The Romance of the Harem

- By Anna Harriette Leonowens
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Anna Harriette Leonowens (born Ann Hariett Emma Edwards;[1] 5 November 1831 – 19 January 1915) was an Anglo-Indian or Indian-born British[2] travel writer, educator, and social activist. She became well known with the publication of her memoirs, beginning with The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), which chronicled her experiences in Siam (modern Thailand), as teacher to the children of the Siamese King Mongkut. Leonowens' own account was fictionalised in Margaret Landon's best-selling novel Anna and the King of Siam (1944), as well as adaptations for other media such as Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1951 musical The King and I.
Siam is called by its people "Muang Thai" (the kingdom of the free). The appellation which we employ is derived from a Malay word sagûm (the brown race), and is never used by the natives themselves; nor is the country ever so named in the ancient or modern annals of the kingdom. In the opinion of Pickering, the Siamese are of Malay origin. A majority of intelligent Europeans, however, regard the population as mainly Mongolian. But there is much more probability that they belong to that powerful Indo-European race to which Europe owes its civilization, and whose chief branches are the Hindoos, Persians, Greeks, Latins, Kelts, and the Teutonic and Sclavonic tribes. The original site of this race was in Bactria, and the earliest division of the people could not have been later than three or four thousand years before the Christian era. Comparative philology alone enables us to trace the origin of nations of great antiquity. According to the researches of the late king, who was a very studious and learned man, of twelve thousand eight hundred Siamese words, more than five thousand are found to be Sanskrit, or to have their roots in that language, and the rest in the Indo-European tongues; to which have been superadded a[Pg 2] great number of Chinese and Cambodian terms. He says: "The names of temples, cities, and villages in the kingdom of Siam are derived from three sources, namely, Sanskrit, Siamese, and Cambodian. The names which the common people generally use are spoken according to the idiom of the Siamese language, are short and easily pronounced; but the names used in the Court language and in the government documents, which receive the government seals, are almost all of Sanskrit derivation, apt to be long; and even though the Sanskrit names are given at full length, the people are prone to speak them incorrectly. Some of our cities and temples have two and even three names, being the ancient and modern names, as they have been used in the Court language or that of the people."
As the words common to the Siamese and the Sanskrit languages must have been in use by both peoples before their final separation, we have here a clew to the origin and degree of civilization attained by the former before they emigrated from the parent stock. Besides the true Siamese, a great variety of races inhabit the Siamese territories. The Siamese themselves trace their genealogy up to the first disciples of the Buddha, and commence their records at least five centuries before the Christian era. First, a long succession of dynasties, with varying seats of government, figure in their ancient books, in which narrations of the miracles of the Buddhas, and of the intervention of supernatural beings, are frequently introduced. Then come accounts of matrimonial alliances between the princes of Siam and the Imperial family of China; of embassies to, and wars with, the neighboring countries, interspersed with such relations of prodigies and such marvellous legends as to surpass all possible conception of our less fertile Western imaginations. It is only after the establishment of Ayudia as the capital of Siam, A.D. 1350, that history assumes its rightful[Pg 3] functions, and the course of events, with the regular succession of sovereigns, is registered with tolerable accuracy.
The name of Siam was first heard in Europe-that is, in Portugal-in the year 1511, nine years after Alfonso d'Albuquerque, the great Viceroy of the Indies, had landed on the coast of Malabar with his soldiers, and conquered Goa, which he made the seat of the Portugo-Indian government, and the centre of its Asiatic operations. After establishing his power in Goa, D'Albuquerque subdued the whole of the Malabar, the island of Ceylon, the Sunda Isles, the peninsula of Malacca, and the beautiful island of Ormuz, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf.
It was here that D'Albuquerque is said to have received the ambassadors of the Emperor of Persia, sent to collect the tribute formerly paid to him by the sovereigns of the island, and, instead of the customary gold and silver, to have laid before them iron bullets and a sword, with: "This is the coin in which Portugal pays those who demand tribute from her." Whether this incident really occurred or not, it is certain that D'Albuquerque made the name of Portugal so feared and respected in the East, that many of the potentates in that region, and among them the kings of Siam and Pegu, sent embassies to him, and sought his alliance and protection. The profitable relations anticipated from this opening were interrupted, however, by the long and bitter war which shortly broke out between Siam and Birmah, and the intercourse between the Siamese and Portuguese was not renewed for a long time. As early as the fifteenth century the celebrated German traveller, Mandelslohe, visited Ayudia, the capital of Siam, and called it the Venice of the East,-a title equally applicable to the modern capital, Bangkok. The Portuguese explorer, Mendez Pinto, who was in Siam in the sixteenth century, gives a very favorable account of the country, and, in my opinion, deserves more credit for the truth of[Pg 4] his statements than was accorded to him by his contemporaries. In 1632 an English vessel is said to have reached Ayudia, and to have found it in ruins, the country having been laid waste by successive incursions of the Birmese.
The great river Mèinam is the Nile of Siam. Rising among the southern slopes of the snow-covered mountains of Yunan, it traverses the whole length of the valley, receiving in its course the waters of many other streams, the most important being the Mèikhong, which in its length of nearly one thousand miles drains the eastern provinces of Laos and Cambodia. Ancient annals relate that in the fifteenth and as late as the seventeenth century, Chinese junks ascended the river as far as Sangkalok, nearly one hundred and twenty leagues from its mouth; now, owing to the increasing alluvial deposit, it is not navigable more than fifteen leagues at most. In the month of June, the mountain snows begin to melt, the deluging rains of the wet season set in, the strong southerly winds dam up the waters of the Mèinam, and it begins to rise,-an event most eagerly looked for by the people, and hailed by them as a blessing from Heaven. In August the inundation is at its height, and the whole vast valley is like one immense sea, in which towns and villages look like islands, connected by drawbridges, and interspersed with groves and orchards, the tops of which only are seen, while boats pass to and fro without injury to the rice and other crops starting beneath them. The whole valley is intersected by canals, some of great size and extent, in order to distribute as far as possible the benefits of this grand operation of nature; but the lands situated about the middle of the great plain derive the greatest advantage therefrom.
When the inundation is supposed to have reached its[Pg 5] height, a deputation of Talapoins, or priests, sent by the king, descend the river in magnificent state barges, and with chants and incantations and movements of magical wands command the waters to retire. Sometimes, however, the calculations prove to have been incorrect, the river continues to rise, and it is they who are compelled to retire, filled with chagrin and disappointment. The popular river festival, which takes place after the waters begin to subside, both in origin and character belongs to the Hindoos, rather than to the Buddhists. It is an annual festival held at night, and the scene which is exhibited during its celebration is exceedingly beautiful. The banks of the Mèinam are brilliantly lighted up; accompanied and announced by numerous flights of rockets, a number of floating palaces, built on rafts, come sailing down the stream, preceded by thousands of lamps and lanterns wreathed with chaplets of flowers, which cover with their gay brilliancy the entire surface of the flashing water. The rafts, which are formed of young plantain-trees fastened together, are often of considerable extent, and the structures which they bear are such as Titania herself might delight to inhabit. Towers, gates, arches, and pagodas rise in fantastic array, bright with a thousand colors, and shining in the light of numberless cressets,-so the fairy-like spectacle moves on, while admiring crowds of men, women, and children throng the banks of the river, not only to join the brilliant pageant, but to watch their own frail little bark, freighted, perchance, with a single lamp, yet full of life's brightest hopes, as it floats unextinguished down the rapid stream, glimmering on with ruddy flame amidst the shadows of night.
The products of Siam, as may be supposed from its range of latitude, its tropical heats, its variety of climate, and the fertility of the valley, annually renewed by the[Pg 6] inundation, are very diversified, and almost unlimited in quantity. Its rice, of which there are forty varieties, is excellent, and its sugar is esteemed the best in the world. Among the other exports are cotton, tobacco, hemp, cutch, dried fish and fruits, cocoanut-oil, beeswax, precious gums, spices, dye and other woods, especially teak, ivory, and many articles too numerous to mention. The mineral riches of the country are still almost entirely in an undeveloped state.
The search for sparkling gems has in all ages been eagerly engaged in; diamonds and other precious stones are frequently offered for sale, but the precise locality in which they are found is kept secret by the natives. The thousand-fold more valuable seams of coal and iron have remained unsought and most imperfectly worked as yet. A beginning has at last been made by the present king, and the last and best, though poetically maligned, age of iron is about to spread its blessings over the Siamese Empire.
The population of Siam cannot be ascertained with correctness, owing to the custom of enumerating only the men. When I was in Bangkok, the native registers gave the number of them as four million Siamese, one million Laotians, one million Malays and Indians, one million five hundred thousand Chinese, three hundred and fifty thousand Cambodians, fifty thousand Peguans, and the same number of mountain tribes; in all, nearly eight millions. If these figures are even approximately correct, and the women and children bear the same proportion to the men as in other countries, the total population of Siam far exceeds the numbers which have hitherto been assigned to it.
No people in the world exhibit so many exceptional developments of human nature as the different races occupying the eastern peninsula of India. The most impres[Pg 7]sible of races, ideas and views of life take root among them such as would find no acceptance elsewhere. Supple and pliant in their bodily frames, they are equally so in their mental and moral constitution; and upon no other race has the force of circumstance and the contagion of example so potent an influence in determining them towards good or evil. Royalty, therefore, to them, is not a mere name. It has taken such hold on their affections that it usurps the place of a religious sentiment. The person of the king is sacred. He is not only enthroned, he is enshrined. His rule may be called despotic, but it is tempered by law and by not less revered custom. He may name his successor by Will, but the Royal or Secret Council will determine whether that Will shall be carried into effect. A second king, selected, like the first or supreme king, from the royal family, is also appointed by the Secret Council. Whatever may have originally been the functions of this second king, his exercise of them appears, from incidents of the late reign, to be dependent upon the disposition of the supreme king, and his desire or disinclination to concentrate in his own person all the powers of the throne.
The whole empire is divided into forty-nine provinces, with their respective Phayas, or governors; and these again are subdivided into districts under inferior officers, respecting whose administration but little that is good can be said. Every subject, even the most humble, has by law the right to complain to the king in person against any official, however exalted; and the king sits in public at the eastern gate of the palace to receive the petitions of his people.
Two or three centuries after Brahminism and caste had been authoritatively established in the Hindoo code, there arose a new religion which totally ignored the old one, and almost immediately supplanted it as the state religion[Pg 8] of India. This was Buddhism, founded by Gotama, otherwise called Sakya Muni, a Kshatrya Prince of Oude. A high-priest of the Abstract, and believing that the only possible revelation from the Supreme is that which comes from within, Gotama educed a new faith from the luminous depths of his own soul. His object was not only a religious but a social revolution. A good deal of what was venerated as religion he found to be merely social usage, for which a Divine sanction was feigned. Gotama, without hesitation, rejected all this, by denying the inspiration of the Vedas, the existence of the popular gods, and the spiritual supremacy of the Brahmins. His greatest blow to the old religion, however, was in his explicit repudiation of caste. He offered his religion to all men alike, Brahmin and Sudra, high and low, bond and free; whereas, for a Sudra even to look on the Vedas, or to be taught their contents, was strictly forbidden by the Brahminical system. Buddha boldly expounded to the people that, according to their own books, all men were equal; that Brahma himself, when asked to whom all the prayers of the different nations and races of the earth were addressed, replied: "I bear the burden of all those who labor in prayer. I, even I, am he who prayeth for them through their own lips; and they, even they, who involuntarily worship other gods believingly, worship even me."[1]
He also did away with the endless formalism of the old faith, and enjoined only a simple observance of the fundamental points of morality; and it was only after he had aided in removing the social and spiritual shackles that oppressed the people, that he directed their attention to the simple and weightier matters of religion. Hence the popularity it attained, spreading among the low caste as well as among the rich and great, until it has become the dominant faith from the Himalayas to Ceylon,[Pg 9] and thence to Siam, China, Japan, and the neighboring isles.
Buddhism, therefore, the religion of the Eastern world, as Christianity is that of the Western, is the state religion of Siam and that of most of its inhabitants, but all religions are tolerated and absolutely free from interference. All the pagan sects who inhabit this part of India agree excellently, and each frequently takes part in the festivals of the other; and I also observed that not a few Buddhists, his late Majesty included, wear on their foreheads the sectarial mark of Vishnu and Siva united. The doctrine of Buddha inculcates a belief in one God, Adi Buddha.[2] This I infer, not only from the universally avowed conviction of the Buddhists with whom I have conversed, but from Buddha's own words, where he says: "Without ceasing shall I run through a course of many births, looking for the maker of this tabernacle,[3] who is not represented by any outward symbol, but in a series of Buddhas, who have been sent with divine powers to teach the human race and lead it to salvation." These are represented by images, often of colossal size and great beauty, and to them the prayers of worshippers are addressed. It inculcates, also, a belief in the law of retribution or compensation, and of many births or stages of probations, through which the human soul may finally attain beatitude. Buddhism has its priests and nuns, separated from the world, and vowed to poverty, celibacy, and the study of the Divine law. Unlike the silent and long-forsaken temples of Egypt, Greece, and Italy, the architectural grandeur of the Buddhist pagodas and temples is enhanced by the presence of thousands of enthusiastic worshippers. The sound of a bell, or gong, or[Pg 10] of the sacred shell, indicates the hours of the priests' attendance at the temples. At such times the priests are to be seen officiating at the shrines, where, amid the noise of many instruments playing in concert, the smoke of fragrant incense, and the perfumes of fresh flowers, they are uttering sacred invocations or incantations, and presenting the offerings of the worshippers. In the sermons preached daily in these immense temples, thronged with men and women, the chief themes are humanity, endurance, patience, submission. Among the practical precepts are these: "Love your enemies. Sacrifice your life for truth. Be gentle and tender. Abstain from war, even in self-defence. Govern yourselves in thought, word, and deed. Avoid everything that may lead to vice. Be obedient to your parents and superiors. Reverence old age. Provide food and shelter for the poor, the aged, and the oppressed. Despise no man's religion. Persecute no man."
But alas! in Siam, as in all the rest of the world, the practice falls far short of the precept. Nevertheless, I have found among the Siamese, also, men and women who observe faithfully the precepts of their religion, whose lives are devoted to charity and good works; and there were some-not one alone, but many-who during the years I lived in Bangkok sacrificed their lives for truth, and even under the torture and in death showed a self-sacrificing devotion and a courage not to be excelled by the most saintly of the Christian martyrs.
Polygamy-or, properly speaking, concubinage-and slavery are the curses of the country. But one wife is allowed by law; the king only may have two, a right and a left hand wife, as these dual queens are called, whose offspring alone are legitimate. The number of concubines is limited only by the means of the man. As the king is the source of all wealth and influence, dependent[Pg 11] kings, princes, and nobles, and all who would seek the royal favor, vie with each other in bringing their most beautiful and accomplished daughters to the royal harem.
Here it is that the courage, intrepidity, and heroism of these poor, doomed women are gradually developed. I have known more than one among them who accepted her fate with a repose of manner and a sweet resignation that told how dead must be the heart under that still exterior; and it is here, too, that I have witnessed a fortitude under suffering of which history furnishes no parallel. And I have wondered at the sight. Though the common people have but one wife, the fatal facility of divorce, effected by the husband's simply taking the priestly vows, which can be revoked at will, is often the cause of great suffering to the women. The husband and father have unlimited power, even of life and death, over the wife and children, but murders are extremely rare. Woman is the slave of man; but when she becomes a mother her position is changed, and she commands respect and reverence. As a mother with grown children she has often more influence than her husband. Hence maternity is the supreme good of the woman of Siam; to be childless, the greatest of all misfortunes.
As was ancient Ayudia, so is Bangkok, the present capital of Siam, the Venice of the East. Imagine a city with a large network of water-roads in the place of streets, and intersected with bridges so light and fanciful that one might almost fancy them to have been blown together by the breath of fairies. A large proportion of its inhabitants live in floating houses, which line both banks of the Mèinam, and, tier upon tier, extend for miles above and below the walls. The city itself is surrounded by a battlemented and turreted wall, fifteen feet high and twelve feet broad, which was erected in the early part of the reign of Phaya Tak, about 1670. The grand palaces[Pg 12] and royal harem are situated on the right hand as you ascend the river, on a circular plot of ground formed by a sudden bend of the river, enclosing it on the west; while the eastern side is bounded by a large, deep canal. This plot of ground is encompassed by two walls running parallel to each other. Within the outer of these walls are the magazines, the royal exchange, the mint, the supreme courts of justice, the prisons, temples, and fantastic pleasure-grounds, dotted with a multitude of elegant edifices, theatres, and aviaries, some of which are richly gilt and ornamented. In the centre of a very handsome square rise the majestic buildings of the Maha Phra Sâât, the roof of which is covered with tiles, beautifully varnished, and surmounted by gilded spires, while the walls are studded with sculptures, and the terraces decorated with large incense vases of bronze, the dark color and graceful forms of which stand in beautiful relief against the white marble background of the palace.
Not far from this is another semicircular space surrounded by a high wall, which defends all entrance to the part enclosed by the inner of the two parallel walls before mentioned; and here stands the city of the Nang Harm, or Veiled Women. In this city live none but women and children. Here the houses of the royal princesses, the wives, concubines, and relatives of the king, with their numerous slaves and personal attendants, form regular streets and avenues, with small parks, artificial lakes, and groups of fine trees scattered over miniature lawns and beautiful flower-gardens. These are the residences of the princesses of Siam. On the east, high above the trees, may be seen the many-towered and gilded roofs of the grand royal palace, brilliant as sapphire in the sunlight, and next to this is the old palace, to both of which is a private covered entrance for the women; at the end of each of these passages is a bas-relief representing the head[Pg 13] of an enormous sphinx, with a sword through the mouth, and this inscription: "Better that a sword be thrust through thy mouth than that thou utter a word against him who ruleth on high." Not far from this are the barracks of the Amazons, the women's hall of justice, and the dungeons (where, as in the days of old, female judges daily administer justice to the inhabitants of this woman's city), the beautiful temple, with its long, dim gallery and antique style of architecture, in which I taught the royal children, the gymnasium, and the theatre, where the princesses and great ladies assemble every afternoon to gossip, play games, or watch the exercises of the dancing-girls.
In the southern part of this strange city, which is the most populous, the mechanical slaves of the wives, concubines, and princesses live, and ply their trades for the profit of their mistresses. This woman's city is as self-supporting as any other in the world: it has its own laws, its judges, police, guards, prisons, and executioners, its markets, merchants, brokers, teachers, and mechanics of every kind and degree; and every function of every nature is exercised by women, and by them only. Into this inmost city no man is permitted to enter, except only the king, and the priests, who are admitted every morning under guard, in order that the inmates may perform the sacred duty of giving alms. The slave women are allowed to go out to visit their husbands, or on business of their mistresses; but the mistresses themselves never leave it except by the covered passages to the palaces, temples, and gardens, until they have by age and position attained to a certain degree of freedom. The permanent population of this city is estimated at nine thousand. Of the life passed therein, volumes would not give an exact description; but what I am about to relate in the pages that follow will give the general reader, perhaps, some idea of many of the stirring incidents of that life.

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Word Lists:

Educe : bring out or develop (something latent or potential)

Concubine : (in polygamous societies) a woman who lives with a man but has lower status than his wife or wives.

Inundation : an overwhelming abundance of people or things

Beatitude : supreme blessedness

Pagoda : a Hindu or Buddhist temple or sacred building, typically a many-tiered tower, in India and East Asia.

Incantation : a series of words said as a magic spell or charm

Harem : (in former times) the separate part of a Muslim household reserved for wives, concubines, and female servants

Intersperse : scatter among or between other things; place here and there

Disinclination : a reluctance or lack of enthusiasm

Inculcate : instill (an attitude, idea, or habit) by persistent instruction


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