By Manote Tripathi
Special to Th
Visitors to Mandalay Palace who have read about the tragic events that took place there during the first year of King Thibaw’s reign in the late 19th century will probably come away with a mixed feeling of satisfaction and sadness.
Sadness because so many members of the royal family were killed here. Satisfaction because Thibaw’s reign of terror was cut short by the British, who also managed to save the lives of some of the princes slaughtered in the name of custom.
Guidebooks on Myanmar invariably recount the basic facts of the palace “massacre” in February 1879. But the portraits of this tragedy in such guidebooks are often left incomplete, leaving curious travellers hankering for more.
Fortunately one Yangon bookshop stocks some rare titles about Thibaw and his Queen, Supayalat. These first editions, published not long after the end of Thibaw’s seven-year reign, offer fresh accounts of the bloody atrocities, enabling visitors to envisage the full cast of the palace’s real-life butchery.
Destroyed during World War II by the Allied forces and rebuilt in the 1990s by the junta, the palace is majestic though not ornate.
It’s a cluster of spacious highly stylised, finely carved, richly gilded one-storey wooden structures, which fails to replicate its former glory. A cloud of misery still hangs there, so dark and thick that you can’t help sympathising with the victims.
King Thibaw was nearly 20 years old when he ascended to the throne in 1878, two days after the death of King Mindon and fresh from a stint in Buddhist monkhood.
“Can any worse training be imagined for a king than this?” Harold Fielding wondered in his book titled “Thibaw’s Queen”, published in London in 1899.
Fielding’s main informant was a former maid-of-honour of Queen Supayalat who served the queen everyday for four years.
In fact Thibaw wasn’t the natural successor, as his mother, one of Mindon’s minor consorts, had been banned from the court. He was proclaimed king through circumstances planned by the Queen of the Middle Palace, Hsinbyumashin, who brokered a marriage between her second daughter.
The plan worked and the two were finally wed. While the maid-of-honour described Supayalat as having a cruel streak, this only came to light one year into the reign when it was rumoured that some of the princes were plotting to overthrow Thibaw. The palace’s reaction was bold and forceful.
“The princes were bludgeoned to death by blows on the back of their neck, and queens and princesses by blows on their throats. Rumour has it that while these executions were being effected, traditional dramas were played on stage to drown out the screams,” reports Chas Duroiselle in “Guide to the Mandalay Palace”, published in 1963 by the Burma’s Directorate of Archaeological Survey.
Fielding’s maid-of-honour also painted a vivid picture of the scene. “It happened at night. On that night, there was a great hush over the city. In streets where at other times you would hear music and see dancing there was
darkness and silence. No one knew what was happening,” she told the British writer. “There, under cover of the night, horrible things were done. All King Mindon’s sons who could be found were executed. Only two, the Nyaungok and Nyaungyan princes, escaped. The British residents saved their lives and took them to Lower Burma.”
Shah, the author of “The King in Exile”, clears up any doubts as to who ordered the massacre.
“In all probability it was Hsinbyumashin. These were still early days of King Thibaw’s reign and she was still a force to contend with. She was still keen to secure Thibaw’s position. She was an old hand at palace intrigues, and knew princes could lead revolts from behind prison walls, and from palaces of refuge, however distant.
“She also knew if King Thibaw was now overthrown, the consequences would be disastrous for herself and her daughter, for they had made many enemies. She may have consulted Queen Supayalat, or perhaps taken her into confidence.”
U Than Swe, a respected writer on the Konbaung dynasty, feels “Supayalat was aware [of the massacre] but not instrumental.”
Former prime minister the late MR Kukrit Pramoj also described Thibaw’s power-hungry mother-in-law as wicked.
According to Thai accounts, the mother-in-law had elephants trample the trenches full of corpses. But the bodies decomposed and the stench soon reached Mandalay, horrifying its residents.
Power-hungry politicians saw the massacre as a tradition and a necessity to keep the kingdom stable and free from revolts.
The palace massacre was not the last in Thibaw’s reign. Another and far greater pogrom took place in 1884, when about 400 people including the remaining members of the royal family, who had escaped in 1879, were cruelly butchered at a jail. The Times of India reported on November 22, 1884, that hundreds of people were shot, hacked to pieces or burnt to death while the king and queen looked on.
Today the garden so loved by King Mindon and where he walked with her daughters offers no hints of the bloodshed. It is a quiet corner with a well- manicured lawn bordered by shade trees, fragrant plants and flowers.
But had Mindon’s ghost appeared in the garden during my visit, I would have said: “Your Majesty, I know who butchered your offspring.”