Remains of a lost kingdom
KDL Khan explores a forgotten segment of Burmese history, a crumbling palace in Ratnagiri where the exiled King Thibaw spent his last years longing for his empire
After the British took away his kingdom, Thibaw was deported to India in early 1886, first to Chennai and then to the muggy seaside town of Ratnagiri on the Konkan coast. Thibaw was given a house, and later in 1910, was allowed to build his own home, now known as Thibaw palace.
This palace with teak detailing and Italian, colored glass windows that reflect the setting sun beautifully, was built on twenty three acres of land overlooking the green Arabian sea. The palace itself is a unique example of ‘Pagoda’ style of architecture and took two years to complete. The main building is 60 metres ( 197 feet) long and 43 metres ( 141 feet) broad, with an area of 25000 square ft. The imposing two storeyed structure, constructed with red stone was magnificent.
By all accounts, Thibaw and his family lived a life of intense boredom. He seemed never to have accepted his fate and, hoping for some sort of improvement in his status, wrote several times to the Viceroy of India. His repeated requests to be sent back to Mandalay would have been acceptable back in 1880, but were now diusmissed. In later times Thibaw’s requests became more modest. He wanted to be allowed to, for instance, attend the 1905 Delhi durbar together with the other Indian princes.
Money was a constant problem. Thibaw and his queen Supayalat had brought with them precious stones as well as other valuables, which by the 1890s were almost all sold away to local merchants.
Their pensions were small. Again and again Thibaw petitioned the British for more funds who in turn thought that he was being irresponsible. A number of tiresome attempts were made to better supervise Thibaw’s spending.
And then there was a scandal during the hot summers of 1906. Of the three princesses, one was impregnated by an Indian gatekeeper. Thibaw and Supayalat soon reconciled themselves to the situation, and their first granddaughter became their new focus of attention. She was nicknamed Baisu. But then in 1916, something happened that the royal couple could not accept.
The second princess, always known for being strong–willed, fell in love with a man named Khin Maung Gyi.
King Thibaw was not willing to let an ordinary citizen of Burma marry his daughter. Then the daughter escaped from the Thibaw palace with her lover and when Thibaw found that she would not return, he suffered from a heart attack and soon died. He was buried in a mausoleum within the compounds of Thibaw palace. Supayalat subsequently returned to Burma.
The first princess stayed behind with her little daughter Baisu and slowly fell into poverty. Baisu herself married and had a sizable family, with several children and grandchildren. She moved to Mumbai, and merged into the great sea of the urban poor in Mumbai’s slums.
She was still alive at the beginning of the twenty first century and was in her late nineties and journalists who went to visit, spoke of her generosity and kind manners. A little picture of Thibaw and Supayalat tacked onto the wall of her shack and a hint of upper class Burman features were the only things that distinguished her from her neighbours.
The fate of the second princess is something of a mystery. Her siblings (with whom she had no contact after her elopement) say that she and her Burmese husband Khin Maung Gyi had no children.
Apparently, the couple wound up at the hill station of Kalimpong, near Darjeeling, bought a dairy farm, where they lived out the rest of their lives in the cool pine scented air of the Himalayan foothills. The only surviving descendant of King Thibaw was Taw Hpaya, his eldest grandson, who was alive in 1997 at the age of 84 in the town of Maymyo in Burma.
After decades of existing as a government office, the palace was made into a Bombay University sub-centre and was leased to it by the government, for Rs 60,000 per year for a two-year period which ended in 1999. The Archaeological Survey of India however re-claimed the palace in 1999.
Now it has also been partly converted into a museum. The museum is rather pitiful as it has only four rooms. The three rooms on the first floor have some old, badly damaged copper vessels, old photographs and the last room is an attempt to recreate the grandeur of the palace. At present, the palace is in shambles and some portion of the roof and walls may collapse at any moment.
Meanwhile, the Government of Burma (Myanmar) has conveyed their concern about the fate of the palace.
They must wonder that if they have preserved and maintained carefully the mausoleum of the last emperor of India, Bahadurshah Zafar in Rangoon; why is the Government of India not taking a similar interest in preserving the Thibaw Palace, where the last king of Burma lived many untold stories and died unsung?