Understanding Myanmar’s Forgotten Royals through Sudha Shah’s book : The King in Exile

Content arranged by @Lan based on facts from credited sources
Photos from credited sources
Princess Hteik Su Phaya Gyi, King Thibaw’s grandaughter (Source: Steve Tickner/Frontier)

Thought of the day-“From when the British took over, we lost our identity.”- Soe Win, the great grandson of King Thibaw.

I don’t really like to read History Books or anything related to it. The last time I did read some when I was doing my research during varsity years. Weeks ago, a friend gave me a copy of a book written by Sudha Shah, titled as The King in Exile-The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma. Surprisingly, I read until the end. I find the content amazingly, interesting enough. Myanmar is indeed a country currently being focused by the global community (for many reasons). To know that Myanmar had a King before was indeed an interesting fact moreover about how he himself and his entire family were forced to move to Ratnagiri, India. I did not know that until I read Sudha Shah’s book.

Who is Hteik Su Phaya Gyi?

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Hteik Su Phaya Gyi. Source: www.rapler.com

Hteik Su Phaya Gyi is a princess, the granddaughter of King Thibaw, Myanmar’s last king. Though a princess, she lives among the common, somewhere in Yangon. Not so many people know her as she have lived as an ordinary person for 60 years already.

Together with her younger brother, Prince Taw Phaya (potential heir of the Konbaung Dynasty), they are the only surviving grandchildren of King Thibaw. Had the British did not create any myth about Thibaw, life for Hteik Su Phaya Gyi must have been way different now and perhaps Myanmar probably have different political, social and economic background.

Her mother was  Ashin Hteik Su Myat Phaya Galae, the so-called “Fourth Daughter” or rather the “The Rebellious Princess” who was most critical of the colonialists. In 1930, Ashin Hteik Su Myat Phaya Galae  made written claims for her father’s kingdom (frontiermyanmar.net).

That made the British ‘mad’ and sent her with six children to Moulmein (now Mawlamyine, in Mon State) where they hoped she would quieten down. Hteik Su Myat Phaya Galae died at Moulmein in 1936.

Meanwhile in India..

Chandrakant Pawar Family in Ratnagiri, India. Chandrakant holding a frame (Picture of King Thibaw and Supalayat) gave by cousins in Myanmar. Source: Gurineder Osan/Hindustan Times

According to Hindustan Times, Chandrakant pawar is the grandson of Hteiksu Myat Phayagyi. When the royal family left Ratnagiri in 1919, Phaya Gyi insisted to be sent back as she had a child (Tutu) with a local Ratnagiri man, named as Ghopal Sawant. Chandrakant is one of Tutu’s eleven children.

Sudha Shah (2015), stated that 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.

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,  shared a “difficult relationship” with her mother (Sudha Shah, 2015).

Tutu was 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.

It all began with King Thibaw..

King Thibaw and Queen Supalayat. Source: frontiermyanmar.net

Born on January 1 1859, Thibaw became the King Of Burma (Myanmar) in 1878. Sadly, he was the last King of the Konbaung Dynasty of Burma. King Mindon was his father and his mother was Prabha Devi, the Princess of Laungshe.

It was Hsinbyumashin (Mindon Chief Consort) that ‘arranged’ Thibaw marriage to Supayalat. Since Supalayat was the daughter of Hsinbyumashin, it means that Thibaw and Supalayat were half-siblings by blood.

Again it was Hsinbyumashin that was responsible for making Thibaw and Supalayat as the successor to Mindon (as all potential heir to the throne were ‘murdered’). It so happened that during his first phase as Myanmar’s King, the British were already in the Kingdom, having the Lower Burma as part of their territory.

Thibaw wanted to regain this part and thus creating uneasiness among the British especially when Thibaw aligned with the French.

In 1885, King Thibaw officially asked his subjects to liberate Lower Burma from the British. This specifically made the British acted to start the invasion at the Mandalay Palace in order to demand Thibaw and his entire kingdom surrender. With strength of 11,000 men, the British made their way into the Palace easily.

Thibaw surrendered in 24 hours time and together with his family, they were forced on a bullock cart, heading to a streamer on the Irrawady River. The entire process was done in the presence of Thibaw subjects, a way that actually humiliated the Monarchy.

According to Synge, M.B (1911)..

Here a guard of British soldiers was drawn up: they presented arms on the appearance of the royal prisoners. As their bayonets flashed in the sunlight, the king fell on his knees in abject terror. “They will kill me,” he cried wildly. “Save my life.” His queen was braver. She strode on erect—her little child clinging to her dress—fierce and dauntless to the last. So the king and queen of Burma were exiled.”

Thibaw, his wife Supayalat and two infant daughters were exiled to Ratnagiri, India, a port city off the Arabian Sea. While squatting in a British official residence, an official residence named as Thibaw Palace was being built. The family then moved to the completed Palace.

According to Christian, John LeRoy (1944), Thibaw received a monthly government pension of 100,000 rupees ($30,000). In subsequent years, his pension was halved; at his death, his pension was 25,000 rupees. He was reportedly reclusive and did not leave the property during his time in Ratanagiri, although Thibaw financed and sponsored local festivals, particularly during Diwali.

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The Thibaw Palace at Ratnagiri. The palace is now being look after and restored by state archaeology department. (Source: Gurinder Osan/Hindustan times)

King Thibaw died at age 57 on 15 December 1916 and was buried at a small walled plot along with one of his consorts, Hteiksu Phaya Galay.  Some of his family remained in exile while others attempted to return to their homeland. Hteiksu Myat Phayagyi, Thibaw’s eldest daughter, who had a relationship with Ghopal Sawant, remained in Ratnagiri. Hteiksu Myat Phayagyi was Chandrakant Pawar’s grandmother.

The Graves of King Thibaw and his consort, Hteiksu Phaya Galay. Location: Ratnagiri, India. Source: Frontiermyanmar.net

 A picture of King Thibaw’s four princesses. The First Princess (second from left) lived in Ratnagiri. (Picture courtesy: The King in Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma (Harper Collins, Sudha Shah)

Recent Development

Bringing Home the King

It is important to attach here the quote by a prominent Historian, Thant Myint-U that I read in Frotniermyanmar.net :

The British had created a “myth” about Thibaw in order to further their claims that his kingdom needed to be overthrown. In reality, they wanted to take advantage of the economic opportunities on offer in the country.

“The myth of King Thibaw is quite well known; that he was an ogre, that he was despot, that he was a drunkard. Unfortunately, a lot of these myths about the king, that he was a uniquely weak individual, that he was someone who was not up to the task of government, are things that have seeped into the popular imagination in this country”-Thant Myint-U.

A lot of the propaganda was absorbed into the psyche and into textbooks, and his apparent weakness was cited as a reason that the kingdom fell, when you could probably say that whoever was on the throne wouldn’t have been able to deal with the British forces”-Alex Bescoby (frontiermyanmar.net)

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 (Namita Kohli: February 26, 2017).

Alex Bescoby was quoted by frontiermyanmar.netThere is a difference of opinion within the family of as to whether now is the right time for Thibaw’s body to return to Myanmar”. For the record, Alex Bescoby is filming the documentary “Burma’s Lost Royals”, which is due for release in 2017.

“Most of Myanmar has forgotten about the king,” said deputy culture minister and royal historian Than Swe, who has spearheaded a campaign to return Thibaw’s body to Myanmar. But Than Swe added that Myanmar’s government had more immediate priorities, such as the sweeping reforms implemented since junta rule ended in 2011.

According to Hindustan Times, the family in India is divided over the plans of taking the King’s Tomb to Myanmar. 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.

Hindustan Times added that 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 recognized.

The Question

Will we all get to see the relocation of King Thibaw’s tomb to Burma (currently known as Myanmar)? Will Hteik Su Phaya Gyi finally get to see his grandfather’s tomb relocated to ‘their land of origin’? Will Pradip Bonshle’s wish be granted or everyone will have to agree with what Mangesh More said.

Since the Junta is now almost history (at least), will the new Myanmar’s democratic government finally will somehow give-in to the existence of a Monarchy (at least as a symbol)? Bear in mind that Myanmar is no longer a Pariah. Only time will tell…

What is certain for sure is that the book by Sudha Shah gave me a new perspective and change in my reading habit. Now, I do read History Books and I tend to cross-check all information by reading other valid sources. History seems to be my newest subject of interest. It is a way for me to understand the many aspects of many societies in the past. It is indeed a way for us to learn something valuable.

About the Book

The King in Exile-The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma by Sudha Shah

Written by Sudha Shah, this book is indeed a great reference for the  Burmese people about the history of the last king and queen of Burma and their family. Sudah Shah went through great lengths to contact the present day descendants of the royal family for more personal viewpoints. Sudha Shah wrote this book in an engaging style that allows the book to be read more as a novel than a report. This is truly a great book that I recommend to anyone interested in Burma’s culture or history, especially during British rule.

To understand more about Sudha Shah thoughts about her book (The King in Exile-The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma), do read the Q & A with author Sudha Shah which was done by Emma Pierce of www.indagere.com (Click this LINK).


Abbott, Gerry (1998). The Traveller’s History of Burma. Bangkok: Orchid Press.

Channey, Micheal W. (2006). Powerful Learning: Buddhist Literati and the Throne in Burma’s Last Dynasty 1752-1885. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Christian, John LeRoy (1944). “Thebaw: Last King of Burma”. The Journal of Asian Studies. Association for Asian Studies: 309–312.

Emma Pierce (2015, September 1). Q & A with author Sudha Shah. Retrieved from www.indagare.com on March 20, 2017.

Foucar, E. C. V. (1963). Mandalay the Golden. London: Dennis Dobson.

Htin Aung, Maung (1967). A History of Burma. New York & London: Cambridge University Press.

Keeton, Charles Lee (1971). “Ecological and Diplomatic Relations between British India, France and Upper Burma, 1878-1886.” Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Delhi.

Maung Maung, U (1921). “ A History of Lower Burma.” Journal of the Burma Research Society 11.2 : 75-88.

Namita Kohli (2017, February 26). In search of Princess Phaya: Looking for Myanmar’s forgotten royals in Ratnagiri. Retrieved from www.hindustantimes.com on March 20, 2017.

Oliver Homes (2016, December 30). After 130 years of Obscurity, Myanmar’s forgotten royals make a comeback. Retrieved from www.theguradian.com on March 21, 2017

Oliver Slow (2016, December 16). Bringing Home The King. Retrieved from http://frontiermyanmar.net on March 21, 2017.

Synge, M.B (1911). Annexation of Burma. Growth of the British Empire.

Sudha Shah (2015). The King in Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma. Harpercollins.