Sunday, June 15, 2014

Prologue--from K.M.Kaung's Narasuan: The Black Prince of Siam

It is so very great a Pleasure to meet you.
My name is Narasuan. 
In Thailand I am known as the Black Prince, after my childhood name, Pra Ong Dam or Naret or Nares.
I am the Father of the Thai nation—Thailand—as it is known today.
I was born in Phitsanulok in Central Siam. 
There’s a great modern university named after me in Phitsanulok, which the Burmese cannot pronounce and call “Peikthalauk.”
Curiously, my history and the history of Thailand are not the main foci of Narasuan University. 
We look forward, not backward.
Instead, it is known for its medical school and science departments, and has many schools, including a graduate school and a school of social sciences and the humanities.[i] 
The University was renamed in 1990 on the 400th anniversary of my ascension to the Ayuthia throne in 1590. 
Point out to me any known world-class university in Burma, named after any Burmese king. 
If you are successful you can chop off my head.
That alone should tell you who was the winner in this historic rivalry, even though Ayuthia suffered more invasions from the Burma side after my times and my Victory. 
It was finally sacked and destroyed by Hsinbyushin in 1765-67. 
Hsinbyushin, whose name meant “The Royal Owner of the White Elephants” hurriedly retreated to Ava as Manchu Bannermen defeated his forces at Gothteik Gorge[ii] near Lashio on the Burma-China border, and were close to the then capital of Ava or Inwa, when Hsunbyushin arrived back home and managed to rally his forces enough to drive back the Chinese.[iii]  Previously, he thought the trouble with the Machus was a border skirmish, so he thought he’d come to whack us in Ayuthia hundreds of miles away to the Southeast of Ava.
Our people of Ayuthia would probably have suffered more had he tarried in the environs of Ayuthia longer. 
Fortunately, he had to leave in a hurry, but by then Ayuthia was already torched and destroyed. 
We Tai underwent a period of torment and unrest, until General Pra Taksin set up a new capital city near the sea, in Thonburi, on the opposite bank of the Chao Phra River from what is now Bangkok.
For your comparison purposes, in 1776 the American Revolution took place; Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense and Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations[iv].
But all that’s another story.
I am also the Patron Saint of the Thai Army.
Kyi May Kaung, who is co-writing this book, came to see Narasuan University and a Burmese professor there in 2010 with a Phitsanulok native, Dr. Suri. 
She came by my statue in the main plaza on its shining white marble plinth, surrounded by rows of green topiary bushes at waist height, clipped to resemble elephants.
In the still bright sun of November, under a sky that Dr.  Kaung would call “Prussian Blue, with some water mixed in” and puffy white clouds, my statue of dark bronze depicts me seated, looking down, pouring the Water of Allegiance from a small bronze ewer onto the soil to signify my final break with Burma and Hongsawadi. 
By doing so, I called the Earth to witness our Independence.
I was thirty years old.[v] 
I was in Kreng or Gyaing (in Burmese) on the Burma-Siam Border.
This was my first and last clean break with Burma.
At age nine, I was taken as a hostage prisoner-prince to Hangsawadi or Hanthawaddy[vi], in Burma:  The City of the Hongsa or Hintha, the mandarin duck.  Now it is a secondary town or city in Burma, with nothing special about it except the small statues of the two mandarin ducks on the top of a small hill, the highest point there—the ancient reclining Buddha image—the Shwemawdaw Pagoda which was already an old pagoda when I got there—and  a portion of the pagoda which fell off during the big earthquake of 1917[vii].   
People go there now mainly because it is only about forty miles north of Rangoon by motor car, and can be done as a day trip.  It’s convenient for tourists, but even then unreachable in the days of the twenty four hour visa immediately after General Ne Win’s coup in 1962.
Later, the one week visa gave farang tourists a bit more time.
It is hard to conceive that in the mid-sixteenth century, Hongsawadi was a world capital and spoken of glowingly even by a Venetian jeweler, Gaspero Balbi,[viii]who happened to fetch up while I was there.[ix]  He came in his stiff brocade topcoat and breeches into the king’s audience hall, but the guards made him take off his tooled leather shoes with their stacked wooden heels and pointed toes.  During the time he lived there, he shed his heavy layered clothing—doublets, breeches and vests, and furs, and got attuned to silk and cotton top-shirts and jackets more suited to the tropical heat. 
I often saw him bustling about the palace, stroking his short dark beard and his bald head, carrying gems and jewelry in his hidden pockets and in a small black velvet bag with a worn thin pile with a drawstring top, that he always carried with him looped around his left hand. 
I suspected he sold muskets and arquebuses and even cannon in secret to the Hongsawadi king.
When he wasn’t trading and wheeling and dealing, Balbi sat on the stoop of one of the gilded, open pavilions and told us children in the court of the wonders he encountered on his way to Hanthawaddy. 
One of them was the Elephanta Caves in India with the Buddhist frescoes on the walls.  The other was the frightening tidal bore at the mouth of the Sittang River, which I was yet to encounter. 
The only thing wrong with sitting in the elegant teak pavilions of Hongsawadi, was that even with all this gilt and gold, sometimes when the breeze was blowing towards you, you could smell the cesspits and the stench stuck in your throat, especially in the heat of March and in April, during the new year that we Tai call songkran and the Burmese call thingyan.
No wonder we need to throw water on each other during this Water Festival to wash all the Dirt away.
In the twenty first century, the Burmese military regime is trying to bring back the glamour of dusty little Pegu (the common name of Hongsawadi) by reconstructing the palace, Kabawzathadi, they call it, of my captor, the so-called Universal Monarch Bayinnaung.
But it’s still a Fake because they know nothing so far of what the old palace which was burned down looked like.  All they have left in their chronicles is that it was built in 1553 south of the Shwemawdaw Pagoda, and had seventy six rooms or pavilions.[x]

The original palace was built two years before I was born in Phitsanulok. 
I saw and knew what Kanbawzathadi  Palace was like, having lived six long years of my forcibly interrupted childhood there. 
My memories of it are for the most part not happy ones.  
I was plagued throughout by homesickness for Siam and my family—the taste and aromas of my favorite Tai foods, and even the fresh taste of Phitsanulok water.  
Worst was a certain supercilious attitude projected towards me like poisonous arrows of “You are the Conquered.  You are Inferior ,” that was constantly pushed down on me, especially by Bayinnaung’s son, the crown prince Nanda and his son, Minkyi Swa. 
The grandson’s name meant “Great King Shrill” in Burmese. 
It didn’t match for bombast the name of a later king—Minkyee Swa Saw Kè, which meant Great King, Shrill and Can Beat You Exceedingly, but I think it came close.
And if human beings begin in time to match their names, Nanda and Minkyi Swa were living examples of that. 
Even as a child hostage and prisoner of war, or perhaps because of my lowly status there, I saw through both of them. 
I never liked them.
Like the cesspit smells that I had to tolerate, in their presence I held my breath and tried not to breathe. 
Mine is a story of Love and Hate towards Burma, my erstwhile country of forced adoption and imprisonment.
Come with me.  
I will show you how it feels to touch an elephant that you are training for war, to pick men up and throw them to their deaths. 
Come to the smelly elephant kraal with me, to the court in Hongsawadi, to my home town of Phitsanulok and to Ayuthia, the Venice of the East.
Have a taste of this raw crocodile egg yolk dressed with hot chili sauce.[xi]  A bit like a turtle’s egg, is it not?  Grainy and feels as if it will bruise your tongue.  It’s there in that green-grey celadon dish from Sawankhalok. 
That is not a miniature eggplant you are eating. 
It’s a faux aubergine, blown like glass from translucent rice paste, hand-painted with edible fruit and vegetable juices and stuffed with brown bean paste made with cane and toddy sugar, for your dessert. 
Only the Tai royal family may eat such sweets, but for me they are too cloying.  
The Burmese still don’t know how to make them. 
During my Hongsawadi years, my wet nurse Aunty Buffalo made them for me whenever I got dejected.  Her specialities were little custard apples, each with the blue grey white skins with a thousand bumps,  and mangoes.
“Don’t let the Hpamaar princes see them,” she always warned, “eat them quickly.” 
But I carried them around in my shirt pocket until they got sticky and ants came to eat them when I took a nap, climbing up my arms.
Now that too might be considered an auspicious sign.
I must remind Dr. Kyi May[xii] not to forget to write that in.
It wasn’t just the great King Bayinnaung, my captor, my warden, my jailer, my “adoptive grandfather” who was Maung Chatet—he on whom the white ants climbed—when he was young.
Ants also climbed on me—I could call myself  Maung Paywet Saik Tet.
I was never destined to fight the old king on elephant-back, man to man.
But I would in time trounce my two nemeses.

Here, meet my dear younger brother Ekathatsarot of the pale skin—The White Prince –my dear elder sister Suphankalya of the golden complexion, also known as The Golden Princess,[xiii] whom Bayinnaung took to wife, not ahrnadè nor embarrassed about his old age, when she was sixteen and he was sixty.   
Meet my mother, the daughter of a queen slain by the Burmese—my father who tried to make the best of a bad situation and ended up derided and hated by both Tai and Burmese.

Come with me, my war elephants are screaming. 
They eat all the time during their waking hours and they want their special treats of three hands-lengths of maroon sugar cane and those little sandalwood bananas called nathapuu.
Look lively.
I don’t tolerate laggards in my Camp.

[ii] As a teenager, I enjoyed one trip to Gothteik and on to Lashio with my siblings and cousins when I was about 15.  My uncle was then chief engineer at Burma railways and we went in his special coach, which was quite rudimentary in its setup and arrangements.  My young cousin dived between the bunks on each side as the train crossed over the trestle spanning the Gorge.  I was so afraid he would overshoot out of the window and fall over into the about 200 foot deep Gorge.  KMK
[iv] Events in 1776 simultaneous with Burma-Siam Wars.
Accessed 6-9-2012
[v] He may have been either 29 or 30 – see later chapters for the controversy over Narasuan’s birth date due to difficulties in converting the traditional Thai calendar to the modern western one.  For fictional purposes and because it’s a nice round number, I chose thirty.
Called Pegu by the English and now called Bago.
Accessed 6-9-2012
Gaspero Balbi’s account of his trip to the court of Hanthawaddy, School of Oriental and African Studies archive on line.  Accessed 6-9-2012.
[ix] Poetic license on my part.
Accessed 6-9-2012.  I don’t know how accurate this is, but am presenting it as is.  Here is a verbatim quote: 
“According to the record of a minister 'Letwe Bawrahta' the Kanbawzathadi Palace, Bago had a total of 76 apartments and halls.
“The Kanbawzathadi Palace in Bago was found after excavation works that started on 25th April 1990. The excavation found six mounds that revealed the brick foundations and plinths of the palace. There were some teak pillars that have inscriptions on them, were also found in the excavated structures. Some of the structures were rebuilt including the Lion Throne Room and the Bee Throne Room and the Settaw Saung, which is one of the main rooms of the palace,. Work on the Settaw Saung has almost been completed. The main audience hall (the Lion Throne Room) is being rebuilt. A total of 9662 acres of land area has been transferred to the Archaeological Department.
The Kanbawzathadi Palace, Bago was restored completely in mid 2003. The restoration works done included greening and beautifying of the palace area, arranging the statues, statues and paintings, preparations for displaying the Mingala coach drawn by 16 horses at the time of King Bayinnaung's time. When the reconstruction work of the 16th century palace is completed, it will become a major tourist attraction in Bago.”
See also
For inaccurate and gaudy “restoration” – these web sites say nothing of what happened to the archaeological material found.

[xi] I first encountered this in a novel about Constantine Phaulkon by Axel Aylwen, The Falcon of Siam, The Falcon Press, Thailand, 2004, and have come to love this snack.
[xii] Thai before King Chulalongkorn’s time had only first names.
[xiii] Portuguese visitors to Ayuthia first wrote about the siblings’ skin colors and their nicknames.

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