Thai Enquirer’s ‘Women of Thailand’s Past’ series chronicles the lives of Thai women in the 18th, 19th and early 20thcentury. We begin with Thak Chaloemtiarana’s prompt of Thai women as “multi-faceted beings” as an entry point for tracing different models of femininity developed in Siamese / Thai history. In doing so, we highlight the ways gender has intersected with political ideology and been used to legitimate, or resist, authoritarian rule.
In the previous article, we reviewed Princess Rudivoravan’s autobiography and her reflections on womanhood during the Sixth Reign (r. 1910 – 1925).
In this article, we explore the life of Dara Rasami, and womanhood on the peripheries during the Fifth Reign (r. 1868 – 1910). This article is based on Leslie Castro-Woodhouse’s ‘Woman Between Two Kingdoms: Dara Rasami and the Making of Modern Thailand.’
When one thinks of ‘second wives’ or ‘mistresses’ in Thailand, one typically thinks of women in positions of submission: from the scheming, powerless second wives of Thai lakorn, to the prostate official royal consort Sineenat ‘Koi’ Wongvajirapakdi kneeling at the feet of King Vajiralongkorn.
But under King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868 – 1910), ‘second wives’ or court women of the Inner Palace were important power brokers, political emissaries and cultural innovators. In the case of Dara Rasami, a Lanna princess who became one of King Chulalongkorn’s top consorts, court women were also physical embodiments of Siam’s relationship to its peripheries – expressions both of the Fifth Reign’s power and limitations.
The Lanna kingdom encompassed Thailand’s eight northernmost provinces: Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Lampang, Chiang Rai, Phayao, Phrae, Nan and Mae Hong Son. Elite women held positions of particular power in Lanna society. The Lanna ruling family had a matrilineal system of succession, whereby the throne fell not to the king’s eldest son, but to the eldest daughter’s husband. This was called ‘daughter-in-law’ succession. In some cases, as with Queen Thipkeson (r. 1873 – 1884) and Princess Ubonwanna, women commandeered the real political and economic influence behind the throne.
Dara Rasami came to take on unique significance among Lanna royalty, as one of King Chulalongkorn’s royal consorts. A rumor that Dara Rasami was to be adopted by Queen Victoria – heralding British influence on Siam’s doorstep – prompted Chulalongkorn to ask for her hand in marriage. The marriage alliance between Lanna and Siam was reflective of the political pressures on Siam’s peripheries in the 1880s: first, the British annexation of Siam’s old rival Burma, later, the French annexation of Cambodia and Laos.
However, her Lanna roots – the source of her political significance – made her assimilation to palace culture difficult. As Thongchai Winichakul observes, Siamese culture has always been constructed against ‘The Others Within.’ The further one got away from Bangkok, it was alleged, the more difficult it was for one to be civilized. Such racialized attitudes pervade Thai politics today, clothed in the language of ‘education,’ as with the Democrat Party’s 2014 claim that those from the peripheries were too uneducated to vote on their own terms.
Yet, Dara Rasami chose to emphasize her ethnic difference in the palace, to preserve and promote Lanna identity in the Siamese racialized worldview. She expressed this especially through clothing and hairstyle. Instead of wearing the Siamese-style chongkraben, she wore the Lanna-style pha sin with the teen jok border.
While other court women grew out their hair in the European model, she chose an upswept hairstyle that mimicked Japanese geishas, expressing instead her admiration for Japanese resistance to Wester domination. As Castro-Woodhouse surmises, this was her own expression of resistance against colonial Siamese domination of her home kingdom.
Her selective othering brought about teasing and humiliation among court women. But it simultaneously elevated her as a key representative for Chiang Mai. When a Shan princess visited Siam’s court in 1906, Dara Rasami was selected as a cultural attaché both for her language abilities and her ability to perform the role of civilized foreigner in the Siamese court. Dara Rasami was seated in the center of the room, directly opposite the Shan princess both literally and metaphorically – as the grander of the two, she showcased the superiority of Siamese siwilai, even among its ‘colonized’ Lanna peoples, over the Anglo-Burman elite.
Later on, when Prince Narathip was revolutionizing Thai Lakhorn to include more melodramatic elements, he also called upon Dara Rasami as a cultural consultant. Through Dara Rasami, plays like Madame Butterfly or the Arabian Nights were adapted to the Siamese context, using the Northern ‘Others Within’ as ‘exotic’ yet local settings for these reimagined plays.
Dara’s court career spanned a period of immense transition for court women. As alluded to in Rudivoravan’s biography, conceptions of womanhood were changing during the Fifth and Sixth reigns. Elite polygamy became less acceptable in Thai society by the early 20th century, critiqued for its decadence and illegitimacy. Chulalongkorn’s Inner Court of 153 consorts was disbanded upon his death in 1910.
Dara Rasami finally returned home to Chiang Mai. There, she became a key preserver of Lanna arts and culture. She took long journeys on horseback with her foster daughter to recover the history of Lanna from members of the old nobility scattered across the North. She created her own dance troupe while promoting local textile traditions. She resisted the cultural hegemony of Siam and Bangkok until the very end.
The end of polygamy was ambivalent for Thai women’s’ advancement, especially at elite levels. Instead of women moving from the peripheries to the center to secure political alliances, male bureaucrats were sent outwards to take up bureaucratic posts as part of the thetsaphibaan system. Thus, the importance of court women – especially political emissaries – faded. Political actors like Dara Rasami could no longer exist.
The status of the ‘second wife’ in broader Thai society suffered too. In 1935, a marriage law was finally enacted by the civilian government which decreed that only one marriage could be legally registered. Thus, men were able to keep their second wives, but such wives were now deprived of legal recognition, inheritance rights and entitlement to financial support. These extramarital relationships now take on a disposable quality, as the ‘second wife’ continues to exist in a financial and legal limbo. As Castro-Woodhouse argues, “despite the best intentions of feminists and reformers, the legal emphasis on monogamy has not improved the position of women in Thai society.”
In Northern Thailand, Dara Rasami has a complicated legacy. Other local figures like the rebellious monk Khruba Srivichai have been championed as political heroes of the people, his memory upheld by both Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra’s political campaigns. In turn, Dara Rasami’s direct connection to Chakri power lends itself to association with conservatives and royalists.
In some ways, she was complicit in, and respectful of, the Siamese throne. In other ways, however, she quietly rebelled against the hegemony of Siam – through clothing, hair and the arts – and used her position to preserve and promote Lanna culture at the height of siwilai discourse. She resisted in the way a woman could, with the tools of court womanhood.
Today, the role of the court woman is once again in transition. In 2019, King Vajiralongkorn named the first royal consort since King Vajiravudh’s reign. However, in historian Tamara Loos’s view, “polygyny’s former function in integrating the kingdom has drastically flipped: now it served to disintegrate the nation.”
As reflected in protestors’ impersonations of Sineenat, the court woman has become an object of mockery, her submissiveness a trait that progressives look down on. Although the royal consort has returned, her political power hasn’t – nor have the social structures that supported women’s political power.
In this context, Dara Rasami is a reminder that court women do know how to rebel. More importantly, it is a reminder that when women are given the structures to succeed, their contributions can carry communities forward in unimaginable ways.