A Pantheon of Monarchs Who Mattered
By ANTHONY SPAETH
At the dawn of the 20th century, Asia was the most royal of continents. Its major public buildings were palaces: some were quasi-religious sites, others doubled as military fortresses, most were spectacularly grand. The palaces are still around for locals and tourists to enjoy, but the kings, princes, sultans, datuks and maharajahs have either been pushed off the stage or have gone "constitutional"--maintaining their titles but no longer possessing the power to rule. Asia's political history in this century can be told largely through the story of their decline, from China's Last Emperor, Pu Yi, to the myriad maharajahs of the subcontinent, whose noblesse oblige is now showered on tourists who rent rooms in their faded former palaces of glory.
The process is far from complete, however. In Thailand and Cambodia, the reigning, if not ruling, monarchs still have the power--and the need--to stabilize the political situation from time to time. And the actions of many earlier monarchs, such as Kashmir's Hari Singh, continue to be felt today.
THE LAST EMPEROR
At a banquet given by Japanese military officers in Manchuria in 1932, an invited prostitute turned to the shy, bespectacled guest of honor and asked, "Are you in trade?"
Not quite. The man was Henry Pu Yi, final emperor of China's Qing Dynasty, who had just agreed to become chief executive of Japan's puppet state of Manchukuo. (He was elevated to emperor two years later.) Pu Yi was one of the most grandly tragic royal figures of the century. Raised in Beijing's Forbidden City and brought to the throne by Empress Dowager Ci Xi, Pu Yi had no set meal times; his command--"Transmit the viands!"--produced instant imperial banquets. He didn't leave the Forbidden City until he was ejected at the age of 18 in 1924 when the army of a warlord and enemy of the Manchus, Feng Yuxiang, surrounded it.
At war's end, he spent five involuntary years in Russia and then time in a Chinese labor camp, where he learned gardening and, in an embrace of communism, surrendered three priceless imperial seals. Though Pu Yi died of cancer in 1967, it was only 28 years later that his fourth wife interred his ashes in a cemetery in Beijing--the owner, a Hong Kong businessman, thought it would be good promotion--just 300 m from the mausoleum of Emperor Guang Xu, Pu Yi's Qing predecessor.
Like many of the princes of India's independent kingdoms, Hari Singh, the final Maharajah of Kashmir, was a colorful international celebrity--particularly following a public pre-war adultery-blackmail scandal in London--and he loved his pearls, diamonds and one especially fat emerald.
Singh made history during the 1947 partition of the subcontinent when he was forced to decide whether Kashmir would join Pakistan or India. He was a Hindu king, which made India the most likely choice, but the majority of his subjects were Muslim. Singh held out for independence until the night of Oct. 24, 1947, when Pakistan-backed tribesmen poured over the Kashmir border in an attempt to force his hand. Singh was whisked from his palace in Srinagar in an American station wagon laden with his most precious possessions. Then he signed a formal order of accession--Kashmir became part of India. But Pakistan fought on for months, hanging on to a sliver of the territory. A subsequent war broke out in 1965.
Earlier this summer, India and Pakistan, each of which now possesses nuclear weapons, fought once again over the territory. After more than 50 years, Hari Singh's Kashmir remains one of the hottest flashpoints on the globe.
THE PRINCE FORMERLY KNOWN AS KING
The wildest ride of any of Asia's monarchs has surely been that of Cambodia's Norodom Sihanouk. Installed as King by the French at the age of 18--the Japanese later made him puppet Prime Minister--Sihanouk downgraded himself to the rank of Prince in 1955, putting his father on the throne for several years. He later evolved into an authoritarian ruler, who guided Cambodia during the 1950s and '60s. (As war raged in Indo-china, the playboy-bon vivant also enthusiastically pursued a sideline as director, star, script-writer and musical director of local movies.)
Overthrown in a 1970 coup, Sihanouk went into exile in Beijing, with long stays in Pyongyang, before unwisely returning to become the communist Khmer Rouge's titular head of state for three years of personal hazard and house arrest. When Cambodia shed both the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnam-installed regime that followed, Sihanouk in 1993 returned again as King. Technically, it's a figurehead position, but Sihanouk, now 76, has repeatedly stepped in to smooth an ongoing power struggle between his son Norodom Ranariddh and the current Prime Minister, former Khmer Rouge cadre Hun Sen.
POPULAR IN PUBLIC, POWERFUL IN PRIVATE
Thailand's absolute monarchy ended in 1932, but King Bhumibol Adulyadej, grandson of Rama V, has kept the monarchy revered and effective through often troubled times. Born in the U.S.--while his father was studying medicine at Harvard--Bhumibol was educated in Lausanne and learned English, French, German and enough saxophone to compose a number for a 1950 Broadway show. But after ascending the throne that same year, he threw himself into development projects. From behind the scenes, he helped steer the nation through leftist threats, numberless coups and two popular pro-democracy movements. More recently, the King, now 71, has applied his wide-ranging talents to helping solve Bangkok's traffic problem.