Questions on Religious Truth
And so, early the next morning, they departed from Wat Prote Saht for the final passage upriver to meet the King of Siam in his palace. Hundreds of beautifully decorated barges accompanied the visitors to their destination. In the center of the grand procession, gliding effortlessly along, was a golden, jewel-encrusted barge lined with fine Persian carpets. Amidships was an ornate presentation stand of solid gold, and it was here the Siamese officials placed the letter from Louis XIV. A hundred men splendidly dressed in red silk penangs, golden tunics and scarlet headpieces paddled this immense barge, nearly two hundred feet long. They kept their cadence, perfectly timed, dipping their oars in unison, then pausing holding them in midair, to the tune of drummers setting the pace-kupong, kupong, kupong. And at every temple along the way the chant of monks filtered out across the water.
Behind this barge came another richly ornamented vessel in which Ambassador Chaumont was seated on a chair covered with rich red velvet. And behind the ambassador’s barge came another barge, equally beautiful, with Abbe de Choisy sitting proudly aboard. He waved incessantly and jubilantly to the people along the banks of the river, often times standing up and unfolding his arms like a Roman senator. He relished the moment with great joy and enthusiasm.
Phaulkon followed in yet another splendid, bejeweled barge. He sat alone, amidships, as solemn as a marble statue. His thoughts couldn’t help drifting back to the first time he came upriver when he was in chains in the bilge of a slave boat. What a twist of fate. Now he was being honored, and yet wasn’t he the same person with the same ideas and the same beliefs?
They were soon joined by hundreds of smaller barges and river boats carrying nobles and courtiers. The River Menam was a mass of beautiful barges and riverboats, all moving together upriver with a rendezvous to keep.
When they reached the city wall and disembarked, a new procession on land quickly formed, led by nobles and court officials on elephant back, all in line according to their rank. Two guards in long tailcoats and plumed hats led the ambassador to a carved sedan chair and bid him be seated. Ten men, all dressed alike in costumes of Hong dancers, hoisted the chair with the ambassador elegantly seated, and carried him forward through the streets. The Abbe de Choisy followed in another beautifully carved sedan chair, and with Abbe in his chair was the gold stand bearing the precious letter. More than a hundred elephants in war harness led the way, and all along the route the people of Ayutthaya, by the thousands, prostrated themselves on the ground. The procession reached the second court and here there were fifty more elephants, taller than the first group, all bedecked with gold cloths and jewels. The elephants, with their mahouts sitting astride their backs, kneeled with their heads bent to the ground. It was magnificent to behold.
In the last court, a short distance after the procession had marched past the king’s famous White Elephant, everyone dismounted and proceeded on foot to the audience hall. Abbe de Choisy attempted to carry the stand, fondling it in his arms, but being made of pure gold it weighed a hundred pounds and was too much for him. After a very short distance in the downpour of tropical heat he was about to faint. Two assistants came to his aid and took up the load. Abbe de Choisy sobbed seeing it slip from his fingers.
Phaulkon and Father Tachard walked with Ambassador Chaumont to the palace. Bishop Laneau followed a few paces behind them. As they walked, Chaumont didn’t stop talking. He rambled on about his meeting with the Pope and about the power of the Catholic Church in Europe. It was almost as though he was still in France. Phaulkon wanted to tell him about Siam and the Siamese, about the customs and habits of the land, and about the history of the kingdom. But Chaumont cared only about himself, to make his own presence known, and, of course, about his mission. Every other word was about converting the king. Phaulkon listened politely, accepted the talk like a forlorn child, but when Chaumont began questioning him about his own beliefs he became quite annoyed. “This is not the place or the time to discuss religion,” Phaulkon said abruptly to the annoyance of Chaumont. Phaulkon had noted from the moment they met that Chaumont was a religious zealot and his unbending and humorless demeanor would not endear him to the Siamese court. Phaulkon became aware, the more they conversed, that the ambassador’s indignation for those who didn’t believe as he did arose from his destructive puritanism. Phaulkon saw trouble ahead, and he alone had to find a solution to divert what was certain to be calamity.
They reached the entrance to the palace and Phaulkon led the way through five courts to the audience hall. Phaulkon feared that General Phetracha and Sorasak might be present but they were nowhere in sight. That was a relief. Nor were there many nobles present. The gathering was small which made matters much easier. Phaulkon had worked out a plan that he now started to put into motion.
At one end of the hall was an alcove with a balcony about seven or eight feet above the floor. A curtain was drawn across the alcove. Phaulkon pointed out to the others that behind the curtain sat King Narai.
Protocol required those who approached the king, when presenting their credentials, must do so on hands and knees. Phaulkon solved this delicate diplomatic impasse by having the ambassador walk with uncovered head to the centre of the hall between the lines of prostrated courtiers and take up his position in front of the king in a chair provided for him, giving the impression that he was lame. The curtain opened and Phaulkon got down on his knees in Siamese fashion, and prostrated himself three times before the king. He bid for the others to do the same, which they did.
As instructed by Phaulkon, Chaumont bowed in the direction of the king and began to read his address in French, which Bishop Laneau translated into English. Phaulkon took over from there. But Phaulkon did not translate exactly as he heard it. He glossed over the religious issues.
When Chaumont finished his speech, he took the royal letter from Abbe de Choisy, and delivered it by hand to the king. There followed an awkward moment. Chaumont, the scoundrel that he was, felt that for him to reach up to the king was a gesture that was derogatory to the dignity of his position as ambassador. He refused to raise the letter higher than the level of his outstretched hand. King Narai tactfully put an end to this impasse by stooping forward and with a smile took the letter in hand. Chaumont felt the victory was his. King Narai on the other hand felt sorry for the invalid who had to reach so far. King Narai conversed through Phaulkon with the French ambassador for an hour, asking about the health of King Louis and the royal family, and what new conquests the French had made. Chaumont replied the last conquest was Luxembourg, which compelled all Europe to sue for peace.
The king asked Chaumont if he and his master were aware of the first Siamese Envoy that perished. Chaumont replied they were and his king was much affected by the tragic news. He further stated that he blamed the tragedy upon the greedy, territory-hungry Dutch. King Narai did not hide his displeasure at hearing this. Nevertheless, perhaps from his dislike of talking about their adversary, he changed the subject by asking if King Louis was satisfied with his trade agreement with Siam, which Chaumont replied with a positive answer. When satisfied with the reply. King Narai ordered that the curtain be closed and the ceremony was over.
Phaulkon gave the embassy officials a tour of the palace, including a visit to see the king’s collection of sacred white elephants, the pride of the country. The French were astounded to see that the elephants were served food and drink in plates and bowls of pure gold. Phaulkon emphasized the importance of elephants in Siamese life and folklore, especially white elephants.
That evening Phaulkon entertained the French at his home in Louvo. Chaumont presented him two precious gifts-the Holy Missal, from the Pope himself, and a Cross from King Louis. Phaulkon expressed his gratitude for the presents, and he took the opportunity to tell Chaumont that he had waited endless months for a copy of the Bible he had sent for but it had not arrived. Chaumont told him that the reason might be that the Pope had forbidden the use of the Bible to the common people. “It is a book hard to understand and requires divine guidance,” Chaumont said. “The Holy Missal is what Catholics must have in its place. This book contains the doctrine and the teachings of the Catholic faith.”
Phaulkon commented that when he was growing up in England, the common people had their own copies of the Holy Book and seemed to understand it without any obstacle. Chaumont arrogantly answered, “That’s why they’re not Catholics! They imagine they can understand scriptures and they question the authority of the Catholic Church.”
Phaulkon decided this was his chance to debate the ambassador with religious matters that plagued him. “How can I converse with King Narai if I am not sure myself?” he asked, but before the ambassador could reply he went on. “If we are to work on the king’s conversion, where do we begin? Is it not logical that we start with the original book, the Holy Book? The Missal is only a book of prayers and songs. The king will have some serious questions he wants answered.”
Chaumont emphatically informed Phaulkon that the Missal included parts of the New Testament. “That’s plenty enough for King Narai,” he said.
After they had parted company, Phaulkon thought to himself what a terrible pity it was that foreigners underestimated King Narai. Little did they know that King Narai was not a man to be satisfied with half answers.
Nor was Phaulkon pleased with Chaumont’s off-handed remarks about the Bible. Phaulkon needed answers, not answers from biased parties, and for these he would need the Bible. Without it, how could he answer the questions that King Narai would certainly ask sooner or later?