The Oldest Known Writing in Siamese: The Inscription of Phra Ram Khamhæng of Sukhothai, 1293 A.D./First general meeting


A general meeting of the Siam Society was held at the Bangkok United Club on the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 2nd. Dr. O. Frankfurter, President in the chair, when Professor Bradley read his paper on the "Oldest Known Siamese Writing" before a large audience.

In introducing the writer of the paper, the President said:—To every one acquainted with our local history the name of "Bradley" is known. Dr. Bradley arrived in Bangkok in the reign of King Phra Nang Klao in the year 1835. He lived throughout that reign and the reign of King Mongkut and died in the present reign in 1873, after having recorded in his Calendar and other publications what was noteworthy in Siamese customs and history. Through his profession he was brought into contact with all sorts and conditions of men and what strides have been made in the knowledge of surgery in Siam we owe to him. He it was who first introduced vaccination, and through him and the American Missionaries was also introduced the art of printing, and Bradley's editions of the Kotmai, the Phongsavadan, etc., are known to all interested in literature. Thus in introducing his son, Professor Bradley, my task is an easy one. "Stet magni nominis umbra." Professor Bradley was born in Bangkok in the reign of Phra Nang Klao in 1843, he lived in Bangkok nearly through the whole reign of Phra Chom Klao, he went to America and Europe and arrived in Bangkok again early in the present reign, and finally left for the United States in 1872. His interest in Siam, however, never flagged, as shown by his papers on Siamese grammar and phonology, and, to sound a more personal note, one might speak of the care he took of the Siamese students who were studying at California University.

Professor Bradley has kindly consented to read before us a paper on one of the famous Siamese inscriptions of Sukhothai which was brought to Bangkok in 1834 by King Mongkut whilst he was in the priesthood. It is a typical Buddhist inscription, recording, not so much deeds of war and conquest, but the happiness which the people of the realm enjoyed in the reign of Phra Ramkamheng, what he did for the culture of the people, how he understood the Buddhist religion, what are the maxims of Government by which he was guided, how he was the first to use the written Thai characters for records. The inscription already shows all the characteristics of later Siamese, its fondness for poetry and couplets so that also in this respect it is a most valuable document. Of course attempts have been made to explain it. We have first a version given by Professor Bastian in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. XXXIV. (1864). He simply recorded what the scholars in King Mongkut's reign told him; no attempt was made to elucidate doubtful points, and he did not publish the original version by which to control it. We have also in Bowring's Siam a short reference to this inscription. But the first scholar who seriously attempted an explanation was the late Père Schmitt. He gave two different versions, first in the Excursions et Reconnaisances vol. VII, and later in the Mission Pavie, Paris, 1898. There are small differences in the translation, and we must admire the diligence bestowed on it, but the Rev. Father can scarcely escape the reproach that in his explanations he was influenced by the Aryan Theory. Siamese versions and explanations have likewise been published but, unfortunately, as we all know, for the western scholar things written in Siamese, Graeca sunt non legitur. The real value of the inscription will be shown to us by Professor Bradley in his paper.

Professor Bradley then read his paper.

At the conclusion of the paper the President said:—In the very interesting paper to which we have just had the pleasure of listening, and for which in the name of this Society it is my duty to express to Professor Bradley our heartful thanks, Professor Bradley has shown in one concrete example, certainly the most prominent one of which we know at present, what treasure is still unexplored, what rich harvest may still be found in the deserted cities of Siam, to serve as documents for the history of progress and civilisation. He has shown us, I take it, also, the necessity which exists to collect these inscriptions and to incorporate them in the Corpus Inscriptionum Inscriptionum Siamensium. That this hope of scholars both Eastern and Western will soon be fulfilled we have, however, good reasons to believe. Already excavations are made in old cities, the inscriptions found are collected and preserved from the inclemency of the weather. We have in Siam no written records of ancient Kings, or rather, we should say, they have not yet been traced. What therefore remains are the inscriptions in which the Kings and people recorded their pious deeds, and in collecting them, it will become true what the poet said, perhaps in another sense:—

"Wenn Menschen schweigen, werden Steine reden."

Mr. R. W. Giblin in seconding the motion said:—"I have much pleasure in seconding the vote of thanks so happily proposed by our President.

Professor Bradley's account of the inscribed stone and his translation of the inscription will always rank very highly in the records of this Society. They will be published in the Journal almost immediately and so reach those who have not been able to attend this meeting. I think that I shall be expressing the wish of all the members of the Society present to-night in stating that Professor Bradley's able paper should be the first of such a series as will embrace all the inscriptions which have been found in Siam up to date, and those others, as they are brought to light, which our President has indicated yet remain to be discovered.

It may be said that those inscriptions which have already been copied have been deciphered and the translations published, and Dr. Frankfurter has referred to that Corpus Inscriptionum Siamensium (not yet in being) which should contain copies of the known inscriptions. But the point I wish to make is that it will be worth while to publish in the Journal of this Society even those translations which have been made, with illustrations or copies of the inscriptions themselves. Professor Bradley has shown in the case of the Sukotai stone that it has been possible to improve on former readings of it, and if that achievement is not to be accomplished in every case, the publication of inscriptions in the Journal, with their translations, will be of the greatest interest to those of us who have not the learning to decipher, while to those who can do so the means will be increased of indulging in the exercise of their science and skill.

I am able to state that a copy of a Lao inscription not, I believe, hitherto published, will presently be printed for the Journal of the Society, and Dr. Hansen, who is present here to-night, has been good enough to promise that his translation of it, first done into Siamese, will be done into English by him, so that it may be printed and appear with the illustrations."

Dr. Hansen remarked that there were a great number of inscriptions in the North, which he believed had never been published or translated.

The vote of thanks was cordially passed, and those present afterwards inspected the rubbings of the Sukhothai inscription which were on view, and the meeting terminated.