Friday, January 14, 2011

Somboon Sarayutpitag and Satriwithaya School

In recent trips to Thailand I’ve been learning how my maternal grandparents greatly valued education. I’m sure they were a strong influence on my mother, Ajahn Fuengsin, who acquired a lifelong interest in learning and transmitting her knowledge through teaching (Ajahn is a general prefix for an established teacher).

My grandfather had been awarded the title of 'Luang', so he was subsequently addressed as Capt. Luang Sarayutpitag (he had been a captain in the army). The distinctive Thai surname seems to have been spelt in more than one way; my cousins generally insist on ศรายุธพิทักษ์ but there are several letters that can represent an ‘s’ sound and an extra ท ('t') seems optional, so sometimes it has been written สรายุทธพิทักษ์ (with an opening ส instead of ศ). I expect that if one knows the roots of Thai language (Sanskrit, Pali and so on), then one can work out the appropriate letter, but I guess that might be like asking someone in the UK to distinguish between Greek and Latin etymology...

Anyway, prior to this visit, I had heard that my grandmother, Khun Yay Somboon Sarayutpitag, had attended the same school as the Somdet Ya, the Princess Mother (the mother to H.M. King Bumiphol). This school was called Satriwithaya School, a girl’s school in the heart of Bangkok. Some time last summer I started typing into Google ศรายุธพิทักษ์ and สรายุทธพิทักษ์ and a few permutations.  Eventually I came across the Web site of the Srinagarindra [Somdet Ya] museum, the museum of Satriwithaya School, set up in honour and memory of its most famous pupil. Google had spotted an occurrence of the name in the following paragraph:
สิ่งที่เป็นจุดเด่นของพิพิธภัณฑ์สมเด็จย่าคือ พระบรมฉายาลักษณ์ ที่มาของภาพเก่าอันทรงคุณค่าของสมเด็จย่า ส่วนหนึ่งมาจากศิษย์เก่าและครูเก่าเก็บไว้ และอีกส่วนหนึ่งได้ไปขอมาจากสำนักพระราชวัง หนึ่งในรูปภาพที่ทรงคุณค่าอย่างยิ่งคือภาพถ่ายหมู่ของนักเรียนชั้นมูลปีที่ หนึ่ง(ปัจจุบันคือระดับอนุบาล) ถ่ายวันที่ 9 มีนาคม ร.ศ.127 (พ.ศ.2451) สมเด็จพระศรีนครินทราบรมราชชนนี ครั้งยังทรงเป็น ด.ญ. สังวาลย์ โดยพระองค์ประทับในแถวกลาง เป็นลำดับที่ 3 จากซ้าย ซึ่งภาพต้นฉบับสีซีดจนอ่านตัวหนังสือบนแผ่นกระดานที่แขวนไว้ด้านหลังนัก เรียนไม่ออก ต้องใช้คำบรรยายที่เจ้าของภาพเขียนติดไว้ด้านหลังภาพ ภาพนี้ได้รับความอนุเคราะห์จากทายาทนางสมบุญ ศรายุทธพิทักษ์ ในภาพมี ด.ญ.สมบุญอยู่แถวหน้า ลำดับที่ 6 จากซ้าย ส่วนด้านขวาสุดคือครูทิม
My attempted translation is as follows:
A prominent feature of the Srinagarindra [Somdet Ya] museum is the Royal source of some valuable old pictures of the Princess Mother. One part comes from the collections of alumni and former teachers, and another has been requested from the Bureau of the Royal House. One exceedingly valuable picture is a group photograph of first year pre-elementary students (now equivalent to kindergarten) taken on the 9th of March R.E. (Ratanakosin Era) 127 (B.E. 2451). The Princess Mother [can be seen] at the time when she was still a girl, Miss Sangwan; Her Royal Highness is residing in the central row, 3rd from the left. As an original picture it is extremely faded to the extent that it is not possible to read the writing on the plate mounted on the board behind; it's necessary to use the description that the owner has attached on the back of the picture. This picture was received with the assistance of the descendants of Mrs. Somboon Sarayutpitag. In the picture Miss Somboon is in the front row, 6th from the left.

The next paragraph presents an invitation:
สำหรับ ผู้ที่อยากชมภาพนี้ มีภาพขยายใหญ่เกือบเท่าตัวจริงติดอยู่ในห้องเอลิซาเบธ ซึ่งเป็นห้องประชุมของโรงเรียน ห้องนี้มีขึ้นในช่วงที่ควีนเอลิซาเบธที่ 2 เสด็จมาที่โรงเรียนสตรีวิทยาในวันที่ 30 ตุลาคม พ.ศ.2539 เพื่อทอดพระเนตรกิจกรรมและนิทรรศการการป้องกันยาเสพติดในสถานศึกษา พระบรมฉายาลักษณ์สมเด็จพระราชินีนาถ เอลิซาเบธที่ 2 พร้อมพระปรมาภิไธยที่ได้รับพระราชทาน ขณะนี้อยู่ที่พิพิธภัณฑ์สมเด็จย่า
 In approximate English:
For those who want to look at this picture, there is a near life-size enlargement on display in the Elizabeth room, which used to be the school assembly hall. This room was set up on the occasion of the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Satriwithaya School on October 30 2539 to observe events and exhibitions relating to drug prevention in schools. The picture of Queen Elizabeth II, together with her signature, is in the Srinagarindra Museum.

I soon found a copy of the photograph online in the Wikipedia entry for the Princess Mother. However, having read the description above I thought, "I’d really like to see this picture for myself at the school!"

I was fortunate. I got in touch with my cousin, P’ Laem, and he made enquiries through an aunt who used to teach there. Soon arrangements were made and we went along to visit one Friday afternoon in late November. Designed around a courtyard, the buildings rise on three sides to several storeys, having expanded considerably since its foundation over a hundred years ago. When we arrived the school was still bustling with activity; at the entrance there was a large tree occasionally shedding its leaves under which a group of pupils was anticipating its every move ... and then a leaf would come sailing down and they’d try and catch it. Later when we left there were just two girls by the tree, still playing the same game!

On the left hand side as you enter there is a status to the Princess Mother:

statue of the Srinagarindra (the Princess Mother) at Satriwithaya School
The inscription says it is dedicated to สมเด็จพระศรีนครินทราบรมราชชนนี (Somdet Phra Srinagarindra Boromarajajonani), giving the dates she was alive (B.E. 2443 – 2538, i.e. 1900-1995CE). It was unveiled by สมเด็จพระเจ้าพี่นางเธอ เจ้าฟ้ากัลยาณิวัฒนา กรมหลวงนราธิวาสราชนครินทร์ (Somdet Phra Chao Phi Nang Thoe Chao Fa Galyani Vadhana Kromma Luang Narathiwat Ratchanakharin). This is the full title of HRH Princess Galyani, the elder sister to H.M. King Bhumipol. P’ Laem informed me that she took a great deal of interest in the Royal family history and was particularly interested in the school. The statue was unveiled in B.E. 2543 (2000 CE).
We were shown inside the museum by a librarian and directed to a number of books on the table. These contained further photographs and descriptions. We learnt that at the time that group photo was taken, Khun Yay Somboon was 14 years old and the eldest in the group. Afterwards we were led to the Queen Elizabeth Room, which now serves as the board room, where the enlargement has been placed on the wall. Here it is (clicking on it will take you to the version on Wikipedia):

Satriwithaya School group photograph, 1908
This photo was taken in 1908, right towards the end of the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). Thailand's process of modernisation through especially European influences is evident in the uniform: you can see the children wearing the traditional jongraben, but also Western style shoes and socks!

Thailand’s tropical climate is very severe on paper, yet the photograph itself is in very good condition. How come? P’ Laem explained that Khun Yay Somboon had cherished this photograph very much and took special care of it. His parents had built their home very close to the grandparents’ house and P’ Laem’s room was almost opposite Khun Yay’s. He could see it hanging at the back of the room as Khun Yay emerged onto her balcony. The positioning was deliberate!

The Princess Mother subsequently went on to Chulalongkorn Hospital to study nursing. Khun Yay also had an opportunity to study there but declined, apparently afraid of the ghosts! Thai people are generally sensitive to spirits, but this response surprised me as she was certainly a strong character, as I hope to convey in a future post or two...

Postscript [August 2012]:  Please note the primacy in spelling of ศรายุธพิทักษ์ over สรายุทธพิทักษ์ - previously I had got it the wrong way round!  Sorry about that.

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