King Chulalongkorn’s Visit to India: A Diplomatic Mission of Great Importance

King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) was the first Thai king to travel abroad in order to create good understanding with world leaders. During his first overseas trip to Europe in 1897, he met the leaders of Europe’s big powers to ensure Siam’s sovereignty. In 1871, the King visited India, which was his second overseas trip after Singapore in 1870.
He left for India on 16 December 1871 and returned to Bangkok on 16 March 1872. During the three-month period, the King paid visits to many cities both in Thailand and abroad.
His main purpose for the visit to India was to observe Western-style progress. Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, King Chulalongkorn’s brother, said that in fact the King intended to travel to Europe after Singapore, as he believed that the visit to Asia would enable him to observe only the colonies of the West. Moreover, at that time, the King still had the Regent to work for him, so he would be able to travel for a long time. But the Regent, Chao Phraya Srisuriyawong, who at that time was Chuang Bunnag, urged him not to go to Europe for fear of dangers. India, which was under the rule of Britain, was then proposed to the King instead, because the country had a viceroy to rule, like the court, and it was not too far from Thailand.
King Chulalongkorn took this opportunity to boost Thailand’s relations with Great Britain and its colonies. At that time, Lanna, which was under the control of Thailand, had disputed with the Burmese and Indians, who were under the control of Great Britain, on interests in forestry and security matters. Great Britain had also expanded its territory to this region and took over India after suppressing the Sepoy Mutiny rebels in 1858. The British influence continued to spread to Burma.
King Chulalongkorn traveled by the royal ship Bangkok to the South, past the Gulf of Thailand, where his ship rounded the tip of the Malay Peninsula. On the way to India, he stopped at Singapore, Penang, and Maulmain and Yangon in Burma. The first place he visited in India was Calcutta, the British administrative center where the residence of the British Governor or Viceroy Lord Mayo was located. A grand welcoming ceremony was held for King Chulalongkorn upon his arrival. While in Calcutta, he was provided with opportunities to visit many places of interest, such as a mint, fort, museum, gun factory, waterworks distribution plant, rice mill, prison, hospital, market, and church.
From Calcutta, King Chulalongkorn had a chance to travel by train for the first time. A special train was arranged to take him to Delhi, where he observed an important military exercise carried out in the Western manner. He spent seven days in Delhi and visited mainly military sites there. Then he proceeded to Agra, an old capital of India during the Mogul dynasty and a rich city famous for artistic creation. In Agra, the King had a chance to visit the Red Fort, or the Palace of Agra, in Sikandra, where the grave of King Akbar the Great was found, and the Taj Mahal, where he greatly admired its magnificent architectural features.
King Chulalongkorn also visited Lucknow and Bombay. Notably, historical records in Thailand indicated that the train the King was on board passed through a tunnel during his trip from Lucknow to Bombay. The tunnel must have been an exciting topic for Thailand at that time; it demonstrated the scientific progress of the West, because tunnels had never been built in Thailand before. So the event was recorded in detail, while other points were mentioned briefly.
Bombay shared many similarities with Calcutta, since it was a new city established as a trade center on the western coast for trade with the British. King Chulalongkorn’s mission in Bombay focused mainly on the study of development based on the Western patterns. While in Bombay, he received the terrible news that Lord Mayo had been assassinated. So the King decided to have an official welcoming ceremony suspended, while the flag was flown at half-mast to mourn the dead of Lord Mayo. After Bombay, he traveled back to Calcutta to embark on the royal ship Bangkok for his return to Thailand.
On the way to Calcutta, King Chulalongkorn stopped at Baranes, or Varanasi, recognized as a sacred city through which the Ganges flows. He also traveled along this majestic river and took this opportunity to visit the nearby city of Saranath, regarded as a significant city in Buddhism.
While traveling from Calcutta to Thailand, King Chulalongkorn visited several cities in Thailand, such as Phuket, Phang-nga, and Saiburi. From Saiburi, he traveled by a royal horse carriage to Songkhla and continued his trip to Bangkok, bringing to a close his journey to India.