Obituary: Princess Sangwal Mahidol

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Officially known in Thailand as the Princess Mother, Princess Sangwal Mahidol came from a commoner's family and gave birth to two kings. She lived through the Thai monarchy's most turbulent times, forcing her to spend a great deal of her life in voluntary exile. She is credited with having a formative influence on the successful reign of her younger son King Bhumibol, who is now celebrating his golden anniversary on the throne and is the world's longest-serving monarch.

Her picture is to be be found in many Thai households, alongside that of the King; and, although institutionalised, the outpouring of grief in Thailand following her demise was entirely genuine. Held in great affection, she was widely known as Somdej Yaa, the Royal Grandmother; and the hilltribe people called her "The Royal Mother Descending from the Sky".

Born Sangwal Talapat, she became an orphan at the age of eight, following the death of her mother. Her father, a goldsmith, died when she was three.

Relatives placed her in the care of her future husband's sister, although she only began her relationship with Prince Mahidol of Songkla later in the United States when she was studying nursing and he was a public health student at Harvard University. The Prince was a pioneer of modern Thai medicine and his wife enthusiastically shared his medical interests, retaining a lifelong commitment to public health causes.

They were married in Thailand in 1920, but maintained a peripatetic existence resulting in the birth in London of their first child, Princess Galyani Vadhana; the second, who became King Ananda Mahidol, was born in Germany, and the current King Bhumibol Adulyadej was born in the United States.

Within two years of her third child's birth, her husband died, leaving the princess a widow at the age of 29, after which she became known as the Princess Mother. Meanwhile storm clouds were gathering in Thailand over the future of the monarchy, culminating in the 1932 coup which led to the fall of absolute royal rule and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.

King Rama VII, Prince Mahidol's brother, went into voluntary exile, a typically Thai way of avoiding outright confrontation. The Princess Mother meanwhile quietly moved her family to Switzerland. Unable to accept the new situation facing the monarchy, the king abdicated in 1935, leaving his nephew Prince Ananda to assume the throne at the age of nine. However the young prince stayed with his mother in Switzerland and a regency was created to perform royal duties. The family did not move back to Thailand until the defeat of the Japanese in 1945; but the following year, King Ananda died in still unexplained circumstances when he was found shot in the Royal Palace. King Bhumibol acceded to the throne but again returned to Switzerland with his mother, allegedly to continue his studies but in reality reflecting the continued uncertainty over the position of the monarchy. He did not return for his coronation until 1950.

The intense court protocol and discretion which surrounds the royal family makes its impossible to really know how the Princess Mother coped with the deaths of her husband and eldest son. However she was clearly concerned about the safety of her younger son and had to be persuaded to return to Thailand. Once back she plunged herself into charitable work, establishing a tenaciously loyal royal household which was often on the road for months at a time. In 1968 she founded the Volunteer Flying Doctor Association and adopted a number of other medical causes, including work for the cure of leprosy and the welfare of the crippled. She became increasingly interested in the situation of Thailand's minority hill peoples and in 1972 established the Thai Hillcrafts Foundation to promote their handicrafts.

In her later years the Princess Mother spent most of her time in an extraordinary Swiss chalet-style royal palace in Doi Tung, near the Golden Triangle, where she established an extensive development project aimed at the rehabilitation of heroin addicts and the reforestation of the hills.

Two years ago I was part of a small group of people introduced to the Princess Mother at one of the many tree-planting ceremonies attended by this very frail but determined old lady. We were carefully instructed in the correct protocol for greeting her but one of the group decided on a more informal, but friendly, approach. Her attendants were mortified but she seemed greatly amused, allowing the smallest twinkle of the eye to indicate a welcome relief from court etiquette.

Stephen Vines

Sangwal Talapat: born Nothanburi, Thailand 21 October 1900; married 1920 Prince Mahidol of Songkla (two sons, one daughter); died Bangkok 18 July 1995.