The Queens of Pattani
If stories give life to a place, those of the four queens of Pattani recall laughter and tears, love and revenge that shaped a chatpter of the little known history of this Islamic maritime kingdom about sex centuries ago. Subhatra Bhumiprabhas and Natiya Tangwisutijit trace the facinating story of the queens
Nobody knows what Princess Ijau might have thought when she ascended the throne as the first queen of Pattani in 1584.
After the death of her father, Sultan Manzur Syah, in 1572, Ijau and her two younger sisters had to endure 12 traumatic years witnessing brothers and cousins killing one another in their battle for the throne. The conflict was resolved when all of the male heirs were assassinated, paving the way for Ijau's ascension.
Today's historians - and, indeed, ancient European traders and travellers who arrived in the Islamic kingdom - had different views about Pattani's century-long rule by women. Some opinions appear more favourable than others. But the predominant conclusion was that Queen Ijau and her sisters who succeeded to the throne were no more than puppet monarchs. Behind them must have been capable male ministers who governed in her name without the queens' actual participation.
French traveller Nicholas Gervaise, for example, wrote in the 1680s that Raja Ijau was not allowed to enter at all into the secrets of state affairs.
"[The queen] had to content herself with the respect and homage which everyone formally rendered her as their sovereign," Gervaise was quoted in "Hikayat Pattani", a classic Malay account of the history of this Islamic kingdom.
"They [the ministers] did not allow her the freedom to choose her own high officials, but they never refused her anything which could contribute to her pleasure," he wrote.
Such a view, however, could not properly explain why under the rule of the queens, especially the first two, Pattani reached its greatest prosperity from maritime trade with Europe, Japan and around Southeast Asia. Prices for commodities, particularly foodstuffs, were at an all time low, pleasing the rich and poor under their reigns alike. Farmers were also recorded to have enjoyed irrigation projects initiated and supervised by the queens.
If they were just puppets, how did the three sisters succeed one another in a row? The youngest sister even managed to have her daughter become queen as well. They all survived several coup attempts amid a fluctuating political situation in the region. All the men who challenged their power were "dealt with" in different ways. Nobody knows what actually happened to them, but they were never seen again.
Reading between the lines, scattered historical accounts suggest the queens were capable rulers who knew how to play both internal and regional politics. In other words, the ancient kingdom of Pattani prospered "because of", and not "in spite of", the queens.
The three sisters - Ijau, Biru and Ungu - succeeded one another from 1584 to 1635. Their father named them after the colours of the rainbow - Ijau means green, Biru is blue and Ungu is violet. Whether the rainbow connotation was intended as a good omen, the princesses did have a shining future - they all made their way to the prestigious throne without much struggle.
Raja Ijau ruled for 31 years before she died, and passed the throne to her second sister Biru, who led the kingdom for seven years. The throne then passed to the third sister, Ungu, who reigned for 12 years.
Among them, Ungu was the only one married. Her sister Ijau made her the bride of Sultan Abdul-Ghafur Mohaidin Syah of Pahang, another influential kingdom on the Malay Peninsula. Princess Ungu gave birth to a charming daughter, Kuning, who succeeded her mother as the monarch. She reigned for about 50 years in what was one of the wealthiest and longest reigns for the region.
Perhaps Raja Ijau's understanding of regional politics was deeper than her ministers might have realised. She had Princess Ungu marry the sultan of Pahang, given the close connections between Pahang and Johore at the time, and also tightened relations with Johore, another strong political centre on the peninsula.
In retrospect, Raja Ijau turned to concentrate on strengthening relations with neighbouring kingdoms because Pattani became relatively independent from the influence of Ayutthaya, the powerful inland kingdom. Ayutthaya, from 1564 to the 1590s, was struggling for its own survival against Burma and Cambodia.
Secure politics entailed economic prosperity. Pattani itself was among the best natural harbours along the lengthy east coast of the Malay peninsula. The mid-sized kingdom enjoyed long-distance trade with China and India, as well as localised trade with Siam, Malaya and Indonesia. It served as an entrepot to which pepper could be brought from the neighbouring lands for Chinese merchants in return for luxury textiles and porcelain. At the same time Indian textiles were brought to Pattani in exchange for gold, spices and foodstuffs.
Raja Ungu knew her marriage to the sultan of Pahang was to secure political and economic prosperity for Pattani. Love was not a part of it. To her, the marriage was for the "love for her land". Her situation was not much different from other women of other kingdoms in the region in the same period. Their parents sent them as "gifts" for rulers of kingdoms they wanted to make friends with for their protection or other security purposes.
However, what was different for Ungu was that she returned to Pattani and became queen after Raja Biru passed away. Her daughter, Kuning, followed in her footstep decades later by marrying into politics and for the love of her motherland.
Raja Ijau died in 1616 and was succeeded by Raja Biru. It was Raja Biru who sent her ministers to Pahang to request the return of Queen Ungu after she became a widow when Sultan Abdul-Ghafur Mohaidin Syah died. Ungu also brought with her Princess Kuning, who was then four years old.
Princess Kuning was only 12-years-old when her monarch aunt Raja Biru arranged her marriage to a nobleman from Siam, Okya Decho, a son of the ruler of Ligor, or Nakhon Si Thammarat, who served the king of Ayutthaya. By the end of the 16th century, Ayutthaya's power was on the rise again during the reign of King Naresuan.
At the time, no one could read the heart of Princess Ungu, who watched her daughter's wedding in silence.
Soon after Raja Biru died, however, Raja Ungu, who succeeded her sister in 1624, arranged for her daughter to be remarried to the Sultan of Johore. Indeed, Pattani under the reign of Ungu adopted an anti-Siam policy. Unlike her two predecessors, Ungu refused to allow herself to be called by the Siamese royal title Phra Chao.
Perhaps, Okya Decho would not have asked to return to Nakhon Si Thammarat had he known he would not be allowed to take his young wife with him.
When informed of the new wedding of his wife, a furious Okya Decho asked for permission from the king of Siam to lead Siamese troops to attack Pattani. To aid her defence, Ungu received support from her late husband's state, Pahang, and the Sultan of Johore also led his troops to help his mother-in-law. The Siamese troops weren't familiar with sea warfare. The week-long war ended with the heart-broken Okya Decho returning home empty handed.
The love story of Princess Kuning didn't end there, but continued dramatically until her last breath. Raja Ungu died in 1635 and Kuning succeeded her mother to the Pattani throne. After the funeral ceremony, Kuning's husband left Pattani for his homeland. The sultan asked his younger brother and his mother to stay in Pattani to guard Kuning from her ex-husband Okya Decho.
But the sultan had left the fish with the cat. The prince of Johore went too far from the role of protector. The Malay historical account of Hikayat Pattani stated that the prince "violated" Kuning. However, the prince did not seem to have Kuning's heart for long. Raja Kuning found her lover had committed adultery with a court singer. The prince of Johore appeared to be madly in love with the singer whom he planned to give a royal title.
However, many ministers and the people took the queen's side. They volunteered to "deal" with the problem for her. Raja Kuning only asked her men to spare the prince's life. The prince was never seen in Pattani again. He safely returned to Johore while the prince's mother and their people were later escorted by the queen's men to their homeland as well.
No matter how chaotic her personal life, Raja Kuning never forgot her duty as the ruler of Pattani. During her reign, Pattani returned to the glorious era of international trade. The queen ordered her men to expand the mouth of the Pattani River and to dredge the river's tideway to welcome an increasing number of cargo barges. The bay of Pattani shone with lights from trader junks day and night. The Hikayat Pattani noted that the last queen didn't live on royal revenues, she made her income from the crops in her own gardens, feeding and clothing herself from the profits on the flowers and vegetables. Moreover, she turned her personal possessions into royal property.
Unlike her mother, who was hostile to Ayutthaya, Raja Kuning decided to make friends with the larger kingdom by paying a visit in 1641. The queen of Pattani was welcomed by King Prasat Thong of Siam. They re-established relations and Siam promised to end its interference in Pattani, at least during the reign of Raja Kuning.
A decade later, nonetheless, Kuning was forced to leave the throne by Raja Sakti of Kalantan who staged a coup in 1651 after she failed to handle the internal conflict between the sultan and another prince. On her way to seek refuge in Johore, the last queen of Pattani died near the shore of Kalantan. Her body was buried in a small village called Kampung Pancor.
The queen's laughter and tears and her "love for the land" was also buried there.