Under pain of death, do not touch the queen Sunandha!

Rama V was a great modernizer, yet one of the too strict laws of his time is responsible for the tragic death of one of his wives who was pregnant, Queen Sunandha Kumariratana, and their daughter.

Perhaps one day, while walking around Thailand, you will come across a statue or monument in homage to Queen Sunandha, and you will wonder why she is being honored in this way.

The saddest deaths are those of people who disappeared too soon; if you add to that a tragic story, a drowning or rather three drownings in front of people who were ordered not to help them, you understand the tribute.

A story that makes you sad and makes you think about the meaning of life, about destiny.

The tragic story of Queen Sunandha

Sunandha Kumariratana with daughter
Sunandha Kumariratana with daughter Kannabhorn Bejaratana

Sunandha Kumariratana was born on November 10, 1860, as the daughter of King Mongkut of Siam (Rama IV) and Princess Piam.

She was the first wife of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and was also his half-sister.

Rama V’s first four wives were her half-sisters, and if this may shock you, you have to put yourself in the context of the time.

King Mongkut had at least 82 children with his many wives and concubines.

King Chulalongkorn also had many children, 77 officials he had with 36 of his 92 wives.

With the queen Sunandha, the king had a daughter, born on August 12, 1878, and named Kannabhorn Bejaratana.

And she was expecting another child who was to be a boy and therefore the first son and future king, when tragedy struck on May 31, 1880.

A trip to the royal palace of Bang Pa-In

While on her way with her daughter in a royal boat that was to take them to the royal palace of Bang Pa-In (also known as the “Summer Palace”), the boat capsized, and the queen with her daughter fell into the water.

Palais d'ete de Bang Pa In
Royal Palace of Bang Pa-In

At that time, many spectators witnessed the capsizing, but they were unable to help them.

Indeed, it was forbidden to touch the Queen under penalty of death, even if it meant that they could not save her life.

Not only was there this law, but also a guard on another boat ordered them to do nothing.

The queen went over these twenty years, her daughter Princess Kannabhorn was just over a year and a half old

Subsequently, the guard was punished for his overly strict view of the law in such circumstances; the king accused him of murdering his wife and children and had him put in prison.

History has been around the world

Then, the story of this macabre event spread to the rest of the world, and many journalists criticized Thailand, judging it as a country with little spiritual and inhuman development.

How could these people let a pregnant young woman and her little girl who were also calling for help drown in front of their eyes without reacting!

However, it was rarely noted in these articles and reports that the guard obeyed an ancient and rigorous Thai law that forbids any commoner to touch a person of royal blood because the punishment was immediate death.

It should also be noted that accidental drownings on the Me Nam River (Chao Phraya River) were so widespread that a strange superstition developed in response.

It was believed that by saving someone from drowning, the water spirits would demand accountability and that later they would take the life of the rescuer, hence the stoicism and indifference in Siam on saving the drowning.”

And so the guards obeyed the law and superstitions on the Chao Phraya River to the detriment of the queen, the life of her only daughter and her unborn son.

Rama’s great sorrow V

After that, the king’s relatives told that he had “fallen into deep sadness.”

His great sorrow was demonstrated by the rapid cancellation of his long-awaited trip to the United States of America for an indefinite period.

The king, so overwhelmed by the loss of his favorite wife, only daughter, and heir son, began to organize funeral ceremonies, described as the most “elaborate and costly than we have ever known in Siam,” costing, it is said, half a million dollars or more.

“The king directed all his efforts to complete the construction of the Royal Summer Palace, where his wife was to go on that fateful May morning.

He then had a marble monument erected behind the Bang Pa-In Palace to pay tribute to them.

Monument to Queen Sunanda
Monument in tribute to Queen Sunandha and her children in Bang Pa-In

In addition to completing the construction of the summer palace and marble memorial, the King had several temporary buildings erected to conduct the cremation ceremonies.

The king, so devoted to appropriately commemorating his beloved wife, kept her body for about seven months before cremating her.

It was reported that his remains and those of his children were “embalmed and placed in a sitting position” on golden thrones inside the Pramene (main crematorium).

They “remained in this state for months” surrounded by “rich and expensive jewels, vases of gold and silver, and other precious things, insignia of royalty, that had belonged to the dead during their lifetime.”

After attending all the details of the preparation, the king began the grandiose funeral ceremonies on March 9, 1881, in honor of his queen and children.

A funeral attendant describes in detail what was seen and heard during the twelve days of the cremation ceremonies.

“The breath of trumpets and conch shells, moaning women from the palace came into the quartets four times a day to cry and cry, to sing funeral hymns and to sing the excellence of the deceased…

Buddhist priests preached every day and sang through the night…”

Finally, on March 21, 1881, the king laid the queen’s ashes, after more than six months of dedication to the construction of memorials and the planning of her funeral.

Statue of Queen Sunandha
Statue of Queen Sunandha under Rama V in Namtok Phlio National Park in Chantaburi

King Chulalongkorn was a great king who brought much to Thailand and who is therefore still highly revered today by the Thai people.

His photo is often present in Thai houses, on altars, with that of Rama IX, who died in 2016 and now the picture of Rama X, the new king.

King Rama V (Chulalongkorn) of Thailand
King Rama V (Chulalongkorn)

See also:

Self-Sufficiency Economy Thailand, the gift of Rama IX

Source:; photo of the queen’s statue: กสิณธร ราชโอรส; photo of the monument in tribute to the Queen and two children in Bang Pa-In Palace: ScorpianPK

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