Sep 202018

Today is the birthday (1853) of Somdetch Phra Paramindr Maha Chulalongkorn (พระบาทสมเด็จพระปรมินทรมหาจุฬาลงกรณ์ พระจุลจอมเกล้าเจ้าอยู่หัว), or Rama V, the fifth monarch of Siam under the House of Chakri. He was known to the Siamese of his time as Phra Phuttha Chao Luang (พระพุทธเจ้าหลวง, the Royal Buddha). His reign was characterized by the modernization of Siam, governmental and social reforms, and territorial concessions to the British and French. Because Siam was threatened by Western expansionism, Chulalongkorn, through his policies and acts, managed to save Siam from colonization, which earned him the epithet Phra Piya Maharat (พระปิยมหาราช, the Great Beloved King).

Chulalongkorn was born to king Mongkut (of King and I fame) and Queen Debsirindra, and in 1861, he was designated Krommamuen Pikhanesuan Surasangkat. His father gave him a broad education, including instruction from European tutors such as Anna Leonowens. In 1866, he became a novice monk for six months at Wat Bawonniwet according to royal tradition. Upon his return to his secular life in 1867, he was designated Krommakhun Phinit Prachanat (กรมขุนพินิตประชานาถ). In 1867, Mongkut led an expedition to the Malay Peninsula south of the city of Hua Hin, to verify his calculations of the solar eclipse of 18th August 1868. Both father and son fell ill of malaria. Mongkut died on 1st October 1868. Assuming the 15-year-old Chulalongkorn to be dying as well,  Mongkut wrote on his deathbed, “My brother, my son, my grandson, whoever you all the senior officials think will be able to save our country will succeed my throne, choose at your own will.” Si Suriyawongse, the most powerful government official of the day, managed the succession of Chulalongkorn to the throne and his own appointment as regent. The first coronation was held on 11th November 1868. Chulalongkorn’s health improved, and he was tutored in public affairs.

The young Chulalongkorn was an enthusiastic reformer. He visited Singapore and Java in 1870 and British India in 1872 to study the administration of British colonies. He toured the administrative centers of Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay, and back to Calcutta in early 1872. This journey was a source of his later ideas for the modernization of Siam. He was crowned king in his own right as Rama V on 16th November 1873. Suriyawongse then arranged for the Front Palace of king Pinklao (who was his uncle) to be bequeathed to king Pinklao’s son, prince Yingyot.

As regent, Si Suriyawongse wielded great influence. Si Suriyawongse continued the works of Mongkut. He supervised the digging of several important khlongs (canals), such as Padung Krungkasem and Damneun Saduak, and the paving of roads such as Chareon Krung and Silom. He was also a patron of Thai literature and performing arts. At the end of his regency, Si Suriyawonse was raised to Somdet Chao Phraya, the highest title a noble could attain. Chulalongkorn then married four of his half-sisters, all daughters of Mongkut.