Ratnagiri & King Thibaw

Friday, 30 September 2016

Aung San Suu Kyi wasn’t the first Burmese leader to spend a long time under house arrest. The 100th anniversary of the death of King Thibaw, the last ruler of the Kingdom of Burma, arrives on 19 December 2016. King Thibaw endured 30 years of exile in Ratnagiri after he was deposed by the British in 1885. Ratnagiri is a busy coastal town in the Indian state of Maharashtra, about half way from Goa to Bombay (Mumbai).

In 1885 at the age of 27 he was deposed by the British, bundled off to Madras, briefly, and then on to Ratnagiri in 1886 where he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Depending on how you want to understand it:

• Thibaw was a man of the people, always concerned about improving their well-being. Kicked out by the scheming and greedy British who simply wanted to chop down and profit from the Burmese teak forests.
• Thibaw was a weak, but bloodthirsty tyrant (a Kim Jong-Un of 150 years ago) who slaughtered every possible contender to ensure his own place on the Burmese throne. Since he was well down the line for the throne there were a lot of them to be eliminated. Then he ruled with hopeless incompetence until the British kicked him out to general relief. He’d also tried to make the British take their shoes off before they entered his palace. Can’t have that sort of thing.
• As two except he was so weak he couldn’t do the dirty work himself, that was left to his even more bloodthirsty wife Supayalat. His only part in the slaughter of the relations was to say ‘yes dear.’

IMG_0548 - Thibaw Palace - 540▲ Thibaw’s Palace

Of course I’ve known about Thibaw from my visits to Burma/Myanmar over the years, but it was Amitav Ghosh’s wonderful book The Glass Palace which really brought Ratnagiri alive for me. The second chapter of the book recounts his unhappy exile in the backwater.

IMG_0551 - Thibaw Palace - 270

Myanmar’s new position in the world and the 100th anniversary of the king’s death has focused some interest on the story, but visitors to Ratnagiri are not going to find themselves pushing through any tourist hordes. Thibaw’s Palace is easy to find although it’s almost totally derelict, supposedly it’s being restored and renovated for the end of 2016. ‘Backside’ there’s a miserable little museum, two rooms with a jumbled collection of stone carvings and one room  vaguely related to Thibaw. Take your shoes off and no photographs. The staff – what are they doing here? – seem to be totally disinterested and know virtually nothing about Thibaw.

IMG_0560 - view from Thibaw Point - 540▲ The view from Thiba Point

In fact Thibaw spent just the last five years of his life in the palace, it was only completed in 1811 although it’s said he played a major part in its design and planning. For his first 25 years he lived in Outram Hall (or Outram House, although it’s no longer known by either name) on Boarding Rd which is now the residence of the Superintendent of Police of Ratnagiri and near the Remand Home. The Glass Palace plays with the idea that he spent much of his time watching activity on the river and out to sea so climbing up to the lookout tower at Thiba (not Thibaw) Point just a short distance from the Thibaw Palace, perhaps gives you a feel for the king’s lookout.

IMG_0575 - Thibaw tomb - 540▲ Thibaw’s Tomb

The King in ExileIt’s not so easy finding Thibaw’s Tomb and the tomb of his ‘minor queen’ who died four years before him. They’re hidden away between a small group of flats known as Telephone Colony. Athough they’re well signposted from the road beside the Shivaji Nagar bus stop, nothing pops up on Google Maps and it took a little messing around to find them. They’re at

N 16° 59.425’
E 73° 19.264’

For more about the king’s unhappy stay in Ratnagiri look for Sudha Shah’s book The King in Exile.