Remains of a lost kingdom

Heritage

Remains of a lost kingdom

Crumbling history  Thibaw  Palace is  today just a sad reflection of its youth.

The year 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of the construction of the famous Thibaw Palace, at Ratnagiri,  225 kilometers from Mumbai. This is for all purposes, a segment of Burmese history that has found its home in India. According to an agreement between   the governments of India and Burma (now Myanmar) this structure will be maintained in memory of  King Thibaw of  Burma (1859-1916) who was exiled here  by the British. What has happened subsequently is another story however.

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.

Dwindling fortunes

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?

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