I first travelled to Mandalay in the pages of Amitav Ghosh‘s The Glass Palace. Through the eyes of his protagonist, the young Rajkumar, I was there when the British fleet sailed up the Irrawaddy River. I was with Queen Supayalat when, alarmed at the boom of the British canons, she climbed the stairs of the guard tower to see for herself what was happening. I was there when the soldiers ransacked the palace, when the British commander exiled King Thibaw, forcing him to travel through the streets of Mandalay on a bullock drawn cart.
And so it was a foregone conclusion that I would visit the Royal Palace in Mandalay.
I expected my skin to make goosebumps the way it did when I read the introductory pages of this epic novel. I wondered if I might get the heebie geebies remembering the story of how so many of the royal family were slaughtered to ensure Thibaw’s ascension was secure. I didn’t.
The palace would once have been sumptuous and ornate, a grand palace that showed off the wealth of Burma. Goodness me, it had eight separate throne rooms! Although this replica, built in the 1990s, gives an impression of the layout of the complex and the style of architecture, the rooms themselves are dusty, dry, and largely empty. (The original Royal palace was destroyed during World War II.)
There is a cultural museum at the rear of the palace grounds. It was a cool spot to while away some time, to wonder at the lives of the kings and their households. Unfortunately, photos were prohibited.
The watch tower which I’ve mentioned before is, as I understand it, original.
The day John and I visited, there were a lot of people climbing the stairs to the top and, unnervingly, it shook a bit. Halfway was far enough for me.
Nevertheless, here, for a brief moment, I imagined Queen Supayalat, heavily pregnant, alarmed at the sound of the British canon and desperate for information, climbing these same stairs just as Ghosh describes. Assuming the sun shone that day, brilliant strategist that some say Queen Supayalat was, she’s unlikely to have taken the time to notice the play of light on the stairs.
The palace is situated in the heart of a modern day military complex in Mandalay. Security is tight. There’s a rigmarole before gaining access which involves registering at the gate just over the moat, under the close scrutiny of machine gun-toting soldiers, and then a drive through the military complex before arriving at the entrance to the Palace itself.
Once you’re inside the palace grounds it does feel a little more relaxed and I thought well worth the visit.
Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace spans more than one hundred years. It is set in Burma, Malaya, and India and follows the fortunes of the fictitious Rajkumar and his family from the time of the deposing of King Thibaw to the Burma of the 1990s.
From the fall of the Burmese Kingdom, to the Raj, to the Japanese air attack on Rangoon, to the great march from Burma to India by so many thousands of ethnic Indians, to the recent military rule of Burma, I imagined myself inside the lives of the characters. That’s what a good book does—it tells stories, and it tells them in such a way it reminds me, despite our vast differences in lived experiences and ways of making sense of the world, how similar we all are.
And it made me think of the Jewish saying Isabel Allende refers to in the opening of her TED Talk:
What is truer than truth?
Answer: The story
The Glass Palace is the only novel I’ve read by Amitav Ghosh. His more recent novel Sea of Poppies (2008) was shortlisted for the Booker prize. Have you read any of his work?
The Glass Palace
Amitav Ghosh (2001) Harper Collins. Paperback Edition