I had never read Amitav Ghosh before I read “Glass Palace”. Reading in my late grandfather’s aamrai (mango orchard) in Vaghotan, I was transported to the mid-nineteenth century Mandalay, the last royal capital of Burma. In his signature style, Mr. Ghosh tells of the palace intrigues and regicides that bring 19-year-old King Thibaw to power in 1878. That party would only last 7 years as the British would conquer Mandalay in 1885. Mandalay palace was looted and renamed Fort Dufferin and..
The Last King of Burma was exiled to Ratnagiri, a coastal town in Maharashtra, India.
Ratnagiri. Surely, not. I used the the single bar of connectivity on my phone and the ever dependable god of knowledge, Wikipedia, confirmed it. Ratnagiri is a town known for its hapoos amba (Alphonso mangoes) and it lies only two hours north of Vaghotan. It would be four years before I got there in which time Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke had converted me into a fan of his work.
When I was back in Vaghotan in December, I convinced my parents to make a day trip. On the drive there, we passed the sea fort
of Vijaydurg built in 1205.We passed through the city of Jaitapur that has been in the news for its protests against the construction of, what would be, the world’s largest nuclear reactor.
We reached King Thibaw’s “Palace” in the afternoon. The palace was built at the cost of Rs. 125,000 ($2272), a big amount in those days. Built on top of a hill overlooking the fishing village, the palace must have been quite a sight. Constructed from the locally mined red laterite stone and teak wood, the palace has obviously seen better days. We got there a week after Myanmar (new name of Burma) President Thein Sen visited and the building seemed to have a received a new coat of paint. For a modest Rs. 7 (12.5 cents) entry fee, you can enter a section of the building that has been converted into a “museum”. A few pieces of furniture that belonged to the original inhabitants are displayed, but most have been lost or sold off.
To be honest, the palace on its own is really not very special. Most of the rooms are boarded up and the garden is overrun with weeds. What make the place special are the stories. In the book, the king went to a point on the hill to look at the fishing’ boats as they returned to the harbor every evening . The fishermen could tell that he was looking from the glint of his binoculars and began to regard him as a guardian angel. Whether the story is embellished or not, the view from “Thibaw Point” is truly breath-taking (see above)
Other stories are tinged with melancholy. As Mario Cabral reports, the jewels that the family carried with them from Burma were either pawned, gifted or stolen. Despite repeated requests to the British government, the King would die without ever seeing his homeland and in debt. Sudha Shah reports that the remains of the King and one of his Queen’s daughters were not allowed to be moved back to Burma as the British were “nervous about the implications” of doing so. The first princess wasn’t even that lucky- her remains were stored in a wooden box in the Ratnagiri treasury where they “slipped through the cracks” leaving her tomb empty. Another princess married a “Burmese slave” and their daughter Tutu was still living in Ratnagiri in 1998. Mario Cabral talks about his last meeting with Tutu,
“On my last visit to Tutu, in June 1998, along with Mário de Miranda and Habiba, she could hardly hear or get up from the mat spread on the floor. The “throne” had rusted and broken to pieces and been junked. The painting of her mother, Supayagyi, on the wall had faded. So had Thibaw’s black and white photograph. Her days in this world wouldn’t be many. In the slums of Ratnagiri she will be remembered for many years to come. She had raised many orphans abandoned by their mothers, either because they were unwed or too poor to raise a family. To support them Tutu had hawked vegetables in the market and sold by the roadside cow dung cakes and bundles of the firewood she chopped in the nearby scrubland.
Some of those orphans, already in their 20s and 30s, now take turns with her sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren to nurse her. Thibaw, they say, had been given a Buddhist funeral. Tutu’s eldest son Chandu says about his mother: Hindu or Buddhist rites matter little. “Because,” he had no doubt, “if she doesn’t go to heaven, who will?”
-Ratnagiri is well-connected by road and rail
–Thibaw Palace and Thibaw Point (also called Jijamata Udyan) are well-marked on Google Maps and also on road signs
-After visiting the area, try out Malvani cuisine at Aamantran Restaurant which is 5 minutes away. Try out Fried fish, kalwa, kokam kadi, vada, mutton and bhakari.
Similar places to Thibaw Palace in China or the USA charge up to Rs. 450 ($8 or 60 RMB). I understand charging Rs.7 (12.4 cents) so that the poorest sections of society can access monuments of national importance (if they are so inclined to). But, is that really a good policy for a place like Thibaw Palace? If developed in the right way (Glass Palace walking tours, audio guides, cafes, etc) Thibaw Palace could be a touristic hot spot for Ratnagiri. The money could be used to repair and maintain the palace, something it is in desperate need of.