In search of princess Phaya: Looking for Myanmar’s forgotten royals in Ratnagiri
Descendants of the last king of Burma still live in Maharashtra. Shorn of the royal grandeur, they say they are only namesake royals
Phaya Gyi, 26, had managed to hide her love affair with the “strapping young Maratha” Gopal Sawant for several months. It was only after the birth of their daughter, Tutu, that her parents learnt of the alliance. How could this be, they lamented – she, a princess, and he, a mere gatekeeper at the royal residence?
All stories start with a king. This one, however, must begin with a princess. A princess of ‘pure’ royal blood; born out of a marriage between a king and his step sister; a princess with kohl rimmed eyes, long, straight hair, and a heart full of sorrow and longing.
This princess was the eldest daughter of King Thibaw, the last king of Burma, who was exiled by the British in 1885. The royal family – the king, his two queens, and four daughters – were banished to the coastal town of Ratnagiri in Maharashtra. Thibaw, or “Thiba Raja”( as the king was known locally) lived here for over three decades. He died in 1916, and was entombed with his junior queen.
By 1919, however, the royal family left for Myanmar, never to turn back.
Except Princess Phaya, who pleaded to be sent back. Eventually, despite the royal family’s opposition, Phaya and her “half-caste” daughter, Tutu, were sent back to Ratnagiri, where the two lived for the rest of their lives.
So why is the town having a hard time remembering its princess?
The lost royals
Inside the modest house of Chandrakant Pawar, 74, the grandson of Phaya, the search for a suitable explanation is on. The family of Chandu, as Chandrakant is known here, is engrossed in an animated discussion with a local reporter who is trying hard to piece together the details of the Pawar family’s past. ‘What was Phaya like?’ ‘Did Tutu speak about her?’ ‘What about life in the palace?’ The questions are flying thick and fast.
“No one came looking for us before,” the family claims, as they grapple with the answers. Unable to dish out historically accurate details, they hand out the Marathi translation of the book titled ‘The King in Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma’ to their visitors. Published in 2012, ‘The King...’ is author Sudha Shah’s detailed account of the life of the Burmese royals – in and after exile – and is based on extensive research on the Burmese royal family in India and Myanmar.
Chandu, one of Tutu’s eleven children, who works as an auto mechanic, says that his mother hardly spoke about her past. It must have been a difficult subject for Tutu; the king’s grand daughter who married a local man in Ratnagiri, grew up in poverty, had no education, and was never accepted by her father.
According to Shah’s book, Phaya had known that Gopal was already married, and she would never get to be his wife. But since she had felt “cornered and judged” for her choices in Burma too, she decided to return to Ratnagiri, says Shah, who lives in Mumbai.
Life in Ratnagiri was no bed of roses either: Gopal bought a house for Phaya, but he would go on to squander her pension (that she received from the British). This pension, says Shah, was significantly less than what Phaya’s sisters got because unlike her, they were “married”.
Consequently, Phaya and her daughter Tutu spent their life in poverty – Chandu and Malti More, one of Tutu’s daughters, recall that their mother made “paper flowers” to get by. The stigma of being “half-caste” and “illegitimate” also took its toll on Tutu, who, Shah says, shared a “difficult relationship” with her mother.
Despite the financial strain, Tutu was known as a kind woman who spoke “good Marathi” and a smattering of Burmese, and gave shelter to “unwanted” children in town. The goodwill didn’t work for her though: towards the fag end of her life, Tutu was turned out of her house by her landlord and ended up spending a couple of nights on the street before Chandu’s family took her in.
For Tutu’s children in Ratnagiri, life became a tad less ‘ordinary’ only in the recent past, after there was a revival of interest in the royal legacy in 2012, post the end of military rule in Myanmar.
More recently, in December 2016, a few state dignitaries and descendants of the royal family in Myanmar visited King Thibaw’s tomb in Ratnagiri to mark his death centenary. Aside of rekindling relations between the royal cousins,the visit also gave credence to plans of taking the King’s tomb to Burma.
A contentious legacy
In Ratnagiri, however, the family is divided over these “plans”. Pradip Bhonsle, 58, Tutu’s grandson, reasons that it’s “best” that the King’s remains are taken away to Myanmar. For a town that did not care for his grandmother – “she chose to stay back despite the offer from the Burmese monks to take her back” – Pradip feels that the remains don’t hold much meaning.
But Mangesh More, Malti’s son, disagrees. “How can they take away his remains? It is part of our legacy too..!,” says Mangesh, who drives an auto-rickshaw to make a living. For all these years, the king’s descendants in Ratnagiri have been ignored, and now, Mangesh and his mother feel that their stake in Thibaw’s legacy must be recognised. “Just like our cousins from Burma came here, we also want to visit the Mandalay palace in Myanmar. We have heard it’s very beautiful. But we don’t have the money to visit Myanmar; perhaps the government, or our cousins, should make the arrangements for us,” he says.
The families, however, are not the only stakeholders in the royal legacy. The state government too, has had its interests – the Thibaw palace building has served as a government office, and a sub-centre of the Bombay University, before the state archaeology department took over in 1999.
If the town has not forgotten the palace and the tomb, it has also not remembered to take good care of them – locals point to the palace’s creaking staircases made of Burmese teak, its crumbling walls, the cobwebs that run along its ceilings, the bird droppings that line its floors, and its “haunted” presence next to a beach.
But if the district government hasn’t cared very much for its filth-lined beaches, what chance do the crumbling walls of a palace have; the palace of a king who never ruled here?
“Unlike Shivaji, Thibaw didn’t fight the British. So the town doesn’t have much connect with his heritage,” says Nitin Kanvinde, director, Ratnagiri Arts Circle. Kanvinde, who runs an annual arts festival at the palace – the only time the building is lit up and comes to life – feels that the government ought to turn it into a public space for residents.
Apart from the narrative of neglect, the town’s residents also rue the government’s move to rename the road that leads to the palace (earlier known as the Thibaw Palace road) after a local BJP leader, Dr J S Kedekar. “We didn’t like it; if the king didn’t do anything for us, neither did Dr J S Kedekar,” says a resident, who didn’t wish to be named.
Locals are not just possessive about the road, but the king’s belongings too. Objects from the palace can be found in some of their homes; you can look at a set of twin silver peacocks in one, and a couple of wooden cabinets and almirahs in another.
You might have to wait, though, if you want to see the royal jewels that are resting safely in the “bank locker” of local advocate, Pradip Parulekar. Or, if you wanted to see the box of Princess Phaya’s ashes, which is nowhere to be found. (Unlike the king, whose mortal remains are kept in a coffin, the princess was cremated, and her ashes were kept in a box).
Even inside the palace, at the King Thibaw gallery, I notice that a portrait of the princess is conspicuous by its absence. Outside the palace, Nitin tells me: “More than the king, we owe it to Phaya; she was the one who came back, and made this town her home.”