Sunday, February 15, 2015

Chulalongkorn (Part 5): Influences and End

Chulalongkorn ushered in the transformation of Siam from an old kingdom into a modern state that Europe recognize. Other than that, he became the first Siamese monarch to travel to the west in order to secure the independence of sovereignty of his beloved kingdom. He reformed court traditions, administration, military, health, and education. But also, he launched reforms on religion and support the flow of foreign influences to the culture of Siam.

Siam had always been a Buddhist kingdom. Buddhism had been and has been a major contributor to the culture of Siam. Kings of Siam, even as far as the Sukhothai Kingdom had been ardent supporter, patron, and heads of Buddhism in Siam. Thus, as the King of Siam, Chula also had the responsibility of managing it. Although in 1878, Chula had instituted the freedom of religion and worship, this doesn’t remove the fact that he served as the Supreme Patriarch of Buddhism in Siam; and, he remained responsible for its maintenance. However, in 1893, Chula enlisted the help of his monk brother, Prince Vachirayan, in carrying out his duty as the head of Buddhism in Siam. Prince Vachirayan served as the unofficial patriarch until the death of King Chula in 1910, only then he became the official head. Both of them carried out reforms in order to organize and modernized the religion. In the same year, Chula placed Vachirayan as the head of the Thammayut Order, a group of monks founded by their father, King Mongkut, dedicated to enlightenment and the pursuit of knowledge, regardless of the source, either from traditional or from the west. Both of them supported the growth of the group in order to open up the Buddhist religion to new and open ideas. In 1902, Chula and his brother initiated an administrative and organizational reform of the Buddhism. They enacted the Sagha Act. Under the Act, all of the various sect of Buddhism in the Kingdom had to be placed under a single order. It also placed a hierarchical leadership, where the head remained to be the Supreme Patriarch or the King. Although Chula had the taste for modernity and reform, he kept some traditions alive. Buddhist scripture remained a part of the curriculum in schools. And in order to display his fledgling patronage of Buddhism, in 1899, he ordered the construction of the Wat Benchamabophit.

The Wat Benchamabophit showed the combination of modernity, western influence, and tradition. The temple became widely known as the Marble Temple. It was a result of the renovation of two old existing monasteries – Wat Laem and Wat Saithong. Traditional Siamese designs of a temple remained but changes appeared over the materials used. Chula had marbles from Carrara, Italy imported and be used for the walls and the floors of the temple. The use of the marbles resulted to the glistening white façade and floor of the Wat Benchamabophit.

Other than the Wat Benchamabophit, Chula also showed the fusion of western materials and designs with Siamese architecture in many of his construction projects. First of its kind appeared in the Grand Palace, in the design of the Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat. Marbles and western design of a façade adorned the palace, but its roof displayed the elements of Siamese or Thai architecture: the multi-layered roofs decorated with the chofah and resembled a wat.  But the Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat proved to be a prototype for other projects that Chula launched. In 1890, he ordered the construction of new palace complex in the Dusit District – the Dusit Palace. The palace included numerous mansions and palaces, displaying different types of architectural styles and materials. But one of its centerpiece appeared in the form of the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. Designed by Italians, it used Italian marble in order to display a western style throne, showing the modernity and openness of the Siamese monarchy. And to come with the Dusit Palace, in the 1900’s, Chula ordered the renovation of a boulevard that connected the Dusit and the Grand Palace. The boulevard that became known as the Ratchadamnoen displayed an aura similar to that of the grand boulevard of Champ Elysee in France. (Baker, 2005).

Besides architecture, western influence also caused changes in the lifestyle of the Siamese aristocracy. They began wearing western style clothing. Chula and his brothers did so, posing in portraits wearing western fashion for a royalty. Overcoats and dresses became a trend with the upper class. Eating canned goods and drinking wine became vogue as well. Calendars also began to change during the reign of Chulalongkorn. However, he did not completely ordered the use of the Gregorian calendar. It only became the basis of a new Siamese calendar known as the Suriyakhati. Starting with the foundation of Buddhism, its years numbered more than 500 years than the traditional Gregorian calendar. Nevertheless, it followed the system of months and days of the Gregorian calendar.

For the kingdom, arrival of western technology changed also the rate of connectivity. Roads expanded and connected the capital Bangkok to the most far flung provinces of the Kingdom. Telegraph line also crisscrossed the kingdom, allowing communication easier and convenient. The most significant development in infrastructure came with the completion of the Bangkok- Nakhon Ratchasima railroad in 1900. It connected Bangkok with the central provinces of Siam. Other than that, plumbing and sewage helped the capital to become safer, cleaner, and healthier.

During the last years of Chulalongkorn’s reign, new developments came. In 1907, France agreed to the removal of its extra territoriality in Siam in exchange for Siam’s withdrawal of its claim of Battambang and Siam Reap. Britain also did the same but with the condition that the Malayan sultanates of Kedan, Kelantan, Perlis, and Terengganu be given to them in 1909. At this point, Chula lose the last of the territories outside the Siamese core lands, but a price good enough to secure the removal of the submissive nature of giving foreigner extraterritoriality.

On October 23, 1910, King Rama V, Chulalongkorn, passed away due to kidney diseases. He left his throne to his son, Vajiravudh. Chula left to his a modernize Kingdom. A nation that abandoned some old tradition in order to attain the main goal of keeping Siam free. With his efforts, Siam became well-known as the only independent state in Southeast Asia. In the process he loose many of its peripheral territories, faced the constant threat of war. Nevertheless, they also gained something. New technology rearmed the kingdom, connected it with telegraph and railroads, and gave a modern look to the Siamese architecture, fashion, and lifestyle. The efforts of King Chulalongkorn remained a turbulent but also a successful chapter of the development of Siam into the modern day nation of Thailand.

See also:

Hinks, P. et al. Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolition. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007.

Keyes, C. The Golden Peninsula: Culture and Adaption in Mainland Southeast Asia. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1955.

Mishra, P. The History of Thailand. California: Greenwood, 2010.

Prera, N. & W. Tang. Transforming Asian Cities: Intellectual Impasse, Asianizing Space, and Emerging Translocalities. New York: Routledge, 2013.

"King Chulalongkorn, Rama V: The Fifth King of the Chakri Dynasty" Welcome to Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai. Acessed on June 23, 2013.

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