Update: 2005-01-17 04:18 PM +0700


The Burmese Empire
a hundred years ago

As described by Father Vincenzo Sangermano
Edited and with notes by U Kyaw Tun, M.S. (I.P.S.T., U.S.A.). Set in html by UKT and staff of TIL Computing and Language Center, Yangon, for students and staff of TIL. Not for sale.

Contents | Top

Constitution of the Burmese Empire

Contents | Top

Chapter 10

of the emperor, and of his white elephants

Section 01

I suppose that there is not in the whole world a monarch so despotic as the Burmese Emperor. He is considered by himself and others absolute lord of the lives, properties, and personal services of his subjects; he exalts and depresses, confers and takes away honour and rank; and, without any process of law, can put to death not only criminals guilty of capital offences, but any individual who happens to incur his displeasure. It is here a perilous thing for a person to become distinguished for wealth and possessions; for the day may easily come when he will be charged with some supposed crime, and so put to death, in order that his property may be confiscated. Every subject is the Emperor's born slave; and when he calls any one his slave he thinks thereby to do him honour. To express their sense of this subjection, all who approach him are obliged to prostrate themselves before him, holding their hands joined above their heads. Hence, also, he considers himself entitled to employ his subjects in any work or service, without salary or pay, and if he makes them any recompense, it is done, not from a sense of justice, but as an act of bounty. Their goods likewise, and even their persons, are reputed his property, and on this ground it is that he selects for his concubine any female that may chance to please his eye. It is, however, sanctioned by custom that no married woman can be seized for the king, as there has never been an instance of it; and, indeed, so sacred is this usage, that a son

Contents | Top

of the present Emperor, having violated a married woman, was apprehended, and condemned to death by his father, and only escaped through the prayers of the queen his mother and of the crown-prince. The Burmese make use of this privilege to save their daughters from the hands of the king's ministers, by engaging them, while young, in real or fictitious marriages. The possessions of all who die without heirs belong to the king, as do those of foreigners who have not married in the country; for they are not allowed to dispose of them, not even in favour of their illegitimate children. In case of shipwreck upon any of the coasts of the empire, the effects and persons saved are the property of the king, who regards them as a present sent to him by the ocean. The exaction of the two last-mentioned rights has, however, been enforced with a less rigour of late, in consequence of the urgent representations made by the foreigners resident at Rangoon. To the king it belongs to declare war or to conclude peace; and he may in any moment call upon the whole population of his empire to enlist themselves in his army, and can impose upon them at pleasure any labour or service.

Section 02

Although despotism in its worst form constitute, as it were, the very essence of the Burmese monarchy, so that to be called its king is equivalent to being called a tyrant; still has Badonsachen, the despot who for the last twenty-seven years has governed this kingdom, so far outstripped his predecessors in barbarity and pride, that whoso but hears it must shudder with horror. His very countenance is the index of a mind ferocious and inhuman in the highest degree, and what has above been related of him, as well as some more facts to be brought forward, will show that it does not deceive. Immense is the number of those whom he has sacrificed to his ambition upon the most trivial offences; and it would not be an exaggeration to assert that, during his reign, more victims have fallen by the hand of the executioner than by the sword of the common enemy. To this atrocious cruelty he has united a pride at once intolerable and impious. The good fortune which has attended him in discovering and defeating the numerous conspiracies which have been formed against him, has inspired him with the idea that he is something more than mortal, and

Contents | Top

that this privilege has been granted him on account of his numerous good works. Hence has he for some years laid aside the title of king and assumed that of Pondogh╠, which signifies great and exalted virtue; or was he content with this, for but a few years since he thought to make himself a God. With this view, and in imitation of Godama, who, before being advanced to the rank of a divinity, had abandoned the royal palace, together with all his wives and concubines, and had retired into solitude, Badonsachen withdrew himself form the palace to Menton, where for many years he had been employed in constructing a Pagoda, the largest in the empire. Here he held various conferences with the most considerable and learned Talapoins, in which he endeavoured to persuade them that the 5000 years assigned for the observance of the law of Godama were elapsed, and that he himself was the God who was to appear after that period, and to abolish the ancient law in substituting his own. But to his great mortification many of the Talapoins undertook to demonstrate the contrary; and this, combined with his love of power and his impatience under the denial of the luxuries of the seraglio, quickly disabused him of his Godhead, and drove him back to his palace.

As a specimen of the veneration which this king exacts from his subjects, I shall here subjoin the form of address which, on occasion of an embassy from the British Governor-General of India, was presented to the ambassador, to be by him pronounced before the Burmese Emperor. 'Placing above our heads the golden majesty of the mighty lord, the possessor of the mines of rubies, amber, gold, silver, and all kinds of metals; of the lord under whose command are innumerable soldiers, generals, and captains; of the lord who is king of many countries and provinces, and emperor over many rulers and princes, who wait round his throne with the badges of his authority; of the lord who is adorned with the greatest power, wisdom, knowledge, prudence, foresight, etc.; of the lord who is rich in the possession of elephants, and horses, and in particular is the lord of many white elephants; of the lord who is the greatest of kings, the most just and the most religious, the master of life and death; we his slaves, the Governor of Bengal, the officers and administrators of the

Contents | Top

Company, bowing and lowering our heads under the sole of his royal golden foot, do present to him, with the greatest veneration, this our humble petition.'

Section 03

Nothing was now wanting to the pride of the Burmese monarch but the possession of white elephant; and in this he was gratified in the year 1805, by the taking of a female one in the forests of Peg¨. This anxiety to be master of a white elephant arises from the idea of the Burmese, which attaches to these animals some supernatural excellence, which is communicated to their possessors. fn076-01 Hence do the kings or princes, who may have one, esteem themselves most happy, as thus they are made powerful and invincible; and the country where one may be found is thought rich and not liable to change. The Burmese kings have therefore been ever solicitous for the possession of one of these animals, and consider it as their chiefest honour to be called lords of the white elephant. To excite their subjects to seek for them, they have also decreed to raise to the rank of Mandarin anybody who may have the good fortune to take one, besides exempting him from all taxes or other burthens. Not only white elephants, but also those of a red colour, spotted ones, and such as are perfectly black, are greatly prized, though not equally with the former; and hence have the Burmese kings assumed in their proclamations the title of lords of the red and spotted elephants, etc.

To convey an idea of the superstitious veneration with which the white elephant is regarded, I shall here give an account of the one taken whilst I resided in the country, and of the manner in which it was conducted to the imperial city. Imme-


fn076-01 The notion is derived from the Hindu mythology, which treats the elephant as one of the signs of the Chakravarti, the great wheel-turning king or universal monarch. The dream of Queen Maya, the mother of Gaudama Buddha, about his entering her womb as a white elephant, thus invests with supreme sovereignty the supreme intelligence.

Senart and Kern trace these legends to the worship of the Sun, Vishnu, and Mahadev. The sun, representing regularity, next becomes the Dharma-raja, who utters religious law. Yule, p. 135, with his usual learning, quotes AElian and Ibn Batuta about white elephants. Their stately caparisons are described by all the old travellers and by our envoys. Caesar Frederick, as well as the native traders, had to pay a tax for the privilege of seeing them fn076-01b

Contents | Top

diately upon its being captured it was bound with cords covered with scarlet, and the most considerable of the Mandarins were deputed to attend it. A house, such as is occupied by the greatest ministers and generals, was built for its reception; and humerous servants were appointed to watch over its cleanliness, to carry to it every day the freshest herbs, which had first been washed with water, and to provide it with everything else that could contribute to its comfort. As the place where it was taken was infested by mosquitos, a beautiful net of silk was made to protect it from them; and to preserve it from all harm, Mandarins and guards watched by it both day and night. No sooner was the news spread abroad that  a white elephant had been taken than immense multitudes of every age, sex, and condition flocked to behold it, not only from the neighbouring parts, but even from the most remote provinces. And not content thus to show their respect, they also knelt down before it, with their hands joined over their heads, and adored it as they would a god, and this not once or twice, but again and again. Then they offered to it rice, fruit, and flowers, together with butter sugar, and even money, and esteemed themselves most happy in having seen this sacred animal.

At length the king gave orders for its transportation to Amarapura, and immediately two boats of teak-wood were fastened together, and upon them was erected a superb pavilion, with a roof similar to that which covers the royal palaces. It was made perfectly impervious to the sun or rain, and draperies of silk embroidered in gold adorned it on every side. This splendid pavilion was towed up the river by three large and beautifully gilded vessels full of rowers, and was surrounded by innumerable other boats, some filled with every kind of provision, others carrying Mandarins, bands of music, or troops of dancing girls, and the whole was guarded by a troop of 500 soldiers. The towns and villages along the river, where the train reposed, were obliged to furnish fresh herbs and fruits for the animal, besides all sorts of provisions for the whole company. At each pause too it was met by crowds from every quarter, who flocked to adore the animal and offer it their presents. The king and the royal family frequently

Contents | Top

sent messengers to bring tidings of its health, and make it rich presents in their name. Three days before its arrival, Badonsachen himself with all his court went out to meet it. The king was  the first to pay it his respects, and to adore it, presenting at the same time a large vase of gold, and after him all the princes of the blood, and all the Mandarins paid their homage, and offered their gifts.

To honour its arrival in the city, a most splendid festival was ordered, which continued for three days, and was celebrated with music, dancing and fireworks. A most magnificent house was assigned to the elephant for its residence, adorned after the manner of the royal palace; a guard of 100 soldiers was given to it, together with 400 or 500 servants, whose duty it was always to wait upon it, to bring its food, and to wash it every day with odoriferous sandal water. It was also distinguished with a most honourable title, such as is usually given to the princes of the royal family; and for its maintenance were assigned several cities and villages, which were obliged to furnish everything necessary for it. All the vessels and utensils employed in its service were of pure gold; and it had besides two large gilt umbrellas, such as the king and his sons are alone permitted to make use of. It was lulled to sleep by the sound of musical instruments and the songs of dancing girls. Whenever it went out it was accompanied by a long train of Mandarins, soldiers, and servants carrying gilt umbrellas, in the same manner as when attending the person of the king; and the streets through which it was to pass were all cleaned and sprinkled with water. The most costly presents continued daily to be brought to it by all the Mandarins of the kingdom, and one is said to have offered a vase of gold weighing 480 ounces. But it is well known that these presents, and the eagerness shown in bestowing them, were owing more to the avaricious policy of the king than to the veneration of his subjects towards the elephant, for all these golden utensils and ornaments found their way at last into the royal treasury.

The possession of a white elephant filled Badonsachen with the most immoderate joy. He seemed to think himself in some manner partaker of  the divine nature through this animal, and could not imagine himself anything less than one of the

Contents | Top

great emperors of the Nat. Besides that he now expected to conquer all his enemies, he confidently supposed that he would enjoy at least 120 years more of life. As a symbol of this number the members of the royal family were making ready 120 glass lamps and other things to the same number, which, according to the advice of the Brahmins, were to be presented to the great Pagoda, when the elephant disclaimed all pretensions to divinity by a sudden death, caused by the immense quantity of fruit and sweetmeats which it had eaten from the hands of its adorers. It is impossible to describe the consternation of Bahonsachen at this disaster; for as the possession of a white elephant is esteemed a pledge of certain good fortune to a king, so is its death a most inauspicious omen. So that he, who but lately was elated by the most presumptuous pride, was now overcome by the most abject fear, expecting every moment to be dethroned by his enemies, and imagining that there remained to him but a few days of life.

Section 04

At the death of the elephant, as at that of an emperor, it is publicly forbidden, under heavy penalties, to assert that he is dead; it must only be said that he is departed, or has disappeared. As the one of which we have spoken was a female, its funeral was conducted in a form practised on the demise of a principal queen. The body was accordingly placed upon a funeral pile of sassafras, sandal, and other aromatic woods, then covered over with similar materials, and the pyre was set on fire with the aid of four immense gilt bellows placed at its angles. After three days, the principal Mandarins came to gather the ashes and remnants of the bones, which they enshrined in a gilt and well-closed urn, and buried in the royal cemetery. Over the tomb was subsequently raised a superb mausoleum of a pyramidal shape, built of brick, but richly painted and gilt. Had the elephant been a male, it would have been interred with the ceremonial used for the sovereign.

The consternation of Badonsachen of he loss of his elephant was not of long duration, for, a few months later, some white elephants were discovered in the forests of Peg¨. Instantly, the most urgent orders were issued to give them chase; and after several unsuccessful efforts one was at length captured.

Contents | Top

It was to arrive at Rangoon on the 1st of October 1806, the very day on which I sailed from that port for Europe; and it was generally supposed that, being a male, it would receive greater honours than its female perdecessor. fn080-01


fn080-01 'BodoaphrÔ probably considered that the greatest glory of his reign was the possession of a perfect white male elephant. This animal, caught in the forests of Peg˙, was received at court with honours due to an object of worship. He lived in captivity for more than fifty years.'---Phyre, p. 230. He was seen and described by Crawfurd and Yule. fn080-01b

Contents | Top
End of TIL file