When the British conquered Burma in 1885, thousands of precious art objects belonging to the kings and nobles of the Konbaung Dynasty (1752-1885) went missing. Among these were a number of state carriages that symbolized the power and majesty of the Burmese monarch. Some of these precious vehicles succumbed to the ravages of time, but two of them resurfaced in Britain to become the object of admiration, mystery and scandal. The story of what happened to these and other Burmese carriages tells us not only about the colonization of Burma, but also about the way in which Burma has been viewed by the West ever since.
The Burmese monarchs had a long history of riding in carriages. In 1796, King Bagyidaw requested a European-style carriage from the British government in Calcutta in exchange for some territorial concessions along the border between India and Burma. The Burmese Empire was by then near the height of its expansion, having recently acquired the territories of Arakan, Manipur, Assam, Pegu and Siam, and Bagyidaw was in a good position to make demands from his neighbors.
The King asked for an “English crane-necked chariot,” except on top of the four-wheeled coach he wanted “a royal spire…bearing a miniature resemblance to those which ornamented the palace and royal barge”. This addition was called a pyatthat and such ceremonial steeples were traditional on the carriages of the Burmese nobility.
But when the British emissary Hiram Cox delivered the gift, the King quickly realized he couldn’t ride in it. The seat inside was too low and his subjects had to remain below him at all times. Instead, when he left the palace to perform the royal ceremonies or to make offerings at the pagoda, Bagyidaw had the new carriage dragged out in front of him, while he rode with his family in the old one in back.
Fast forward to the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) and King Bagyidaw and the powerful Burmese Empire suddenly found themselves on the back foot for the first time in 75 years. Rangoon was seized by the British, the Burmese army was in disarray, and the king was forced to cede the provinces of Assam, Manipur, Arakan and Tenasserim to the East India Company in order to keep the rest of his kingdom intact.
Burmese state carriages began to fall into British hands. While British troops were looting Lower Burma, Colonel Miles’s 89th regiment discovered something amazing in the town of Tavoy (Dawei) in Tenasserim. Lying abandoned in a workshop was a Burmese state carriage that looked a lot like King Bagyidaw’s. Miles quickly sent it to Calcutta to be auctioned off as a trophy of war, and its new owner sent it to London to be displayed in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly Circus.
Crowds flocked to see the “Rath, or Burmese Imperial State Carriage” as it was dubbed by the owners of the museum (the word “Rath” coming from the Pali word ratha meaning “chariot”). Sales of tickets rivalled those for Napoleon’s carriage which showed at the hall only a few years before.
But this was not King Bagyidaw’s carriage. Eager newspapermen described the “Rath” as “the state carriage of the King of Ava,” but it’s spire only had the seven tiers of a nobleman, and not the nine tiers of a King. It is more likely that the carriage belonged to the Myo-wun, or provincial governor of Tavoy, U Shwe Toke. Nevertheless, the “Rath” was a marvel to behold, its entire surface covered in gold leaf and studded with over 20,000 jewels. Visitors marvelled at the handiwork of the artisans and the wooden figures which were “carved and ornamented in a style of vigour and correctness that would do credit to a European designer”. Descriptions of the carriage went a long way towards familiarizing Britons with a country they knew very little about and created an image of Burma as a “golden land” in the public imagination.
After the exhibit, however, the “Rath” quickly disappeared, though it was not forgotten. The design reemerged in 1847 as a circus carriage for Edwin Hughes’s “Great Mammoth Equestrian Establishment” and a new “Rath” was pulled through the London streets by a team of elephants, right past the Egyptian Hall where the original had once been displayed.
Eventually, the riches of the Konbaung kings would prove too appealing for Britain to pass up. Burma was invaded and the whole of the country conquered in the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885. The last king of Burma, Thibaw, was deposed and forced to live in exile in a small town in India until his death in 1916. Every Burmese king had his own sumptuous carriage, and Thibaw’s was no exception – a gilt and diamond-studded chariot crowned with a white umbrella to symbolize the power of the King. But when it came time to make his exit from Mandalay Palace, it was not in this chariot, but in a common wooden gharry that Thibaw was forced to leave.
With the King gone, the British claimed the finest of the royal regalia for themselves. But whatever became of the Thibaw’s “golden chariot”? In 1886, a British newspaper temptingly reported “King Theebaw’s golden chariot has arrived in London,” but said no more on the subject. Photos from the period show two Burmese gentlemen sitting in a carriage under which a sign reads: “King Thibaw’s Royal Golden Chariot!”, but the location and date are unclear. Perhaps the strangest clue comes from a newspaper article published in 1899. The drivers of a carriage claiming to be “the golden State chariot of ex-king Theebaw” were fined in the City of London for using a coach for advertising purposes. Whether this was the actual chariot of King Thibaw, or, like the circus “Rath” of 1847, a cunning replica, we may never know.
Sadly, it is now 135 years on and Myanmar has no original examples of its sumptuous royal carriages. Most have been lost to time. But it will be interesting to see if the government attempts to claim stolen art objects back from Western museums in the future. Who knows, maybe we might just see a Burmese royal carriage reappear? There’s no harm in hoping.