The Bunnag Family: Thai People of Persian Decent

It is a fact that in the period of the Ayutthaya  Kingdom, i.e. the early 17th century, Persian people migrated to Thailand. They were mainly traders and merchants. These people of Persian decent were referred to as ‘Khaek Ma-ngon’ (แขกมะหง่น) or ‘Shia Muslim’ which is ‘Khaek Chaosen’ (แขกเจ้าเซน) in Thai. Over the centuries, most of the Khaek Ma-ngon converted to Buddhism and were integrated into Thailand’s society.

Consort Samlee Bunnag [Rama 4] with her daughters around 1880, (photo credit: teakdoor.com)

Consort Samlee Bunnag [Rama IV] with her daughters around 1880, (photo: teakdoor.com)

The Bunnag family

Some of the Thai families of Iranian decent have been very influential in Thai public life. In this context, the Bunnag (บุนนาคfamily is most well-known and established up until today. Their ancestor is Shaykh Ahmad Qomi who came as a merchant to Ayutthaya in 1602 and stayed in Thailand for 26 years.

Yarinda Bunnag (photo bk.asia-city.com)

Contemporary actress, singer & architect Yarinda Bunnag (b. 1980). She was in the movie The Red Eagle starring alongside Ananda Everingham (photo: bk.asia-city.com)

The Bunnag family was acknowledged as a Siamese Royal Family in the early Rattanakosin period. They were most powerful in the 19th century. The first patriarch of the Bunnag, Akka Mahasena, was a close friend and confidant of Rama I who married five of Bunnag’s daughters as royal consorts. Thus, the Bunnag also influenced the succession in the Chakri dynasty. However, in the late 19th century the Bunnag’s power was restricted by King Rama V (Chulalongkorn).

Bunnag sisters and children sharing a meal on the veranda of the king’s residence at Dusit Palace. (image courtesy of the National Archive of Thailand, quod.lib.umich.edu)

The Bunnag family, sisters and children sharing a meal on the veranda of the king’s residence at Dusit Palace. (Image courtesy of the National Archive of Thailand, quod.lib.umich.edu)

The Bunnag daughters were royal consorts for centuries. Even during the time of King Chulalongkorn’s reign, the Bunnag sisters were concubines at the Royal Court. In this context, you may remember my article about Dara Rasami who was a Princess of Chiang Mai at the Siamese Court.

The Bunnag sisters, royal consorts, notice that they all wear a short hairstyle*

The Bunnag sisters, royal consorts at the time of King Chulalongkorn (Image courtesy of the National Archive of Thailand, quod.lib.umich.edu)

Dis Bunnag (Prayurawongse,1788–1855 ) was a son of Akka Mahasena. He was an important political figure and played a decisive role in the ascension of King Mongkut (Rama IV).

Prayurawongse, Dis Bunnag (photo credit: Watprayoon, wikimedia.org)

Prayurawongse, Dis Bunnag (photo: Watprayoon, wikimedia.org)

He became the kingdom-wide regent under King Monkut being granted the title of Somdet Chao Phraya Borom Maha Prayurawongse. One of his sons, Chuang Bunnag, became the regent for King Chulalongkorn.

Sri Suriyawongse, Chuang Bunnag (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

Sri Suriyawongse, Chuang Bunnag (photo: wikimedia.org)

Finally, we may say that the Bunnag family has been very influential in Thailand’s history. There are in fact some other Thai families of Persian decent which trace their ancestry back to Shaykh Ahmad. These are for instance the Ahmadchula families.

Yours, Sirinya

Dara Rasami – A ‘Foreign’ Princess at The Siamese Royal Court

Dara Rasami (in Thai: ดารารัศมี, also spelled ‘Rasmi’), born in 1873, was a Princess of Chiang Mai and a descendent from the Chet Ton Dynasty. Her parents were King Inthawichayanon and Queen Thipkraisorn Rajadevi of Chiang Mai. Dara Rasmi Na Chiang Mai, as she was officially called, became a princess consort of Siam by marrying King Chulalongkorn (Rama V of Siam). They had an only daughter called Vimolnaka Nabisi who, however, died at the young age of only 2 years 8 months.

Later, the Princess was promoted to the rank of High Queen ‘Chao Chom Manda Dara Rasami’.

Princess Dara Rasami

Recently promoted to the rank of High Queen, Dara Rasami poses for a formal portrait in her hometown, Chiang Mai. Note that she wears a phasin [skirt] made from a Burmese court textile calle*

Recently promoted to the rank of High Queen, Dara Rasami poses for a formal portrait in her hometown, Chiang Mai. Note that she wears a phasin [skirt] made from a Burmese court textile calle*

King Chulalongkorn’s marriage to the Princess of Chiang Mai was mainly a strategic alliance. In the 1860s and 70s Siam became increasingly concerned that the British might colonize the Kingdom of Chiang Mai since they had already taken neighbouring Burma. In addition, there was also a rumour that Queen Victoria intended to adopt Princess Dara. Hence, the Siamese court became alarmed that the British wanted to take over Lanna. Consequently, the King’s brother, Prince Phichit Prichakorn, was sent to Chiang Mai to forward the King’s proposal to the princess. In 1886, Dara became a concubine to the King, entering the Siamese Royal Court.

Dara Rasami in front of her dresser, unwinding her hair. All images courtesy of the National Archive of Thailand*

Dara Rasmi in front of her dresser, unwinding her hair. All images courtesy of the National Archive of Thailand*

However, the princess who came from Chiang Mai was not really accepted at the Grand Palace but rather disparagingly referred to as a ‘Lao Lady’. She and her retinue were also teased that they ‘smelled of fermented fish’. Nonetheless, Dara and the ladies in her entourage were not to be deterred by these circumstances. In fact, they stuck to their northern style clothing and long hair. Thus, they did not adapt their appearance to the fashion of the Siamese court where the ladies wore short hairstyles at that time.

A princess with 'exotic appeal' and ethnic distinction*

A princess with ‘exotic appeal’ and ethnic distinction*

As a matter of fact, Dara’s appearance, her way of clothing and her extremely long hair, differed greatly from that of the Siamese ladies at the court. Thus, her ‘foreignness’ or ‘exotic appeal’ is strikingly on display in a series of photographs taken by Erb Bunnag who was also a royal consort.

The Bunnag sisters, royal consorts, notice that they all wear a short hairstyle*

The Bunnag sisters, royal consorts, notice that they all wear a short hairstyle*

Dara is portrayed in front of a dressing table and mirrors which evoke an atmosphere of intimacy. The viewer gets the impression that he is in the private sphere of the princess. It is also interesting to note that Dara’s face is often reflected in the different mirrors and thus seen from different angles, a fact that she did not seem to be aware of.

Dara with loose hair and face reflected in different mirrors*

Dara with loose, floor-length hair and face reflected in different mirrors*

These photographs stress the ‘foreignness’ of the princess and point out that she is different and does not really fit into ‘the otherwise ethnically homogenous environment of the Siamese royal court’ (Leslie Woodhouse). It is primarily her amazingly long hair that signals Dara’s ethnic distinction from the Siamese ladies. This fact is particularly on display in these photos. In a broader sense, this presentation also indicates what can be considered siwalai (‘civilized’), adjusted and what not.

Long hair as a signal of ethnic distinction*

Long hair as a signal of ethnic distinction*

In other words, Dara is presented as feminine, however, her way of dressing and styling does not seem to be in accordance with Siamese ‘siwalai’ standards. Thus, it is hinted at her ethnic inferiority. Nevertheless, she stayed more than two decades at the court but a few years after King Chulalongkorn’s death in 1910, Dara asked King Rama VI for permission to go to Chiang Mai for retirement. Her wish was granted and she returned to her hometown in 1914 where she continued her royal duties to the Lanna people. She died at the age of 60 in 1933.

Here is a video clip summing up the most important stages in Princess Dara’s life.

Finally, we may say that Princess Dara Rasami can be considered a ‘foreign’ and ‘other’ concubine at the Siamese Royal Court. In fact, she had the status of ethnic inferiority which is also displayed in contemporary photographs.

Yours, Sirinya

(*photo credit: National Archive of Thailand, pictures retrived from quod.lib.umich.edu)

(Reference: Leslie Woodhouse, Concubines with Cameras: Royal Siamese Consorts Picturing Femininity and Ethnic Difference in Early 20th Century Siam, Volume 2, Issue 2: Women’s Camera Work: Asia, Spring 2012)

The Concept of ‘Siwalai’ in Late 19th Century Siam

You’ve probably come across the term ‘siwalai‘ (ศิวาลัย) in some way or other. Just think of the ‘siwalai‘ dress that we’ve dealt with in the context of traditional Thai dresses or the Siwalai garden (Suan Siwalai, สวนศิวาลัย) which is situated in the Grand Palace, Bangkok. The Siamese notion of ‘siwalai was first introduced in the reign of King Mongkut (r.1851-1868) and can be regarded as a modified version of the English word ‘civilized’.

Boromphiman Mansion is part of the Grand Palace and is situated in Siwalai garden (photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org)

Boromphiman Mansion is part of the Grand Palace and situated in Siwalai garden (photo credit: Andreas Hörstemeier, wikimedia.org)

The Notion of Siwalai

Thus, the meaning of this term ranged from etiquette to material progress in the sense of new bureaucracy, infrastructure, electricity, judicial system as well as dress codes, grooming and appearance. However, it is interesting to note that the Siamese quest for ‘civilization’ was primarily a transcultural process in which Western practices and ideas had been adapted, transferred and incorporated into the Siamese setting.

King Chulalongkorn and Family, dressed in Victorian fashion (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

King Chulalongkorn and family, dressed in Victorian fashion, around the 1890s, photograph of a painting made more than 100 years ago (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

In other words, this led to the phenomenon that Western and Siamese aspects were mixed and combined together. For instance, this is shown in clothing: ladies of the court had assumed the hybridized fashion of combining Victorian lacy, high-collared blouses with traditional jongkraben pantaloons (wrapped trousers). Queen Saowapha (also written ‘Saovabha’) who was the chief consort of Chulalongkorn also wore this kind of mixed fashion.

Queen Saowapha, clothed in part Siamese, part Victorian fashion (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

Queen Saowapha in 1902, clothed in part Siamese, part Victorian fashion (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

For this reason, ‘siwalai’ might be regarded as a technique that could provide Siam with equally civilized standards to the West. Nonetheless, additionally to its display of civilized standards to the West, it also served as a local legitimization for the symbolic powers of the Siamese elite. That is to say that there was a gap between a ‘siwalai’ Westernized public domain and a private domain which remained Thai and local. However, generally we may say that the quest for civilization served as a project for self-confirmation as well as of constructing occidentalized images of Siamese prestige. Thus, we may also claim that Siamese siwalai never had the intention to imitate all features of Western civilization.

It is more the case that distinctively Western features were adapted in order to create something new that was nevertheless completely Siamese. Hence, things and aspects labelled as civilized were considered as prestigious and authoritative. Referring back to the example of fashion, the following clip shows how Western fashion was adapted to fit in a new Siamese style considered as ‘civilized’. What is more, it is also interesting to note that today the Siamese Fashionista group tries to encourage young Thais to dress traditionally again.

Finally, we may claim that siwalai was in fact a kind of elite mimetic resistance to the West and not an attempt of farangization and westernization respectively. What do you think about this topic?

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Rachel V. Harrison & Peter Jackson eds. The Ambiguous Allure of the West. Traces of the Colonial in Thailand, 2010)

Prince Chula Chakrabongse of Siam: Writer & Motor Racing Enthusiast

Prince Chula Chakrabongse of Siam (จุลจักรพงษ์), born in March 1908, was a half-Thai member of the Siamese Royal Family and the House of Chakrabongse. He was the grandson of King Rama V of Siam and the only son of Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath (Prince of Bisnulok) and his Ukranian wife Ekaterina ‘Katya’ Desnitskaya who was a nurse. She is also referred to as the Russian princess of Siam.

Ekaterina Desnitska and Chakrabongse Bhuvanath (photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org)

Ekaterina Desnitskaya, the young prince & Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath (photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org)

In fact, Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath spent his youth in Russia. He spoke and wrote Russian perfectly, since his father, King Chulalongkorn, sent him abroad. The King’s aim was to modernize Siam. In 1906 he married ‘Katya’ Desnitskaya in Constantinople. King Chulalongkorn, however, very much disapproved of his son’s marriage to a European lady and thus refused to meet his daughter-in-law.

Prince Chula Chakrabongse

About two years later, Prince Chula was born in Bangkok in the Parusakawan Palace. It is said that King Chulalongkorn was very happy about the birth of his grandson, in particular because the small prince looked very much Thai and less European 😉 Prince Chula was given the title ‘Mom Chao’ which means ‘His Serene Highness’. However, later his uncle, King Vajiravudh, gave him a higher rank. Since then he is called ‘Phra Chao Worawongse Ther Phra Ong Chao’ (His Royal Highness Prince).

Prince Chula Chakrabongse (photo credit: bbc.co.uk)

Young Prince Chula Chakrabongse (photo credit: bbc.co.uk)

Prince Chula spent most of his youth in Britain. There he attended Harrow School and returned to Thailand at the age of 23. In 1938 he got married to the Englishwoman Elizabeth Hunter and they lived in Cornwall during the 1940s and 50s.

Prince Chula & Elizabeth Hunter (photo credit: viola.bz)

Prince Chula & Elizabeth Hunter (photo credit: viola.bz)

Their daughter, Mom Ratchawong Narisa Chakrabongse, was born in 1956, 18 years after they got married. In fact, Narisa Chakrabongse is the mother of our Thai ‘royal rocker’ Hugo Chakrabongse Levy.  Thus, Prince Chula is his grandfather 🙂

Hugo Chakrabongse - example of a distinctively mixed heritage (img.kapook.com)

Hugo Chakrabongse – Prince Chula’s grandson (img.kapook.com)

Prince Chula was very enthusiastic about motor racing. Hence, in England he was also supervising a racing team with the name ‘White Mouse Racing’. His younger cousin, Prince Bira (Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh), drove for him. Chula’s White Mouse team also bought an English Racing Automobile (ERA) for Bira in 1936. Thus, he became one of the most important exponents of this class of international racing. 50 years later, Prince Bira’s and Prince Chula’s racing car (‘Romulus’) was brought back to Thailand as the following video illustrates.

In addition, Prince Chula was also a writer and thus the author of some historical books concerning the Chakri dynasty. He wrote both in English and Thai. His most important works are Chao Chiwit, a book which is supposed to be one of the essential books that Thai people should read and Lords of Life: the paternal monarchy of Bangkok, 1782-1932 which is the history of the Chakri dynasty. This book was first published in 1960. 

Books by Prince Chula (simanaitissays.com)

Books by Prince Chula (simanaitissays.com)

What is more, the Prince also wrote the biography of racing Champion Dick Seaman in 1941 and his own autobiography called ‘The twain Have Met : An Eastern Prince Came West‘ (1956). However, seven years after publishing his autobiography, Prince Chula died of cancer in Thailand.

Summing up, we may claim that Prince Chula Chakrabongse was talented as a writer and enthusiastic as a motor racer. In addition, he was a Siamese Prince of mixed Thai and European heritage (‘luk kreung’) which was unusual and rare at that time. However, he seemed to have felt at home both in Britain and in Thailand.

Yours, Sirinya