SOLAR ECLIPSES IN SIAM (THAILAND)

1. SOLAR ECLIPSES IN SIAM (THAILAND) IN THE PAST

 

The oldest historical evidence about solar eclipses viewed from Siam dates to the Ayutthaya period (the Ayutthaya kingdom existed between 1350 and 1767)

 

Note that in this document we use the term ‘Siam’, the former name of Thailand until it was changed to ‘Thailand’ in 1939.

1.1 The Solar Eclipse in the Reign of King Narai

Siam had much contact and trade with European countries (especially France) during this reign. For example, Siam and France exchanged ambassadors and France also sent Jesuit missionary-astronomers to Siam who were based in Lopburi where a large observatory, “Wat San Paulo”, was erected for them (see Orchiston et al., 2015)

 

A total solar eclipse occurred on 30 April 1688 with the path of totality passing over India, China, Siberia and Canada, thus only a partial solar eclipse could be observed from Siam (Figure 14). So King Narai with French missionaries and Siamese courtiers went to the city of Lopburi (the secondary capital of Siam in the reign of King Narai, ~60 km north of Ayutthaya) to observe the eclipse (see Figure 15).

 

Figure 14: This map shows the total solar eclipse path on 30 April 1688

[Credit: Espenak and Meeus]

 

Figure 15: This painting by a French artist shows King Narai (in the pavilion, behind the window) who saw this partial solar eclipse through the telescope set up by the French missionary-astronomers (em.wikipedia.org).        

 

1.2 The Solar Eclipse in the Reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV)

After studying indigenous Siamese astronomical systems (derived from India) and English textbooks on western Astronomy (e.g. see Figure 16) and then doing the necessary calculations,  King Mongkut predicted that a total solar eclipse would be visible from Siam on 18 August 1868 (see Figure 17).

 

King Mongkut, with members of the Royal Family, Siamese courtiers and Western astronomers went to Wahkor village in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province, Southern Siam to observe this solar eclipse (Figure 19). But King Mongkut was infected during expedition and passed away 6 weeks later in the Siamese capital (Bangkok).   

 

Figure 16: Western astronomy textbooks that King Mongkut used to learn astronomy.

 

Figure 17: This map shows the total solar eclipse path on 18 August 1868.

 

Figure 18: This photograph shows King Mongkut and his eclipse expedition party. The King is seated in the center of the pavilion and the British group stands around; to left are royal officials who are kneeling.

 

Despite getting ill, King Mongkut, and other members of the Royal family, succeeded in observing this eclipse (see Euarchukiati, 2015), as did the French astronomers who came to Siam especially for this event (see Orchiston and Soonthornthum, 2015).

 

In 1982, 18 August was designated as an annual “National Science Day” to commemorate King Mongkut’s prediction and observation of the 1868 total solar eclipse.

 

1.3 The Solar Eclipse in the Reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V)

A total solar eclipse occurred on 6 April 1875 during this reign (Figure 19). The Siamese court invited French and British astronomers to observe this eclipse from Phetchaburi province (southwest of Bangkok).

 

King Rama V had inherited an interest in astronomy from his father (King Mongkut) and he and his royal party successfully observed this eclipse (see Figure 20; Euarchukiati, 2015), as did a party of British astronomers, invited to Siam for the event (see Hutawarakorn Kramer and Kramer, 2006). 

 

Figure 19: This map shows the total solar eclipse path on 6 April 1875. Observers from Bangkok also could see this solar eclipse but Bangkok was not on the center line of the eclipse path.

 

Figure 20: The drawing of 1875 total solar eclipse showing the corona (outermost atmosphere of the Sun). This drawing was painted by the Siamese Prince ‘Prince tong’.

 

1.4 The Solar Eclipse in the Reign of King Prajadhipok (Rama VII)

The total solar eclipse of 9 May 1929 occurred during this reign (Figure 21). British and German astronomers made requests to observe the eclipse observation from Pattani Province, southern Siam. The King and the Queen also went to Pattani to observe this phenomenon (see Figure 22).

 

The British and German expeditions to observe the 1929 Total Solar Eclipse were the last large groups to observe a total solar eclipse from Siam (although a small group of American astronomers did come here to observe the 1955 total solar eclipse).

 

Figure 21: This map shows the total solar eclipse path on 9 May 1929.

 

Figure 22: The King and Queen of Siam visiting the solar eclipse observation camp of the German astronomers in Pattani Province on 8 May 1929.

 

1.5 Solar Eclipses in the Reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX)

During the reign of our present King changes in technology and solar observing techniques together with the fact that modern science is taught in Thai schools and universities mean that solar eclipses have become popular in Thailand.

 

Two different total solar eclipses had paths of totality crossing Thailand during our present King’s reign, and these are discussed briefly below.

 

1.5.1 The Total Solar Eclipse 20 June 1955

 

The path of totality of this eclipse passed across central and northeastern Thailand (see Figure 23). This was recorded as the longest total solar eclipse in the 20th century with a maximum duration of 7 minutes (but ~6 minutes if viewed from Thailand).

 

Radio Thailand station broadcasted a program about the solar eclipse nationwide for the first time in Thai history. Some members of Thai Royal Family also went to Ayutthaya Province to view this solar eclipse.

 

Figure 23: This map shows the total solar eclipse path on 20 June 1955. Observers in Bangkok could see this solar eclipse but Bangkok was not on the center line of the eclipse path.

 

1.5.2 The Total Solar Eclipse 24 October 1995

 

This is the most recent total solar eclipse to be visible from Thailand (see Figure 24). Many Thai people were interested in this phenomenon and traveled to provinces that the eclipse path passed through and many Thai television channels station broadcast live views of the solar eclipse nationwide for the first time in Thai history.

 

Furthermore, 1995 event also encouraged research about solar eclipse in Thai universities, and it prompted the issue of a special postage stamp (Figure 25).

 

Figure 24: A map show the total solar eclipse path on 24 October 1995.

 

Figure 25: The stamp that was printed by Thailand Post to commemorate the 1995 solar eclipse in Thailand.

 

 

2. FUTURE SOLAR ECLIPSES VISIBLE FROM THAILAND

 

2.1 Introduction

Partial solar eclipses are much more common in Thailand than other types of solar eclipse due to the fact that the area covered by the lunar penumbra shadow is larger than the area covered by lunar umbra or antumbra shadow, so the lunar penumbra shadow has more chance to cover Thailand than the lunar umbra or antumbra shadow.

 

Consequently, the following partial solar eclipses will be visible from Thailand (weather permitting):

 

- 9 March 2016 (a total solar eclipse in Indonesia)

- 26 December 2019 (an annular solar eclipse in the Arabian Peninsula, southern India, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia)

- 21 June 2020 (an annular solar eclipse in Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, India, China and Taiwan)

 

2.2 Future Annular and Total Solar Eclipses Visible From Thailand

 

Over the next 55 years, weather permitting there will be 2 annular eclipses and 1 total solar eclipse visible from Thailand:

 

- 21 May 2031 (Southern Thailand: Annular – see Figure 26)

- 14 October 2042 (Southern Thailand: Annular – see Figure 27)

- 11 April 2070 (Southern and eastern Thailand: Total – see Figure 28)

 

Figure 26: This map shows the annular eclipse path on 21 May 2031.

 

Figure 27: This map shows the annular eclipse path on 14 October 2042.

 

Figure 28: This map shows the total eclipse path on 11 April 2070.

 

 

3. BELIEFS AND TRADITIONS ABOUT SOLAR ECLIPSES IN THAILAND

 

Ancient Siamese people tried to describe solar eclipse via legends, folktales and beliefs before the arrival of modern astronomy in Siam (Thailand). Thus there were local names for solar eclipse in many regions of Thailand and some traditions tried to explain the occurrence of solar eclipses.

 

The beliefs & traditions about solar eclipses in Thailand can be grouped into 2 levels: the popular level and the Royal court level.

 

3.1 Popular Thai beliefs about solar eclipse

Local words for solar eclipse in Thailand are “the frog eating the Sun” or “the dog eating the Sun”. These words indicate that the majority of ancient Thai people thought about solar eclipses as a frog or a dog eating the Sun before and then spitting it out.

 

The use of animal names for natural phenomena is found frequently amongst ethnic groups where their livelihoods are closely associated with nature.

 

A solar eclipse is a special phenomenon in the view of ancient people, along with tidal effects cause by the moon and the belief that the frog and the toad are symbols of rain. So, ancient Thai people therefore believed that solar and lunar eclipses were omens or prediction about the condition of nature in the future.

 

The dog is also a sacred animal for agricultural people in some regions of Asia. This may explain why some ethnic groups in ancient Thailand related the dog to the Sun and used the term “the dog eating the Sun” as the local name for a solar eclipse.

 

Many Thai people also are familiar with the tale that ‘Rahu’, the giant, comes to eat the Sun (derived from Indian Hindu legend). So, during a solar eclipse many Thai people make loud noises by banging together noisy objects, lighting firecrackers and shooting guns into the sky to scare the giant ‘Rahu’ and make him release the Sun (but note that shooting a gun into the sky is illegal in Thailand because falling bullet can kill people).

 

3.2 Solar Eclipse-related Tradition in the Thai Royal Court

The oldest solar eclipse-related tradition from the Thai Royal Court dates from the Ayutthaya period.

 

Historical records of testimonies from Siamese prisoners of war in Burma (resulting from the Burmese-Siamese war of 1765-1767) mention the existence of a specific building for solar eclipse-related tradition in the Royal Palace in Ayutthaya:

 

…. In the middle of the eastern side of the pond (around the Banyong Rattanas throne hall), there was a platform, used for observing stars in the sky and the King’s royal ceremonial bath of purification when an eclipse finished ….

 

Unfortunately, this platform no longer exists, but its location can be identified (see Figure 29 and 30 below).

 

Figure 29: A model of the Royal Palace of Ayutthaya at the Ayutthaya Historical Study Center shows the Banyong Rattanas throne hall and Its satellite buildings, including the ‘Song Dao Platform’, which lay within the red ellipse shown here (Photograph: Pisit Nitiyanant). 

 

The testimonies from Siamese prisoners of war also mention an “eclipse finishing”, meaning the 4th contact as marking the “ending of the old bright Sun” and the “beginning of new bright Sun” (see Figure 31).

 

Figure 30: The ruins of the Banyong Rattanas throne hall on the island surrounded by an artificial pond. This photograph shows the eastern side of this pond where the ‘Song Dao platform’ originally was situated (Photograph: Pisit Nitiyanant). 

 

Figure 31: A diagram showing the four contacts of total solar eclipse. Between 1st-2nd & 3rd-4th contact: Observer can see partial solar eclipse. Between 2nd-3rd contact: Observer can see total solar eclipse [Image source: http://www.eclipse2006.boun.edu.tr/].

 

The solar eclipse-related Royal Ceremonial Bath still existed during the Rattanakosin Kingdom period (this was the Siamese kingdom that marked the establishment of Bangkok as the Thai capital, in 1782), according to historical records that mention this tradition during the reigns of Kings Mongkut,  Chulalongkorn and Prajadhipok. 

 

Furthermore, a mural painting in a Buddhist temple in central Thailand also depicts the 1868 solar eclipse observations of King Mongkut (Figure 32), and includes the solar eclipse-related Royal Ceremonial Bath (Figure 33).

 

Figure 32: A mural painting in the ordination hall of Wat Senasanaram Temple, Ayutthaya depicts King Mongkut using a small telescope to observe a solar eclipse.

 

Figure 33: A mural painting from the same Ayutthaya Temple, depicting the Royal Ceremonial Bath when the 4th contact of the solar eclipse occurred. A Brahman is pouring water from a conch shell onto King Mongkut.

 

Although the 1868 total solar eclipse could not be seen from Bangkok and King Mongkut went to another Province to observe it, but the artist painted the Grand Palace in Bangkok in the background so that it would be compatible with murals about monthly Royal ceremonies in Bangkok painted on the other side of same building. For further details, see Thongkum (2013).

 

 

4. REFERENCES

 

Orchiston, W., and Soonthornthum, B., 2015. French observations of the total solar eclipse of 1868 from Thailand. In Nakamura, T., and Orchiston, W. (eds.). The Emergence of Astrophysics in the Asian Region. New York, Springer.

 

Orchiston, W., Soonthornthum, B., and Komonjinda, S., 2015. Seventeenth century Jesuit astronomical activities in Siam. In Shi, Y-.L. (ed.). Astronomical Heritages in Asia-Pacific Areas. Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Oriental Astronomy. Hefei, University of Science and Technology China. 

 

Euarchukiati, V. Siamese Astronomical Archives: from the reigns of King Rama V to Rama VIII. (In Thai). Chiang Mai: National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand (NARIT); 2015.   

 

Pengkaew, N. (2012). Variation of star languages. Art & Culture, 33(9), 154-169 (In Thai).

 

Wongthes, S. (2011). The frog eats the Moon. (In Thai). Suvarnabhumi website: http://www.sujitwongthes.com/suvarnabhumi/2011/04/กบกินเดือน/  Retrieved 8 January 2015.

 

Thongkum, T., 2013. Mural Painting about Monthly Royal Ceremonies in Wat Senasanaram Temple, Ayutthaya. Individual Study in Art History, Department of Art History, Faculty of Archaeology, Silpakorn University. (In Thai). 

http://www.thapra.lib.su.ac.th/objects/thesis/fulltext/bachelor/a22556007/fulltext.pdf 

 

 

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Written by

 

Pisit Nitiyanant

 

Astronomical Public Outreach Officer

Centre of Academic Affairs and Astronomy Information Services & History and Heritage Working Group

National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand

 

The original version of this document was used for discussions at a meeting on Thai-Japanese Astronomy, Stargazing and Cultural Exchange held on 13 January 2015 at the Faculty of Humanities, Chiang Mai University, Thailand.

 

Related Article

 

“A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF SOLAR ECLIPSES”

http://www.narit.or.th/en/index.php/public-outreach/articles-for-public/354-brief-overview-solar-eclipses