS.]
The dress of the players is always rich, and in the fashion of that worn
at court. The actors and actresses attached to the royal establishment
make a splendid display in this respect, large sums being expended
annually on their costumes, jewels, and other adornings.
The development of native genius and skill, in the direction of the fine
arts, has greatly declined, if it has not been absolutely arrested,
since the reign of P'hra Narai, the enlightened founder of Lophaburee;
and almost all the vestiges of art, purely national, to be found in the
country now, may be traced to that golden age of Siam. The Siamese,
though intelligent, clever, facile, and in a notable degree susceptible
to the influences of the beautiful in nature or in art, by no means slow
or awkward in imitating the graceful products of European taste and
industry, are yet fettered by a peculiar oppression in their efforts to
express in visible forms their artistic inspirations. No Siamese subject
is to be congratulated, who by his talent or his skill has won popular
applause in any branch of industry. No such man, having extraordinary
cleverness or taste, dare display it to the public in works of novel
utility or beauty; because he and his inventions may alike be
appropriated, without reward or thanks,--the former to serve the king,
the latter to adorn the palace. Many ply in secret their dangerously
graceful callings, and destroy their work when it is done, rather than
see it wrested from them, and with it all that is left to them of
freedom, to serve the whim of a covetous and cruel master. All that
P'hra Narai did to foster the sciences and arts in his land has been
undone by the ruinous selfishness of his successors; and of the few
suicides recorded in the annals of Siam since his time, one of the most
remarkable is that of a famous painter, who poisoned himself the day
after his installation at court. Thus all natural ambition has been
stupidly extinguished in the breasts of the artists of a land whose
remaining monuments attest her ancient excellence in architecture,
sculpture, and painting.
The most remarkable examples of Siamese painting are presented in the
cartoons to be found on the walls of the ancient temples, decorated with
the brush before the introduction of wall-paper from Birmah. One that is
still to be seen in the Watt Kheim Mah, or Mai, is especially
noticeable. This temple was built by the grandmother of the late Maha
Mongkut. The plant _kheim mai_ (indigenous to Siam), which bears a
lovely little blossom, was one of her favorite flowers, and she called
her temple by its name. Being a liberal patron of the arts, she employed
a promising young painter named Nai Dang to decorate the Watt. The man
would hardly be remembered now but for a poem he wrote and dedicated to
the queen mother, in which her beauty and goodness are extolled. I could
learn of him no more than that he was self-educated, and by unaided
perseverance attained a respectable proficiency in drawing and design.
He had also a fair knowledge of chemistry as it is practised in the
East; but, aspiring to fame and fortune, he abandoned that study and
devoted himself exclusively to painting. For years he struggled
desperately against the discouragements of poverty in himself and
ignorance in his neighbors, but found his reward at last in this
engagement to embellish the walls of the Watt Kheim Mai.
Nai Dang's must have been an original and independent mind, for his
conceptions in this cartoon are as bold as his handling is vigorous and
effective, while his colors are more true to nature than any that I have
seen in Chinese or Japanese art.
He has grandly chosen for his subject the Birth of Buddha. The mother of
the divine teacher being on a journey, is overtaken with the pangs of
childbirth. Her attendants and slaves have gathered about her; but she,
as if conscious of the august nature of the babe she is about to bestow
upon the world, retires alone to the shade of an orange grove, where,
clinging to the friendly boughs, with a look of blended rapture and
pain, she gives birth to the great reformer. A few steps farther on, a
circle of light is seen glowing round the feet of the infant, as it
attempts to rise and walk alone. Next we find the child in a rustic
cradle; a branch of the tree under which he is sleeping bends low, to
shield him from the fierce rays of the sun, and his royal parents,
beholding the miracle, kneel and adore him. Now he is a youthful prince,
beautiful and gentle, troubled with pity for the poor, the afflicted,
and the aged, as they rest by the roadside. And finally, as a hermit, he
sits in the shade of a boh-tree, rapt in divine contemplation.
It is a great work, full of imagination, truth, and power, if justly
contemplated by the light of a semi-barbaric age. Every figure is
instinct with character and action, and the whole is rendered with
infinite _naivete_, as though it represented undisputed and familiar
On the opposite wall another great cartoon represents the Hell of the
Buddhists, with demons whose hideous heads are those of fabulous beasts
and creeping things. As a work of imagination and force this is worthy
to be the companion of the Birth of Buddha.
The roof is painted as a firmament,--stars in a blue ground; and here it
is that the charm of pure feeling and noble treatment is most apparent.
With five colors the artist has produced all the variety we see. No cast
shadows are shown, the forms themselves are but partially shaded, yet
wonderful harmony and beauty pervade the whole. All honor to Nai Dang!
who alone, amid the national decay of art and culture, preserved this
germ of glorious life and strength, wrapped in his own obscure,
The practice of decorating walls and ceilings with paintings may be
traced to a remote period in the history of Siamese art. In an ancient
temple at Lophaburee is a curious picture, of less merit than those of
Nai Dang, representing the marriage of Buddha with the princess Thiwadi,
beside many of the transmigrations of the Buddhas; and there are
elsewhere one or two pictures well worthy of notice, by masters whose
names have not been kept in remembrance. Thus art in Siam has
degenerated for want of kind, fostering patrons, and faithful,
sympathetic chroniclers, till it has become a thing of mere tools and
Nevertheless, they still paint with some cleverness on wood, cloth,
parchment, ivory, and plastic material, as well as on gold and
silver,--a sort of enamelling. They also retain a fair knowledge of
effect in fresco, tracing the outline on the wet ground, and laying on
the color in a thin glue; in some of their later work of this kind that
I have seen, the idea of the designer is expressed with much vigor.
Their mosaics, executed in colored porcelain of several varieties, glass
of all kinds, mother-of-pearl, and colored marbles, represent chiefly
flowers and sprays on a brilliant ground. The most remarkable work of
this kind is, I imagine, that which is lavished on the temple Watt P'hra
Keau,--the walls, pillars, windows, roofs, towers, and gates being
everywhere overlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory, and profusely
gilded. The several facades are likewise inlaid with ivory, glass, and
mother-of-pearl, fixed with cement in the mortar, which serves as a
base. In all cases these works are characterized by a touching
simplicity, which seems to struggle through much, that is obscure and
illegible to get nearer to nature and truth. Most of the tiles employed
in the roofing of temples and palaces are colored and gilt.
[Illustration: SPIRE OF THE TEMPLE WATT-POH.]
Among the older pictures, one in the Royal bedchamber of the abandoned
palace deserves a parting glance. It is a cartoon (much defaced, and
here and there re-touched by clumsy Chinese hands) of The First Sin. In
the foreground a newly created world is rudely represented, and here are
several illuminated figures, human but gigantic. One of these,
discontented with his spiritual food, is seen tasting something, which
we are told is "fragrant earth"; after which, in another figure, he
appears to be electrified, and here his monstrous anatomy is depicted
with ludicrous attempts at detail. No one could tell me by whom or when
this cartoon was painted, and the painting itself is so little
appreciated that I might never have seen or heard of it but for a happy
A characteristic effect in the few great works by Siamese painters
appears in their management of shade. They impart to darkness a
pervading inner light or clearness, and heighten the effect of the
deeper shadows by permitting objects to be seen through them. In
addition to the pictures I have described, one or two of some merit are
to be found in the Watt Brahmanee Waid.
The florid style of architecture seems to have been familiar to the
Siamese from a very early period. Their palaces, temples, and pagodas
afford innumerable examples of it, many of them not unworthy of European
art. They build generally in brick, using a cement composed of sand,
chalk, and molasses, in which the skin of the buffalo has been steeped.
Their structures are the most solid and durable imaginable. When the
masons building a wall round the new palace at Ayuthia found their
bricks falling short, they tried in vain to detach a supply from the
ruined temples and walls of that ancient city.
In the art of sculpture the Siamese are in advance of their
civilization. Not only in their palaces, temples, and pagodas, but in
their shops and dwellings likewise, and even in their ships and boats,
all sorts of figures are to be seen, modelled and finished with more or
XXII. BUDDHIST DOCTRINE, PRIESTS, AND WORSHIP.
"The world is old, and all things old within it." We plod a trodden
path. No truth is new to-day, save only that one which as a mantle
covers the face of God, lest we be blinded by the unveiled glory. How
many of earth's departed great, buried out of remembrance, might have
lived to-day in the love of the wise and just, had theirs but been that
perfect quickening which is the breath of his Spirit upon the heart, the
gift that "passeth understanding!" The world's helpers must first become
borrowers of God. The world's teachers must first learn of him that only
wisdom, which cometh not of books nor jealous cloister cells, but out of
the heart of man as it opens yearningly to the cry of humanity,--the
Wisdom of Love. This alone may challenge a superior mind, prizing truths
not merely for their facts, but for their motives,--motives for which
individuals or great communities either act or suffer,--to explore with
a calm and kindly judgment the spirit of the religion of the Buddhists;
and not its spirit only, but its every look and tone and motion as well,
being so many complex expressions of the religious character in all its
peculiar thoughts and feelings.
"Who, of himself, can interpret the symbol expressed by the wings of the
air-sylph forming within the case of the caterpillar? Only he who feels
in his own soul the same instinct which impels the horned fly to leave
room in its involucrum for antennae yet to come." Such a man knows and
feels that the potential works in him even as the actual works on him.
As all the organs of sense are framed for a correspondent world of
sense, so all the organs of the spirit are framed for a correspondent
world of spirit; and though these latter be not equally developed in us
all, yet they surely exist in all; else how is it that even the
ignorant, the depraved, and the cruel will contemplate the man of
unselfish and exalted goodness with contradictory emotions of pity and
We are prone to ignore or to condemn that which we do not clearly
understand; and thus it is, and on no better ground, that we deny that
there are influences in the religions of the East to render their
followers wiser, nobler, purer. And yet no one of respectable
intelligence will question that there have been, in all ages, individual
pagans who, by the simplicity of their doctrine and the purity of their
practice, have approached very nearly to the perfection of the Christian
graces; and that they were, if not so much the better for the religion
they had, at least far, far better than if they had had no religion at
It is not, however, in human nature to approve and admire any course of
life without inquiring into the spirit of the law that regulates it. Nor
may it suffice that the spirit is there, if not likewise the
letter,--that is to say, the practice. The best doctrine may become the
worst, if imperfectly understood, erroneously interpreted, or
In Egypt, Palestine, Greece, and India, the metaphysical analysis of
Mind had attained its noontide splendor, while as yet experimental
research had hardly dawned. Those ancient mystics did much to promote
intellectual emancipation, by insisting that Thought should not be
imprisoned within the mere outlines of any single dogmatic system; and
they likewise availed, in no feeble measure, to keep alive the heart in
the head, by demanding an impartial reverence for every attribute of the
mind, till, by converting these into symbols to impress the ignorant and
stupid, they came at last to deify them. Thus, with the uninitiated,
their system degenerated into an ignoble pantheism.
The renascence of Buddhism sought to eliminate from the arrogant and
impious pantheisms of Egypt, India, and Greece a simple and pure
philosophy, upholding virtue as man's greatest good and highest reward.
It taught that the only object worthy of his noblest aspirations was to
render the soul (itself an emanation from God) fit to be absorbed back
again into the Divine essence from which it sprang. The single aim,
therefore, of pure Buddhism seems to have been to rouse men to an inward
contemplation of the divinity of their own nature; to fix their thoughts
on the spiritual life within as the only real and true life; to teach
them to disregard all earthly distinctions, conditions, privileges,
enjoyments, privations, sorrows, sufferings; and thus to incite them to
continual efforts in the direction of the highest ideals of patience,
Buddhism cannot be clearly defined by its visible results today. There
are more things in that subtile, mystical enigma called in the Pali
_Nirwana_, in the Birmese _Niban_, in the Siamese _Niphan_, than are
dreamed of in our philosophy. With the idea of Niphan in his theology,
it were absurdly false to say the Buddhist has no God. His Decalogue
[FOOTNOTE: Translated from the Pali.] is as plain and imperative as the
I. From the meanest insect up to man thou shalt kill no animal
II. Thou shalt not steal.
III. Thou shalt not violate the wife of another, nor his concubine.
IV. Thou shalt speak no word that is false.
V. Thou shalt not drink wine, nor anything that may intoxicate.
VI. Thou shalt avoid all anger, hatred, and bitter language.
VII. Thou shalt not indulge in idle and vain talk.
VIII. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods.
IX. Thou shalt not harbor envy, nor pride, nor revenge, nor malice, nor
the desire of thy neighbor's death or misfortune.
X. Thou shalt not follow the doctrines of false gods.
Whosoever abstains from these forbidden things is said to "observe
Silah"; and whosoever shall faithfully observe Silah, in all his
successive metempsychoses, shall continually increase in virtue and
purity, until at length he shall become worthy to behold God, and hear
his voice; and so he shall obtain Niphan. "Be assiduous in bestowing
alms, in practising virtue, in observing Silah, in performing Bavana,
prayer; and above all in adoring Guadama, the true God. Reverence
likewise his laws and his priests."
Many have missed seeing what is true and wise in the doctrine of Buddha
because they preferred to observe it from the standpoint and in the
attitude of an antagonist, rather than of an inquirer. To understand
aright the earnest creed and hope of any man, one must be at least
sympathetically _en rapport_ with him,--must be willing to feel, and to
confess within one's self, the germs of those errors whose growth seems
so rank in him. In the humble spirit of this fellowship of fallibility
let us draw as near as we may to the hearts of these devotees and the
heart of their mystery.
My interesting pupil, the Lady Talap, had invited me to accompany her to
the royal private temple, Watt P'hra Keau, to witness the services held
there on the Buddhist Sabato, or One-thu-sin. Accordingly we repaired
together to the temple on the day appointed. The day was young, and the
air was cool and fresh; and as we approached the place of worship, the
clustered bells of the pagodas made breezy gushes of music aloft. One of
the court pages, meeting us, inquired our destination. "The Watt P'hra
Keau," I replied. "To see or to hear?" "Both." And we entered.
On a floor diamonded with polished brass sat a throng of women, the
_elite_ of Siam. All were robed in pure white, with white silk scarfs
drawn from the left shoulder in careful folds across the bust and back,
and thrown gracefully over the right. A little apart sat their female
slaves, of whom many were inferior to their mistresses only in social
consideration and worldly gear, being their half-sisters,--children of
the same father by a slave mother.
The women sat in circles, and each displayed her vase of flowers and her
lighted taper before her. In front of all were a number of my younger
pupils, the royal children, in circles also. Close by the altar, on a
low square stool, overlaid with a thin cushion of silk, sat the
high-priest, Chow Khoon Sah. In his hand he held a concave fan, lined
with pale green silk, the back richly embroidered, jewelled, and gilt.
[Footnote: The fan is used to cover the face. Jewelled fans are marks of
distinction among the priesthood.] He was draped in a yellow robe, not
unlike the Roman toga, a loose and flowing habit, closed below the
waist, but open from the throat to the girdle, which was simply a band
of yellow cloth, bound tightly. From the shoulders hung two narrow
strips, also yellow, descending over the robe to the feet, and
resembling the scapular worn by certain orders of the Roman Catholic
clergy. At his side was an open watch of gold, the gift of his
sovereign. At his feet sat seventeen disciples, shading their faces with
fans less richly adorned.
We put off our shoes,--my child and I,--having respect for the ancient
prejudice against them; [Footnote: "Put off thy shoes from off thy feet,
for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."] feeling not so
much reverence for the place as for the hearts that worshipped there,
caring to display not so much the love of wisdom as the wisdom of love;
and well were we repaid by the grateful smile of recognition that
greeted us as we entered.
We sat down cross-legged. No need to hush my boy,--the silence there, so
subduing, checked with its mysterious awe even his inquisitive young
mind. The venerable high-priest sat with his face jealously covered,
lest his eyes should tempt his thoughts to stray. I changed my position
to catch a glimpse of his countenance; he drew his fan-veil more
closely, giving me a quick but gentle half-glance of remonstrance. Then
raising his eyes, with lids nearly closed, he chanted in an infantile,
That was the opening prayer. At once the whole congregation raised
themselves on their knees and, all together, prostrated themselves
thrice profoundly, thrice touching the polished brass floor with their
foreheads; and then, with heads bowed and palms folded and eyes closed,
they delivered the responses after the priest, much in the manner of the
English liturgy, first the priest, then the people, and finally all
together. There was no singing, no standing up and sitting down, no
changing of robes or places, no turning the face to the altar, nor
north, nor south, nor east, nor west. All knelt _still_, with hands
folded straight before them, and eyes strictly, tightly closed. Indeed,
there were faces there that expressed devotion and piety, the humblest
and the purest, as the lips murmured: "O Thou Eternal One, Thou
perfection of Time, Thou truest Truth, Thou immutable essence of all
Change, Thou most excellent radiance of Mercy, Thou infinite Compassion,
Thou Pity, Thou Charity!"
I lost some of the responses in the simultaneous repetition, and did but
imperfectly comprehend the exhortation that followed, in which was
inculcated the strictest practice of charity in a manner so pathetic and
so gentle as might be wisely imitated by the most orthodox of Christian
There was majesty in the humility of those pagan worshippers, and in
their shame of self they were sublime. I leave both the truth and the
error to Him who alone can soar to the bright heights of the one and
sound the dark depths of the other, and take to myself the lesson, to be
read in the shrinking forms and hidden faces of those patient waiters
for a far-off glimmering _Light_,--the lesson wherefrom I learn, in
thanking God for the light of Christianity, to thank him for its shadow
too, which is Buddhism.
Around the porches and vestibules of the temple lounged the Amazonian
guard, intent only on irreverent amusement, even in the form of a
grotesque and grim flirtation here and there with the custodians of the
temple, who have charge of the sacred fire that burns before the altar.
About eighty-five years ago this fire went out. It was a calamity of
direful presage, and thereupon all Siam went into a consternation of
mourning. All public spectacles were forbidden until the crime could be
expiated by the appropriate punishment of the wretch to whose
sacrilegious carelessness it was due; nor was the sacred flame rekindled
until the reign of P'hra-Pooti-Yaut-Fa, grandfather of his late Majesty,
when the royal Hall of Audience was destroyed by lightning. From that
fire of heaven it was relighted with joyful thanksgiving, and so has
burned on to this day.
The lofty throne, on which the priceless P'hra Keau (the Emerald Idol)
blazed in its glory of gold and gems, shone resplendent in the forenoon
light. Everything above, around it,--even the vases of flowers and the
perfumed tapers on the floor,--was reflected as if by magic in its
kaleidoscopic surface, now pensive, pale, and silvery as with moonlight,
now flashing, fantastic, with the party-colored splendors of a thousand
The ceiling was wholly covered with hieroglyphic devices,--luminous
circles and triangles, globes, rings, stars, flowers, figures of
animals, even parts of the human body,--mystic symbols, to be deciphered
only by the initiated. Ah! could I but have read them as in a book,
construing all their allegorical significance, how near might I not have
come to the distracting secret of this people! Gazing upon them, my
thought flew back a thousand years, and my feeble, foolish conjectures,
like butterflies at sea, were lost in mists of old myth.
Not that Buddhism has escaped the guessing and conceits of a multitude
of writers, most trustworthy of whom are the early Christian Fathers,
who, to the end that they might arouse the attention of the sleeping
nations, yielded a reluctant, but impartial and graceful, tribute to the
long-forgotten creeds of Chaldea, Phenicia, Assyria, and Egypt.
Nevertheless, they would never have appealed to the doctrine of Buddha
as being most like to Christianity in its rejection of the claims of
race, had they not found in its simple ritual another and a stronger
bond of brotherhood. Like Christianity, too, it was a religion catholic
and apostolic, for the truth of which many faithful witnesses had laid
down their lives. It was, besides, the creed of an ancient race; and the
mystery that shrouded it had a charm to pique the vanity even of
self-sufficient Greeks, and stir up curiosity even in Roman arrogance
and indifference. The doctrines of Buddha were eminently fitted to
elucidate the doctrines of Christ, and therefore worthy to engage the
interest of Christian writers; accordingly, among the earliest of these
mention is made of the Buddha or Phthah, though there were as yet few or
none to appreciate all the religious significance of his teachings.
Terebinthus declared there was nothing in the pagan world to be compared
with his (Buddha's) _P'hra-ti-moksha_, or Code of Discipline, which in
some respects resembled the rules that governed the lives of the monks
of Christendom; Marco Polo says of Buddha, "Si fuisset Christianus,
fuisset apud Deum maximus factus"; and later, Malcolm, the devoted
missionary, said of his doctrine, "In almost every respect it seems to
be the best religion which man has ever invented." Mark the "invented"
of the wary Christian!
But errors, that in time crept in, corrupted the pure doctrine, and
disciples, ignorant or stupid, perverted its meaning and intent, and
blind or treacherous guides led the simple astray, till at last the true
and plain philosophy of Buddha became entangled with the Egyptian
Over the portal on the eastern facade of the Watt P'hra Keau is a
bass-relief representing the Last Judgment, in which are figures of a
devil with a pig's head dragging the wicked to hell, and an angel
weighing mankind in a pair of scales. Now we know that in the mythology
of ancient Egypt the Pig was the emblem of the Evil Spirit, and this
bass-relief of the Siamese watt could hardly fail to remind the
Egyptologist of kindred compositions in old sculptures wherein the good
and bad deeds of the dead are weighed by Anubis (the Siamese Anuman or
Hanuman), and the souls of the wicked carried off by a pig.
In the city of Arsinoe in Upper Egypt (formerly Crocodilopolis, now
Medinet-el-Fayum), the crocodile is worshipped; and a sacred crocodile,
kept in a pond, is perfectly tame and familiar with the priests. He is
called Suchus, and they feed him with meat and corn and wine, the
contributions of strangers. One of the Egyptian divinities, apparently
that to whom the beast was consecrated, is invariably pictured with the
head of a crocodile; and in hieroglyphic inscriptions is represented by
that animal with the tail turned under the body. A similar figure is
common in the temples of Siam; and a sacred crocodile, kept in a pond in
the manner of the ancient Egyptians, is fed by Siamese priests, at whose
call it comes to the surface to receive the rice, fruit, and wine that
are brought to it daily.
The Beetle, an insect peculiarly sacred to the Buddhists, was the
Egyptian sign of Phthah, the Father of Gods; and in the hieroglyphics it
stands for the name of that deity, whose head is either surmounted by a
beetle, or is itself in the form of a beetle. Elsewhere in the
hieroglyphics, where it does not represent Buddha, it evidently appears
as the symbol of generation or reproduction, the meaning most anciently
attached to it; whence Dr. Young, in his "Hieroglyphical Researches,"
inferred its relation to Buddha. Mrs. Hamilton Gray, in her work on the
Sepulchres of Etruria, observes: "As scarabaei existed long before we had
any account of idols, I do not doubt that they were originally the
invention of some really devout mind; and they speak to us in strong
language of the danger of making material symbols of immaterial things.
First, the symbol came to be trusted in, instead of the being of whom it
was the sign. Then came the bodily conception and manifestation of that
being, or his attributes, in the form of idols. Next, the representation
of all that belongs to spirits, good and bad. And finally, the
deification of every imagination of the heart of man,--a written and
accredited system of polytheism, and a monstrous and hydra-headed
Such is the religious history of the scarabaeus, a creature that so early
attracted the notice of man by its ingenious and industrious habits,
that it was selected by him to symbolize the Creator; and cutting stones
to represent it, [FOOTNOTE: Six rubies, exquisitely cut in the form of
beetles, are worn as studs by the present King of Siam.] he wore them in
token of his belief in a creator of all things, and in recognition of
the Divine Presence, probably attaching to them at first no more
mysterious import or virtue. There is sound reason for believing that in
this form the symbol existed before Abraham, and that its fundamental
signification of creation or generation was gradually overbuilt with
arbitrary speculations and fantastic notions. In theory it degenerated
into a crude egoism, a vaunting and hyper-stoic hostility to nature,
which, though intellectually godless, was not without that universal
instinct for divinity which, by countless ways, seeks with an
ever-present and importunate longing for the one sublimated and eternal
source from which it sprang.
Through twenty-five million six hundred thousand Asongkhies, or
metempsychoses,--according to the overpowering computation of his
priests,--did Buddha struggle to attain the divine omniscience of
Niphan, by virtue of which he remembers every form he ever entered, and
beholds with the clear eyes of a god the endless diversities of
transmigration in the animal, human, and angelic worlds, throughout the
spaceless, timeless, numberless universe of visible and invisible life.
According to Heraclides, Pythagoras used to say of himself, that he
remembered "not only all the men, but all the animals and all the
plants, his soul had passed through." That Pythagoras believed and
taught the doctrine of transmigration may hardly be doubted, but that he
originated it is very questionable. Herodotus intimates that both
Orpheus and Pythagoras derived it from the Egyptians, but propounded it
as their own, without acknowledgment.
Nearly every male inhabitant of Siam enters the priesthood at least once
in his lifetime. Instead of the more vexatious and scandalous forms of
divorce, the party aggrieved may become a priest or a nun, and thus the
matrimonial bond is at once dissolved; and with this advantage, that
after three or four months of probation they may be reconciled and
reunited, to live together in the world again.
Chow Khoon Sah, or "His Lordship the Lake," whose functions in the Watt
P'hra Keau I have described, was the High-Priest of Siam, and in high
favor with his Majesty. He had taken holy orders with the double motive
of devoting himself to the study of Sanskrit literature, and of escaping
the fate, that otherwise awaited him, of becoming the mere thrall of his
more fortunate cousin, the king. In the palace it was whispered that he
and the late queen consort had been tenderly attached to each other, but
that the lady's parents, for prudential considerations, discountenanced
the match; "and so," on the eve of her betrothal to his Majesty, her
lover had sought seclusion and consolation in a Buddhist monastery.
However that may be, it is certain that the king and the high-priest
were now fast friends. The latter entertained great respect for his
reverend cousin, whose title ("The Lake") described justly, as well as
poetically, the graceful serenity and repose of his demeanor.
Chow Khoon Sah lived at some distance from the palace, at the Watt
Brahmanee Waid. As the friendship between the cousins ripened, his
Majesty considered that it would be well for him to have the
contemplative student, prudent adviser, and able reasoner nearer to him.
With this idea, and for a surprise to one to whom all surprises had long
since become but vanities and vexations of spirit, he caused to be
erected, about forty yards from the Grand Palace, on the eastern side of
the Meinam, a temple which he named _Rajah-Bah-dit-Sang_, or "The King
caused me to be built"; and at the same time, as an appendage to the
temple, a monastery in mediaeval style, the workmanship in both
structures being most substantial and elaborate.
The sculptures and carvings on the pillars and facades--half-fabulous,
half-historical figures, conveying ingenious allegories of the triumph
of virtue over the passions--constituted a singular tribute to the
exemplary fame of the high-priest. The grounds were planted with trees
and shrubs, and the walks gravelled, thus inviting the contemplative
recluse to tranquil, soothing strolls. These grounds were accessible by
four gates, the principal one facing the east, and a private portal
opening on the canal.
The laying of the foundation of the temple and monastery of
Rajah-Bah-dit-Sang was the occasion of extraordinary festivities,
consisting of theatrical spectacles and performances, a carnival of
dancing, mass around every corner-stone, banquets to priests, and
distributions of clothing, food, and money to the poor. The king
presided every morning and evening under a silken canopy; and even those
favorites of the harem who were admitted to the royal confidence were
provided with tents, whence they could witness the shows, and
participate in the rejoicings in the midst of which the good work went
on. After the several services of mass had been performed, and the
corner-stones consecrated by the pouring on of oil and water, [Footnote:
Oil is the emblem of life and love; water, of purity.] seven tall lamps
were lighted to burn above them seven days and nights, and seventy
priests in groups of seven, forming a perfect circle, prayed
continually, holding in their hands the mystic web of seven threads,
that weird circlet of life and death.
Then the youngest and fairest virgins of the land brought offerings of
corn and wine, milk, honey, and flowers, and poured them on the
consecrated stones. And after that, they brought pottery of all
kinds,--vases, urns, ewers, goglets, bowls, cups, and dishes,--and,
flinging them into the foundations, united with zeal and rejoicing in
the "meritorious" work of pounding them into fine dust; and while the
instruments of music and the voices of the male and female singers of
the court kept time to the measured crash and thud of the wooden clubs
in those young and tender hands, the king cast into the foundation coins
and ingots of gold and silver.
"Do you understand the word 'charity,' or _maitri_, as your apostle St.
Paul explains it in the thirteenth chapter of his First Epistle to the
Corinthians?" said his Majesty to me one morning, when he had been
discussing the religion of Sakyamuni, the Buddha.
"I believe I do, your Majesty," was my reply.
"Then, tell me, what does St. Paul really mean, to what custom does he
allude, when he says, 'Even if I give my body to be burned, and have not
charity, it profiteth me nothing'?"
"Custom!" said I. "I do not know of any _custom_. The giving of the body
to be burned is by him esteemed the highest act of devotion, the purest
sacrifice man can make for man."
"You have said well. It is the highest act of devotion that can be made,
or performed, by man for man,--that giving of his body to be burned. But
if it is done from a spirit of opposition, for the sake of fame, or
popular applause, or for any other such motive, is it still to be
regarded as the highest act of sacrifice?"
"That is just what St. Paul means: the motive consecrates the deed."
"But all men are not fortified with the self-control which should fit
them to be great exemplars; and of the many who have appeared in that
character, if strict inquiry were made, their virtue would be found to
proceed from any other than the true and pure spirit. Sometimes it is
indolence, sometimes restlessness, sometimes vanity impatient for its
gratification, and rushing to assume the part of humility for the
purpose of self-delusion."
"Now" said the King, taking several of his long strides in the vestibule
of his library, and declaiming with his habitual emphasis, "St Paul, in
this chapter, evidently and strongly applies the Buddhist's word
_maitri_, or _maikree_, as pronounced by some Sanskrit scholars; and
explains it through the Buddhist's custom of giving the body to be
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