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OUR SCHOOL IN THE PALACE.
THE fact is remarkable, that though education in its higher degrees is popularly neglected in Siam, there is scarcely a man or woman in the empire who cannot read and write. Though a vain people, they are neither bigoted nor shallow; and I think the day is not far off when the enlightening influences applied to them, and accepted through their willingness, not only to receive instruction from Europeans, but even to adopt in a measure their customs and their habits of thought, will raise them to the rank of a superior nation.
The language of this people advances but slowly in the direction of grammatical perfection. Like many other Oriental tongues, it was at first purely monosyllabic; but as the Pali or Sanskrit has been liberally engrafted on it, polysyllabic words have been formed. Its pronouns and particles are peculiar, its idioms few and simple, its metaphors very obvious. It is copious to redundancy in terms expressive of royalty, rank, dignity — in fact, a distinct phraseology is required in addressing personages of exalted station; repetitions of word and phrase are affected, rather than shunned. Sententious brevity and simplicity of expression belong to the pure spirit of the language, and when employed impart to it much dignity and beauty; but there is no standard of orthography, nor any grammar, and but few rules of universal application. Every Siamese writer spells to please himself, and the purism of one is the slang or gibberish of another.
A PUPIL OF THE ROYAL SCHOOL.
A Siamese Actor and Actress.
The Siamese write from left to right, the words running together in a line unbroken by spaces, points, or capitals; so that, as in ancient Sanskrit, an entire paragraph appears as one protracted word,
"That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along."
When not written with a reed on dark native paper, the characters are engraved with a style (of brass or iron, one end sharp for writing, the other flat for erasing) on palm-leaves prepared for the purpose.
In all parts of the empire the boys are taught by priests to read, write, and cipher. Every monastery is provided with a library, more or less standard. The more elegant books are composed of tablets of ivory, or of palmyra leaves delicately prepared; the characters engraved on these are gilt, the margins and edges adorned with heavy gilding or with flowers in bright colors.
The literature of the Siamese deals principally with religious topics. The "Kammarakya," or Buddhist Ritual, — a work for the priesthood only, and therefore, like others of the Vinnâyâ, little known, — contains the vital elements of the Buddhist Moral Code, and, per se, is perfect; on this point all writers, whether partial or captious, are of one mind. Spence Hardy, a Wesleyan missionary, speaking of that part of the work entitled "Dhammâ-Padam,"1 which is freely taught in the schools attached to the monasteries, admits that a compilation might be made from its precepts, "which in the purity of its ethics could hardly be equalled from any other heathen author."
M. Laboulaye, one of the most distinguished members of the French Academy, remarks, in the Débats of April 4, 1853, on a work known by the title of "Dharmna Maitri" or "Law of Charity": —
"It is difficult to comprehend how men, not aided by revelation, could have soared so high and approached so near the truth. Beside the five great commandments, — not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to lie, not to get drunk, — every shade of vice, hypocrisy, anger, pride, suspicion, greed, gossip, cruelty to animals, is guarded against by special precepts. Among the virtues commended we find, not only reverence for parents, care for children, submission to authority, gratitude, moderation in time of prosperity, resignation and fortitude in time of trial, equanimity at all times, but virtues unknown to any heathen system of morality, such as the duty of forgiving insults, and of rewarding evil with good."
All virtues, we are told, spring from maitre, and this maitri can only be rendered by charity and love.
"I do not hesitate," says Burnout, in his Lotus de la Bonne Loi, "to translate by 'charity' the word maitri, which expresses, not merely friendship, or the feeling of particular affection which a man has for one or more of his fellow-creatures, but that universal feeling which inspires us with good-will toward all men and a constant willingness to help them."
I may here add the testimony of Barthelemy Saint-Hilaire: "I do not hesitate to add," he writes, "that, save the Christ alone, there is not among the founders of religion a figure more pure, more touching, than that of Buddha. His life is without blemish; his constant heroism equals his conviction; and if the theory he extols is false, the personal examples he affords are irreproachable. He is the accomplished model of all the virtues he preaches; his abnegation, his charity, his unalterable sweetness, never belie themselves. At the age of twenty-nine he retires from the court of the king, his father, to become a devotee and a beggar. He silently prepares his doctrine by six years of seclusion and meditation. He propagates it, by the unaided power of speech and persuasion, for more than half a century; and when he dies in the arms of his disciples, it is with the serenity of a sage who has practised goodness all his life, and knows that he has found Truth."
Another work, as sacred and more mystic, is the "Parajikâ," read in the temples with closed doors by the chief priests exclusively, and only to such devotees as have entered the monastic schools for life.
Then there are the "P'ra-jana Para-mita," (the "Accomplishment of Reason," or "Transcendental Wisdom,") and other works in abstruse philosophy. The "Lalita Via-tara" contains the life of Buddha, and is esteemed the highest authority as to the more remarkable events in the career of the great reformer. The "Saddharma-pundikara" (or pundariki in Ceylon), "The White Lotos of the True Religion," presents the incidents of Buddha's life in the form of legend and fable.
The "Ganda-Veyuha," but little known, consists of remarkable and very beautiful forms of prayer and thanksgiving, with psalms of praise addressed to the Perfection of the Infinite and to the Invisible, by Sakya Muni, the Buddha. The "Nirwana" treats of the end of material existence, and is universally read, and highly esteemed by Buddhists as a treatise of rare merit.
But the most important parts of the theological study of the Siamese priesthood are found in a work revered under the titles of "Tautras" and "Kala-Chakara," — that is, "Circles of Time, Matter, Space"; probably a translation of the Sanskrit symbolic word, Om, "Circle." There are twenty-two volumes, treating exclusively of mystics and mystical worship.
The libraries of the monasteries are rich in works on the theory and practice of medicine; but very poor in historical books, the few preserved dealing mainly with the lives and actions of Siamese rulers, oddly associated with the genii and heroes of the Hindoo mythology. Like the early historians of Greece and Rome, the writers are careful to furnish a particular account of all signs, omens, and predictions relating to the several events recorded. They possess also a few translated works in Chinese history.
The late king was an authority on all questions of religion, law, and custom, and was familiar with the writings of Pythagoras and Aristotle.
The Siamese have an extravagant fondness for the drama, and for poetry of every kind. In all the lyric form predominates, and their compositions are commonly adapted for instrumental accompaniment. Their dramatic entertainments are mainly musical, combining rudely the opera with the ballet, — monotonous singing, and listless, mechanical dancing. Dialogue is occasionally introduced, the favorite subjects being passages from the Hindoo Avatars, the epic "Ramayana," and the "Mahabharata"; or from legends, peculiar to Siam, of gods, heroes, and demons. Throughout their literature, mythology is the all-pervading element; history, science, arts, customs, conversation, opinion, doctrine, are alike colored and flavored with it.
With so brief and meagre a sketch of the literature of Siam, I would fain prepare the reader to appreciate the peculiarities of an English classical school in the Royal Palace at Bangkok. In Siam, all schools, literary societies, monasteries, even factories, all intellectual and progressive enterprises of whatever nature and intention, are opened and begun on Thursday, "One P'ra Hatt"; because that day is sacred to the goddess of Mind or Wisdom, probably the Hindoo Saraswati. On the Thursday appointed for the opening of my classes in the palace, one of the king's barges conveyed us across the Meinam. At the landing I was met by slave-girls, who conducted me to the palace through the gate called Patoo Sap, "Gate of Knowledge." Here I was received by some Amazons, who in turn gave notice to other slave-girls waiting to escort us to a pavilion — or, more correctly, temple — dedicated to the wives and daughters of Siam.2 The profound solitude of this refuge, embowered in its twilight grove of orange and palm trees, was strangely tranquillising. The religion of the place seemed to overcome us, as we waited among the tall, gilded pillars of the temple. On one side was an altar, enriched with some of the most curious and precious offerings of art to be found in the East. There was a gilded rostrum also, from which the priests daily officiated; and near by, on the summit of a curiously carved trunk of an old Bho tree,3 the goddess of Mind presided.
The Boor of this beautiful temple was a somewhat gaudy mosaic of variegated marble and precious stones; but the gilded pillars, the friezes that surmounted them, and the vaulted roof of gilded arabesques, seemed to tone down the whole to their own chaste harmony of design.
In the centre of the temple stood a long table, finely carved, and some gilt chairs. The king and most of the nobler ladies of the court were present, with a few of the chief priests, among whom I recognized, for the first time, his Lordship Chow Khoon!
His Majesty received me and my little boy most kindly. After an interval of silence he clapped his hands lightly, and instantly the lower hall was filled with female slaves.
A word or two, dropped from his lips, bowed every head and dispersed the attendants. But they presently returned laden, some with boxes containing books, slates, pens, pencils, and ink; others with lighted tapers and vases filled with the white lotos, which they set down before the gilded chairs.
At a signal from the king, the priests chanted a hymn from the "P'ra-jana Para-mita";4 and then a burst of music announced the entrance of the princes and princesses, my future pupils. They advanced in the order of their ages. The Princess Ying You Wahlacks ("Firstborn among Women"), having precedence, approached and prostrated herself before her royal father, the others following her example. I admired the beauty of her skin, the delicacy of her form, and the subdued lustre of her dreamy eyes. The king took her gently by the hand, and presented me to her, saying simply, "The English teacher." Her greeting was quiet and self-possessed. Taking both my hands, she bowed, and touched them with her forehead; then, at a word from the king, retired to her place on the right. One by one, in like manner, all the royal children were presented and saluted me; and the music ceased.
His Majesty then spoke briefly, to this effect: "Dear children, as this is to be an English school, you will have to learn and observe the English modes of salutation, address, conversation, and etiquette; and each and every one of you shall be at liberty to sit in my presence, unless it be your own pleasure not to do so." The children all bowed, and touched their foreheads with their folded palms, in acquiescence.
Then his Majesty departed with the priests; and the moment he was fairly out of sight, the ladies of the court began, with much noise and confusion, to ask questions, turn over the leaves of books, and chatter and giggle together. Of course, no teaching was possible in such a din; my young princes and princesses disappeared in the arms of their nurses and slaves, and I retired to my apartments in the prime minister's palace. But the serious business of my school began on the following Thursday.
On that day a crowd of half-naked children followed me and my Louis to the palace gates, where our guide gave us in charge to a consequential female slave, at whose request the ponderous portal was opened barely wide enough to admit one person at a time. On entering we were jealously scrutinized by the Amazonian guard, and a "high private" questioned the propriety of admitting my boy; whereat a general tittering, and we passed on. We advanced through the noiseless oval door, and entered the dim, cool pavilion, in the centre of which the tables were arranged for school. Away flew several venerable dames who had awaited our arrival, and in about an hour returned, bringing with them twenty-one scions of Siamese royalty, to be initiated into the mysteries of reading, writing, and arithmetic, after the European, and especially the English manner.
It was not long before my scholars were ranged in chairs around the long table, with Webster's far-famed spelling-books before them, repeating audibly after me the letters of the alphabet. While I stood at one end of the table, my little Louis at the other, mounted on a chair, the better to command his division, mimicked me with a fidelity of tone and manner very quaint and charming. Patiently his small finger pointed out to his class the characters so strange to them, and not yet perfectly familiar to himself.
About noon, a number of young women were brought to me, to be taught like the rest. I received them sympathetically, at the same time making a memorandum of their names in a book of my own. This created a general and lively alarm, which it was not in my power immediately to allay, my knowledge of their language being confined to a few simple sentences; but when at last their courage and confidence were restored, they began to take observations and an inventory of me that were by no means agreeable. They fingered my hair and dress, my collar, belt, and rings. One donned my hat and cloak, and made a promenade of the pavilion; another pounced upon my gloves and veil, and disguised herself in them, to the great delight of the little ones, who laughed boisterously. A grim duenna, who had heard the noise, bustled wrathfully into the pavilion. Instantly hat, cloak, veil, gloves, were flung right and left, and the young women dropped on the floor, repeating shrilly, like truant urchins caught in the act, their "ba, be, bi, bo."
One who seemed the infant phenomenon of the royal harem, so juvenile and artless were her looks and ways, despising a performance so rudimentary as the a, b, c, demanded to be steered at once into the mid-ocean of the book; but when I left her without pilot in an archipelago of hard words, she soon showed signals of distress.
At the far end of the table, bending over a little prince, her eyes riveted on the letters my boy was naming to her, stood a pale young woman, whose aspect was dejected and forlorn. She had entered unannounced and unnoticed, as one who had no interest in common with the others; and now she stood apart and alone, intent only on mastering the alphabet with the help of her small teacher. When we were about to dismiss the school, she repeated her lesson to my wise lad, who listened with imposing gravity, pronounced her a "very good child," and said she might go now. But when she perceived that I observed her curiously, she crouched almost under the table, as though owning she had no right to be there, and was worthy to pick only the crumbs of knowledge that might fall from it. She was neither very young nor pretty, save that her dark eyes were profound and expressive, and now the more interesting by their touching sadness. Esteeming it the part of prudence as well as of kindness to appear unconscious of her presence, and so encourage her to come again, I left the palace without accosting her, before his Majesty had awakened from his forenoon nap. This crushed creature had fallen under the displeasure of the king, and the after chapters of her story, which shall be related in their proper connection, were romantic and mournful.
1 Properly Dharmna, — "Footsteps of the Law."
2 Watt Khoon Choom Manda Thai, — "Temple of the Mothers of the Free."
3 The sacred tree under which Guadama discoursed with his disciples.
4 "Accomplishment of Reason," or "Transcendental Wisdom."