Worshipping the Great Moderniser: King Chulalongkorn, Patron Saint of the Thai Middle Class

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By Irene Stengs

In Thailand the globalizing urban culture associated with the economic boom of the 1980s and 1990s gave rise to an alienating anomie. In the slipstream of this boom, an immense cult took shape around King Chulalongkorn the Great (r.1868-1910) that reworked the idea of Buddhist kingship, making it the pivot of the modern Thai social cosmos and creating a new foundation for Thai identity.

Worshipping the Great Moderniser explores the contemporary appeal of King Chulalongkorn and considers what this ruler's unprecendented popularity says about present-day Thai society. Arguing that the exalted expectations of modern Buddhist kingship are a product of the ambitions and anxieties of Thailand's expanding middle class, Irene Stengs compares the popular image of King Chulalongkorn with that of the present king, the highly venerated King Bhumibol Adulyadej, to show that while modern Buddhist kingship and current ideas of Thainess draw on traditional idioms, they are highly modern. This examination of the social imaginary surrounding Thai kingship and Thainess during the past century and a half yields an intriguing amalgam of ideas concerning popular religion, Buddhist kingship, nationalism, and material culture.

"One great value of Stengs' detailed analysis of the cult of Chulalongkorn is that with greater comprehensiveness, substantive detail and empirical specificity than elsewhere in the scholarly literature, she essentially outlines the cultural, organizational, social and material infrastructure necessary for a successful movement of sacral devotionalism in general and the cult of a deified monarch in particular."
Erick D. White

Irene Stengs is a Researcher with the Department of Ethnology at the Meertens Institute for Research and Documentation of Language and Culture of the Netherlands, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).

Publication Year: 2009
328 pages, 229mm x 153mm
ISBN: 978-9971-69-429-6, Paperback

NUS Press