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Queen Suriyothai & The White Elephant War

Every Thai person knows about the White Elephant War of 1563 and the role that Queen Suriyothai played in this context. The King of Burma learned that the ruler of Siam, King Maha Chakkraphat, owned seven white elephants. The white elephant was considered a symbol of prestige and royal power. Thus, the Burmese King was envious since there were not any white elephants in Burma at that time and he decided to have one at any cost.

Suriyothai

Ayutthaya Queen Suriyothai Monument (photo credit: Peerapong Prasutr, wikimedia.org)

The Ayutthaya Queen Suriyothai Monument (photo credit: Peerapong Prasutr, wikimedia.org)

Therefore, the Burmese King demanded three of King Chakkraphat’s white elephants. The ruler of Siam, however, refused. As a consequence, the Burmese king led his army to Ayutthaya, the capital city of Siam. From the wall of the city King Chakraphat and Queen Suriyothai watched the Burmese soldiers invading the city.

Beautiful Queen Suriyothai (photo credit: madmonarchist.blogspot.com)

Painting of the beautiful Queen Suriyothai, source unknown (photo credit: madmonarchist.blogspot.com)

They were deeply worried because there were so many enemy soldiers. Thus, the King decided to let them attack the city and then defeat them. Queen Suriyothai was eager to go into battle with her husband but of course, the King disapproved. Nonetheless, the Queen was determined, and when the King went into battle, she remained at his side.

Painting by Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs, depicting Queen Suriyothai (center) on her elephant putting herself between King Maha Chakkraphat (right) and the Burmese prince (left). (photo credit Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs, wikimedia.org)

Painting by Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs, depicting the Queen (center) on her elephant putting herself between King Maha Chakkraphat (right) and the Viceroy of Pray (left). (photo credit: Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs, wikimedia.org)

She watched the King lead his war elephants into the heat of battle. He was duelling with the Burmese Prince when the Queen saw her husband’s body weave with the sway of his elephant. It was obvious that the King would soon be killed. However, Queen Suriyothai courageously spurred her elephant between the elephants of the royal warriors and was killed by the fatal spear intended to kill her husband.

Suriyothai Monument constructed in 1991 in the area called “Tung Makham Yong” in Ban Mai sub-district, PhraNakorn Si Ayutthaya district (photo credit: Peerapong Prasutr, wikimedia.org)

Suriyothai Monument constructed in 1991 in the area called “Tung Makham Yong” in Ban Mai sub-district, PhraNakorn Si Ayutthaya district (photo credit: Peerapong Prasutr, wikimedia.org)

Hence, King Maha Chakkraphat’s life was saved but he wept for his brave wife and did not stop the war. In four months, however, the Burmese were forced to withdraw their forces and the King of Burma did not succeed in capturing a white elephant.

Queen Suriyothai has become a very popular female historical figure in Thailand. Because of her bravery, boldness and self-determination, she is also regarded as a great feminist. Even though, in history she is only known from three lines in a chronicle, her story was filmed. Thus, ‘The Legend of Suriyothai’ (2001) directed by H.R.H Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol became very popular in Thailand similar to ‘The Legend of King Naresuan’. In 2003 ‘The Legend of Suriyothai’ was also release in the USA and edited by Francis Ford Coppola. Since nearly nothing is known about the historical Suriyothai, her story in the movie was mostly invented.

Finally, we may say that the story of Suriyothai and the White Elephant War has intrigued many generations of Thai people. In addition, the Queen may also be regarded as an early feminist with good reason.

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Marian Davies Toth, Tales from Thailand. Folkore, Culture, and History, 2nd ed. 1982)




The Legend of King Naresuan (History & Movie)

The story of the Black Prince dates back to the historical Ayutthaya period. Prince Naresuan (in Thai: Ong Dam, องค์ดำ) was born 1555 in Phitsanlunok, Thailand. His brother Ekathotsarot was called the White Prince. In contrast to his brother, he was more lenient and less rigid. Naresuan was captured by the Burmese and thus raised with the Burmese royal princes, among them Crown Prince Mingyi Swa, in Pegu. Naresuan was an intelligent boy who was educated in the style of early modern warfare by the Burmese.

King Naresuan

King Naresuan in Ayutthaya (photo credit: Peerapong Prasutr, wikimedia.org)

King Naresuan memorial in Ayutthaya (photo credit: Peerapong Prasutr, wikimedia.org)

The legend of King Naresuan has been filmed and directed by HSH Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol in six parts from 2007 till today, starring Wanchana Sawatdee as Naresuan. The 6th and last part will be featured in August 2015. The first part released in 2007 deals with the Black Prince’s childhood.

When the Black Prince was a young man, the Burmese King trusted him to such extend that he gave him permission to train an army of captured Thai soldiers. The Prince affectionately called his men Naresuan’s Wild Tigers. Thus, the Wild Tigers became increasingly powerful and one day they defeated the Burmese army returning triumphantly back to Siam. Soon after this event, the Black Prince became King Naresuan of Siam thus reclaiming sovereignty. This is mainly what the second part of the film series is about.

Hence, his first major challenge was with the Burmese who were his former hosts. A giant enemy force of Burmese soldiers threatened the border between Siam and Burma. Naresuan ordered his people in the north to withdraw and burn their rice fields. The farmers thus fled to Ayutthaya and the new king turned every able-bodied man into a soldier.

To both Siam and Burma, the war was very painful. However, neither army would give in to the other. One day, King Naresuan’s war elephant was startled and hence ran madly into the enemy lines. When the dust from the elephant’s hoofs cleared, the King realized that he was facing his enemy, the Burmese crown prince.

The King was surrounded by a large force of enemy soldiers. The Burmese prince could have ordered his death but instead accepted Naresuan’s challenge to a duel. This is the Elephant Battle in which the two opponents fought with swords and spears from the back of the elephants. The legend tells that when the Burmese prince urged his elephant forward, Naresuan swung his sword and wounded the prince who soon died from the injury.

The King thus declares an armistice while the Burmese soldiers removed the body of the slain prince from the battlefield. It seemed that the King admired his opponent whom he had been forced to kill. Thus, on their battleground he built a memorial chedi to honour the Burmese prince Mingyi Swa, his childhood friend.  This fight took place on 25 January 1592 at Nong Sarai field in Suphan Buri.

Don chedi memorial, Suphanburi Province, Thailand (photo credit: Heinrich Damm, wikimedia.org)

Don chedi memorial, Suphan Buri Province, Thailand (photo credit: Heinrich Damm, wikimedia.org)

With their crown prince killed, the Burmese had no one to lead them and thus they lost heart for battle. In consequence, they withdrew their forces and for a while the Burmese and the people of Siam enjoyed a time of peace. King Naresuan died in 1605 at the age of 49.

Finally, I must confess that I’m not such a great fan of historical movies because I often find them too strenuous. In particular those movies that deal with a lot of fighting and warfare. However, is was very much interested in the story of King Naresuan, thus the movies came in useful for me 🙂

Yours, Sirinya