Published on October 21, 2007
The debt that Thai culture today owes to the Mon kingdom of old became clear at a Bangkok seminar earlier this month that recounted the story of a civilisation uprooted by the Burmese and chased into Siam - where it sowed the seeds of a revitalised monarchy.
The seminar at Chulalongkorn University was organised by the Institute of Asian Studies.
The Mon kingdom fell to the invading troops in 1757, but rather than come under Burmese rule, the Mon withdrew to territory that, for the next decade at least, would be controlled by Ayutthaya.
There and in subsequent Siamese capitals, 50 women of Mon descent eventually became the wives and mothers of the kings of the current Chakri Dynasty.
The first two Ramas had seven Mon consorts each, Rama III four, and King Rama IV had six wives descended from Mon families. King Rama V had 26 Mon consorts, nine of whom gave birth to princes and princesses.
These women, participants in the seminar were told, transformed their assigned areas of the palaces with Mon-style habits and accoutrements, and brought in more Mon women as nannies.
"Like those of other ethnic groups in Siam, Mon women had many different roles in the Siamese royal court," said Thai-born Mon scholar Ong Bunjoon.
"Noblemen typically offered their daughters for service as ladies of the court, an arrangement that was mutually beneficial. These connections assured the court of the nobleman's loyalty, and the nobleman secured royal blessing and career progress."
Ong recently completed his master's thesis on "Mon Women in the Royal Court of Siam during the Rattanakosin Period 1782-1932".
The Mon women invariably wanted to bear the king a child to ensure higher standing in the household, he noted.
In all, 21 consorts of Mon descent became mothers of princes and princesses of the Chakri Dynasty.
The first of the Mon women in the Ayutthaya court, Tao Songkandarn Thongmon, married a prince during the reign of King Ekathat. She was the younger sister of Ma-dod, a nobleman who had served King Taksin.
The first who gave birth to Chakri royalty was the first wife of the man who became Rama I, Ong said. She is remembered colloquially as "Nak", although she later received the title Krom Somdej Phra Indramart and was called Queen Amarintra. Among their 10 children was the son who became King Rama II.
Of Rama I's 28 consorts, Ong said, seven were from Mon families, but Nak was the queen, and as such ushered into the court many of her Mon relatives to help raise her children in the Mon way.
As a result, Rama II was always affectionate toward Mon people, and he too had children with his four Mon consorts.
"In 1814 King Rama II sent his 10-year-old son, Prince Mongkut, to welcome a group of Mon families as they fled across the border from Burma at the Three Pagodas Pass in Kanchanaburi," Ong said.
Mongkut, of course, ascended the throne as King Rama IV, and he had six Mon consorts. His queen, Krom Somdej Phra Thepsirintramataya, also of Mon descent, gave birth to four children, including Prince Chulalongkorn, the future Rama V, who in turn had 26 Mon consorts.
Chulalongkorn was familiar with Mon customs from the earliest age and grew to love the culture, Ong said. Mon pi-pat musical ensembles made their first appearance in a Siamese palace during the funeral of his mother.
Anna Leonowens, the tutor to King Mongkut's children and consorts, had much to say about the royal "harem" in her book "The English Governess and the Siamese Court", devoting an entire chapter to its "shadows and whispers".
One of the consorts, whom she called "Hidden-Perfume", was jailed on charges of playing court politics.
"She had been led to petition, through her son, that an appointment held by her late uncle, Phya Khien, might be bestowed on her elder brother, not knowing that another noble had already been preferred to the post by His Majesty," Leonowens wrote.
Ong explained that "Hidden-Perfume" was Chao-chom Marnda Sonklin, the Mon mother of Prince Krisadapiharn.
"Mon court ladies in every reign played political roles - indirectly but powerfully," he said. "Those who became queen or a king's concubine helped their relatives secure high positions in the court.
"And of course there were those who were the mothers of princes and other royal descendants of the Chakri kings who went on to greatly contribute to Thai politics."
In fact, it was her younger brother for whom Chao-chom Marnda Sonklin sought a royal appointment - as governor of Muang Nakhon Khaunekan, now Phra Pradaeng district.
Leonowens took credit for speaking up on the consort's behalf and getting her released from prison so she could return to her classroom. Evidently true, according to an 1865 letter the monarch wrote to Leonowens: "I beg to inform you I have pardoned Lady Klin your scholar at his Excellency's request."
"As a pupil," Leonowens said, "she was remarkably diligent and attentive, and in reading and translating English her progress was extraordinary."
Among her translations was Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin". It convinced the royal consort to treat her own slaves better and, in fact, begin paying them, Ong said.
"It can be said that Chao-chom Marnda Sonklin was among the first people in Siam who wanted to abolish the slavery," he added.
The number of Mon ladies in the court declined during the reign of King VI, when monogamy was widely adopted. Many former consorts left the palace but continued to play a role in assimilating Mon customs into Siamese society.
"The religion, arts and culture of the Mon have stretched from the court to the commoners," Ong noted, "because so many members of the governing class, past and present, are Mon descendants."