Originally published in Thailand Tatler December 2010 issue.
Anyone that has ventured into the Grand Palace compound is captivated by the sheer scale, opulence and intrigue contained in its walls, with gold-plated and glittering masterpieces of classical Thai architecture stretching skyward above bustling streets teeming with tuk tuks, buses, taxis and tourists. Many, however, would be surprised to learn that a mere 50 metres from the Grand Palace’s northern border road stands a 220-year-old palace that once housed many royal-titled artists and artisans from the Chakri dynasty until mid-last century. It also happens to be the ancestral royal home of Dr Sumet Jumsai na Ayudhya, the distinguished architect who meets me in the shady sculpture garden adjacent to Wang Tha Phra.
Surprisingly, one can wander through the southerly walls of what is now a campus of Silpakorn University and enter the forecourt of this palace at will and for free. All that is required is to fill out a form with contact details when entering the building. If one is fortunate there might be a visiting exhibition for a touch of artistic enlightenment, but the real enchantment on this special visit lies in Dr Sumet’s anecdotes about the life, works and historical events that took place behind the display panels that mask many of the original walls.
Dr Sumet’s pride for the building that housed his ancestors is evident as we meet beneath the chandelier in the audience hall. The host insists, before any exchange of information begins, to pay respect to his departed forbearers and ask for their permission to take photographs of the palace. Intriguingly, the area in which he places the phuang-malai (garland) is the second column from the right just past the central entry point. He explains, “British envoy John Crawfurd visited during the Second Reign in 1822 and saw Prince Krom Muen Chesda Bordindra sitting in the audience hall at the base of this column, which had sap seeping down from the top. In Thai it is known as a tok man, a miracle.” He adds, “The column has now been painted over with epoxy paint which effectively stopped all traces of the sap.” Revealed to Dr Sumet by the late Prince Suphadradis Diskul, today, a piece of colour gauze is tied around the column so it is clear for visitors to see this location is historically and spiritually significant.
This respectful ritual leads to several stories about the palace craftsmen who lived and worked within Tha Phra Palace’s walls and their dedication to the Kingdom of Siam. Artistic talent was dominant in Dr Sumet’s family so it is hardly surprising that he, a sixth-generation descendant of King Rama III, is a renowned architect and fine artist. He has been honoured internationally for his contributions to architecture and the fine arts and his dedication to preserving Thailand’s architectural masterpieces is unwavering. His standout building designs are instantly recognisable on the Bangkok skyline. A graduate of Cambridge University’s School of Architecture where he attained his doctorate, Dr Sumet has an encyclopedic knowledge of history and international art.
Built in the 1780s, Tha Phra Palace was constructed at the same time as the Grand Palace to provide a residence for King Rama I’s son-in-law, Prince Krom Khun Kasatranuchit (an elder son of King Taksin). In 1809 Prince Krom Muen Chesda Bordindra (son of King Rama II, the future King Rama III) came to live and work in the home, marking the start of its use as a residence for royal artists. Prince Krom Muen Chesda built numerous architectural masterpieces, one of the most well-known and striking being the Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun) on the bank of the Chao Phraya River. An accomplished poet and artist who founded a centre of arts and crafts, he also deftly managed affairs of state, forging strong trade and policy relationships with China, which established a healthy Siamese economy. During the time of his residence many of his children were born in Tha Phra Palace, including 10 sons and several princesses, of which some would go on to manage the royal arts and crafts departments.
By the time that one of these 10 sons, Prince Krom Khun Rajsihavikrom (Prince Krom Khun Rajsi), had taken up official residence in 1835, the entrance hall would become a working factory of master craftsmen. Prince Krom Khun Rajsi would become the chief artist architect and engineer during the Fourth Reign. This prince was previously known as Prince Xumsai, however the name evolved to Jumsai through Anglo Saxon influences. Dr Sumet sets the scene of what life would have been like 150 years ago by citing a book from 1852, Narrative of a Residence in Siam, in which the author explains that Bangkok had some 7,000 floating houses or the equivalent of a floating population of 35,000 people, about 10 percent of the city’s population at the time. Dr Sumet also notes that there were always children running throughout the grounds of the palace and by the banks of the river where it was cooler and where Prince Krom Khun Rajsi had his floating house.
Prince Krom Khun Rajsi was known for a fiery temper that was easily triggered by noise from outside the palace walls. Dr Sumet elaborates, “On one occasion palace guards apprehended some rowdy, drunken soldiers at the palace gate and dragged them before the prince. They protested saying that they were in the service of the Second King, Phra Pinklao (King Rama IV’s younger brother), and could not be touched. This doubled his anger such that the prince had them whipped twice as many times as he originally planned. Later, the Second King and the prince met at the gate of the Grand Palace, both in their palanquins on their way to see King Rama IV. Phra Pinklao jumped down from his vehicle and went to the prince to teach him a lesson. There ensued a chaotic scene,” Dr Sumet says, adding, “Nobody knows exactly how the encounter ended, but consequently King Rama IV issued a warning that no one was to make noise in front of Tha Phra Palace because His Majesty would not be responsible for the consequences.”
Aversion to noise aside, Prince Krom Khun Rajsi lived in Tha Phra Palace for 52 years, during which it became a workshop and arts school. Creation of patterned textiles, gold engraving, glass in-setting and drawing were all undertaken and perfected there. During his life, the prince was responsible for numerous projects such as the Royal Pantheon in the Royal Chapel complex and Phra Pathom Chedi, which at a height of 106.5 metres is the tallest stupa in the world. The extent of his great engineering talent was revealed when in 1969, the government restored the stupa. Through modern calculations, restoration experts identified particular areas of weakness in the stupa’s central vault. When these areas were exposed, they found large chains embedded in precisely the areas of concern, thereby proving the true master’s understanding of how to ensure structural integrity 150 years earlier.
Prince Krom Khun Rajsi’s four sons were raised in Tha Phra Palace as craftsmen, one of whose work can be viewed within the Grand Palace across the road. Prince Pravich, the third son of Prince Krom Khun Rajsi, was commissioned to build a giant model of Angkor Wat in the Royal Chapel of the Grand Palace by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) as part of the 1882 Bangkok centenary celebrations. There were some concerns that the model would not be completed by the expected deadline. Dr Sumet explains, “When the centenary approached without any sign of the model, the king sent palace officials to find out what happened. They duly reported back that Prince Pravich was enjoying his nightcaps and carving a huge pile of wood. The officials were dispatched back to tell the prince that if the model was not finished in time he would receive a caning. Shortly before the deadline the prince assembled the mysterious pieces of carved wood together, poured plaster into their assembled shapes and presto, there appeared a model of Angkor Wat.”
The youngest son, Prince Prisdang, also carried the artistic gene, having a flair for architecture and painting. Although initially he restored some temples and painted murals for his father, he was eventually sent to the United Kingdom (the first Siamese student to study abroad) to learn civil engineering at King’s College, London University. “After working on the Zuider Zee project in Holland he was ordered to remain in Europe as ambassador to the 12 Treaty powers,” Dr Sumet says. “Bangkok instructed him that he was to start undoing the unequal Bowring Treaty, help set up post and telegraph services and modernise the Siamese army. In 1885 he initiated the first constitution of Siam and even had the French authorities have the street in front of the Siamese legation in Paris renamed Rue de Siam.”
By 1890 Prince Prisdang had become disillusioned with government service and entered the monkhood in Ceylon followed by pilgrimages in northern India where he came across the important discovery of the bones of Lord Buddha now kept at the Golden Mount. Despite this abrupt change in lifestyle evidence of his creative work is found beyond the borders of Thailand such as his architectural masterpiece Ratana Chetiya in Colombo, Sri Lanka (1909-25), with its bell-shaped top and multi-tiered parasol. He eventually became what Dr Sumet describes as “the first Siamese bohemian”. He grew a long beard as a sign of protest against the governments of King Rama VI and King Rama VII, coincidentally winning an international beard competition in Tokyo in 1920.
A well-known royal family member that resided and worked at Tha Phra Palace from 1883 to 1947 was Prince Krom Phraya Naristra Nuvadtiwongs (Prince Naris). Dr Sumet proudly describes him as “first and foremost a Siamese humanist, an all-round artist, an architect, composer, poet, prose writer and a scholar par-excellence, a cultural personage as proclaimed by UNESCO.” On taking up residence at Tha Phra Palace, Prince Naris extended the building beyond the original entrance hall, as many previous renovations were structurally unsound.
Even a novice in architecture would clearly see the difference in building styles, despite their blending seamlessly. More European in design, the palace branches from a smaller hallway into a two-storey building. As one glances up the staircase an elegant portrait of HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn hangs strategically above the central landing, naturally lit from the windows on the first level. The presence of the portrait is appropriate given that HRH Princess Sirindhorn studied at Silpakorn University and inaugurated the palace’s bicentenary exhibition in September of this year.
Prince Naris’ bedroom upstairs appears modest by royal standards, particularly given his status at the time. The doors, if they were opened (they are now permanently shut), would reveal a stunning open Italian-style loggia on two floors. On the lower level are arches and on the upper level columns and balustrades stretch to support the roof. Now sadly glassed in and overlooking the 1970s buildings of the university, and not open to the public, it is easy to imagine that this would have been the piéce de résistance of the palace less than 100 years ago. Prince Naris’ architectural works span from Wat Rajathiwat along with one of the most visited tourist attractions in Bangkok, the Marble Temple, though often overlooked by foreign tourists in favour of the Grand Palace. “Beyond the material world, even beyond art and architecture I would say it is his humanity that is so necessary in our world today, something that is timeless,” says Dr Sumet.
Prince Naris resided and worked at Tha Phra Palace until 1947, however in the later part of his residency he spent the majority of his time at Klong Toey Palace on the outskirts of Bangkok. By the early 20th century the area surrounding the Grand Palace had become a busy centre of urban activity and the Tha Phra Palace compound was progressively encroached upon due to road widening, making the Klong Toey home a cooler and more comfortable alternative. In contrast, one of the most peaceful settings outside the palace today is to the east of the building, a charming, intimate sculpture garden that showcases some of the work of Corado Ferroci (Silpa Bhirasri), the Italian art professor who helped establish the fine arts university now known as Silpakorn University. Indeed, it was Prince Naris who met Silpa Bhirasri in 1923 and forged a friendship, which led to the founding of an art school on the premises in 1935 that then became the university in 1942. The garden is a pleasant place to observe and reflect on the storied historical landmark that stands before it.
Perhaps the best way to describe the modesty, talent and artisanship of this royal line is to quote an excerpt from a letter sent to Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, known as the father of Thai history and education, dated 1936, where Prince Naris says of Prince Pravich, “To become accomplished, a master must have two qualities. Firstly, as an artist he must be gifted. Secondly he must have the sense of propriety. The latter is very important. An artist who is merely gifted can well remain a mere craftsman. If he has in addition the sense of propriety, he can become a leading master.” Dr Sumet only later in his life began to delve into his ancestors’ history (he descends directly from Prince Krom Khun Rajsi’s eldest son), unravelling a bicentenary of artisanship that carries through to current generations. Dr Sumet’s son is an architect and his daughter is a painter, making them the eighth generation of artists beginning with Rama II. One suspects that a sense of propriety will carry on in this family in future generations. Thankfully, the house in which these artistic gifts have been passed down remains a reminder to students who study the great masterpieces that were created or cultivated within its walls.