Thai artefact a hoax

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Thai artefact a hoax

The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I, opened in London in 1951. The starring role of King Mongkut was played by an unknown actor, Yul Brynner. Brynner, born Taidje Khan, had been a nightclub performer, a circus trapeze artist and had done some work in early television. His stage performance as the King of Siam (now Thailand) brought him recognition and fame. Brenner played that role for 34 years — on stage, in the movie, and on television — a total of 4,625 performances of the part, making his last curtain call as King Mongkut in 1985. He died in October that year.

King Mongkut (not Yul Brynner) has been in the news more recently.

In late 2003 Unesco accepted a Thai national treasure into its world heritage list — it was a stone obelisk, about one metre high, known as Sukhothai Inscription One (or just ’Inscription One’). It had supposedly been discovered in 1833 by King Mongkut (actually Prince Mongkut) who later became King Rama IV. But scholars wondered at Unesco’s inclusion as the historicity of the claims surrounding Inscription One had been regarded as dubious since the early 1990s.

Inscription One is engraved on each side and is said to have been carved in 1292 by order of King Ramkhamkaeng. It claims to be the first example of Thai script invented by the king; it refers to a perfect kingdom — a utopia of abundance, peace and happiness; suggests that Sukhothai was the first capital of Siam — and has been used as a model for much of what makes up modern Thailand.

When Unesco listed it on its world heritage register, the then Thai Cabinet secretary publicly suggested that ’some academic topics should not be debated’, while the then Minister of Culture called for a stop to all debates about the stone’s origins and accept the Unesco listing as validation of its historicity. He suggested that critical analysis about the stone could have damaging effects.

That didn’t stop the academics however.

British academic, living and working in Thailand for 45 years, Michael Wright, and his Thai colleague, Piriya Krairiksh, caused a furore late 2004 by casting doubts on the authenticity of one of Thailand’s most important cultural artefacts. They claim that King Rama IV (Prince Mongkut) didn’t discover the stone in 1833, but had it carved then — it was a case of propaganda and a bit of political ’spin doctoring’. They regard King Rama IV as a very clever man, who produced a wonderful national myth and a good piece of literature carved on stone for the good of the nation. For the majority of Thai nationalist believers the two academics have been guilty of gross sacrilege and insulting the memory of Thai kings. It resulted in some 5 000 people ritually calling the ancient King to witness their hurt and anger by ringing his bell, and by burning chillies, salt and the names of the two men on scraps of paper, in order to curse them. Some prominent people called for a police investigation and the deportation of Michael Wright. As far as we’ve been able to determine Michael Wright has not been deported, and neither he nor Piriya Krairiksh have been struck with deadly plagues or diseases — and are both still alive and well.

(From TACL Vol 26 #2 March/April 2005)