Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Bangkok Siam Meinam River Wat Ching

We left Singapore - which, though an English colony, is a very Babel of languages and nations - in a Bom­bay merchantman, whose captain was an Arab, the cook Chinese, and the fourteen men who composed the crew belong­ed to at least half that many different na­tions, whilst our party in the cabin were English, Scotch, French and American. After eight days of rather stormy weath­er we disembarked at the mouth of the Meinam River, thirty miles below the city of Bangkok. Owing to the sand­bar at the mouth, large vessels must either partially unload outside, or wait for the flood tide when the moon is full to pass the bar; and to avoid the delay consequent upon either course, we took passage for the city in a native sampan pulled by eight men with long slender oars. The trip was a delightful one, giving us enchanting glimpses of tropical foliage, gleaming out from among clustering palms and graceful banians, we could discern the gilded spires of gorgeous temples and palaces, of which Bangkok boasts. probably not less than two hun­dred. The temples, with their glittering tiles of green and gold, and graceful turrets and pinnacles from which hang tiny tinkling bells that ring out sweet music with every passing breeze, their tall, slender pagodas and picturesque monasteries, stand all along the banks of the river, its most conspicuous adorn­ments. But preeminent, both for height and splendor, is Wat Chang, visible, all but its base, from the very mouth of the river. Its central spire, full three hun­dred feet in height, towers grandly above the surrounding turrets and pagodas, the white walls gleaming out from the dark foliage of the banian, and the feathery fringes of the palm reflected on its shin­ing roof. the grand old city long before we reached it. 

The two main entrances to the royal palace are of white masonry very elab­orately adorned. Groups of elegant col­umns support a capital composed of nine crowns rising one above the other, and terminating in a slender spire of some forty feet. The whole is inlaid in exquisite mosaics of porcelain, the va­rious colors arranged in quaint devices, so as to produce the happiest effect, while the reflection of the sun's rays upon the glazed tiles, the numberless turrets and pinnacles of the lofty pile, and the porticoes and balconies of pure white marble opening from every win­dow, and leading to delectable conser­vatories, luxurious baths or fairy groves and arbors, present, as grouped togeth­er, a sight worth a trip across the waters to enjoy. The engraving represents one of these entrances, and His Majesty Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut, the late supreme king of Siam, on his return from his usual afternoon promenade. This "promenade," however, was not a walk, a ride or a drive, but an airing in one of the royal state barges. For the late king, true to the usages of his forefathers, continued to the very close of his life to make all his tours, public and private, with very rare ex­ceptions, by water. This has heretofore been the custom of all classes, the gen­tly flowing Meinam being the Broadway of Bangkok, and canals, intersecting the city in every direction, its cross streets. Every family keeps one or more boats and a full complement of rowers; pal­aces and temples have their gates on the river; and upon its placid waters move in ever varying panorama life's shifting scenes of weddings and funerals, business and pleasure, from early morn till long past midnight. Only since the accession of the present kings have streets been constructed along the river­banks; and these young princes, as a sort of concession to European customs, now take occasional drives in open car­riages, attended by liveried servants, though for state processions boats are still in vogue. His Majesty the late king was ordinarily conveyed to the jetty in a state palanquin, and handed from it into his boat, without the sole of his boot ever touching the ground. This has been the custom of Siamese monarchs from time immemorial, but I have sometimes seen both the late kings wave aside their bearers and jump with agile dexterity into their boats, as if it were a relief to them to lay aside courtly eti­quette and act like ordinary mortals. The royal palanquins are completely cov­ered with plates of pure gold inlaid with pearls, and the cushions are of velvet embroidered, and edged with heavy gold lace. They are borne by sixteen men robed in azure silk sarangs and shirts of embroidered muslin. The umbrella is of blue, crimson or purple silk, and for state occasions is richly embroidered, and studded with precious stones. So also are those placed over the throne, the sofa, or whatever seat the king hap­pens to occupy.

The late supreme king, who died in 1868 at the age of sixty-five, was tall and slender in person, of intellectual countenance and noble, commanding pres­ence. His ordinary dress was of heavy, dark silk, richly embroidered, with the occasional addition of a military coat. He wore also the decorations of several orders, and a crown - not the large one, which is worn but once in a lifetime, and that on the coronation day - but the one for regular use, which is of fine gold, conical in shape and the rim completely surrounded by a circlet of magnificent diamonds. This prince, the most illus­trious of all the kings of Siam, spent many of the best years of his life in the priesthood as high priest of the kingdom. He was a profound scholar, not only in Oriental lore, but in many European tongues and in the sciences. In public he was rather reticent, but in the retire­ment of the social circle and among his European friends the real symmetry of his noble character was fully displayed, winning not only the reverence but the warm affection of all who knew him. He died universally regretted, and the young. prince now reigning as supreme king is his eldest surviving son: the second king is his nephew.

Among the choice treasures of Siam are her elephants, but they belong ex­clusively to the Crown, and may be em­ployed only at the royal command.  They are used in state processions and in traveling by the king and members of the royal family, and in war at the king's mandate only. It is death for a Siamese subject, unbidden by his sove­reign, to mount one of His Majesty's ele­phants. In war they are considered very effective, their immense size and weight alone rendering them exceedingly de­structive in trampling down and crush­ing foot-soldiers. The howdah is placed well up on the animal's back, and in it sits a military officer of high rank, with an iron helmet on his head, and above him a seven-layered umbrella, as the insignia of his royal commission. On the croup sits the groom, guiding the royal beast with an iron hook, while all about the officer are disposed lances, javelins, pikes, helmets and other mu­nitions of war, which he dispenses as they are needed during the progress of a battle. I have been told that as many as six or seven hundred of these colossal creatures are often marched and mar­shaled in battle together; and so per­fectly are they trained as to be guided and controlled without difficulty, even amid the din of firearms and the con­flict of contending armies. Sometimes on the king's journeys into the interior a train of fifty or sixty will be marched in perfect order, their stately stepping beautiful to behold, but their huge feet coming down with a jolt that threatens to dislocate every joint of the unfortunate rider.

I have spoken of the gorgeousness of the Bangkok temples, but I must not forget to mention the colossal statue of Booddh that reposes in one of them. It is one hundred and seventy feet in length, of solid masonry, perfectly covered with a plating of pure gold. and rests quite naturally upon the right side, the recum­bent position indicating the dreamless repose the god now enjoys in nirvana. This is supposed to be the largest image of Gautama, the fourth Booddh, in ex­istence, and it is an object of the pro­foundest veneration to every devout Booddhist.

Incremation of the dead is the custom in Siam, and while there I was present at several royal funerals, each marked by more lavish display of costly mag­nificence than we Americans ever see on this side the water. Shortly after I left the country occurred the death of the patriotic second king, so well and favorably known among us as Prince T. Momfanoi, the introducer of square ­rigged vessels and many other improve­ments, and afterward as King Somdet Phra Pawarendr Kamesr Maha Waresr. The. body was embalmed, and lay in state for nearly a year before the burn­ing took place. The count de Beauvoir reached Bangkok just in time to see the royal catafalque, of which he gives a somewhat amusing account. He says: "The body, having been thoroughly dried by mercury, was so doubled that the head and feet came together, and after being tied up" like a sausage was deposited in a golden urn on the top of the mausoleum." He speaks of the state officers in attendance by day and by night, and the dead king, from the golden urn on the very summit of the altar, holding his court with the same pomp and parade as during his life. A more affecting ceremony is the com­ing at noon and eve of the crowds of beautiful women, not yet absolved from their wifely vows, to converse with their loved and lamented lord and the de-positing of letters and petitions in the great golden basket at the foot of the mausoleum, with the confident expecta­tion that these loving missives will reach the deceased and be answered by him. These royal catafalques are costly and magnificent, being covered with plates of gold, while the silks and perfumes consumed with a single body cost thou­sands of dollars.

M. de Beauvoir describes an interview with the king, surrounded by ten of his offspring, including the seventy-second child. I well remember the eldest son, the present supreme king, now in his twentieth year, looking when five years old the exact counterpart of this one­. his graceful little figure, dimpled cheeks, I eyes lustrous as diamonds, and the glossy, raven hair, close shaven at the back, while the foretop was coiled in a smooth knot, fastened with jeweled pins and twined with fragrant flowers. The dress was very simple - only two gar­ments of silk or embroidered muslin­ but the deficiency was more than made up by jewelry, of which, in the form of chains, rings, anklets and bracelets, he wore almost incredible quantities, while his golden girdle was studded with costly diamonds.

Polygamy prevails in its fullest extent in Siam, especially among those of noble or royal lineage; and the higher the rank the larger the number of wives, those of the supreme king amounting ordinarily to five or six hundred. Of these, the "superior wife" holds the rank of queen: she resides within the harem proper, where are the private apartments of the king, and her children are always the legal heirs. For the other wives or concubines, their children and attendants, there is a whole circle of buildings; connected by balconies with the palace royal. All these are handsomely fitted up, but what is called "the harem" pre-eminently is more gorgeous than our dreams of fairy palaces or en­chanted castles of genii. Long suites of apartments with frescoed walls, ceilings of gold and pearl, floors inlaid with ex­quisite mosaics of silver and ebony, and with hangings of costly lace, velvet and satin, huge waxen candles, and lamps fed with perfumed oil that are never suf­fered to expire, mirrors, pictures, and statuettes innumerable, with cups, basins, and even spittoons, of pure gold, all these are but a tithe of the lavish adorn­ments of this Oriental paradise where birds sing, flowers bloom, and the sounds of low sweet music ever greet the ear of the favored visitor. The accompanying engraving will give some idea of the general appearance of  the entrance to the harem, with its burnished roof of green. and gold, its graceful turrets and mosque like pinnacles, and its base of pure white marble, chaste and elegant. But neither language nor pictorial illustration can convey to the mind any adequate realization of its bewildering beauty; and.. Count de Beauvoir but echoes the language of every traveler who has visited Bangkok when he declares, in his recent work, that" its tem­ples and palaces are the most splendid of even the gorgeous East."

Originally published in Lippincott's Magazine.  December 1878.

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