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Legacy of a Princess:
Lanna Dance Still Enjoyed Today

The former Kingdom of Lanna (present day Northern Thailand) boasts an age old, unique cultural heritage quite different in many ways from central Thailand. The region owes much of this preservation to a special member of its last royal dynasty a princess who formed the link between the north and Bangkok, and returned home to revitalize the traditions that made north Thailand special. Among her contributions to the region was a revitalization of the art of Lanna dance.

Life of a Princess

Jao (Princess/Prince) Dara Rassamee was born on 26 August 1873 at the Chiangmai Royal Residence. She was one of ten children fathered by Pra Jao Inta Wichayanon, the 7th King of Chiangmai's Tipchang Dynasty, the last dynasty to rule the Kingdom of Lanna. Two of her brothers later became rulers of the northern city. Like her brothers and sisters, she was educated by her mother and father in the Northern Thai (Lanna) language.

She became a royal consort to Siam's King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) when she was just 13 years old, and was assigned the position of overseer of internal palace affairs. The union marked one of the most significant of King Rama V's strategic unions. As the daughter of a Chiangmai king, Princess Dara Rassamee formed an important bond between the two oldest Thai kingdoms in Southeast Asia. In 1893, nine years after her official installment in Bangkok, Chiangmai was formally annexed into the Kingdom of Siam.

Reviving Northern Culture

Several years after Rama V died, Princess Dara Rassa-mee traveled back to Chiangmai and took up residence at Tha Chedi-Geaw Palace (which now serves as the present day office of the American Consul General). Her other residences were the Rinkeaw Mansion (located near Kad Suan Kaew mall), a teak mansion on Doi Suthep (which has since been removed) and the Dara Pirom Palace, where she passed away in 1933. The Dara Pirom Palace is now restored by Chulalongkorn University as a museum devoted to her life and features her personal items.

She spent her days in Chiangmai performing charitable works on behalf of the poor and infirm, and erected a monument of honor for the remains of past rulers and members of Chiangmai's two royal dynasties at Wat Suan Dork. In special tribute to her father, she had his ashes enshrined at the peak of Doi Angga and the mountain is now known as Doi Inthanon in his memory.

Most importantly, Princess Dara Rassamee played a key role in reviving traditional performing arts in the north. She personally taught various folk and classical dance, music and handicraft skills in a school setting to many children in the region. A former pupil of hers, Chao Kruekaew, recently taught Thai classical dance at Chiangmai Dance College.

"She felt sympathy for us, small children. She taught us to dance and play music. She was a kind person, hardly reproached anyone. The skill in classical dancing which I have been using was bestowed by her", Chao Kruekaew once said of the princess in an interview.

Fawn Thai

In addition to various Lanna folk dances, Princess Dara Rassamee taught Fawn Thai; a suite of classical dances originally performed for the royal courts of old Siam. The five dances Fawn Tian, or the "Candle Dance", Fawn Leb, the "Fingernail Dance", Fawn Ngiew, the "Scarf Dance", Fawn Marn Gumm Ber, the "Butterfly Dance" and Fawn Marn Mong Kol, the "Happy Dance" are still performed today. While each region of Thailand has its own flavor of Fawn Thai, they are all accompanied by a band of traditional Thai musical instruments.

The choreography is simple and steady, typically with six to ten dancers in an inverted wing formation on stage. Movements are gentle and slow with short steps and stately swaying, producing quite a hypnotic effect on the audience.

Performances are appreciated mostly for the aesthetic qualities. Dressed in full-length sarongs and jackets with matching shoulder cloths, the female dancers wear floral headpieces and hold an accouterment in one hand. For example, in the Fawn Tian, dancers hold lighted candles, while in the Fawn Leb, they wear six-inch brass fingernails. The other dances feature the use of decorative scarves.

These classic folk dances can be seen today at various artistic and cultural centers in Chiangmai, namely, The Khum Khantoke, the Galare Food Center, the Lotus PSK Hotel and Khantoke dinner theater shows listed in this issue.

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