King Chulalongkorn—the cult of the Great Modernizer

Teak statues of King Chulalongkorn.

The teak woodcarvings of King Chulalongkorn in the Wihan Luang Chao Fa Chulalongkorn of Chiang Mai's Wat Don Chan, decorated with pink roses on the anniversary of his death, the 23rd of October.

THE ELEVATION OF KING CHULALONGKORN

The veneration of King Chulalongkorn (1853-1910) soared in the 1980s, more than 70 years after his death. Though eclipsed to some extent by the celebrations over the past years related to the present king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, the cult of Chulalongkorn is alive and well. In Chiang Mai, a centre of the rites and ceremonies in honour of Rama V (King Chulalongkorn) is at Wat Don Chan. In Bangkok, thousands of devotees gather weekly in front of the equestrian statue at the Royal Plaza.

After 42 years – the longest reign of a monarch of the Chakri Dynasty — Siam’s King Chulalongkorn died on 23rd October, 1910. His reign was pivotal in the kingdom’s history. While neighbouring countries were annexed by foreign superpowers and became colonies, King Chulalongkorn succeeded in keeping his kingdom independent by clever diplomacy and effective reforms. A railway network, a modern education system, and many other new institutions, were introduced to guide the country into the twentieth century. The gradual abolishment of slavery was part and parcel of this modernizing programme, but was at the same time proof of the king’s humane character and his genuine care for his subjects. It is no surprise that the king was loved and revered  by the people long after his demise. His great charm and charisma also contributed to his popularity. People generally referred to him as Phra Piya Maharat (‘Great Beloved King’), and present day Thai citizens still do so. In 1912, Wan Piya Maharat or Chulalongkorn Day, the anniversary of his death, was instituted as a national holiday.

woodcarving King Chulalongkorn

A woodcarving, copied from a famous portrait of King Chulalongkorn, in the Wihan Luang Chao Fa Chulalongkorn, Wat Don Chan, Chiang Mai.

Hundreds of statues of the king have been set up all over the kingdom, the larger ones usually in front of government buildings. These places have become the focus of the official rites and ceremonies on Chulalongkorn Day, but the veneration of the Great Beloved King is neither restricted to such sites, nor solely to October 23rd.

He is also known as Rama V (in Thai: Ro Ha), as he was the fifth king of the Chakri Dynasty, founded in 1782. His successors, Rama VI (1910-1925), Rama VII (1925-1935) and Rama VIII (1935-1946) never became as popular as him. In the years following the abolition of the absolute monarchy (1932), the status of the constitutional monarch was far less prominent than that of their predecessors. In 1935, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) abdicated, while the next king, Ananda (Rama VIII), was still an adolescent and living abroad. When the present king, Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), was crowned in 1950, then Prime Minister Field Marshall Phibun Songkhram, one of the 1932 coup leaders, was determined the monarchy should play a low-key role. Yet, popular belief in the sacral qualities of the king had not fundamentally weakened.

During the government of Sarit Thanarat (1958-1963), the monarchy’s profile rose rapidly. Sarit promoted the king as the face of the nation again. King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit boosted the royal prestige during their numerous trips abroad. In the Thai countryside, they enthusiastically promoted rural development. The foundations were laid for the present king’s image as the benevolent fatherly leader, and the hard-working monarch who cares for his subjects. All the activities of the royal family were extensively covered in the media. The king’s relatives and predecessors — including King Chulalongkorn — also came into the picture more often.

King Bhumibol’s star shone even more brightly during  the political crises of 1973. He received a delegation of protesting students at Chitrlada Palace to discuss their demands for a new constitution. When a military force later opened fire on the demonstrators, his subjects were allowed to take refuge in the palace. Eventually, the leaders of the military dictatorship, the ‘Three Tyrants’, fled into exile.

Portrait of King Chulalongkorn in Hua Lamphong railway station.

A huge portrait of King Chulalongkorn in the hall of Bangkok's Hua Lamphong railway station.

In June 1988, seven months after King Bhumibol’s sixtieth birthday, the celebrations for his longest reign took place. Since this surpassed the record of his grandfather, it was inevitable that comparisons would be made between them. It was about this time that popular sentiments concerning King Chulalongkorn clearly surfaced among Bangkok’s newly emergent middle class. Large crowds of citizens started to pay regular homage to the former king in front of the huge equestrian statue at the Royal Plaza, erected in 1908 to commemorate his fortieth year on the throne. Crowds of devotees gather there on Tuesday evenings, as Chulalongkorn was born on a Tuesday. It is now said that on Tuesdays the king’s spirit descends from heaven to enter the statue at 10.00 p.m. In the 1980s, the demand for protective amulets bearing his portrait had also soared, while a number of people claimed to have become mediums possessed by the king’s spirit.

It was evident that he had become, in their worldview, a celestial being. Many ‘miracles’ were attributed to the supernatural intervention of his spirit. Hundreds of stories circulated about the magical power of the king, many of them involving businessmen who unexpectedly saw their enterprises flourish thanks to possessing a portrait or amulet of King Chulalongkorn. In 1992, this new cult gained momentum when famous movie star Bin Banlerut publicly announced that he had survived a car accident only thanks to wearing a Chulalongkorn amulet. The belief spread rapidly across the country. In the same year, the abbot of Chiang Mai’s Wat Don Chan, was possessed by Chulalongkorn’s spirit for the first time, and the temple became a centre for the ‘true believers’.

Due to all this, general interest in the Fifth Reign and in the personal life of the former king had also soared. Reprints of the letters Rama V had written to family members during his travels abroad sold like hot cakes. At the end of the millennium, almost every week a new book about the king was published. The most popular postcards with seasonal greetings sent throughout the kingdom were those bearing his portrait — sometimes accompanied by a picture of the present king.

Spirit house with statuette of King Chulalongkorn inside.

A spirit house along the road to the remote district of Umphang in Tak province. Inside is a statuette of King Chulalongkorn.

Interestingly, the rise of the cult coincided with rapid changes in Thai society. In the late 1980s, the economy grew by double digits, and Thailand became the ‘fifth economic tiger’ in the region. In 1992, following a military coup in the previous year, Thailand seemed threatened by civil war. It is generally credited to the intervention of King Bhumibol that peace was rapidly restored once again. Hardly five years later, Thailand plummeted into the worst economic crisis of its history. Beside bankruptcies and unemployment, the harsh financial austerity measures imposed by the Word Bank and the International Monetary Fund in return for massive loans, contributed to the misery. Some Thais even felt this was as if the West had finally succeeded in colonizing the kingdom.

In the light of those turbulent developments, it’s understandable that millions of people asked for help and support from the spirit of the man who had safely guided the country through equally threatening situations a century earlier. This protective aspect is acknowledged by many followers, and is also expressed in the colloquial form of address — Sadet Pho, meaning ‘Royal Father’.

As Dutch scholar Dr Irene Stengs describes in her study published by Singapore University Press, this elevation of King Chulalongkorn is not an isolated phenomenon, but is interrelated with other cults and religious trends in Thai society.

Though the veneration of a king is a traditional expression of respect Theravada Buddhists have for their righteous and benevolent rulers in general, the Chulalongkorn cult is different from, for example, the veneration of the present king, as the people worship Chulalongkorn’s spirit, while in the case of King Bhumibol they revere the living monarch. Thus, the cult has taken up many characteristics of ‘ordinary spirit cults’ — which is rather at odds with the official discourse, which presents Thailand as a civilized Buddhist nation ‘beyond the world of animism’. The most widely revered spirits in Thailand are those of legendary monks and heroes, but among them the worship of the spirit of two other kings —  Naresuan and Taksin, both of whom lived in the remote past — stands out. These monarchs’ life stories are shrouded in legends, and it is not really known how they actually looked. On the other hand, King Chulalongkorn lived not so long ago, while even many details of his life are well documented, and hundreds of photographs and portraits of him are widely available. As Dr Stengs suggests, this enables the believers to create a rather personal relationship with the Royal Father, which is also clearly evident in the way they pay homage to him.

A statue of King Chulalongkorn in Songkhla, southern Thailand.

A statue of King Chulalongkorn in Songkhla, southern Thailand.

While the official celebrations on Chulalongkorn Day are mainly performed by representatives of the local bureaucracy, banks, and businesses laying wreaths in front of statues of the king, the devotions enacted before Bangkok’s equestrian statue is an unofficial event in which the attendees are emotionally much more strongly involved. Scores of citizens arrive in the evening, having brought their own Chulalongkorn portrait or statuette from home with them, and place it in front of the huge statue. Besides incense and candles, they offer a well-prepared selection of the king’s favourite fruits, flowers (red and pink roses), Thai sweets, drinks (scotch, and Hennessy cognac), cigars and Winston cigarettes. Often a complete household sits on a mat in front of their portrait of the king, sometimes even having dinner together. The spiritual highlight is when they start to direct a prayer (khatha, or mantra) to the king.

In Chiang Mai, King Chulalongkorn is honoured with fervour at Wat Don Chan, just outside the city along Highway 11 to Lampang. On Chulalongkorn Day, the wihan specially dedicated to the king, and the surrounding temple area are lavishly embellished with large bouquets of roses everywhere. As Dr Stengs writes, the celebration is mainly a religious festival combined with thot kathin, the traditional annual offering of the monks’ saffron robes, and money to temples, at the end of the Buddhist Lent. Interestingly, the ceremonies relating to King Chulalongkorn are to a large extent a women’s monopoly — in clear contrast to the organization of traditional Buddhist ceremonies. ‘The cult seems to offer women an opportunity to obtain influence and to express status by fulfilling leading functions in temple activities, a field hitherto largely restricted to men.’

A visit to Wat Don Chan is worthwhile throughout the year. In the prestigious shrine, Wihan Luang Chao Fa Chulalongkorn, fifteen large portraits of him, each a copy of a well-known photograph or painting of the king, have been carved from a single block of wood. The central statue on the altar depicts the king — still a prince, hence the title ‘Chao Fa’ — during his coronation ceremony. This statue is flanked by two others of King Naresuan and King Taksin, bringing together the most venerated monarchs of Thai history.

Interestingly, the temple also has two large statues of the Indian ‘Hindu’ god Ganesha, with the body of a man and the head of an elephant, while an even larger third statue will soon be erected, making Wat Don Chan an exemplar of Thai religious syncretism —  in which the devotion to King Chulalongkorn has become a major element.

©Sjon Hauser: text and pictures

Cover book dr StengsDr Stengs’s study on the worshipping of King Chulalonglorn is for sale in some of Chiang Mai’s bookshops, such as Suriwong Book Centre on Si Don Chai Road.