Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Manit on Phra Suphan Kalaya, 1999

Manit Sriwanichpoom. “If you don’t believe, don’t disrespect: Phra Suphan Kalaya,” in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News magazine, Yr. 45, Vol. 43, 28 March – 3 April, 1999.

During the past month a lot of rather rotten and tiresome things have been going on. There was the case of Chalermchai Yubamroong’s son’s false sor.dor 43 document. The opposition had a heyday challenging Apisit Vechachiwa about the legitimacy of the military draft. It became very sad and depressing that Sumali Limbowat, the mother who used her constitutional right to see the test results of her daughter trying to enter Kasetsart Demonstration School, is being harassed in a process which destroys people who fight for their rights in society.

In the midst of these Thailand melodramas we saw the bright faces of people who currently have faith in Phra Suphan Kalaya, the older sister of King Naresuan. The story of Her Royal Highness has been receiving great interest, facilitated by Dr. Nalinee Paiboon, the Reverend Phu Ngon, and the belief factory of Korn Taparangsri. Many stories are flowing into the private sector, the media and the public sector, with accusations that it is all foolishness, sales and marketing, a search for profit derived from royal history.

Why can’t Phra Suphan Kalaya become another demigod? I asked myself, thinking of the future a thousand miles ahead, as I tried to imagine how gods and goddesses were conceived thousands of years ago.

A thousand years in the future will what we are fighting about have any meaning? Will anyone care to remember or to sincerely know the story of the royals, or will there remain only pictures (symbols) of the deities of the past?

Many Thai people embrace and bow down to the Lord Shiva, the Lord Bhraman, the Lord Phra Pikanet, the Bodhisattva Kwan-im, etc. and so many other deities and demigods. They have shrines in their own homes where they pray for blessings, for example, a winning lottery number. How many people actually remember that these deities are symbols. ‘Mother’ Kwan-Im represents mercy and purity; Siva is the symbol of destruction, the foil of the creative power represented by Bhraman. Creation must balance with destruction in the life of nature.

Actually, one need not look very far. Just look at one Honorable Forebear, King Rama the Fifth. In his status as king he was metaphorically divine, but he was elevated to divine status not ten year past – you might say that happened quite recently. Throughout the kingdom, there are kings and members of the royal family who have been regarded as gods or demigods, for example the Lord Naresuan, King Taksin and the Lady Srisuriyothai.

In this era of materialistic civilization, wealth is our protection. Anything that might bring riches to you is sought, whether it is knowledge gained by hours of classroom drilling, finishing a master’s or doctoral degree, or by magic. Outside the classroom angles or spirits might make you rich: this engenders worship. In the olden days before this materialistic world, what was society like? Was it really as distorted as things are today?

Honorable Father, the Fifth King, has become to represent better business, more trade, among the younger generation. Does anyone care about the burdens of office carried out by His Majesty? All you need do is to walk out of your house and up to entrance to your lane, or visit your computer shop at Panthip Plaza. Visit any modern business center: you will find images of Rama V all over the place.

Why is His Majesty revered? Because His Majesty has show his power, bestowing wealth and comfort!

After the economic bubble burst, the Honorable Father, the Fifth King, couldn’t do anything to help. Help yourself; be thrifty. Society still made little progress. General Chavalit exited. Chuan [Leekpai] came in. Chuan and Supachai and Tarin: none of them could do anything. Perhaps we need a new deity who will fulfill these hopes. (A new prime minister or a new government?) People want to be rich. They don’t want to be unemployed. We want money in our pockets; we want to graduate with a high degree. When a project fails, a new god might lend a helping hand. Let it be!

History doesn’t help transform persons into demigods. They require a mystical look or some miracles. The government committee or the committee of historians who rewrite history can do as they like: scholars have one sort of beliefs. They rely on information, evidence and hypotheses according to principles. The beliefs of local people are another sort. They believe in magic and sacred power. We shouldn’t confuse the two. The government would like to monopolize the production of faith, but they cannot. The people also have the right to do that too.

The government, the bureaucracy and the law have all lost their dignity. The people no longer look to them for support. They prefer to depend on angels, divinities and spirits. “Please punish the wicked! Let us win the lottery!”

The story of success and riches of Dr. Nalinee Paiboon is of interest to people everywhere. She was an ‘abacus widow’ when she surrendered her business (worth many millions) to her ex-husband. Her ‘sacrifice’ is compared to that of Pra Suphan Kalaya who gave up her life so that her brother could return [to Siam] and save the country. (What history records is rather a different story.) Their sacrifices aren’t the same: Dr.Nalinee didn’t just sit back, reverent and accepting. With a good marketing plan, she opened her own new line of cosmetics, now growing to a value of thousands of millions and who wouldn’t want to be like that? Praising the heroism of the king’s older sister is very much about losing heart, focusing on sacrifice and endurance. But it’s in line with the IMF economy and with the values of Thai society – especially where women are concerned.

More than the parts about getting rich and miracles, the story tells how Reverend Phu Ngon actually touched the spirit of Phra Suphan Kalaya. (Sadly, the reverend has already passed away. If he had lived, we might have been able to study his method for photographing spirits.)

The paintings of their visions of Phra Suphan Kalaya – brought forward by Reverend Phu Ngon and Dr. Nalinee – are beautiful in the style of ‘Chakraphan-ism’, i.e. pretty, peaceful and sweet, still, and a bit sad. Chusit Wijarnjorkit, the artist who drew the doctor’s original image so beautifully, so charming and so easy on the eye, creates a face which watches you all the time. Some complain that the costume is incorrect. Who can know for certain what the face of Her Royal Highness looked like? Why does she look Chinese? Why doesn’t she have a red mouth from chewing betel nut? Why doesn’t she wear the traditional Siamese hair style for women, or dress as a Burmese? Who knows what the actual person was like? Nobody knows!

This gap creates an opportunity for artists to make the picture as they please. Chusit drew the picture according to Dr.Nalinee’s description of the vision she saw, mingled with his own values and ideals of beauty for Thai women. (Or perhaps we should say, the values and ideals of Chakraphand Posykrit.)

So the picture comes out like this: an oval face, great skin, unblemished; large round eyes and a small, red mouth. She looks aristocratic. Her posture and attitude are dignified and graceful. She is not at all stern, forbidding or over-ripe. (Though some have observed that she looks like Dr.Nalinee herself; in fact, the doctor is pretty, isn’t she?) Chusit may not have realized that he was making an image of a new deity. We might look at this as Phra Suphan Kalaya reflecting Thai women’s ideals in this new era, right?

Phra Suphan Kalaya – the goddess of self-sacrifice - follows the line in which today’s deities are born and walk. First, there must be belief that the person really exists – a member of the royal family or of the court, or a colonel or a general or some such. (Commoners can only become ghosts.) There are legends, visions, miracles, holy images and people sincerely paying respect. If the Fifth King was the god of the ‘Bubble Economy,’ Phra Supan Kalaya is the angel of the post-Bubble Economy with a million people out of work, hopeless and despairing, feeling empty without anyone to depend on.

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