Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Pathos of Thibaw Palace – Monsoon Melancholy in Ratnagiri

Blighty British cannot be accused of being unfair. So what if they exiled the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to Burma after finding him guilty in the aftermath of the First War of Independence of 1857.

To even things out, the British annexed Burma, forced the king to abdicate and duly dispatched the Burmese King into exile to Ratnagiri in 1885, a small coastal town in Konkan region of Maharashtra. They take away our Emperor and give us a King! India over the ages had people come in from Greece, Persia, Turkey and Central Asia. Only Burma was missing. You did say the blighty were quite fair!

A version of the story appears in Sakal Times published from Pune on 16th July 2016

Ratnagiri, Rains and Ruins
The Thibaw Palace in Ratnagiri

Thibaw or Thibaw Min (1859 – 1916) was the last king of Konbaung Dynasty of Myanmar or Burma. Honouring the timeless de rigueur, all other claimants to the throne were massacred and King Thibaw at the age of nineteen ascended the throne at Mandalay in 1878 with his scheming Queen Supayalat. The massacre, probably masterminded by Supayalat, was a minor matter where around eighty to hundred royal family members were killed. The British without appreciating Queen Supayalat’s endeavours had other ideas.

King Thibaw - Photo Courtesy Wikipedia

King Thibaw with Queen Supalayat and her sister - Photo Courtesy Wikipedia
The Konbaung dynasty that ruled from 1752 had created the second largest empire in Burmese history which included Assam and Manipur. The royals were treated as demi-gods in the kingdom. France was expanding its influence in Indochina. Thibaw probably tried to seek support from the French to recover South Burma from the British. A Burmese delegation was negotiating with the French in Paris. British were already prohibited from entering the palace since they liked to walk in with their footwear. Things were coming to a head. The British already controlling much of Burma annexed the remainder of the country in the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885 thus ending the last of royal dynasties. Burma will not have another king. Thibaw was forced to abdicate the throne. The British could not have afforded to keep Thibaw in the country in the face of this unpopular action. They had to keep the royals away and out of sight. They had already done something similar 27 years ago. Thibaw and the royal family would have to leave the country.

The Royal Family was taken from the Mandalay Palace, put in a steamer on the Irrawaddy river and taken across the Bay of Bengal to Madras where they could at least visualize their home across the waters. But then the blighty cannot be faulted for their wicked humour either. In 1886 the royal family was moved overland to the other end to Ratnagiri – so no more stealing forlorn looks over to Burma. Again to be fair to the blighty, at least the King and his Queen had visual access to the waters of Arabian Sea.

In Ratnagiri, the royal family initially lived in Sir James Outram’s house, possibly the old collector’s house. Also, the king was given a pension of Rs 100,000 which was further reduced to Rs. 50000. At the time of his death, the pension was just Rs. 25000. In 1910, the British granted permission for a palace which took two years to build and cost about Rs 1.25 lacs.

This is how we do monsoons in Konkan - do you see the wall?!

On a beautiful rainy day, when vegetation seems to have erupted on the ground, on the walls and the roofs, you make your way to the Palace even as rain comes down in delightful torrents. You are loving Konkan - this is the way the monsoons are supposed to be. Living in North you have forgotten the old fashioned rains. The ferns, the flowers, the flowing water is making the progress slow and beautiful. You can’t have enough of the flowers you know you have never seen before. And these are the ones on the side of the road. You can just smack your lips in anticipation as you think of the days ahead when you will make your way south through the Western Ghats.

Gates to Anguish land
Thebaw Palace Ratnagiri

And then you enter the palace grounds. At the end of the driveway, you see the building. The Pagoda style architecture transports you into the exotic and the Orient. Under the darkened skies with rain coming down in gentle swirls you feel a tinge of melancholy. The air seems to be heavy with gloom. So far, walking Ratnagiri’s streets in the rain had made you feel alive and ecstatic. Here on the palace grounds the same clouds seem to be raining sadness.

The twenty three acres of palace grounds sit high on a hill overlooking the sea, the fishing village and the Bhatye Beach down below. The two storeyed palace built with red laterite stone and teak in Pagoda style would have been a handsome and elegant edifice in its heydays. But worn down by the longing and despondency of its condemned inhabitants, even the building seems to huddle down. On a cloud darkened morning, it seems to mirror the mood of the queen sitting in her room with curtains drawn.

The Glass Palace at Mandalay - Photo Courtesy Wikipedia

Looking at the photos of the royal palace in Burma's capital Mandalay, this building is a seriously scaled down version in both size and grandeur. Maybe the British thought spending piddly amount of money is fair after looting the Mandalay Palace and grabbing all the gems and rubies and shipping them to London and getting a new colony under Union Jack. At least they got the setting right - Thibaw Palace is also built on a hill and instead of moats and river, we have sea for company in Ratnagiri.

The setting of the palace could not have been more idyllic - away from the town, on a hilltop, with gardens all around and just beyond the Arabian Sea stretching out in lungfuls of greenery. All this could not alleviate the pain and sadness of being driven away from your own home to a foreign land. From a riches-full life of demi-gods, to a life of humiliation; to being unrecognised and marooned with no outside contact with the world does things to your well-being and mind. And that despondency permeates through the air, seeps through the broken walls and weighs heavily on the visitor.

The Royal Family spent their 31 years of exile in complete social isolation. The Queen fell into depression. The King regularly wrote to the Viceroy to get his kingdom back and for raising his pension. The British did not oblige. Later he just wanted to participate in the Delhi Durbar of 1903 like other princes of India. No luck again: the plea was rejected.

The Afflicted Queen Supayalat lies inside with window closed and curtains drawn

So while Bahadur Shah Zafar was old and lived for four years in exile pining for Delhi, the young King aged 27, spent the next 31 years languishing in exile longing for homeland before dying in 1916. These long years were full of anguish and despondency. What happened to the princesses was even more tragic.

The despondency is everywhere

The first and the oldest princess named Hteiksu Myat Phayagyi married Gopal Sawant, a palace gatekeeper, who was already married. They had a daughter and the princess rejoined Gopal in Ratnagiri when the royal family had left long after the king’s death. Gopal installed the princess and the daughter in a separate home. The princess died a destitute and the people had to collect money for her funeral. The daughter named Tutu also married a local mechanic named Shankar. The king’s granddaughter lived a commoner’s life raising a brood of children. In 1999, at the age of 93, Tutu, who made a living selling paper flowers and selling cow-dung patties for fuel was evicted from her land and had her house demolished. Tutu died a few months later.

The second princess married a Burmese courtier in the palace and eloped with him to settle in Kalimpong. The King who could not take this, suffered a heart attack and died. The third princess, who was born in Madras and was also called Madras Supaya, returned to Burma with the Queen. The youngest and the most qualified princess also returned to continue her family's fight with the British.

Today the palace is in a state of disrepair. Maharashtra ASI has a museum in the back. On a Monday, you find the museum closed. The department is making some half hearted attempts to repair the structure. Seeing the skills and methods being used your pain goes up a notch to realise that the monument does not stand much chance. The forts and other heritage across Maharashtra are witness that it’s pure bad luck to have Maharashtra ASI as your protector.

In the rear you walk through the forlorn verandahs. It seems there are two distinct blocks - one in the front and the second in the rear connected with colonnades. The rear section houses the museum. Peeping through broken windows you see ruined rooms. You are beginning to get despondent yourself. You come out in the front porch. Now you really wished the rain would stop and the sun came out to spread some cheer on this godforsaken place.  

Melancholia Unlimited

Would you have felt the same sadness had you walked in without knowing the history? Probably yes. There is something poignant and deeply sad about the palace. It is as if the walls have imbued the melancholy of the hapless family and now echo the anguish across the grounds. The air still bears the grief and loneliness of the King and the Queen and their four daughters. Not all palaces have fairy tale lives and endings.

Getting There: Ratnagiri lies on the south west coast of Maharashtra on the Mumbai-Goa highway and is well connected by trains from Mumbai. Ratnagiri is about about 350 kms from Mumbai and 300 kms from Pune. In Ratnagiri you can hire auto rickshaws to take you around the town and to the fort. The Jijamata Garden will offer you spectacular views of Arabian Sea and Bhatye Beach. Other attractions are the Ratnadurg with its Lighthouse and Lokmanya Tilak’s birthplace, now turned into a museum. Take the bus to Ganpatipule Beach to see mist envelope the hills and sun create scintillating light effects on the water.

The Glass Palace, a Novel by Amitav Ghosh
The King in Exile – The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma, by Sudha Shah

Related Posts on this Blog
Lokmanya Tilak Birthplace
Monsoon Magic in Ratnagiri

A version of the story appears in Sakal Times published from Pune on 16th July 2016

Ratnagiri, Rains and Ruins


  1. Nirdesh Sir,

    Having seen the Gothic palaces and Chinese temple-clubs of Bengal, I totally understand both the fascination that such unusual edifices evoke everytime they crop up in one or the other part of the country and the difficulties involved in photographing them justifiably well. This is simply what I love about monuments - they interconnect so many different places, different tales, as if they want us to connect the dots between the histories of many different places, peoples and civilizations.
    Wonderful post. Hope I do get to visit the place someday. We'll compare notes then!


    1. Hi Sahil,

      You have said it so well - such forgotten gems who have seen so much tragedy unfolding in their four walls seem to justify their existence, when people who built them are long gone, so that we can connect these dots and learn and hope such tragedies are not repeated ever.

      Ratnagiri is not far - overnight bus to Goa and then few hours by train!

      Thanks for reading and keep wondering and wandering!

  2. A mighty splendid post…. can’t call it a jolly good post, considering the pathos pervading each sentence.The brooding atmosphere of the palace is despairingly conveyed by the heartfelt words and the moody frames. But then the lively greens and the vibrant lilacs prove that life goes on. Thanks once again for sharing a post that deftly dents my ignorance and makes me feel me feel little less blighted, knowledge wise!!!

    1. Hi Mimosa,

      It just amazes me that in such few magical words, you bring out the essence of a post so brilliantly and convey feelings that probably were unfelt while writing this.

      I don’t think anyone of us is ignorant or blighted, its just that India has so much history within the layers that travelling helps to uncover a little of it one trip at a time.

      Keep motivating me and take care!

  3. Thibaw Palace is the place where the last Burmese monarch, King Thibaw, was sent to exile. Though this palace is not as ornate as the palace of Rajasthan, its location is very unique, overlooking the Ratnagiri Bay. A beautiful Buddha idol, brought by King Thibaw, is placed at the back of the palace.Awesome place to visit with a lesson of history. There are a lot of other places to visit in Ratnagiri as well.

    1. Thanks Nick for reading! Yes the location and the vibe around it is all very unique. Missed seeing the Buddha idol.