Ratnagiri - in the footsteps of Burma`s last king

Arrival at Ratnagiri Railway Stn.

Some of you might have wondered what I´m doing here in Ratnagiri, about halfway between Bombay and Goa. It has about 300.000 inhabitants, which is not a lot for an Indian city. For many Burmese, though, this nondescript town on the Malabar Coast is of the utmost importance. And as I´ve become a half-Burmese in my almost thirty years there, I´m also interested.

Why`s that? In 1885, Mandalay fell to the British, and Thibaw, the last king of Burma, was deported to India by the conquerors. Thibaw wasn`t precisely what you`d call a nice guy. When he ascended the throne at the age of 20, he had eighty of his blood relatives killed to make sure they couldn`t challenge his rule. Some historians say that his wife, Supayalat, and her mother, Queen Hsinbyumashin, were responsible for the massacre. However, it ruined his reputation, and when he quarreled with the British, they happily jumped at the chance and invaded his country or, better, what was left of it, as Burma had lost most of her territory in two wars (1824-26 and 1852) against the British or precisely the British East India Company. He lived in exile for 30 years, accompanied by his three Queens, his children, and some servants. Those days, Ratnagiri was not much more than a big village, accessible only by sea. The king died at 56, and his remains are buried here in Ratnagiri. The family was allowed to return to Burma, then part of British India, and Queen Supayalat lived the rest of her life in Rangoon, where she died in 1925. Their last child, Princess Mat Phaya Lat, died in 1956.

 

Today, we visited four places in Ratnagiri. The first was Outram Hall, where the king and his family lived for 25 years before the British built Thiba Palace for him. Outram House is not accessible, as it serves as a police office. We couldn`t go inside, but it didn`t look grand. It is not far from Ratnagiri`s jail.

The second stop was Thiba Palace, which is a museum today. The palace has three stories, but only the lower two are accessible to visitors. It`s built of laterite, and the walls are covered with white plaster. The building has a strange layout, and we were told that the king himself had a say in its construction. In the center, there`s a little garden with a fountain.  Unfortunately, the complex is in a sad state of disrepair, and many rooms are closed to visitors. Maybe that`s why neither photography nor videos are allowed … It looks like there was a big garden in front of the house, and some construction activity is happening there. 

On entering the building, a spacious room may have served as a ballroom in the old days. Then there`s a gallery with Hindu sculptures.  That room has an irregular heptagon layout, like all the big rooms in the house. I was wondering if it refers to the seven spires that marked the most important building in Mandalay`s palace. A wooden staircase leads up to the second floor, with three big, heptagonal rooms. Two of them serve as galleries for Hindu sculptures, and one houses memorabilia of the King, like billiard tables, deckchairs, and some photos of the king. It’s not impressive.

Thiba Palace
Thibaw and Supayalat in full regalia
The Royal Family leaving Mandalay Palace
King Thibaw`s daughters
King Thibaw and his wives Supayalat and Supayalay

Our next stop was Thiba Point. Legend has it that the king spent much time there, looking at the mouth of the Kajali River and the Arabian Sea with his binoculars. Today, there`s a giant statue of Sambhaji, the son of Shivaji, who founded the Maratha Empire. We met a gentleman there who told us stories about his city and its history.

 

Last but not least, we visited Thibaw`s Tomb. It is in the middle of a housing complex for telecom workers (Telephone Colony). There are two tombs: the one on the right holds the remains of the King and his Minor Queen, Teik Supaya Gale. The tomb on the left is for his first daughter, Ashin Teik Su Myat Phaya Gyi. The place is well-kept and secured by a gate.

 

View from Thiba Point
Entrance to the tomb
Inscrition of Thibaw`s tomb
Tomb of Thibaw`s daughter
Bahadur Shah taken prisoner in Humayun`s Tomb near Delhi
Bahadur Shah in Rangoon

In a cruel twist of fate, the last Emperor of India, the Mughal ruler of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar, is buried in Burma. During the `Indian Mutiny` of 1856, the rebels chose him as a `figurehead.` After the British had put down the rebellion, they put him on trial, and he was deported to Rangoon in 1858, where he died in 1862 at the age of 87. His tomb is near the Shwedagon Pagoda and was discovered only in 1991 during excavations at the site. Since then, it has become a significant pilgrimage site for Muslims.

 

The fate of Burma`s last monarch has sparked much interest lately. Amitav Ghosh`s novel The Glass Palace, published in 2000, starts in 1885 when the locals pillaged the palace after Mandalay fell to the British. In addition to historical events, it revolves around a fictional love story between an Indian boy and a girl in the king’s service.  Maybe that`s the reason it became so successful. In my opinion, it is full of inaccuracies. Well, it`s a novel, after all. Sudha Shah wrote The King in Exile, which is much better researched than Ghosh`s novel. It contains a lot of historical photos, too.

 

The descendants of Thibaw have tried to bring back the remains of the King and his family members. So far, without success.  The movie We Were Kings – The Story of Burma`s Lost Royals (https://www.grammar-productions.com/project/wewerekings) deals with this matter and includes a visit of family members to Ratnagiri. However, their claims to the throne have met with resistance from other members of the family who claim that Thibaw was only a usurper. Because King Mindon, the penultimate King of Burma, had 55 sons and 53 daughters from 45 consorts and concubines, their claims do not seem without substance.