Friday, November 13, 2009

Chapter 6 Ayuttaya, August 1684

"The cannons,” Petch told me, “were more than likely being fired in honor of the French ambassadors.”

“French ambassadors in Siam?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine the French would to send envoys to what must seem to them the ends of the earth.

“They are envoys of Louis XIV, here to negotiate a treaty of friendship and commerce, but everyone knows their real objective is to convert Phra Narai, and thereby the whole country, to Christianity.”

“What poppycock,” I said, “exchanging on set of superstitions for another.”

Petch insisted that I stay at his house and so, after delivering the royal revenues to the treasury and dismissing his troops, we set off in a canoe for his father’s house.

Ayuttaya is a city situated on a riverine island and is itself crisscrossed with scores of canals. There are few roads, and practically all journeys are by boat. We rowed down the long network of canals hemmed in on all sides by shrubs and trees, loud with birdsong, and passed between rows of irregular houses perched on posts, some very shabby-looking from the outside, but clean within, as we were to find when we stopped at one of them. Inside the hut I expected to see the people living in poverty, but they appeared not to be badly off, the floor covered with mats, coffers and screens everywhere. Hardly inside the door, a woman offered us tea in porcelain cups. After a few minutes of animated conversation, Petch and I continued our journey in the little canoe.

The canals formed a world of which I could hardly conceive; a shady green labyrinth that beckoned me enter its mysterious mazes where time slowed to the tempo of temple chants. As we paddled down watery lanes I was enchanted by all that I saw and heard, then suddenly emerging onto a main artery into a sunlit concourse filled with boats of all kinds, and time speeded up to an incessant beat of a drum.

Half an hour later Petch said, “This is my father’s house,” pointing to a large timber building some distance from the canal’s edge.”

We hardly had time to tie our canoe to the landing pavilion when servants, noticing our arrival, came down to meet us, bowing and scraping to their young master. A comely young woman came running after them and greeted Petch with a welcoming smile, falling down on her knees with her hands clasp as in prayer, which the Siamese call wai. She wore a colorful sarong and had long tresses, in contrast to the other women whose hair was short and wore plain clothes. A slight bulge in her belly revealed her to be with child.

I became conscious of the young women around me, their odors came to me strongly, talcum and jasmine, the bite of basil, the earthiness of mushrooms, the emanation of kitchens and cooking pots, musk and perspiration, that bright purity of sweat.

“One of my concubines,” he said, beaming at me, “Her name is Duen. Isn’t she lovely?” Petch had told me that it was common for nobles to have many concubines, even before they married the chief wife, who was usually chosen for family and political reasons.

“Come, let you show me around the garden,” he said, leading the way, with Duen and I, and a bevy of giggling girls, in tow.

“Are they all your wives?” I asked.

“Of course not,” he said, pointing to the prettiest. “Only these three.”

Petch showed me around his garden, of which he was immensely proud, pointing out the roses, gilliflowers and jasmines which he had obtained from the Dutch traders, who bring it from Batavia.

The mansion was an imposing timber building raised on a forest of columns about a man’s height above the ground. We ascended a narrow flight of steps and entered a passageway, passing several rooms filled with cabinets with fine porcelain ware, silverware and gold buddhas, a library of old palm leaf manuscripts in the prayer room, cupboards with stocks of cotton and silk cloth.

Then we emerged onto a roofed courtyard filled with people seated facing the front. At our appearance all heads turned towards us, a palpable hush descended, and all activity ceased, mouths gaping at me in wonder, red-stained with the juice of the betel nut and lime mixture they were chewing. This was probably the first time they had seen a white man. Petch walked up to his father, Okya Thongdee, who was the central figure in the diorama, and prostrated himself.

He introduced me to his father, informing him that I had accompanied him to Ayuttaya to seek an audience with Phaulkon, which launched Okya Thongdee on a long tirade.

“Ah, Okya Wichayen, the Greek favorite of the king you foreigners call Phaulkon,” he said. “Anyone he smiles on will become a rich man, if he doesn’t lose his head first.”

I didn’t understand a word of Siamese, so Petch translated for me. “Why is that?” I asked.

“He is a cunning man,” the father said. “But the mandarins are opposed to him and resent his influence at Court. They also believe he is conspiring with the French to convert us all to the white man’s religion. But he will learn that we won’t abandon the faith of our forefathers as easily has he himself abandons a religion when it suits him. The talapoins have vowed to oppose him until they are rid of him.”

The talapoins, or Buddhist monks, obviously would not welcome in their midst anyone bent on dismantling the tree of their religion. They were a powerful faction in Siamese society with the power to sway the hearts and minds of the common people. Thus even though they held no temporal power, they were a powerful sacerdotal force.

“Aren’t you forgetting, father,” Petch said, “that without the foreigners, be he Moor, Chinese, or farang, we would not enjoy the benefits of commerce which have provided the King and the mandarins, including yourself, father, much wealth?”

Petch explained that the kings of Ayutthaya were the principal traders in their own realm, using international commerce and a system of royal monopolies to increase the material magnificence of their court and to enlarge their treasuries. The kings of Ayutthaya were able to participate in the maritime trading networks of the Gulf of Siam, the Malay and Indonesian archipelagos, the Bay of Bengal,(and even farther afield than in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and Japan.

“Granted, trade and commerce we must have. But to have the farangs come and usurp our titles and purloin our livelihoods, brand us as idolaters and presume to convert us to their faith, that is unforgivable.”

“How is my sister,” Petch asked, changing the subject.

“Well. She has gone to stay at Okya Wichayen’s house.”

“But I thought you hated him?” Petch said.

“Lady Marie Guimar has taken a liking to Wan,” the father said. “They are the same age and have the same tastes, and get on very well together. Besides, it will keep her out of harm’s way until she is presented to the King.”

“Presented to the King?” I asked. “What does that mean?”

“Noble young ladies of beauty are presented to the King as concubines,” Petch said. “It is the custom in our country.”

“Your kings are indeed fortunate,” I said, “if they have the pick of the crop of the most beautiful women in the country.”

After we had taken leave of the old man, Petch said, “Do not take my father’s words at face value. He is of the old school and distrusts foreigners, but his heart is really gold.”

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