The Nine Kings of the Chakri Dynasty: Rama II – The Poet King

Buddha Loetla Nabhalai - Rama II

The second king of the Chakri dynasty was born in 1767, the same year that Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese. His father was Thong Duang, the man who would later become Rama I. At that time, Thong Duang had been appointed Luang Yokrabat[1] in the provincial town of Ratchaburi, where he met and married Nak (later Queen Amarinda). She gave birth to Chim on February 24, 1767, in Amphawa, Samut Songkhram. Chim was just 16 years old when his father became king and was raised to the title of Prince Itsarasunthon. In 1807 he was appointed uparat (deputy-king) and served as such until his father’s death in 1809, when senior court officials chose him as successor to the throne. However, Prince Thammathibet – the son of Taksin and Rama I’s daughter – plotted to take power for himself with the help of numerous supporters. His plot was discovered before it was implemented and all conspirators were executed, including the prince’s male offspring. After his execution, Prince Thammathibet’s wealth, palace, servants and rice were passed on to the son of the new king-elect. The day after the executions, the anointing ceremony took place and Prince Itsarasunthon officially became king. No royal naming system was established at the time of his accession to the throne. He was later named Buddha Loetla Nabhalai and is commonly called Rama II.

Reformation

During his reign, Rama II introduced numerous reforms. One of the first things he did was to order a complete census of manpower. At the time, Thai society was broken up into four main classes: chao (royalty), khunnang (nobility), phrai (commoners) and that (slaves). Ordinary phrai were expected to perform four months corvée[2], but many of them were able to avoid their duty by circumventing the registration process. In an attempt to remedy this, Rama II issued a decree that aimed to settle all disputes regarding registered status. Runaway phrai were given the opportunity to return to their patrons and were promised that they would not be punished if they did so of their own free will. If they chose to remain in hiding, they would be forcefully arrested and imprisoned. Furthermore, tattooing the wrists of phrai who had not yet been tattooed or had changed status was to be carried out to clearly show who their master (nai) was. The practice of tattooing the wrists of commoners was introduced by King Taksin.

In 1811, Rama II appointed eight committees to the task of surveying all arable land in the central plains area. He ordered that all land must be cultivated and anyone found to own large stretches of uncultivated land would be required to hand it over to the state. All landowners were obliged to pay a land tax, which was usually paid in rice – a tax known as khawka. As well as practical reforms, the king ordered that customary ceremonies were to be carried out before measuring land, such as making offerings to the spirits of the field. People were prohibited from working upon the fields on ceremonial days and anyone caught doing so would have his land confiscated and given to others.

Rama II was a devout Buddhist and he did much to educate the Siamese people on the teachings of the Buddha. He translated the Buddhist texts from Pāli into Thai so that people would understand the prayers and in 1817 he revived the Visakabucha festival, which commemorates the day that the Buddha attained enlightenment and passed into nirvana. When a virulent strain of cholera broke out in 1820, the king relieved all people of their duties so that they could take part in chanting sacred mantras and making merit. All animals were released and allowed to roam freely while prisoners were freed. No living being was to be killed during the ceremony. Not long after, the epidemic abated. The king’s course of action shows his strong belief in the Buddhist concept of karma and it seems he attempted to fight the disease through merit making.

Golden Age of Rattanakosin Literature

Sang Thong

It was well known that Rama II was a lover of the arts and in particular the literary arts. He was an accomplished poet and anyone with the ability to write a refined piece of poetry would gain the favour of the king; this led to him being dubbed the “poet king”. It was because of this special circumstance that the poet Sunthon Phu was able to elevate himself from phrai status to khun and later phra[3]. Sunthon – also known as the drunken writer – authored numerous works, many of which are still read and studied today. Rama II rewrote much of the great literature from the reign of Rama I in a modern style. He is attributed with writing a popular version of the Thai folk tale Ramakien and wrote a number of other dance dramas such as Sang Thong. The king was a musician of renown, playing and composing for the fiddle and introducing new techniques for playing certain instruments. He was also a sculptor and is accredited with sculpting the face of the Niramitr Buddha in Wat Arun. Because of his remarkable artistic achievements, Rama II’s birthday is now officially celebrated as National Artists’ Day (Wan Sinlapin Haeng Chat) and is held in honour of those artists who have contributed to the artistic and cultural heritage of the kingdom.

The White Elephant King

Catching a white elephant


The discovery of white elephants in Thailand has always been taken as an auspicious omen and they hold a revered place in Thai society due to their symbolic relationship to monarchy, religion and national identity. Rama II had several white elephants and because of this he was nicknamed “The White Elephant King”. Towards the end of his reign, the death of two white elephants was a cause for great concern and was seen as a sign of impending misfortune. Not long after, on July 21, 1824, Buddha Loetla Nabhalai became ill and died. His reign lasted almost 15 years.

During Rama II’s reign, Siam was mostly a peaceful country and much of his time was dedicated to promoting the arts and religion. He took a somewhat backseat role in the ruling of Siam and preferred to withdraw from administrative duties, leaving much of the work to the nobles. He was the father of 73 children to 40 mothers, outdoing his father in number of offspring but falling short in number of years; he was 16 years younger that Rama I when he died.


[1] “Luang Yokrabat” is a title given to nobility that serve as legal officers, appointed by the king and attached to a provincial centre.

[2] Unpaid labour required of people of low social class.

[3] Khun and Phra are both forms of conferred nobility, with Phra being higher than Khun.

The Nine Kings of the Chakri Dynasty: Rama I – The Founding Father

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