Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
1999-2009


(Return to Web Text-ures)
Kellscraft Studio Logo
(HOME)

XIX.
THE HEIRAPPARENT. ROYAL HAIRCUTTING.

THE Prince Somdetch Chowfa Chulalonkorn1 was about ten years old when I was appointed to teach him. Being the eldest son of the queen consort, he held the first rank among the children of the king, as heir-apparent to the throne. For a Siamese, he was a handsome lad; of stature neither noticeably tall nor short; figure symmetrical and compact, and dark complexion. He was, moreover, modest and affectionate, eager to learn, and easy to influence.



THE HEIR-APPARENT.

His mother dying when he was about nine years old, he, with his younger brothers, the Princes Chowfa Chaturont Rasmi and Chowfa Bhanurangsi Swang Wongse, and their lovely young sister, the Princess Somdetch Chowfa Chandrmondol ("F-ying"), were left to the care of a grand-aunt, Somdetch Ying Noie, a princess by the father's side. This was a tranquil, cheerful old soul, attracted toward everything that was bright and pretty, and ever busy among flowers, poetry, and those darlings of her loving life, her niece's children. Of these the little F-ying (whose sudden death by cholera I have described) was her favorite; and after her death the faithful creature turned her dimmed eyes and chastened pride to the young prince Chulalonkorn. Many an earnest talk had the venerable duchess and I, in which she did not hesitate to implore me to instil into the minds of her youth-wards and especially this king that was to be the purest principles of Christian faith and precept. Yet with all the freshness of the religious habit of her childhood she was most scrupulous in her attendance and devotions at the temple. Her grief for the death of her darling was deep and lasting, and by the simple force of her love she exerted a potent influence over the mind of the royal lad.

A very stem thing is life to the children of royalty in Siam. To watch and be silent, when it has most need of confidence and freedom, a horrible necessity for a child! The very babe in the cradle is taught mysterious and terrible things by the mother that bore it, infantile experiences of distrust and terror, out of which a few come up noble, the many infamous. Here are baby heroes and heroines who do great deeds before our happier Western children have begun to think. There were actual, though unnoticed and unconscious, intrepidity and fortitude in the manoeuvres and the stands with which those little ones, on their own ground, flanked or checked that fatal enemy, their father. Angelic indeed were the spiritual triumphs that no eye noted, nor any smile rewarded, save the anxious eye and the prayerful smile of that sleepless maternity that misery had bound with them. But even misery becomes tolerable by first becoming familiar, and out of the depths these royal children laughed and prattled and frolicked and were glad. As for the old duchess, she loved too well and too wisely not to be timid and troubled all her life long, first for the mother, then for the children.

Such was the early training of the young prince, and for a time it availed to direct his thoughts to noble aspirations. From his studies, both in English and Pali, he derived an exalted ideal of life, and precocious and inexpressible yearnings. Once he said to me he envied the death of the venerable priest, his uncle; he would rather be poor, he said, and have to earn his living, than be a king.

"'T is true, a poor man must work hard for his daily bread; but then he is free. And his food is all he has to lose or win. He can possess all things in possessing Him who pervades all things, earth, and sky, and stars, and flowers, and children. I can understand that I am great in that I am a part of the Infinite, and in that alone; and that all I see is mine, and I am in it and of it. How much of content and happiness should I not gain if I could but be a poor boy!"

He was attentive to his studies, serene, and gentle, invariably affectionate to his old aunt and his younger brothers, and for the poor ever sympathetic, with a warm, generous heart. He pursued his studies assiduously, and seemed to overcome the difficulties and obstacles he encountered in the course of them with a resolution that gained strength as his mind gained ideas. As often as he effectually accomplished something, he indulged in ecstasies of rejoicing over the new thought, that was an inspiring discovery to him of his actual poverty of knowledge, his possibilities of intellectual opulence. But it was clear to me and I saw it with sorrow that for his ardent nature this was but a transitory condition, and that soon the shock must come, against the inevitable destiny in store for him, that would either confirm or crush all that seemed so fair in the promise of the royal boy.

When the time came for the ceremony of hair-cutting, customary for young Siamese princes, the lad was gradually withdrawn, more and more, from my influence. The king had determined to celebrate the heir's majority with displays of unusual magnificence. To this end lie explored the annals and records of Siam and Cambodia, and compiled from them a detailed description of a very curious procession that attended a certain prince of Siam centuries ago, on the occasion of his hair-cutting; and forthwith projected a similar show for his son, but on a more elaborate and costly scale. The programme, including the procession, provided for the representation of a sort of drama, borrowed partly from the Ramayana, and partly from the ancient observances of the kings of Cambodia.

The whole royal establishment was set in motion. About nine thousand young women, among them the most beautiful of the concubines, were cast for parts in the mammoth play. Boys and girls were invited or hired from all quarters of the kingdom to "assist" in the performance. Every nation under the sun was represented in the grand procession. In our school the regular studies were abandoned, and in their place we had rehearsals of singing, dancing, recitation, and pantomime.

An artificial hill, of great height, called Khoa-Kra-Lt, was raised in the centre of the palace gardens. On its summit was erected a golden temple or pagoda of exquisite beauty, richly hung with tapestries, displaying on the east the rising sun, on the west a moon of silver. The cardinal points of the hill were guarded by the white elephant, the sacred ox, the horse, and the lion. These figures were so contrived that they could be brought close together and turned on a pivot; and thus the sacred waters, brought for that purpose from the Brahmapootra, were to be showered on the prince, after the solemn haircutting, and received in a noble basin of marble.

The name given to the ceremony of hair-cutting varies according to the rank of the child. For commoners it is called "Khone Chook"; for the nobility and royalty, "Soh-Khan," probably from the Sanskrit Sh Shtha Kam, "finding safe and sound." The custom is said to be extremely ancient, and to have originated with a certain Brahmin, whose only child, being sick unto death, was given over by the physicians as in the power of evil spirits. In his heart's trouble the father consulted a holy man, who had been among the earliest converts to Buddhism, if aught might yet be done to save his darling from torment and perdition. The venerable saint directed him to pray, and to have prayers offered, for the lad, and to cause that part of his hair which had never been touched with razor or shears since his birth to be shaved quite off. The result was a joyful rescue for the child; others pursued the same treatment in like cases with the same effect, and hence the custom of hair-cutting. The children of princes are forbidden to have the topknot cut at all, until the time when they are about to pass into manhood or womanhood. Then valuable presents are made to them by all who are related to their families by blood, marriage, or friendship.

When all the preparations necessary to the successful presentation of the dramatic entertainment were completed, the king, having taken counsel of his astrologers, sent heralds to the governors of all the provinces of Siam, to notify those dignitaries of the time appointed for the jubilee, and request their presence and co-operation. A similar summons was sent to all the priests of the kingdom, who, in bands or companies, were to serve alternately, on the several days of the festival.

Early in the forenoon of the auspicious day the prince was borne in state, in a gorgeous chair of gold, to the Maha Phrasat, the order of the procession being as follows:

First came the bearers of the gold umbrellas, fans, and great golden sunshades.

Next, twelve gentlemen, superbly attired, selected from the first rank of the nobility, six on either side of the golden chair, as a body-guard to the prince.

Then, four hundred Amazons arrayed in green and gold, and gleaming armor.

These were followed by twelve maidens, attired in cloth of gold, with fantastic head-gear adorned with precious stones, who danced before the prince to the gentle monotonous movement of the bandos. In the centre of this group moved three lovely girls, of whom one held a superb peacock's tail, and the two others branches of gold and silver, sparkling with leaves and rare flowers. These damsels were guarded by two duennas on either side.

After these stalked a stately body of Brahmins, bearing golden vases filled with Khoa tk, or roasted rice, which they scattered on either side, as an emblem of plenty.

Another troop of Brahmins with bandos, which they rattled as they moved along.

Two young nobles, splendidly robed, who also bore gold vases, lotos-shaped, in which nestled the bird of paradise called Nok Kurrawek, the sweetness of whose song is supposed to entrance even beasts of prey.

A troop of lads, the rising nobility of Siam, fairly covered with gold collars and necklaces.

The king's Japanese body-guard.

Another line of boys, representing natives of Hindostan in costume.

Malayan lads in costume.

Chinese lads in costume.

Siamese boys in English costume.

The king's infantry, headed by pioneers, in European costume.

Outside of this line marched about five thousand men in long rose-colored robes, with tall tapering caps. These represented guardian-angels attending on the different nations.

Then came bands of musicians dressed in scarlet, imitating the cries of birds, the sound of falling fruit, and the murmur of distant waters, in the imaginary forest they were supposed to traverse on their way to the Sacred Mount.

The order of the procession behind the golden sedan in which the prince was borne, was nearly as follows:

Next after the chair of state came four young damsels of the highest rank, bearing the prince's betel-box, spittoon, fan, and swords. Then followed seventy other maidens, carrying reverently in both hands the vessels of pure gold, and all the insignia of rank and office proper to a prince of the blood royal; and yet more, holding over their right shoulders golden fans.

In the train of these tripped troops of children, daughters of the nobility, dressed and decorated with fantastic splendor.

Then the maids of honor, personal attendants, and concubines of the king, chastely dressed, though crowned with gold, and decorated with massive gold chains and rings of great price and beauty.

A crowd of Siamese women, painted and rouged, in European costume.

Troops of children in corresponding attire.

Ladies in Chinese costume.

Japanese ladies in rich robes.

Malay women in their national dress.

Women of Hindostan.

Then the Kariens.

And, last of all, the female slaves and dependants of the prince.

At the foot of the hill a most extraordinary spectacle was presented.

On the east appeared a number of hideous monsters, riding on gigantic eagles. These nondescripts, whose heads reached almost to their knees, and whose hands grasped indescribable weapons, are called Yks. They are appointed to guard the Sacred Mount from all vulgar approach.

A little farther on, around a pair of stuffed peacocks, were a number of youthful warriors, representing kings, governors, and chiefs of the several dependencies of Siam.

Desirous of witnessing the sublime ceremony of haircutting, they cautiously approach the Yks, performing a sort of war dance, and chanting in chorus:

Orah Pho, cha pai Kra Lt.

"Let us go to the Sacred Mount!"

Whereupon the Yks, or evil angels, point their wonderful weapons at them, chanting in the same strain:

Orah Pho, salope thng pooang.

"Let us slay them all! "

They then make a show of striking and thrusting, and princes, rajahs, and governors drop as if wounded.

The principal parts in the drama were assumed by his Majesty, and their excellencies the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The king was dressed for the character of P'hra Inn Suen, the Hindoo Indra, or Lord of the Sky, who has also the attributes of the Roman Genius; but most of his epithets in Sanskrit are identical with those of the Olympian Jove. He was attended by the Prime Minister, personating the Sanskrit Sach, but called in Siamese "Vis Summo Km," and the Minister of Foreign Affairs as his charioteer, Ma Talee. His imperial elephant, called Aisarat, caparisoned in velvet and gold, and bearing the supernatural weapons, Vagra, the thunderbolts, was led by allegorical personages, representing winds and showers, lightning and thunder. The hill, Khoa Kra Lt, is the Sanskrit Meru, described as a mountain of gold and gems.

His Majesty received the prince from the hands of his nobles, set him on his right hand, and presented him to the people, who offered homage. Afterward, two ladies of the court led him down the flight of marble steps, where two maidens washed his feet with pure water in a gold basin, and wiped them with fine linen.

On his way to the Maha Phrasat he was met by a group of girls in charming attire, who held before him tufts of palm and branches of gold and silver. Thus he was conducted to an inner chamber of the temple, and seated on a costly carpet heavily fringed with gold, before an altar on which were lighted tapers and offerings of all descriptions. In his hand was placed a strip of palmyra leaf, on which were inscribed these mystic words: "Even I was, even from the first, and not any other thing: that which existed unperceived, supreme. Afterwards, I am that which is, and He that was, and He who must remain am I."

"Know that except Me, who am the First Cause, nothing that appears or does not appear in the mind can be trusted; it is the mind's Maya or delusion, as Light is to Darkness."

On the reverse was inscribed this sentence:

"Keep me still meditating on Thy infinite greatness and my own nothingness, so that all the questions of my life may be answered and my mind abundantly instructed in the path of Niphan!"

In his hands was placed a ball of unspun thread, the ends of which were carried round the sacred hill, and thence round the temple, and into the inner chamber, where it was bound round the head of the young prince. Thence again nine threads were taken, which, after encircling the altar, were passed into the hands of the officiating priests. These latter threads, forming circles within circles, symbolize the mystic word Om, which may not escape the lips even of the purest, but must be meditated upon in silence.

Early on the third day all the princes, nobles, and officers of government, together with the third company of priests, assembled to witness the ceremony of shaving the royal top-knot. The royal sire handed first the golden shears and then a gilded razor to the happy hair-cutter, who immediately addressed himself to his honorable function. Meanwhile the musicians, with the trumpeters and conch-blowers, exerted all their noisy faculties to beguile the patient heir.

The tonsorial operation concluded, the prince was robed in white, and conducted to the marble basin at the foot of the Sacred Mount, where the white elephant, the ox, the horse, and the lion, guarding the cardinal points, were brought together, and from their mouths baptized him in the sacred waters. He was then arrayed in silk, still white, by women of rank, and escorted to a golden pagoda on the summit of the hill, where the king, in the character of P'hra Inn Suen, waited to bestow his blessing on the heir. With one hand raised to heaven, and the other on the bowed head of his son, he solemnly uttered words of Pali, which may be translated thus:

"Thou who art come out of the pure waters, be thy offences washed away! Be thou relieved from other births! Bear thou in thy bosom the brightness of that light which shall lead thee, even as it led the sublime Buddha, to Niphan, at once and forever!"

These rites ended, the priests were served with a princely banquet; and then the nobility and common people were also feasted. About midday, two standards, called baise, were set up within a circle of people. These are not unlike the sawekra cht, or royal umbrella, one of the five insignia of royalty in Siam. They are about five cubits high, and have from three to five canopies. The staff is fixed in a wooden pedestal. Each circle or canopy has a flat bottom, and within the receptacle thus formed custom requires that a little cooked rice, called k'ow k'wan, shall be placed, together with a few cakes, a little sweet-scented oil, a handful of fragrant flour, and some young cocoanuts and plantains. Other edibles of many kinds are brought and arranged about the baise, and a beautiful bouquet adorns the top of each of the umbrella-like canopies.

Then a procession was formed, of princes, noblemen, and others, who marched around the standards nine times. As they went, seven golden candlesticks, with the candles lighted, were carried by princes, and passed from one to another; and as often as they came in front of the prince, who sat between the standards, they waved the light before him. This procession is but another form of the Om symbol.

Afterwards the eldest priest or brahmin took a portion of the rice from the baise, and, sprinkling it with cocoanut water, gave the lad a spoonful of it. Then dipping his finger, first in the scented oil and then in the fragrant flour, he touched the right foot of the prince, at the same time exhorting him to be manly and strong, and to bear himself bravely in "the conflict of feeling."

Now presents of silver and gold were laid at the feet of the lad, every prince not of the royal family, and every nobleman and high officer in the kingdom, being expected to appear with gifts. A chowfa might receive, in the aggregate, from five hundred thousand to a million ticals.2 It should be remarked in this connection, that the late king commanded that careful note be kept of all sums of money presented by officers of his government to his children at the time of Soh-Khan, that the full amount might be refunded with the next semi-annual payment of salary. But this decree does not relieve the more distinguished princes and endowed noblemen, who have acquired a sort of complimentary relationship to his Majesty through their daughters and nieces accepted as concubines.

The children of plain citizens, who cannot afford the luxury of a public hair-cutting, are taken to a temple, where a priest shaves the tuft, with a brief religious ceremony.

Hardly had the prince recovered his wonted frame of mind, after an event so pregnant with significance and agitation to him, when the time arrived for his induction into the priesthood. For this the rites, though simpler, were more solemn. The hair, which had been suffered to grow on the top of his young pate like an inverted brush, was now shorn close, and his eyebrows were shaven also. Arrayed in costly robes and ornaments, similar to those worn at a coronation, he was taken in charge by a body of priests at his father's palace, and by them conducted to the temple Watt P'hra Kau, his yellow-robed and barefooted escort chanting, on the way, hymns from the Buddhist liturgy. At the threshold of the temple another band of priests divested him of his fine robes and clad him in simple white, all the while still chanting. The circle being characteristic of a Buddhist ceremonial, as the cross is of their religious architectures these priests formed a circle, standing, and holding lighted tapers in their folded palms, the high-priest in the centre. Then the prince advanced meekly, timidly, bowing low, to enter the holy ring. Here he was received by the high-priest, and with their hands mutually interfolded, one upon the other, he vowed to renounce, then and there, the world with all its cares and temptations, and to observe with obedience the doctrines of Buddha. This done, he was clad afresh in sackcloth, and led from the temple to the royal monastery, Watt Brahmanee Waid; with bare feet and eyes downcast he went, still chanting those weird hymns.

Here he remained recluse for six months. When he returned to the world, and to the residence assigned him, he seemed no longer the impressible, ardent boy who was once my bright, ambitious scholar. Though still anxious to prosecute his English studies, he was pronounced too old to unite with his brothers and sisters in the school. For a year I taught him, from seven to ten in the evening, at his "Rose-planting House"; and even from this distant place and time I look back with comfort to those hours.

________________

1 The present Supreme King.

2 A tical is equivalent to sixty cents.


Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.