At the age of 94, royal scholar Prof Prasert Na Nagara, renowned for his ability to read ancient inscriptions, still enjoys good health and goes to work at the Royal Institute every weekday. He continues to travel upcountry and abroad and strolls a couple of kilometres a day for exercise.
Prof Prasert Na Nagara in Guilin, China.
An engineer and statistics expert by training, Prof Prasert has a Master's and PhD from the prestigious Cornell University. Yet, his expertise in Thai language, history and archaeology was self-taught.
"Of all my jobs, I love to teach the most. My field of expertise is reading inscriptions, especially those of the Sukhothai period," he said.
His love for the Thai language was inspired by one of his Cornell friends, Marvin Brown, who did his PhD thesis on the Thai language and taught Westerners to speak Thai by using music to correct their intonation.
"Hearing foreigners speak Thai according to musical chords on the other side of a room, I mistook them for Thais speaking our language," he recalled.
Mr Brown's keen interest in the northern Thai (Lanna), northeastern Thai (Isan) and Shan (a Tai ethnic group in Myanmar) dialects, as well as his questions about certain sounds in the Lanna dialect also stimulated Prasert, then a post-graduate student, to learn more about linguistics.
Prof Prasert was born in the northern province of Phrae in 1918, after his grandfather and father had moved from their southern hometown of Nakhon Si Thammarat. As a boy, he studied at Narirat and Piriyalai schools in Phrae, Yupparat Witthayalai School in Chiang Mai and Suan Kularb College in Bangkok. He later obtained a bachelor's degree in agro engineering from the University of the Philippines in 1939.
After returning to Thailand, he taught agro engineering at Chiang Mai's Maejo Agricultural College (now Maejo University) for four years and then at Bangkok's Kasetsart University for about five years until 1949 when he won a government scholarship to study statistics at Cornell. He later became the country's first mathematical statistics graduate.
Back in 1943, while teaching at Maejo Agricultural College, he was inspired to learn more about the Lanna dialect after meeting Maha Moo, an expert in Lanna literature, at Wat Hua Khuang. He focused on studying Khlong Nirat Haripunchai, especially the part about King Mengrai's attack on Chiang Mai.
Unfortunately, he failed to read many other religious books and local legends gathered by Maha Moo. Today, he still regrets having no clue that Maha Moo wanted to coach him to be a Lanna history expert.
"I developed an interest in literature because I found people of the old generation misinterpreted Khlong Nirat Haripunchai because they were not the natives of the North and lacked knowledge of the Lanna language," he recalled.
Prof Prasert studied and deciphered Khlong Nirat Haripunchai and later wrote a well received article. Unfortunately, in 1944 he became discouraged and temporarily stopped researching Thai language and the history of the Sukhothai kingdom. This decision came after he had come under fire for arguing that an inscription stated that King Phaya Lithai ascended the throne in 1347, not 1354 as believed by certain leading historians.
After graduating from Cornell, he resumed his self-learning and research on Thai language and history. Among his various outstanding research, his works on Sukhothai inscriptions and the Tai Ahom tribal language are famous. He even received a compliment from the highly respectable French historian, Prof George Coedes, for calling attention to his incorrect interpretation of the 15th line of the Sumanakuta inscription, named after the mountain in Sri Lanka where the Lord Buddha left a footprint. Prof Coedes admitted that Prof Prasert's reading a controversial word as "if" in Thai was more satisfactory than his reading of "father" in Thai.
Although his expertise in statistics, Thai language and history was widely accepted and he was teaching at five state universities and received honorary PhDs in history from Chulalongkorn and Silpakorn universities, the path to the position of royal scholar was a bumpy one. A senior royal scholar refused to recognise him as a member of the Royal Institute, claiming that he had never studied history at any graduate school. After the death of that scholar, Prof Prasert acquired the position and obtained honorary doctorates in history from two other famous public universities.
Since 1960, he has been a royal scholar in the field of language and literature. He was approached by renowned historian MC Supataradit Diskul to teach the decipherment of ancient inscriptions at Silpakorn University, but he kept refusing for fear of stealing the position from two older experts, Maha Cham Thongkhamwan and Maha Prasarn Boonprakhong. Maha Cham was Coedes' leading student and colleague, and took over Coede's inscription decoding duty in Thailand after the French scholar's departure.
In 1969, Prof Prasert finally accepted the job teaching fourth-year students after MC Supataradit explained that those experts were teaching the sophomores and third-year students. His technique to gradually teach his students from basic to advanced levels without just memorising characters proved a success.
Prof Prasert later decoded some parts of the First Stone Inscription which proved that the inscription is genuine and really dates to the Sukhothai period.
Despite several successes, Prof Prasert admitted he made some mistakes. One of them was his suggestion that the Sukhothai kingdom had nine kings, but he eventually conceded that there were 10 kings, as other scholars had previously argued.
Currently, the Royal Institute of Thailand has 80 royal scholars in three fields: science, social and political sciences, and art. Prof Prasert is a member of the social and political sciences group, focusing on archaeology.
Apart from his academic excellence, the professor is also an accomplished musician and composer. Since his years at Cornell until his retirement, he was a percussionist and vocalist for a traditional Thai band founded by Cornell classmate and musician, Uthit Naksawas. Earlier, he had been the leader of Maejo University's band and a member of Kasetsart University's traditional Thai band.
In addition, he can play Western instruments including the drums, organ and piano, as well as compose songs. He is most proud of writing the Thai lyrics for HM the King's songs Near Dawn, H.M. Blues, Still on My Mind, Echo and Kasetsart University's anthem.
"The second song, H.M. Blues [Hungry Men's Blues], or Chata Cheewit [Destiny], was brought to me by Prince Chakrabandhu Pensiri Chakrabandhu. The prince did not tell me its English name and meaning, so I had the freedom to imagine what the song was about. Finally, I finished writing its Thai lyrics in two hours and received a compliment from His Majesty the King," Prof Prasert recalled proudly.
Later, he was assigned to write the lyrics for Kasetsart University's anthem which was also composed by HM the King. The King made a special request for Prof Prasert to add sweetness to the song since it is about growing crops to feed people.
"Nine months passed, but I felt too nervous to do it. Finally, I had to meet the deadline and finish it within half a night," Prof Prasert said, and hummed the song.
Another success is that the song Fak Rak, whose melodies were composed by Prince Chakrabandhu Pensiri and lyrics penned by Prof Prasert, won a Golden Record award. The now-defunct award was similar to the Grammy Award. Also, the professor wrote more than 10 songs for the famous Suntharaporn Band, only one of them, Kwam Rak Khue Took (Love is Sorrow), was played by the band and he was paid 25 baht. Occasionally, he is invited to judge music contests.
So far, Prof Prasert has received several honorary doctorates in history, archaeology, Thai language, statistics and music and taught the first four subjects at five famous public universities.
As a Thai language lecturer, he expressed concern about the current method of teaching the subject.
"I think they should reintroduce reciting, composition writing and spelling rules instead of memorising words first and spelling them later. Poetry and traditional music should be taught more so that rhymes and rhythm become part of children's lives."
During his recent trips to Chongqing and Guilin in China, he walked long distances to the boarding gates at Suvarnabhumi and Chinese airports, up a hill, all over a large public park and several museums and cultural attractions.
His tip for good health and great memory is to exercise the body and brain regularly. Whenever he is free and sees passing cars' license plate numbers, he solves square roots, calculating the factors of a number and dividing the numbers.
"I walk two kilometres a day, I am stress-free and think positively that doing the best today leads to a good future," said the stalwart nonagenarian.
About the author
- Writer: Pichaya Svasti
Position: Life Writer