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Royal palace to Ratnagiri, a story of lost glory and exile

By Priyanka
September 11, 2012 15:37 IST
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King Thibaw, who was crowned in 1878, ruled Burma (now Myanmar) for seven years with his Queen Supayalat. It was a time when the royal family was treated like demi-gods; they lived opulently in the Golden Palace in Mandalay.

When the British attacked the reigning Konbaung dynasty of Burma in 1885, they hardly realised that King Thibaw would end up surrendering within two weeks. They exiled the royal family to Madras (now Chennai), briefly, and then to Ratnagiri, a sleepy town in Maharashtra.

The king, the queen and their four daughters lived in exile for nearly 31 years. From a life of riches and resplendence -- the only one they had ever known -- they had to live in complete social isolation. The daughters missed out on an education and the family had no idea what was happening in the outside world.

Author Sudha Shah chronicles the changes in the lives of Burma's royal family after their exile. In The King in Exile, she notes that the family always felt entitled to a kingly life.

The book, says Shah in an interview with's Priyanka, is an attempt to understand how the royal family dealt with fall from absolute power, living in isolation and being released years later.

What, according to you, is the importance of this book in the historical discourse of Burma?

King Thibaw was the last king of Burma, and hence it is important. The book gives a glimpse into the colonial and imperial period, when the British were on a conquering spree. It spells out the mechanism they used to dominate lives, whether of missionaries or the British officials, and the impact they had on the day-to-day lives of people.

The book covers an important historic figure -- King Thibaw -- and how the British dealt with the Konbaung dynasty. It is a part of the colonial history of the country. 

King Thibaw was the 41st son of the King Mindon (of Konbaung dynasty). After he was exiled, what happened to the rest of his clan; didn't they try to overthrow the British rule?

King Thibaw was the king and technically his descendants had the right to the throne.

They did try, and there was a lot of unrest in Burma for a few years after he was exiled. This unrest was mercilessly quelled by the British. They executed scores of people. They had decided they did not want any Konbaung king.

Why were King Thibaw, his queen and daughters sent outside the country? Why not imprison them in Burma?

The King and his family were worshipped like demigods in Burma. The kind of reverence the people had for their king and his queen was unprecedented. There was no way the British would have let him stay in the country. Had he lived in the country, people would have come to him to revive the monarchy, and the British were very clear they didn't want it.

King Thibaw ruled Burma for seven years, from 1878 to 1885. How do you describe this period?

There was discontent in the country but there was very little that King Thibaw could do about the conditions. There were global changes that were beyond his control. For instance, as the global demand for rice shot up, it was being exported from Lower Burma which had already been occupied by the British in an earlier war.  Hence, rice prices were going up in the country and it had an inflationary effect on all the products.

This period was not peaceful; the economy was not doing well, there was looting, dacoit gangs and poverty.

And yet the king, the queen and the royal family were worshipped.

They were worshipped like demigods! No one ever looked the king in the eye; people bowed before them. The king and queen had absolute control; they had the power of life and death over their people.

The exile of the royal family must have created a void in the society of Burma?

There was unrest because society crumbled. The whole framework on what it had been built on collapsed, and years later, people were still waiting for their king.

Why did the British take over the kingdom?

Burma is very close to India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Burma was also leaning on the French for their support, and the British did not want the French so close to them. Also, Burma had a lot of natural resources, oil, gas, rubies, timber.

China was emerging as a trading partner and the British wanted an easy route to it.

What do you feel is the essence of the book?

It is set in the historical, social, cultural context of Burma. But for me, it is more of a human interest story. I have written it to understand human psychology, which really is the thrust of the book. I wanted to understand how people, who have absolute power, deal with it when it is totally taken away from them. And there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

How was the life of King Thibaw, the queen and his four daughters after they were exiled to Ratnagiri?

King Thibaw and the royal family were exiled to Ratnagiri in 1885. It was a small town, and the family lived for nearly 30 years without any social contact with the outside world.

This decision of the British was plain callous. They exiled the royal family to a small town and there weren't many facilities there, so where would they have been schooled?

The daughters could read and write. The king and the queen taught them. They wrote Burmese, and a few words of Marathi thrown in. But there was no education in literature, history or geography. There was no connection with the outside.

What were the personality traits of the king, the queen? Who intrigued you most?

The king was not very ambitious; he was very well lettered in Buddhist scriptures and had won a prize in an exam. He was a religious man and very amiable. He was a friendly old soul.

The king was a good hearted man. He was easily swayed, both by his wife and his fourth daughter. The fourth daughter was his favourite, because she was very competent. 

The queen was very ambitious and very ruthless, though she had a great sense of humour. The third daughter was her favourite. She was very charming, vivacious, uncomplicated, outgoing.

I wouldn't say she was a good mother. She went into depression during the exile. She was not a very involved mother.

In the family, I really wanted to understand why was the first princess was so lonely, why she couldn't go out and socialise. But for that, one has to understand the society in those times. 

Two of the daughters did not marry very suitable men? How did their lives turn out after the exile ended?

The first princess fell in love with a palace servant and understandably there was severe disapproval. The person she fell in love with already married, was a non-Buddhist and had no social standing.

The first princess died in poor circumstances. She had settled in Ratnagiri; I think she led a lonely life.

The second princess settled in Kalimpong, with a man who adored her; so I think she had a relatively happier life. Both settled in India

The third daughter settled in Maymyo in Burma. She married twice. I think she came into her own after she was widowed. She had a daughter she was very close to.

The fourth princess was the most ambitious. She wrote a letter asking for her father's kingdom, and when she felt the letter didn't get the kind of response she wanted, she sent it off to the United Nations. So, the British exiled her to lower Burma.

What about their descendants today?

I think it is very varied. The descendants of the first princess in Ratnagiri lived very differently from those of the second and the fourth princess.

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