Much has been said about what prompted a group of Western-educated military officers and technocrats to seize power from the royal government 85 years ago and pave way for democratic rule in Thailand, then known as Siam.
Historians generally cite the failure by the king’s government to fix the social and economic malaise, others point to the wave of constitutionalism sweeping the globe at the time, while the more conservative thinkers believe it was an attempt by “hot-headed” liberals to waylay the king, who was ready to grant a constitution when Siam was ready.
For many among the royal circles back then, the revolution was not about politics, but also about supernatural cause. For them, what happened on the morning of June 24, 1932, was a 150-year-old prophecy coming true – despite their efforts to avert it.
The prophecy was part of a curse that reportedly befell Bangkok the moment the city was founded in 1782. It predicted that the Chakri Dynasty would only rule the country for a century and a half before coming to an end.
While the curse may sound ludicrous today, it was no laughing matter for a country known for deep-seated superstitions. Generations of noblemen and royal family members lived under fearful conviction that their reign will end once the time runs out. And they did all they could to ward off the doom.
Because of the curse and the subsequent attempts to remedy it, Bangkok has a bridge across the river, two city pillars, an invented deity all Thais supposed to worship, a folk song all children know by heart and a Red Cross building. According to one historian, even the 1932 coup plotters made use of the curse by spreading rumors about an imminent downfall as prophesied to demoralize the royal establishment.
Sacrifices for a Newborn City
For four days and four nights in April 1782, royal astrologers and an entourage of the newly crowned King Ramathibodi converged on a patch of ground close to Chao Phraya River.
After seizing power from a previous monarch and beheading him mere weeks earlier, King Ramathibodi, who later became known as Rama I, chose this spot to be the city pillar, the divine foundation of his reign.
The minute and hour the pillar, actually a large Javanese cassia log, would be put up was meticulously calculated by the royal soothsayers for the most felicitous alignment in the stars. It was to be the moment Bangkok, the new capital city of the Siamese kingdom, would be born.
Those minutes and hours are important because they would establish the Duang Mueang, or a “City’s Fortune.” Every city has its Duang Mueang, but Bangkok’s was to be the most important because it not only affected the capital city – but the entire kingdom.
“Everyone in the country is bound to it,” Fongsanan Chamornchan, an astrologer and author who’s written about Duang Mueang, said in a recent interview.
For maximum benefit to Bangkok’s Duang Mueang, the team of royal astrologers calculated the best time to lay down the city pillar to be the the 9th baht (also an archaic unit of time) after dawn of the 10th day of the waxing moon of the sixth month of the Year of the Tiger. By Gregorian reckoning, that was 6:54am on April 21, 1782.
As recorded by the royal astrologers and recently retold in vivid details in “Miraculous and Mysterious Dimensions” by historian Rome Bunnag, the hole for the city pillar was dug on the night before the auspicious day. When dawn arrived, a sense of apprehension must have swept through the ranks of noblemen, priests, soothsayers and mages gathered there. The chief astrologer, Phra Hora Thibodi, laid four stones into the hole, symbolizing the four spirits that guarded the four cardinal directions, followed by a parchment bearing magical incantation.
Time for the pillar to be erected. A gong was sounded to herald the sacred minute. The priests made ready about the log.
Just then, the royal chronicle noted, four snakes appeared from nowhere and slithered into the hole meant for the log. There was nothing the holy men could do; the hour and minute of Duang Mueang had to be respected. They had no choice but to slam the pillar home, smothering the four snakes.
The serpents thus became unwitting sacrifices to the newborn city.
The Curse of Bangkok
It doesn’t take a degree in divination to deduce that unintentional animal sacrifice was bad mojo for Duang Mueang.
Immediately after the incident, Rama I gathered his astrologers and asked them what the snakes portended. The consensus, as the king feared, was awamongkol, an ill fortune. But what doom was to descend on Bangkok? The astrologers had no answer.
The news could not have been well received by King Rama I and his infant kingdom. But for the next seven years and seven months, no significant disaster took place, and the royal court likely sighed in relief.
That changed on a Sunday afternoon in May 1789, when lightning struck a throne hall in the Grand Palace and set it ablaze. The incident forced Rama I to consult his astrologers again to see the meaning of the botched ritual seven years earlier.
His conclusion, as famously chronicled by his sister Her Royal Highness Gu Narindaradevi, was that the snakes doomed the Chakri dynasty to fall, but the deities took mercy because the king had recently ordered a new translation edition of the Tripitaka, the Buddhist scripture. The angels, Rama I reportedly said, agreed to delay the inevitable 150 years.
“[Thus] His Majesty proclaimed, I have restored the Tripitaka, and the gods granted me a chance,” Gu Narindaradevi quoted her brother as saying. “My line of kings will last for 150 years.”
Instead of resigning to the prophesied downfall, the royal court spent the next 150 years trying to thwart it.
Much of these attempts were recorded and retold in the tradition of mukha patha (oral history) passed down through generations of astrologers, said Pakasit Tipjorn, a professional necromancer, who also studies astrology.
The first major effort was undertaken by King Mongkut, or Rama IV. While the monarch is generally described as the champion of science and Westernization, King Mongkut was also enthusiastic about astrology and clairvoyance.
“He didn’t rely on astrologers. He was the astrologer,” Pakasit, who specializes in animist black magic, said in a recent interview.
In December 1852, the king decided to solve the problem at its root. He ordered the city pillar shrine torn down and rebuilt. A new teak log was erected next to the original one.
King Mongkut also ordered his artisans to construct a figurine of Phra Siam Dheva Thirat, a small deity he believed embodied an invisible angel that protected Siam from disasters and colonization. According to the oral histories, the king hoped Phra Siam Dheva Thirat would spare the country from the evil fortune portended by his grandfather.
Despite its relatively recent history, Phra Siam Dheva Thirat is now worshipped by Thais as one of the most sacred of deities.
Astrologer Fongsanan said such gestures are futile because the fate of Duang Mueang cannot be changed.
“It’s a destiny that cannot be altered,” said Fongsana, who’s worked as a soothsayer for 15 years. “It’s like a person. You only have one fate once you’re born. Everything that you do is simply the colors of life.”
But the aristocrats did not think so. In 1932, the year the reign of kings was supposed to end, drew closer, the palace intensified its efforts. The largest project was undertaken by King Rama VII’s royal court in 1927: The construction of a bridge connecting Bangkok and Thonburi over the Chao Phraya River.
While the bridge obviously had its practical use, there was also a cosmological meaning as well, Pakasit said. Rama IV is said to have come up with the idea of the bridge, as he believed that uniting the spirits of the two capital cities, old and new, could bring a divine harmony to eclipse the curse.
The project did not take off in his time, but it would be realized by Rama VII.
Return of the Serpents
The beginning of 1932 must have invited dread for King Rama VII, aka Prajadhipok. He knew the prophecy would arrive on his watch. The curse of the four snakes also held a special, personal meaning for Rama VII: He was born in 1893 – the Year of Serpent, in the traditional zodiac.
By freakish coincidence, four of his close aides in the royal court – Sasibongse Prabai, Paribatra Sukhumbhand (grandfather of former Bangkok Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra), Bismai Bimalasataya and Purachatra Jayakara – were also born under the serpent – 1881.
Rumors began spreading that the four royals were the four snakes reincarnated to deliver vengeance. As a gesture to ward off the purported jinx, the four pooled donations for the Red Cross to construct a new building named “Si Maseng,” or “Four Serpents,” in memory of the four unwitting martyrs of Bangkok.
The building, near Chulalongkorn University, today is a snake farm for researching snakebite serum at the Thai Red Cross on Henri Dunant Road.
Around this time, a new folk game was invented to placate the serpentine spirits, Pakasit said. Children in communities around the country were soon taught to play it, and the game is still observed in schoolyards and traditional celebrations today. The game involves a song all Thais know by heart:
“Mother snake, which well are you drinking from?
I’m drinking from a stone well, and I’m moving about.
Mother snake, which will are you drinking from?
I’m drinking from a sand well, and I’m moving about.”
Rumors of Revolt
New Year’s Day of 1932, which at the time was observed on April 1, arrived under an oppressive sense of disapprobation. It was time for the Chakri Dynasty to meet its end, so it was believed, and according to capital gossip, some were conspiring to ensure the prophecy came true.
On April 6, Chakri Day, the king was set to christen the newly built bridge across the Chao Phraya, which he named Rama I Bridge. Rumors claimed that a group of republican military officers would crash the inauguration, arrest King Rama VII and declare Siam a republic.
The plan wasn’t far-fetched. In 1912, a group of progressive army officers, displeased with the absolutist rule of the royal family, plotted to surround the Grand Palace while King Rama VI made merit within and force him to abdicate by the barrel of a gun. The insurrection fell apart, and the plotters were arrested after one exposed the plot.
But in the end, the the bridge was inaugurated without incident. Any relief over the outcome was likely tempered with annoyance, then as now, that such nonsensical rumors could generate so much attention in the capital.
Two months later, without any warning, the real revolt happened.
‘On the Backs of the People’
A coalition of Western-educated military officers, bureaucrats and civilians, called the People’s Party, seized power at dawn on June 24, 1932, as the king and his entourage were holidaying in Hua Hin.
In a declaration printed and distributed to crowds of excited onlookers on the streets, the People’s Party demanded a constitution be implemented, which the monarchy must abide. Siam would no longer be ruled directly by the king, but via an elected parliament and government.
“The People’s Party will govern and implement projects based on knowledge, not act like a blind man as the government of the king above the law has done,” part of the proclamation read. “Everyone will have equal rights and freedom from being serfs, servants and slaves of royalty. The time has ended when those of royal blood can plant rice on the backs of the people.”
Suthachai Yimprasert, a political historian at Chulalongkorn University, said the plotters took advantage of the cycles of rumors that preceded the actual revolution.
“The authorities were lulled into relief,” Suthachai, who’s written extensively about the 1932 revolution, said in a recent interview.
Suthachai believes it was one of the People’s Party leaders who spread the rumors about a conspiracy to detain King Rama VII to demoralize and confuse the royal government. The rumors also served as a safety mechanism: with police overwhelmed by so many tips, they were likely to disregard or miss actual intelligence on the real coup.
The tactic was the hallmark of a People’s Party leader named Phraya Song Suradet, according to Suthachai. The army officer was tasked with strategic planning and intelligence gathering for the day of action.
“Phraya Song definitely had a hand in it,” the historian said.
By the time dusk fell on June 24, 1932, the plotters had taken over a palace in Bangkok as their headquarters and awaited the king’s answer.
Although some of his closest advisers pressed him to fight, King Rama VII believed resistance would only lead to bloodshed and perhaps come to nothing, as the rebels had already occupied the capital and detained nearly all key members of the government.
That night, he telegraphed his reply to Bangkok. He agreed to the coup leaders’ demands. Thailand would become a constitutional monarchy.
Seven centuries of royal rule was over, exactly 150 years after the founding of Bangkok, as prophesied by Rama I.
The Curse, The Plaque and Today
Few people in Thailand, then as now, were immune from beliefs in horoscopes, prophecies and auguries. Was it possible that the People’s Party saw themselves as the supernatural instrument that would make the curse come true, and therefore rendering Rama I’s prophecy a self-fulfilling one?
Suthachai, the Chulalongkorn historian, believes the opposite is true. The People’s Party, he said, was strictly secular in nature.
“They were probably the least superstitious of all coup-makers,”said Suthachai, laughing.
He said the People’s Party did not consult any horoscopes when they planned the revolution, unlike the leaders of other coups and revolts (even the plotters of the failed uprising of 1912 included one astrologer). The date, June 24, was chosen not because of any astral alignment, but because Rama VII happened to be outside Bangkok that day.
It is now 2017, and the curse, like legacies of the People’s Party, is a thing of the past.
The Chakri Dynasty did not come to an end; in fact, Thailand saw a new king, the tenth Chakri, just this year. Although absolute monarchy has not been fully restored, much of the government system envisioned by the 1932 revolution has been rolled back, as most evident in the lack of mechanisms that effectively limit the monarchy’s influence in state affairs.
Even the historic plaque marking the very spot the People’s Party announced the end of absolute monarchy vanished earlier this very month, offering a tantalizing coda to this centuries-spanning tale: Has the curse been broken?
So, did King Rama I get it wrong? Or did only a “lite” version of the curse manifest?
Pakasit believes the curse would have unfolded differently if the Chakri Dynasty hadn’t undertaken so much effort to undo it.
“The curse could not be avoided, but it was not fatal,” he said.
Fongsanan, on the other hand, insisted that the curse played out exactly as Rama I foresaw, even though it was not as literal as thought by many at the time.
“It shows that King Rama I was very talented in astrology,” she said. “Probably even more so than his own chief astrologer.”
Nevertheless, both Fongsanan and Pakasit agreed the first monarch of the Chakri Dynasty made a permanent mark on the mystical structure of Bangkok and the nation-kingdom. The most exalted spot in the Duang Mueang was reserved for King Rama I and his bloodline.
Of the existing Duang Mueang, Fongsanan said:
“It means that no matter what happens, or what destiny holds for Thailand, we will forever be ruled by Chakri kings, the descendants of King Rama I.”
A look at the founding of Bangkok and its subsequent curse by Matichon’s Art & Culture Magazine