Art and Culture

Easter of 2020 had a pandemic, and unfortunately, Easter 2021 will have a continuation of that pandemic. Such a situation brings the only objective, to lead the Christian people, communities of faith and people of goodwill to think, evaluate and identify ways to overcome the polarisations and violence that mark the current world. It brings us together to reflect on this devastating world problem that affects not only our health, but the environment, the family, the economy and all matters that contribute to the flow of life.

The history of Easter

The Christian Easter is based on the Passover of Jewish origin. In addition, a celebration in the Western world was influenced by elements of the pagan culture of Germanic peoples. Easter is the principal festival on the Christian calendar and has its origins based on both Jewish tradition and pagan elements that were collected from Christianised peoples, such as the Germans. This celebration has a moving date and its Christian meaning recalls the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. The Easter, the English word Easter, which parallels the German word Ostern, is of uncertain origin. 

Passover 

The Christian Passover is based on the Passover (“pesach”, in Hebrew), celebration of Jewish tradition that recalls the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. The Passover celebrated by the Hebrews was held around the time that marked the beginning of spring. In Jewish tradition, this feast in reference to the liberation from slavery in Egypt was a direct order from Yahweh to Moses. (Exodus 12:21-27)

Teenage girl with praying. Peace, hope, dreams concept.

Christian Easter 

Although Christianity emerged from a sect derived from Judaism, the meaning of the Christian Easter is different, as it recalls the three days of death until Christ’s resurrection. Christ’s resurrection is one of the main pillars of the Christian faith, which highlights the importance of this feast on the religion calendar. Christ, seen as the Lamb of God, offered himself in sacrifice to save humanity from sin. After being crucified and killed, he was resurrected after three days. The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ would have happened exactly at the time of the Jewish festival, which created a parallel between the two celebrations. In the Catholic Christian tradition, Easter ends Lent, which is basically a forty day period marked by fasting. The last week of Lent, called Holy Week, begins with Palm Sunday, which marks Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem; passes through Good Friday, which makes reference to the death of Christ; and is completed on Easter Sunday, which celebrates Christ’s resurrection. The date of Easter was instituted by the Church during the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The Church determined that the first full moon after the spring equinox would be the date to commence the commemoration of Easter. The equinox marks the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere.

Pagan elements at Easter 

Christianity, in general, during the process of converting pagan Germanic peoples, appropriated innumerable traditions of these peoples. Easter, especially in the northern hemisphere, has some associations with pagan traditions. Some historians relate Easter to the cult of the Germanic goddess Eostern, also called Ostara. The term Easter in English and German, in fact, most likely has its origin based on this goddess. 

Easter, the English term for Easter (note the similarity to the name “Eostern”); 

Ostern, the German term for Easter (note the similarity to the name “Ostara”). 

The parties that took place between Germanic and Celtic peoples for this goddess were held at the same time as the Christian festival. With the Christianisation of these peoples, the traditional pagan festival was mixed with the Christian celebration. 

Easter symbols – the rabbit and eggs – are also attributed to pagan elements. It is believed that eggs and rabbits were seen by people in antiquity as symbols of fertility. Thus, as these peoples were Christianised, these elements were absorbed by the Christian feast. The tradition of decorating eggs and hiding them would have reached the American continent through German immigrants in the 18th century. 

What will be your Easter in 2021? 

Staying inside your bubble is much more comfortable for those who gloat over the sharing experience. The world is at a vulnerable time in terms of health, economics, politics, and so many other social weaknesses. The complacency and the selfishness of not perceiving the other, is called disunity, because in order to do something concrete, it is necessary to dispose of: structures, ideologies, proselytisms and also yourself. Now what is divided has to be unified.

With the pandemic, social differences broke out even more. The life of the population, especially the perception of the great problems that affect, above all, the poor people, who do not always have anyone to turn to in their suffering due to unjust situations. And it is known, a people that questions hunger, misery, violence, can awaken to think and act organic, besides to community.

This moment invites you to renew yourself. Be a new person. The self of human aid. The self of empathy and resilience. Regardless of belief, be someone’s Easter. Make your Easter different. Take the resurrection of your attitudes to the mountain: Denounce the violence against people, peoples and the creation, especially those that use the name of Jesus; Encourage justice to restore people’s dignity, to overcome conflicts and to achieve social reconciliation; Encourage engagement in concrete actions of love for the person close to you; Promote the conversion to a culture of love instead of a culture of hate; Strengthen and celebrate ecumenical and inter religious coexistence. 

Let us keep the message of the Holy Pope in our minds and hearts:


“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem” (Mt 20:18)
Lent: a Time for Renewing Faith, Hope and Love

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Thailand has had a fascinating history of unique “farangs” who came here to live and work throughout its recent history: Constantine Phaulkon – prime minister to King Narai of Ayutthaya; Jim Thomson – the American silk king of Thailand; billionaire William E. Heinecke – Head of Minor International, a huge regional conglomerate and Louis T. Leonowens – an early important English trader whose firm still exists as a major company, amongst others. However, the Japanese merchant warrior, Yamada Nagamasa, can easily take his place on this unique list.

Nagamasa was born in Otani, Numazu, Shizuoka, Japan in 1590. Supposedly he started his career as a palanquin bearer for the Lord of Numazu. He eventually became involved in Japanese trade activities with SE Asia when Japan officially authorised ships to trade outside the country. He settled in the Ayutthaya about 1612. Nagamasa had a spectacular rise while there under King Songtham. From 1617 and beyond he was the head of the Thai village inside of Ayutthaya called “Baan Yipun” (or Japanese village). This village had roughly 1,000 Japanese residents. It was run by a Japanese headman who was nominated by Ayutthayan authorities. The village’s inhabitants were a combination of several hundred Christian converts who had fled Japan following the religious persecutions of Tokugawa Leyasu and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. There were also Rōnin (unemployed former Samurai) who had been on the losing side at the battle of Sekigahara (1600) or the Siege of Osaka (1614-15) and other merchant traders.

 

The Japanese colony was very active in trade. The most important export to Japan were deer hides. In return, Japan exported silver and highly valuable handicrafts like swords, high quality paper products and lacquer boxes. The Japanese were in direct competition for regional trade with the Dutch East India Company’s (initials V.O.C.) monopoly based in what is now Indonesia. Nagamasa supposedly carried on business as a privateer from the period of about 1620. He was said to have attacked and plundered Dutch ships in and around Batavia (now Jakarta). After more than 12 years in Ayutthaya, Nagamasa went to Japan in 1624 on a trade mission. He sold a cargo of Siamese deer hide in Nagasaki. He remained in Japan until 1627. He departed with the simple status of a foreign ship without an official trading license. On his return Nagamasa rose from the rank of “Khun” to the elevated rank of “Ok-ya Senaphimuk”.

The Japanese colony also offered valuable military services to Ayutthaya. The King organised a group of Japanese military volunteers. Nagamasa supported the military campaigns of King Songtham as the head of a Japanese army. In 1628, his ships were carrying rice from Ayutthaya to Malacca. Nagamasa was arrested by a Dutch warship blockading the city on one journey, but once his identity became known he was immediately released. The Dutch knew Nagamasa was held in great respect by the King of Ayutthaya. They did not want to spark a diplomatic conflict. He was also a supplier of deer hide to the Dutch. They sought more of his trade. 

However, Nagamasa’s luck finally ran out when he got in the middle of the successor war for the throne. King Songtham died in late 1628. The King entrusted Phraya Siworawong, or Prasat Thong, to be the regent to his son. Prasat Thong acted as “king-maker” and eventually executed both of King Songtham’s sons and anyone else who opposed his reign, usurping power. Once Nagamasa heard King Songtham had died he objected. Now King, Prasat Thong sent Nagamasa as the governor of Ligor (now Nakhon Si Thammarat) in 1630 to get rid of him.

A few months later Prasat Thong then had Praya Chaiya secretly poison Nagamasa. Then the new King sent an army of 4,000 soldiers to destroy the Japanese settlement in Ayutthaya. But many Japanese managed to escape to Cambodia. In 1633 several hundred Japanese managed to return and reestablished another residence in Ayutthaya. In 1634, the Japanese Shogun was informed about these problems and refused to issue official authorisations for trade ships to Ayutthaya. The Ayutthaya King was still desirous to retain Japan’s trade and sent a trade mission in 1636. But the Shogun rejected the offer and formal relations between the two countries came to an end until the 19th century. Japan then closed itself off from the world. The Dutch promptly stepped in to fill the trading void.

Nagamasa’s grave is now in his home town of Otani.

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by Masako Tsuruta

There are many cultural festivals in April and May in Thailand, China, India and Japan. Here are just some of them.

1: Thai and Indian culture 

In April, there is the famous Thai New Year “Songkran Festival” in Thailand.  This year Songkran falls on April 13-15th. The word “Songkran” comes from Sanskrit word meaning, “approaching”.  

Thai vocabulary derived from Sanskrit 

According to the Wikipedia, not only this word “Songkran”, but over half of the Thai vocabulary is derived from Sanskrit language in India. This clearly shows us that there are some strong cultural connection between Thailand and India.   

Lists of Thai vocabulary derived from Sanskrit: adversary, air, animal, apartment, association, bay, blame, boat, building, bus, castle, cloud, company, computer, danger, desk, design, destruction, food, fund, Goddess, glass, grape, great, head, hell, hope, human being, king, intelligence, language, life, living, lion, live, long, loyal, moon, mosque, mountain, name, noodles, paper, perfect, picture, raspberry, review, saddle, science, snow, soap, special, storm, suffering, taste, teacher, temple, ten thousand, time, two, universe, violin, week, woman and you.

Mural of Ramakien at Emerald Buddha Temple (Wat Phra Kaew) in Bangkok 

“Ramakien” means the glory of Rama, this originated from the Hindu epic “Ramayana”, and it places a very important role in Thai literature.  Many Thai people knows this story, how Lord Rama was gracious, how Hanuman was brave, and how the evil king “Thotsakan” was full of jealousy, anger, and endless greed.  Some part of this story can be seen on the mural at Emerald Temple. Thai King Rama II, rewrote this Ramakien version for Khon (Thai traditional performance) drama.  

New Year Celebrations in April in India

Thai Songkran Festival falls on April 13th.  In India, this day is called “Ugadi”, to celebrate New Year for Deccan region that includes State of Andra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka.  There is a spiritual significance added according to Indian mythology.  This is the day that Lord Brahma started his work, and Lord Rama returned back home after his 14 years of exile in Dandakaranya forest in India.  

On April 14th is Tamil New Year in the state of Tamil Nadu, on April 15th is Bengali New Year in the state of Bengali.  

Vesak (Buddha Jayanthi, Buddha Poornima)

Almost 95% of Thai are Buddhists.  The founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha was born in ancient India (5th to 4th century BCE).  In 1950 in Sri Lanka, during the first fellowship of Buddhists, “Vesak” day was declared to celebrate as the Buddha’s birthday.  This holy day is called “Buddha Poornima in India, Wisakhbucha in Thai, Buddha’s Birthday in China, Hanamatsuri in Japan.  

2: Japanese Festival between April and May 

Between April and May, there are around 118 festivals in Japan.  The most significant one is Kyoto’s “Miyako Odori”, Onbayashi matsuri at Suwa Nagano, Ohanami, Hanamatsuri, Asakusa Sanja Matsuri at Tokyo,  

Miyako Odori

Miyako Odori, the showcase of Geisha’s dance and music public show started in 1872 in Kyoto.  This rare Geisha’s annual public entertainment show can be only seen from April 1st till 23rd, 24, 27 or 30th.  Advance booking and reservation must be done through official agents only.

Onbashira Matsuri

Onbayashi Matsuri is one of the top three unique Japanese festivals.  This festival is done at the Suwa Taisha where people worship Japanese Shinto Gods of harvests, wind, water, and agriculture.      

Ohanami

Ohanami simply means cherry blossom viewing in English.  It started during Heian period, around 812AD among aristocrats and royal families.  In 1598, the most extravagant ohanami was conducted by “Shogun Toyotomi”.  After over a century and half passed, Japanese people still enjoys ohanami.  Nowadays, people love to eat, drink Sake, and sing karaoke under and/or beside cherry blossom trees.      

Hanamatsuri 

This year May 19th is the Hanamatsuri day.  English translation of this days is Buddha’s Birthday or Buddha Poornima.  The first official ceremony of this day was conducted by Shotoku Taishi in 606AD, April 8th.  The present, Japanese offer specially brewed tea over small Buddha’s statute that right hand points at sky, and left hand points at the earth.   

Asakusa Sanja Matsuri 

This is one of the three greatest matsuri (festival) in Tokyo, and the widest and largest one in Japan.  It is held on the third weekend of every May at Asakusa, Tokyo.  There are over hundred Mikoshi carried by Shinto Gods’ worshippers including small children and women.  

3: Chinese cultural influence in Thailand

Many Thai are of Chinese origin. Nowadays approximately 14% of the Thai population can still speak Chinese. A span of over 200 years, Thai Chinese is now deeply rooted in Thai society. King Ram I, the founder of present Chakri Dynasty was of Chinese descent. 

There are Teochew, Yunnanese, Hokkien and Hakka ethnicity groups in Chinese community in Thailand. Teochew people came via Gulf of Siam by boat and arrived at Chonburi and Samut Prakan. Many of them settled around Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. Hokkiens were good sailors and many of them settled in Southern Thailand including Songkhla, Satun and Phuket. Many big rice traders are Hokkien descendants. Hakka people are seen mainly in Chiang Mai, Phuket and central western provinces. Many private banks were owned by Hakka descendants. The most notable one is the Kasikorn Bank owning family.  Yunnanese descendants are seen around Chiang Rai province.  

Taochiao (fermented bean paste), soy sauce, tofu, Ba Mii, Khanom Jiin, Guay Chap, Guay Tiaw, Salapao, Khao Kha Moo were brought to Thailand by these Chinese ethnic groups.  

Historical background

Ayuthaya was under Burmese’s attack from 16th century onwards.  From 1766-1769, Emperor Qianlong in China sent his armies four times to subdue the Burmese army, but failed. In 1825, there were 230,000 Chinese lived in Thailand, that grew till 792,000 in 1910, approximately 12.2% of Thai population. Mainly these Chinese immigrants were men, and later they married to Thai women. Their children were called Shino Thai or Luk-Jin in Thai. In the early 20th century, many Chinese women immigrated to Thailand. From 1882 to 1917, around 13,000 to 34,000 Chinese from Southern China entered to Thailand yearly. Most of them settled in Bangkok. By 1970, more than 90% of Chinese born in Thailand, abandoned their Chinese citizenship and obtained Thai citizenship. In 1975, diplomatic tie between China and Thailand was established.     

Chinese New Year 

This year, the Thai Government officially announced Chinese New Year as an official holiday in Thailand. 

Qingming Festival on April 4th

Qingming (ancestor’s day) normally occurs around April 4 to 6th, that is, the 15th day of the Spring Equinox. This day is designated for cleaning and sweeping graves and for worshipping ancestors by offering food and burning incense. Qingming is a public holiday in China. 

Qingming (ancestor’s day) normally occurs around April 4 to 6th, that is the 15th day from the Spring Equinox. This day is designed for cleaning and sweeping the graves, and for worship ancestors by offering food and burning incense. This Qingming is a  public holiday in China. Qingtuan (green dumpling made of glutinous rice and barely grass, filled with red or black bean paste) is the famous food to be offered.  

Water splashing festival in Xishuangbanna, China

April 13 -15th is the water splashing festival days for Dai ethnic minority in China. It is very similar to the Songkran festival in Thailand.   

Thai Chinese Business Entrepreneur  

Many Thai Chinese has well established business, and representing all levels of Thai society.  Today, we can say that they lead a prominent role both in business and political sectors in Thailand.  

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Nepal is a place associated with the distant and the incredible. I’ve always wanted to return to this mysterious country if not for this pandemic which made it impossible to travel. I can still remember the thousands of visitors who savour the spirit of Nepal each year going home laden with things considered “Nepalese” – religious objects, antiques, carpets, pottery, embroidered clothing, gems and silver. You can see the excitement on their faces as they carry their amazing finds.

It was closed to autumn when we visited, so you can just imagine the cool weather condition. Even during summer time, the weather is unpredictable and it varies considerably with elevation. Looking at the photos we took then, the skies were clear and sunny, temperature range from warm in the lowlands to crisp in the mountains. We stayed a week so we ignored the weather and just seized the moment and enjoyed its mystique.

Nepal’s splendour will forever be registered in your mind. As you walk through the roads and alleys, you experience the intense culture of the Hindus and slowly submerge into the quiet serenity of the Buddhists. The practice of religion in Nepal is a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist ways of life, which the Nepalese have merged. These beliefs are evident in their art as well as their surroundings.

Wandering into the heart of Kathmandu, up and down narrow alleys and passages, you pass little shops and old houses with intricately carved window frames. The shops sell thangkas (religious paintings) and shawls made from pashmina in different colours and quality. Their appearance startling in the dusty dimness. Every lane seems to lead to a little square. Soon you’ll find roving in Durbar Square encircled by gilded spires and domes of countless temples. I hate to think of the recent fire that gutted many houses, stores and temples in Kathmandu. I can just imagine the elaborately carved windows, pillars, domes and beams destroyed by the fire. Looking back, Durbar Square is an amazing sight. Every corner shelters a shrine which houses a God such as Ganesh (the elephant headed God) or Hanuman (the monkey God); carved on the side of a phallic representation of the Hindu God, Shiva is Buddha.  All around, pigeons flutter from rooftop to rooftop.

About thirty minutes from Kathmandu is the city of Patan. It offers a feast of diverse temple styles. The maze of temple shrines, small stupas and stupas, grinning Gods and Goddesses all intricately carved and ornamented give pleasure to the eye and bewilder the mind.

As you explore the Pashupatinath Temple area, you are surrounded by vendors selling all types of wares – from bangles to beaded necklaces with yak bone pendants to musical bowls. Swarming the temples are sadhus, Hindu holy men. Their bodies covered with yellow powder and ashes, they perform a myriad of self- mutilating feats as they go about their day to day existence. Saddhus have chosen to give up their material lives and walk about meditating in search for inner peace. They wander barefoot across the country on pilgrimage, receiving their sustenance from generous people.

At Bodnath Shrine stands the largest and most important stupa outside of Tibet. It sits on a flatland with the Buddha’s eye painted on four sides. These eyes seem to follow and watch your every move. Buddhists come from all over the world to visit this predominantly Tibetan shrine. Chanting can be heard from as far as five hundred metres reverberating around the site, adding to the feeling of peace that envelops the place. Colourful prayer flags have been strung by pilgrims. Even more fascinating than the impressive structure of Bodnath are the calm, spiritual people who throng to this temple.

At Nagarkot which is 2,195 metres above sea level with a magnificent panoramic view of the Himalayas, a splendid full moon covers the entire valley below. It’s breathtaking especially in the morning is the cleansing breeze, accompanied by chirping birds and the aroma of wild and yet delicate flowers.

Golden yellow mustard flowers fill the fields around Bhaktapur. Walking the village streets paved with bricks and cobblestones, is quite an adventure. Black eyed children peering from window smile sweetly as I pass. Men are seen sitting or chatting quietly with each other while the women are working so hard gathering wood for cooking or carrying large baskets of ripened fruits and vegetables. I see an older woman bent over almost touching the ground, carries a load of dried twigs and a younger woman driving a flock of goats.

It is a long zigzag and dusty road inside the village but it is worth it. There are woodcarving shops, you can appreciate the intricate window frames, so different from the ones found in other parts of Asia. You can appreciate the warm and friendly people. Their faces show no sign of bitterness because of poverty, instead they seem to be happy and content.

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It is fascinating that up to a dozen Thai Thanons (or avenues or streets) and Sois (lanes) have been given ‘farang’ nicknames. At least one, Henri Dunant Road, was given a  name change back in 1965 (formerly known as Thanon Sanam Ma), but the several others include Soi Bearing (actually Behring or Sukhumvit Soi 107), Rue de Breast (Thanon Charoen Krung Soi 36), Wireless Road (Thanon Witthayu), New Road (Thanon Charoen Krung), Soi St. Louis (off of Thanon Sathorn), Soi La Salle (Sukhumvit Soi 105) and Soi Nana (actually it is the name same in Thai since Nana is an Indian family name, the family owns all of the Nana area and beyond), Soi Cowboy (off of Thanon Asoke) and Captain Bush Lane (Soi Charoen Krung 30), is perhaps the earliest ‘foreign’ nicknamed thoroughfare here.

Sir John Bush (1819-1905), an English sea captain commonly referred to as Captain Bush, was actually an Admiral in the Siamese Navy. He was very influential in the development of Bangkok as an international port. He served during the reigns of King Rama IV and King Rama V and commanded several Royal Siamese vessels. Captain Bush also managed the Bangkok Dock Company and served as Bangkok’s Harbour Master, a very important position at the time. The Soi where he used to reside is named in his honour.

Captain Bush Lane is noteworthy in early Bangkok history for its concentration of important expatriate businesses, buildings and residences either on the lane or in the immediate area from the mid-19th to the early 20th century. Early in the 19th century there was little more than a small Chinatown in the area, Charoen Krung Road was just an elephant track through the jungle. The first Thai building in the immediate area was a Buddhist temple called Wat Kaeo Fa. The first foreign structure built was the Portuguese Embassy, the oldest diplomatic residence in Thailand. It was first established on the site in 1820 on land granted by King Rama II. With the signing of the Bowring Treaty, then foreigners started flooding into Thailand. Numerous legations and consulates were established in this area. Business started to flourish as trade quickly expanded.

Charoen Krung Road, the first paved road in Thailand, was opened in 1864 to serve the expat and Chinese communities. In 1888 Captain Bush Lane was built. Along with several European expatriates, consular officials and Captain Bush, all resided on the Soi. Also in 1888 part of the Wat Kaeo Fa temple grounds were used for the first foreign bank here, The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. This operated out of the old Customs House building. In 1890, it relocated to a permanent office on the mouth of Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem. That building lasted until 1977 when it was demolished to make way for the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel.

Also on the temple grounds was the United Club built in 1888. It was an international expatriate social club for Western expatriates. Its members included British, German, French, and American nationals. The club was described as having a large well laid out area with billiard rooms, card tables, a reading room, tennis courts, a bowling alley and dining facility inside the building. But in 1903 the British Club members split off due to some unremembered dispute to form their own social organisation called the British Club.

The Southern plot of the temple grounds was rented to a French beverage company called Societe Française des Distilleries de l’Indochine. This firm constructed an office building, later to be called House No.1, sometime between 1907 and 1925. It was built of masonry and load bearing walls. It was a two storey building done in neo-classical style with tiles on the first floor and teak wood on the second floor. It had a hipped roof with diamond shaped tiles over a timber frame.

The Northern plot of the temple grounds was rented to the Louis T. Leonowens Company, Ltd. They built offices and warehouses. One warehouse, next to House No.1 was probably constructed between 1907 and 1913. This structure is now the only remaining building left from the company’s ownership.

In 1898, the foreigners living in the area sent in a letter of complaint about the stench coming from the temple due to its service as a cremation ground and pig sty. An official investigation was ordered, and the temple eventually was relocated.

Captain Bush Lane is colourful reminder of the early past foreign influence on Thai history.

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It is most interesting to note that Danes were at the forefront of the modernisation of Bangkok. The British, Chinese and other nationalities were busy transforming the country through trade, concessions and commerce, but several residents here from Denmark helped to develop the infrastructure and transportation systems that really laid the early foundations of the city, most notably with the electric trolly car system, hotel construction. electricity generation, and road building. Here are stories of two of the most noteworthy Danes of fame!

Admiral Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu

Admiral de Richelieu was born in Loit, Denmark on 24 February 1852. He was descended from a very prominent and extensive European family connected to Danish nobility. In 1875, de Richelieu arrived in Bangkok with the letter of introduction by King Christian IX of Denmark. He was an ambitious young Danish naval officer eager to serve in his new home. King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V) appointed him as the captain of the royal yacht where he served in that position for a number of decades. Because King Rama V spent a lot of time on his yacht travelling around Thailand and all over SE Asia, he and de Richelieu spent a lot of time together onboard becoming very close friends. King Rama V trusted the young naval officer to keep him out of ‘shoal waters’ (or serious trouble afloat as we say in the Navy) and he did. King Rama V appointed de Richelieu to a number of increasingly important positions in the Royal Thai Navy.

The short Franco-Siamese War found de Richelieu in command of the military forces at the Phra Chulachomklao Fortress during the Paknam Incident of 13 July 1893. That action ended the war. On 16 January 1900, de Richelieu became the first and only foreign born commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Navy when he was appointed an Admiral and Minister of the Navy. He served until 29 January 1901. In appreciation for his outstanding services to the nation, he was granted the Thai noble title Phraya Chonlayutthayothin (Thai: พระยาชลยุทธโยธินทร์).

He finally returned to Denmark in 1902 having contracted malaria. The day de Richelieu departed, King Rama V and members of the Royal Family saw him off to Singapore on board the Royal Yacht “Maha Chakri” as a sign of their true friendship. He became a prominent businessman later chairing three out of the four largest companies in Denmark. He died in 1932 and is buried in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Jennie Neilsen

Jennie Neilson (her last name is spelled Nielson on her gravestone) was born in Aalborg, Denmark on 18 September 1849. As a young woman she emigrated to the United States and lived there for a few decades. In October 1884 (the Neilson-Hays Library website lists 1881 as the year she emigrated), Jennie came to Thailand as a protestant missionary. She later married Doctor Thomas Heyward Hays, an American physician, who became the Chief of the Royal Thai Navy Hospital.

About 1900, Jennie became very heavily involved in the Bangkok Ladies’ Library Association. That circulating library was founded by thirteen American and British ladies in 1869. Until that same year, when the Suez Canal was opened, it could take up to six months for mail and books to arrive in the Kingdom. These ladies wanted to contribute to the betterment of the foreigners who lived in Bangkok as the cultural amenities and other diversions were in short supply. Books were considered precious commodities, to be treasured, read and re-read then loaned to others. It was a modest start staffed by only volunteers. The modest lending library had a peripatetic existence. always moving to whatever rent free building or home (or even a chapel) would have them. By 1897 the library was open every day of the week except Sundays with a paid librarian in residence.

It was clear by 1914 a permanent home was needed. A plot of land on Surawong Road was purchased. Jennie served as the library president three times and was closely involved with the effort to secure a reliable place for the collections as a mainstay supporter. Jennie unexpectedly passed away on 26 April 1920, perhaps from cholera. In an effort to honour his late wife’s cherished memory, Dr. Hays built The Neilson-Hays Library in her memory. He commissioned an elegant new library building in her name as a permanent memorial.  It opened on 26 June 1922.

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Physical Geographers have never placed the Chao Phraya River on the list of the world’s longest rivers like the Nile, or on the list of rivers with the highest volume flow like the Amazon. They have never included the Chao Phraya on the list of rivers with the most spectacular viewpoints like the Colorado River inside the Grand Canyon or idyllic, picture postcard like scenery like the Rhine in Germany.

However, at the top of the list of the most commercially valuable, agriculturally abundant and culturally important rivers is the Chao Phraya or, as it is sometimes referred to, the River of Kings. Historians have surmised that the Thais have always lived in river valleys. On their emigration Southwards from China into what is now the Chao Phaya River basin several millenniums ago the Thais found a perfect place to encamp and call it home. There were other ethnic groups living in the Chao Phraya River basin when the Thais appeared, but these groups were all either displaced or forced to move to the surrounding mountains by the growing numbers of more numerous Thais who continued to flood into the whole area. These minority tribes and their descendants are the hill tribes live that in the outer areas today. The Thais found themselves in the perfect place for growing paddy rice crops and vegetables plus tending orchards. It is also an important source of fishes and edible water plants. The grey coloured, fine silt like soil carried into the Gulf of Thailand is the world’s most ideal rice growing region, a title it has held for centuries. The Chao Phraya has made the whole country richly bountiful and prosperous.

The river’s head starts at Nakhon Sawan, at the Northern edge of the Central Plains. This is where the Nan and Ping Rivers meet to form it. It slowly meanders South for 265 kilometres before ending up in the Gulf of Thailand. It is interesting to note that the Nan and Ping are actually both longer, 555 and 590 kilometres respectively. The Chao Phraya watershed is the largest watershed in Thailand. It covers approximately 35% of the nation’s land. It drains an area of 157,924 square kilometres.

Some modern geographers believe the original Chao Phraya River was much longer than it is today. Th river is believed to have actually originated in the Tibetan Himalayans and flowed into the Gulf of Thailand. But tens of thousands of years ago it was “beheaded” by the Salween River in Burma, being much younger and faster flowing. Whatever the true geological origins of the river are, there is no question that the Chao Phraya River has played a primary role in the historical development of the Thai kingdoms located in the central river valley. For centuries until now, the river has served as the primary means of transportation and communication with the outside world. It made Ayutthaya and Bangkok prosperous cities.

For centuries, “farang” visitors have always wondered where the river’s original name came from, since Thais call all rivers “Menam” or “Mother of Water” that sowed a lot of confusion as in all western countries every river, stream, branch and waterway has its own name. It was King Mongkut (King Rama IV), who spoke English, offered the first credible explanation in 1850 when he was interviewed by Dr. Dan Beach Bradley for the Bangkok Courier newspaper. King Mongkut explained that Menam is a generic word like the word river is in English. The Thais attached the name of the largest town or village along it, so the name would have been “Menam Bangkok.” 

Like all other rivers that flow from a low elevation headwaters with a heavy silt load, like the Mississippi, Niger and Yellow Rivers, the Chao Phraya moves slows and meanders forming sinuous loops along the way. To speed the time of transportation and shorten the distance the Thais cut canals between the loops. In 1538, a three kilometre long canal was dug at the order of King Chairachathirat called “Khlong Lat”. It shortened the route to Ayutthaya by 13-14km for ships from the Gulf of Siam. In 1542, another two kilometre canal was cut called “Khlong Lat Bangkok.” The Chao Phraya then diverted along the new canal. It’s old course became part of Khlong Bangkok Noi and Khlong Bangkok Yai. It shortened the river route by 14km.

The Chao Phraya River remains at the heart of the Thai civilisation.

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I remember exactly when I heard the story when and how the solid Gold Buddha image was discovered at Wat Trimitr for first time. I was in the 5th grade. It was a beautiful spring day back in April 1962. And I was reading about how and when the priceless statute was found in a world geography textbook that had interesting vignettes from countries around the world, including Thailand.  

The story went that an old temple in Bangkok was being moved to new quarters in the mid 1950s. Among the items to be moved was an old, large plaster or stucco-covered Buddha statue. It was late in the day when the workers hooked the statue up to a crane and tried to hoist it up onto a truck bed, but the restraints unexpectedly broke. The statue was dropped, being too heavy to lift and the covering was cracked. The workers just left the statue where it was since it as getting too dark to work any longer. However, that night there was a terrific rainstorm. 

When the workers returned, the next morning, they saw something glittering beneath the cracked covering which had been partially washed away in the rainstorm. Upon further investigation it was discovered that inside the outer covering was a gold Buddha image. The rest of the covering was quickly removed. They found it was a solid gold Buddha worth millions of dollars that had sat on the temple grounds for several decades, unbeknownst to everyone. The explanation said that the Buddha statue was covered up to prevent it from being melted down during the Burmese invasion of Ayutthaya in 1767. I was fascinated to hear about this very exotic land.

The solid gold Buddha is known in Thai as Phra Phuttha Maha Suwan Patimakon.  This Gold Buddha statue is the world’s largest. Like almost all of Thailand’s history, the solid gold Buddha’s origins are obscured in myth or legend. As the Thais left no written records, what records they did have were religious tracts. Almost all of them were burned, did not last or lost in centuries past. Art historians and experts believe that the statue dates from the 13th or 14th century being crafted during the Sukhothai period. The statue shows Indian influences from the egg shaped head that was typical of the statues made at the time.

Most probably the statue was moved from Sukhothai to Ayutthaya in 1403 when Thailand’s seat of power was moved. Art scholars believe the statue was covered in either stucco or plaster, painted over and then inlaid with coloured glass to disguise it when Burmese invaders attacked and overran Ayutthaya in 1767. So, it escaped the fate of all the other gold and gold covered statues that were melted down and taken away when the city was sacked.

After moving the capita to Bangkok in 1782, King Rama I started to construct many temples in Bangkok. He ordered any Buddhas that still could be found in the ruins of Ayutthaya to be brought to Bangkok for installation. During the reign of King Rama II, the solid gold Buddha was first installed at Wat Chotanaram in Bangkok and later moved to Wat Trimitr when Wat Chotanaram was closed down. Originally called War Sam Chin Tai, Wat Trimitr and is one of the oldest temples in Chinatown. There were three Chinese men who were friends that helped construct this temple for the purpose of merit making. In 1939, the temple was renamed Wat Trimitr Witthayaram literally means three friends.

When the big Gold Buddha statute was moved to Wat Trimitr, the grounds were small and there was no place to display it. So, it as kept under a simple tin roof in storage and forgotten about for some 20 years. About 1954 a Viharn building had been constructed to house the big Gold Buddha. It was moved on 25 May 1955, then the Gold Buddha was discovered. It was found there were actually nine parts that could be disassembled using a key hidden in the base to allow for easier transport.

The statue is 3.01 metres wide, 3.91 metres in height and weighs 5,500 kilograms. On 14 February 2010, a large new building was opened at the Wat Trimitr Temple to house the Gold Buddha. The image remains one of Bangkok’s most visited tourist sites. It remains very fascinating.

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Guardian photographer David Levene visits National Trust houses at Chartwell and Emmetts Gardens to capture the spectacular colours of autumn

Woods within Emmetts Garden
Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

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