He once had it all — great power, glory, and wealth, but after losing a war with Britain in 1885, the 27-year-old king of Burma (now called Myanmar) was stripped of almost everything he cherished and was exiled to Ratnagiri, India. December 16, 2016 marked his 100th death anniversary and to commemorate the occasion some descendants, monks, and dignitaries came from Myanmar to Ratnagiri, where his mortal remains still lie.
King Thibaw ruled the Kingdom of Ava (Upper Burma) from Mandalay for seven years from 1878. He has often been blamed for the loss of his kingdom, but while he did not have the skills to appease the British and in fact played into their hands, in actuality this was a period of blatant colonialism and if Britain had not added Upper Burma to its empire, then France, with its presence in Indo-China, probably would have. Burma had already fought two wars with Britain (in the 1820s and in the 1850s, respectively), and had lost a lot of territory, including all access to the sea. Britain saw Upper Burma not only as a market for her exports, but also a source for valuable natural resources. Additionally, the kingdom’s proximity to India (the jewel in the Empire’s crown) and China (a new and important trading partner) made it a region that the British did not want any other power to occupy.
Due to the tremendous reverence accorded by the citizens of Upper Burma to their king (who was treated as a demi-god), the British felt it prudent to remove him quickly and permanently off Burmese soil. They decided to exile him and his immediate family to neighbouring India. Lord Dufferin, then the viceroy and governor general of India, wanted King Thibaw settled in a location well off the beaten track, and Ratnagiri was selected. Situated on the western coast, about 330 km south of Mumbai, it was completely off the beaten track — it lacked railway connection and the only way to get there was by steamer, which too did not ply during the monsoons. As Queen Supayalat was heavily pregnant at the time, it was decided that a stop would be made in Madras, where the family would temporarily reside until the queen was able to travel again. (The family stayed in Madras for a few months from December 1885, in a building called The Mansion, owned by Raja Gajapathy Rao)
King Thibaw, Queen Supayalat, their four daughters and the king’s junior queen, Supayagalae, lived in Ratnagiri in virtual isolation for over 30 years. When the king arrived in April 1886, Ratnagiri was a small, insular, agricultural and fishing village with a population of 11,000. The religion, language, food, culture, customs, climate, and just about everything was alien to the family. Almost immediately the king sent a heart-rending letter to the viceroy indicating his acute unhappiness. He pleaded to be sent back to anywhere in Burma. When his request was rejected he asked to be relocated anywhere else in India so long as it was a more cosmopolitan centre. This request was also turned down; the family was never relocated.
During the exile, the king’s ties with Burma were systematically undermined, and the family’s life was micromanaged by a series of police officers. Orders that would dictate almost all aspects of their life were spelt out in Orwellian form and detail while the family was still in Madras: ‘the conditions on which the ex-King and members of his party should be allowed to take exercise, see traders, and be supplied with local newspapers’ were specified, and it was indicated that ‘subject to [the police officer’s] inspection, the ex-King and his party might dispatch telegrams and letters... and he and they might receive communications addressed to him or them, after they had been opened by, and passed through the hands of the (Police) Officer’.i
The family had been permitted to carry some of their jewellery and for some years were able to augment their government pension from the sale of these items. But as they ran out of their valuable possessions, the once proud king wrote increasingly ingratiating letters requesting a larger allowance, better accommodation, and most poignantly, for the right to be addressed as His Majesty instead of His Highness, because, as he said, “I do not seek for shadow when I have lost the substance. But I feel it very much when they address me as His Highness, as it reminds me of my fall.”ii While the government did attempt to make the king comfortable and agreed to some of his less significant requests, his religion (the king was a devout Buddhist) was what helped him cope.
King Thibaw’s daughters had lengthy titles and not common names. The various British officers in charge of the family referred to them as the First, Second, Third and Fourth Princess — simplified titles that the princesses themselves later used. Like their parents, the girls were not allowed to interact freely with the residents of Ratnagiri. They were not permitted to go to school or play with the local children. So they lived, attended to by an army of servants, until they were all in their thirties. By this time, two of them had fallen in love with ‘highly unsuitable’ men, and all four of them had been endowed with a deep awareness of their ancestry and a sense of entitlement. None of them had received the kind of exposure or education necessary to adequately equip them for life in the outside world.
King Thibaw was never permitted to return to the homeland he so missed and longed for. He died a couple of weeks before his 58th birthday, I believe as much of a broken heart as of the various ailments mentioned in government records. He is said to have died with a prayer on his lips, a rosary in his hand and Queen Supayalat and two of his daughters by his side.
After his death, the family was allowed to return to Burma, but, in spite of their repeated pleas, without the mortal remains of King Thibaw. Once Burma got her independence in January 1948, descendants of the king made several attempts to have his remains brought to Burma. However, the newly formed government had other priorities, and by 1962 a military dictatorship precluded any dialogue on the subject. The descendants now turned their focus on getting permission to visit Ratnagiri to perform the tharanagaon ceremony (accorded to every Buddhist Burmese after death), which had not been done for King Thibaw. After repeated attempts, they were granted permission in 1993 to go and carry out, strictly in private, this long-delayed ceremony.
In December 2012, not long after the country’s first steps towards democratisation, President Thein Sein travelled to Ratnagiri to visit King Thibaw’s place of exile and tomb. Although he combined this with a state visit to India, he was the first Myanmar head of state to publicly accord to King Thibaw this kind of recognition and importance. Myanmar’s Vice-President U Myint Swe and Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services Senior General Min Aung Hlaing came specifically for the commemoration of King Thibaw’s 100th death anniversary, reflecting a substantial shift from a time not so long ago when the military considered the royal family a possible threat and allowed them no special attention.
The two dignitaries arrived precisely at 7 am at the tombs (two tombs stand side by side — King Thibaw and his junior queen are entombed in one; the other was constructed for the ashes of the First Princess, who fell in love with an Indian servant, settled in Ratnagiri and died here in 1947). They laid floral tributes and paid their respects. The king’s descendants had arrived earlier and it was a truly moving moment when the descendants of the First Princess and those of the Fourth met, almost all for the first time. Cousins — Indian and Burmese — entered together the king’s tomb to pay homage and pray before the ceremony began. Three of the king’s great grandchildren were at the ceremony — U Soe Win, Daw Devi Khin and Malti More. Unable to come were the only two surviving grandchildren of King Thibaw — Princess Hteik Su Phaya Gyi (she’s 93 and lives in Yangon) and Prince Taw Phaya (he’s 92 and lives in Pyin Oo Lwin).
In a fitting tribute to the deeply religious king, who had once been the patron of Buddhism in his kingdom, 21 sayadaws (head monks) and monks from Myanmar participated together with senior Indian monks in a traditional Buddhist ceremony. By exiling King Thibaw to a remote and alien location and prohibiting any mention of him in the press, the British government had hoped that his people would eventually forget him. From 1962 it was a military regime that isolated and ruled the country. Anything published had to pass an all-powerful censorship board, and writers had to tread with the greatest of care or risk imprisonment. Now, due to the democratic changes that have taken place in Myanmar in the last few years, its people are at last able to reclaim, know, discuss and honour their past —including that of the poignant life of their last king.
i) FD 1886, Secret E Pros, Nov 1886, nos 378–92, no. 379; ii) proceedings of the FD, May 1911, no. 5 (enclosure), National Archives of India, New Delhi
Sudha Shah is the author of The King in Exile