At the age of 20, Prince Mongkut, following Thai tradition became a Buddhist monk, taking the ordination name Bhikkhu Vajirañāṇo.
The Prince devoted his life to Buddhism and traveled extensively around Thailand. During a time when communication throughout the country was poor, his travels allowed him to wander freely, giving him a wide access to, and an understanding of the hearts and minds of the Siamese people - something that would hold him in good stead when he would later become King. As a Prince and a monk, he oversaw many reforms within Buddhism, particularly establishing the Thammayut Order in 1833, which to the present day remains the intellectual centre of Thai Buddhism. As a monk, Bhikkhu Vajirañāṇo discovered Western knowledge, studying Latin, English, French and astronomy with visiting missionaries and sailors.
In 1851, after a 27 year pilgrimage, Bhikkhu Vajirañāṇo ascended the throne as King Mongkut following his half-brother, King Jessadabodindra's demise.
King Mongkut is probably best known in the West as the King in the movies ‘The King and I' and ‘Anna and the King'. However, the Hollywood versions are far from accurate and do not do the true King any justice.
In contrast to the movies, King Mongkut is one of the most revered kings of Siam. A clever scientist and mathematician, he is noted for embracing Western innovation and initiating the modernization of Siam, both in technology and culture - earning him the epithet "The Father of Science and Technology".
Himself a keen scholar, King Mongkut introduced formalized education and foresaw the revolution of spreading education by means of the printed word by welcoming the first printing press to Siam for that specific purpose. He brought in missionaries (including Mrs. Anna Leonowens) to teach his concubines and children English and about Western science and culture. The King also established the country's first museum and library.
Before his reign, any commoner who was seen by the King could be severely punished - this meant that most of the Siamese population avoided any contact with their monarch. King Mongkut reversed this policy, thus allowing anyone wishing to see him to do so without fear. His Majesty also initiated a policy in which members of the public could bring their petitions to him personally - something completely unheard of in previous times.
Perhaps most surprisingly and despite Hollywood's portrayal of the monarch, King Mongkut made revolutionary movements to support the rights of women. He released a large number of royal concubines, banned all forms of forced marriage and prohibited the custom in which Siamese men could sell their wife in order to pay off debt.
His Majesty also opened Siam up to foreign trade. He did much to foster good diplomatic relationships with many countries throughout the world and to that end he was a prolific letter writer. Contrary to popular belief, King Mongkut did not write to President Abraham Lincoln offering him a herd of elephants. However, upon hearing that a civil war in America was imminent, His Majesty did write a letter to President Buchanan offering him a pair of elephants to use as beasts of burden. By the time the royal letter arrived in Washington the Civil War had started and President Buchanan had been replaced by President Lincoln. Although touched by the kind offer, President Lincoln declined replying that he did not think the elephants would survive the cold climate of North America. Unlike Emperor Napoleon III of France on the other hand, who, upon receiving a similar letter from King Mongkut, gratefully accepted and immediately dispatched a ship to collect his pair of elephants, which he kept in Paris Zoo.
In 1868, a party of world renowned astronomers and scientists joined the King in a remote village to watch a total eclipse of the sun, which His Majesty himself had predicted. During the expedition the King contracted malaria and unfortunately, six weeks later, on his 64th birthday, he passed away. King Mongkut was succeeded by his son King Chulalongkorn the Great.
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Article written by Christine Oatley.
Asia Products LLC Thailand Discovery Pages provides articles a variety of topics including current events, politics, and travel ideas for learning about Thailand. Asia Products LLC also offers an e-commerce store selling Thailand products on http://www.asiaproductsllc.com. He is documenting some of his more interesting travels in his Thailand Travel Pages website : http://www.apllc-connect.com.