As it’s known, life has a common end for all of us, which is the unavoidable death. What changes though is the modus operandi and sometimes the outcomes are so incredible to become surreal. Someone who had a similar experience was Sunandha Kumariratana, young Queen of Siam (nowadays Thailand).
The refined Kingdom of Siam, the one where it was set the film “Anna and the King”, was ruled at the end of the 19th century by an illuminated king who was continuing the work of modernisation that his dad had started. Sadly, none of them thought about abolishing that ancient rule which happened to be the indirect cause of the Queen his wife’s death.
King Chulalongkorn, known in the West as Rama V, had 4 wives all step sisters of him as the Siamese tradition was expecting. The first wife, official spouse was the Queen Sunandha Kumariratana, much loved by the King, who had given him a daughter, princess Kannabhorn Bejaratana.
Queen Sunandha with her daughter
In that unlucky May 1880, when the Queen was still in her 20’s and the princess was barely 2 years old, a group of domestics and guards were escorting mother and daughter to the Summer Palace of Bang Pa-In. The location was beyond the river Chao Phraya, the great watercourse which was crossing the capital, Bangkok.
The court etiquette established that no one could get on the boat with the Queen, who was pregnant, and her young child the Princess
Mother and daughter got on the little boat, pulled by a bigger ship supposed to lead them onto the other side. The strong steam though turned the Queen’ ship upside down, who ended up under the water with the 2 years old princess. No one though amongst the many servants and security guards listened to the frantic screams of help of Sunandha Kumariratana or jumped in the water to save the young princess, following the directives from the head guard who remained still without taking any initiative.
The incredible discipline with which the many people attended the death by drowning of a woman and her child gives a clear insight of the rigid observance of the old law, according to which no one who had not noble blood was allowed to touch a member of the Royal family.
The penalty was to pay with their own life
Apart from the conformity to the ancient norm, maybe the traditional superstition of the place played a role as well; according to the legend in fact, saving someone who was drowning in the river was bringing back luck to the saviour, as that was an interference with the water spirits will, and for this reason
The saviour would have been taken sooner or later in the place of the saved one
The Crematorium of the Queen
After the absurd accident and the tragic end of the spouse and daughter, King Rama V imprisoned the head guard, guilty of not having given any order to try and save the Queen and the Princess
The servant was harshly punished for sticking so thoroughly to the rules of his King
Rama V was so saddened by the loss of his wife, daughter and his son to come that ordered the most elaborate and costly funeral ceremony ever seen in the Siam empire. The King erected entire buildings destined to be burnt during the ceremony of cremation.
The bodies of the two Royal victims were embalmed and placed to sit on the golden thrones inside the Main Crematorium, surrounded by precious objects and royal emblems. Only on the 9th of March 1881, almost a year after the accident had occurred, the King ignited the funeral ceremony, which lengthened for a total of 12 days.
The Monument in memory of Sunandha Kumariratana
Above: Memorial of Sunanda Kumariratana, picture by กสิณธร ราชโอรส – licence CC BY-SA 4.0
After a lot of time, the King Rama V ordered to construct a funerary monument to honour his beloved wife. The Memorial was raised in the summer palace that the Queen was about to get to, in that unfortunate Spring day when an ancient law and a a superstition prevented guards and servants to protect her and her daughter.