GEROLAMO GERINI, Siamese Traditions and Ptolemy's Geography


Renato Novelli [1]

Gerini and Siam

Gerolamo Gerini was born in 1860, a crucial year in the history of contemporary Italy. In that year, in fact, Garibaldi with his expedition to Sicily, provoked the collapse of the long lasting Kingdom of Naples and produced the conditions for the political reunification of the whole peninsula under the monarchy of Savoia House who reigned in Piedmont, Liguria, Sardinia, giving a leading role to their previous state of Piedmont in the new unified national unity.

He graduated as a Lieutenent in 1881, 21 years old and a short time later had already left Italy for the Kingdom of Siam, where he was employed as instructor in the military Academy. He remained in the Kingdom until 1906. During these 25 years he was responsible of the creation of a Siamese military Academy, was entrusted with the instruction of the Royal Guard and held prestigious positions in the service of the King of Siam. In such capacity and activity, he produced some relevant works in the Thai language, as well as writing a manual of military cycling. He was a father founder of the Siam Society and left remarkable studies in a large spectrum of sciences. He was an anthropologist, linguist, historian, archeologist, geographer.

In the present paper, I will not give an account of Gerini's activities in Siam or of his life during the Siamese years. I propose a reflection on 3 works of his, which I consider representative of Gerini's interests and Gerini's identity as a western scientist living in Siam.

Along with parts of these 3 works, I will emphasize the importance of his intuition on the basic role of maritime exchange in South East Asia, his interpretation of the regional societies as water - civilizations and his firm dedication to the research of contacts or connections between East and West since the ancient times.

At the same time, I will propose a reflection on Gerini himself as a representative example of the adaptive - spirit of Italian migration during the last century, a non - colonialist scientist, able to share his own experience with different peoples and a flaneur for whom the attention to all details of what he observed as an enchanted wanderer, is the key for an acute and penetrating insight into the reality.


The works I will discuss are:

1) " Chulakantamangala. The tonsure ceremony as performed in Siam".

An essay on the legends, myths, ceremonies connected with the

habit of shaving heads of children. The essay contains a direct

observation account of the tonsure of the Prince H.R.H. Chao Fa

Maha Vajiravudh

2)   " Ptolemy 's Geography " A tremendous research on the

       identification of the Asian places mentioned in the account of the

       travel of Alexander the sailor, made by Ptolemy. I will present the  

       part regarding the Thai places identified by Gerini.

3)      "Historical retrospect of Junkeceylon Island" A history of Phuket, its visitors and western or Thai descriptions of the present day tourist center.

1)      " Chulakantamangala : Brahmanical legends, Dyonisos cult and the Catholic Church

2)       Gerini in this essay describes the steps of the tonsure ceremony used in Siam with children and refers through direct observation the rite which took place in Bangkok for the Chulakantamangala of Prince Vajiravudh from December 25 1892 until January 1 1893. This work has been regarded by contemporary scholars as made with such exactitude that it remains "unsorpassed even by Thai national researchers ". [2]


The essay is divided in 3 major parts.

First comes a short introduction, where Gerini tried to identify the anthropological - historical origins and cultural meaning of tonsure or connected rites like hair topknot ( a single tuft of hair, braided or wound up into a knot and permitted to grow on the head ). He notes that shaving head practices were diffused in India and gives an account of the Brahmanical legends on the top knot cutting rite and Buddhist version of the same ceremony. Also in the Mediterranean traditions the tonsure had an important place. It was connected with the solar deity Horus in Egypt and later with Dionysos or Bacchus cults, in which ancient representations of the God made him a " personification of the solar orb, where the God is exhibited at different ages, intended to correspond with the ages of the sun : a clean shaven babe at the vernal solstice (Nysian Dionysos ), an adolescent youth with flowing hair at spring equinox (Theban Dionysos), a bearded stately man at the summer solstice (Indian Dionysos) and aged, dying and completely shorn at the autumnal equinox." "Tradition ascribes the origin of tonsure to the shaving of the head and the body of Bacchus, said to have been performed at his death." [3]

Some uses of shaving head, are quoted by Gerini, also, in Peru'. In Siam, the legend of the origin of tonsure practice and ceremony, is derived from the mixture of several Indian myths connected with God Ganesa, God Siva and other minor legends. No doubt, for Gerini, that the outcome of such sincretism is a different and innovative ceremony. Chulakantamangala, also adopted as title of his work, expresses, being the Pali form of the term for the tonsure and classic name used in Siam for the ceremony rewarding Thai children between 9 and 15 years old. The tonsure is " regarded in Thai tradition, as a symbol of regeneration and an initiation into a new order of life." Along with topknot cutting, it " has been designed to mark the transition from childhood to adolescence and to consecrate the incipient puberty. [4] " For Gerini the connection between Asian tradition and Greek mythology is quite clear due a serial of similarities he finds in the legends.


The anthropological position of tonsure is in the area of passage rites, being with Dionysos or Siva a symbol of death and resurrection, of end and introduction to a new way of life. I would like to emphasize three relevant points of Gerini He emphasizes that such custom had originated in Asia and spread all over the world.

            I did not find any quotations in Gerini's works, to assess that he knew about the diffusionist school of anthropology, but such a thesis on the shaving head and topknot seems to belong to an influence of the theories of European diffusionism.

The second part of Chulakantamangala is formed from a detailed picture of the Siamese ceremony of tonsure, starting with the preparations or selection of date and place of rite, the reception of guests, the recitations, invocations, aspersion, unction, the unguents and more details, interpreted  also through an historical perspective.

The conclusions are remarkable: the tonsure rite resembles in many aspect the sacraments of Catholic and Greek Churchs. Gerini notes the child candidate is the object of an aspersion after the tonsure, as happens to Christian in the rite of baptism. Then comes the unction corresponding to the chrismation and the administering of mistic food (figuratively), with coconut water," which strikes a non - adept even as luminously identical with the sacrament of Eucharist. [5] Other similarities suggested to Gerini that an origin of catholic - Greek sacraments is to be found in the Hindu tradition.

In the last part, the author does an account, as direct witness of the Sokan, the tonsure ceremony reserved for members of the royal family. The rites are similar to the ones described for common people with more magnificence and some differences. The account is very accurate, as in the previous part, every operation is referred to in detail. Gerini explains, also, the historical, anthropological connections of single rites. The Buddhist cosmology rewarding Mount Kailasa is reported before the long description of the ceremony. An appendix refers of other Sokan from the rites undertaken for Prince In, (1633) to the Sokan of Prince Chulalongkorn (1866).

The conclusion of such work is rather interesting to understand the culture of Gerini. "We thus terminate our task of reintegrating the full historical importance and signification of a ceremony which has hitherto received but scant notice by amateur ethnologists and globetrotters and of redeeming those classical features which have an intense interest for genuine students of oriental beliefs, rites and customs, from the harsh treatment accorded them in but superficial and badly elaborated effusions." [6]


2) Stories from Rome and the history of peoples without history


For this paragraph, I use the title of a very well known book by Wolff, in which the author shows how wrong historians have been who considered the history of international relations on a macro scale level, as a simple progressive expansion of Europe. In such mistake fell they who consider positive the role of European colonialism and as well they who consider this role only destructive. The history of the long lasting wave of globalization processes, have a more complicated system of connections where colonized peoples and looser countries had an active part, denied yesterday from the violent power of weapons and now days from the writers of history.


Why I use this title for Gerini is simple to explain: I put Gerini among the party of them who avoided such common mistakes and gave their contribution to a better understanding of ignored parts of world history in line with the interpretation given by Wolff.


In 1909, Gerini published the most relevant work of his activity as historian. The title was: "Researches on Ptolemy's Geographia". The content is simple and monumental at same time: identify the Asian places mentioned by Ptolemy in his work on the world.


To understand the meaning of Gerini’s attempt, it is better to explain briefly about what we are discussing. The Geographia by Ptolemy, is, according to the style of geographers of the time, a summa of geographical knowledge, given to studies, calculations, astronomic observations, travels and military expeditions.


In book VII, Ptolemy refers to a travel, already described some years before by Marinus of Tyre, whose works are lost. A certain Alexander, a professional sailor, sailed from the Mediterranean to the town of Cattigara on the border with the reign of Serii (the Chinese empire in the roman tradition), who inhabited the extreme regions of Asia, unknown to the Romans except for their existence. In his travel, Alexander records routes, places, towns. Ptolemy uses the story of the sailor to give a geography of Asia and a map of the Old World, which, in broad lines and with some not precise contribution in the south of Chinese sea and the Terra incognita in the South hemisphere was more or less the same we have now days.


The travel of Alexander proceeded from the Indian coast to a peninsula named Golden Chersonese. From the western part of this peninsula to the towns east, to a sea named Sinus Magnus, to the town of Cattigara in the south of the country of Serii. Ptolemy describes in details places and geographical positions. For centuries, on a broad scale the route of Alexander had been illustrated and the lands he touched identified, the Golden Chersonese, for example, was supposed to be the Malay peninsula. Gerini walked a step forward. He tried to identify towns, entre - ports, rivers, places mentioned by Ptolemy, on a detailed scale. To sustain his own thesis, Gerini refers to a vast, but precise  area of sources: accounts of Chinese travelers, tales by famous Arab geographers, court chronicles of Asian kingdoms, local legends, Pali and Sanscrit texts and languages, Indian legends and classical works such as Ramayana In 1945, Leo Bagrow produced, in his book The origin of Ptolemy 's Geographia " the thesis that only the first book with the world map, was written by Ptolemy himself and all the other books were the work of an unknown Byzantine scholar of the tenth century. It does not change very much of the thesis which Gerini tried to sustain with the immense philological work of identification [7] of places


In any case, Gerini was aware of miscalculations made by the author of the Geographia and identified places on the basis of these mistakes. [8]


He wanted to show that the picture of South and South East Asia as a region of commerce and maritime powers, made by Ptolemy was right and relations between West and East had occurred for a long time, from the very ancient beginnings of navigation.

In the present paper I consider the part of Gerini's work regarding Thailand and Malay peninsula, the existence of which the Romans knew. Although they knew about it, but there had not been frequent commercial relations between the two worlds.


In Ptolemy, the Golden Chersonese is a peninsula, for the previous geographers as Pomponius Mela this part of the world was occupied by an island named Khryse Insula, the golden island. Also the Ramayana, long before, used the name of Suvama - Dvipa, which conveys the same meaning. Gerini had no doubt that Golden Cherosnese and Khryse were the same place. He sustained a thesis, afterwards followed by many historians, that there had been an isthmus in the peninsula for a long time, which in the time of Marinus of Tyre and Ptolemy had been canceled by sea currents. [9]


The identifications made by Gerini follow a historical logic of stamping the coasts of south Thailand and Malay peninsula as part of an active maritime region, where commerce and exchange played a leading role in diffusing cultures and habits. The sea communication system, worked in both dimensions of a local system of connections between several reigns or communities, and a long distance trade in which relations worked between a net of local exchanges and merchants coming from India, China and occasionally from further west.

According to the account of Alexander the sailor, the Golden Chersonese begins with the emporium Takkola behind a cape named Berabai and ends at Balongka, where the Perimula Gulf commences. [10] Gerini identifies Berabai with Mergui and Takkola with Takua Pa, which was later identified by other historians with Trang on the mouth of Trang river. [11]


These places are the arrival points of a route followed by Indian ships sailing to the East following the monsoon, and the coasts of the Andaman Sea and Sumatra, the islets, and the islands of the Malacca Straigl have been the mother - region for local exchanges.


Other places identified and quoted by Gerini are Nakon Sri Thamarrat, Phattalung, Trenganu and Mo following the route of a ship after landing on the west coast of Thailand, where Indian ships waited for their counterparts from the spices islands, sailed, maybe through channels to the East to Vietnam and Hannan. This had been the travels of Alexander, who had not been the first Mediterranean navigator to have reached the lands of the rising sun.

In other works I will comment on the historical value of Gerini's identifications. Here it is enough to emphasize that behind the book on Ptolemy's Geography, emerges the importance of sea – societies of the south east Asian world. Later, the studies of Wheatley and Coedes opened the way to more research and the role of sea trade, but the intuition of the isolated Gerini should not be forgotten the traditional history considered the populations of insular and peninsular Asia like peoples without history who entered it only when they conflicted with colonialism. Recently such opinion has been modified, as I emphasized at the beginning of this paragraph. Gerini did not agree with that opinion.


3) An Island with a Sacred Footprint


Gerini wrote a book on the history of Phuket, when this island was not well known. It was considered s beautiful sea place, but the interest of outsiders focused on tin mines, fruit, fish and other natural resources of the island which were relevant for the economy of the country and of the region. In this book Gerini bases his work on the ancient chronicles, on local traditions, on Thai travelers and western visitors.


He lists the ships which landed on the beaches of Phuket from the very beginning of the European expansion in the XVI century.

Among the western travelers, for Gerini, the most learned was Dr. Koenig, a prominent Danish botanist, pupil of Linnaeus who held several appointments as medical attendant and naturalist in India. He visited Phuket in 1778 and 1779, studied flora and fauna of the island and extended his survey to several of the smaller isles around.

His work had been forgotten, but was the First scientific account on the natural history of the area. Another account which Gerini finds interesting is the story of the pilgrimage to Phuket by Nai Mi, a Buddhist monk who visited the island in 1851. The two describe the same island in different ways, according to their cultures and their different sights. The selection of the accounts made by Gerini show a skilled ability in presenting the two points of view. I will not go through the contents of the two accounts here. Just a point Nai Mi can see things which Koenig did not see. Koenig is an honest scientist who refuses to use the tools of his own culture to survey the island and limit his work to the instruments furnished by western science. No easy comments, very common in the texts of other visitors, can be found in his pages. He succeeds in avoiding ethnographic sentences or politic reflections. But his approach does not allow him to share the deep feelings of Nai Mi. A very important part of Nai Mi account is dedicated to the Sacred Footprint of Buddha, found on a beach of the island. Koenig does not know anything about it. The excursion of Nai Mi occurs after a night in the wilderness, a two days ' journey, during which he observes flowers, animals and changing landscape. It is a sentimental pilgrimage. Koenig could not afford such knowledge of a place which he understands in a much deeper way than other visitors.


Gerini seems to suggest that only leaving in a country, can make people able to reach an internal point of view. If he was thinking to himself, is something we will never be sure about.


Gerini and Italian Migration


From the works I presented here, it should be clear that Gerini adapted very well to high living in Siam. He studied the culture of the country and became an erudite of great value. He understood the way of life in Siam with the intuition of the permanent observer. It is difficult to find somewhere in his works a western prejudice. He was able to cope with his western identity, which he never forgot, with a very open approach to a culture very different from his own.


I would emphasize that in the landscape of the XIX century he was not a strange case like Dr. Jekill and not a completely isolated guy. He is an example of the hidden attitudes of "extreme travelers", which were quite common among the Italian migrants of the pre - industrial exodus from the Mediterranean peninsula. By extreme traveler, I mean a person able to wander from home for long times reaching far destinations where they adapted well and had a high level of comprehension of local culture.

During the XIX century before the mass migration of the 80s, many skilled workers, musicians, intellectuals, and peasants migrated from Italy to unbelievable lands. They continued partly the tradition of explorers like Niccolo De Conti, Ludovico De Varthema, Marini, just to name three people who left relevant accounts on South East Asia and partly the habit of skilled workers to wander in far countries utilizing their professional experience to earn money and know the world better.

Prof. Hamey in several studies on migration in Canada, identifies an attitude of Italian migrants to find themselves comfortable in the borders of western world. He speaks of cultural imperialism without weapons. More modestly, I would like to identify a flexibility of adaptation based on individual skills of coping with different social environments, using their own knowledge accumulated at home to meet the local needs in reciprocally satisfactory ways.


In 1870, Leone Carpi, MP of Italian Parliament, promoted a census of Italian people living abroad. This census shows a surprising number of activities in many parts of the world. In Yokohama more than 50 Italians lived and worked in the silk industry. In Surabaya, 5 people (a tailor, a music teacher, an actor, a sailor). In Borneo many Italians worked along with Chinese in the oil industry. In Calcutta the only foreigners allowed to practice music performances were Italians. [12]

The Italian elite were not able to understand the potential of their own citizens, they dreamed of colonies where people were sent and were ashamed of common travelers or intellectuals who reached remote places. In 1845, the English gentleman Wolff was sent on a mission to Bhukkara to rescue some English citizens who had been captured by local islamic warriors. The account tells of atrocities, cruelties, and strange used deeds. In a note is written that among the savage population of Bhukkara, lived a certain Giovanni Orlando from Parma who repaired clocks and managed his own business, respected by the local population for his skill and his personality.

Of course, I use the Italians only as an example of what I called before extreme travelers. Gerini as an erudite enjoyed his stay in Siam sharing the Siamese culture.

This paper does not take part on the content of Gerini's works, but only focuses on the attitude of Gerini in behaving with a culture he admired.

I would like to emphasize that Gerini had been for sure an example of an extreme traveler and that he found in Siam a culture where the attitude of Italian migration he represented could fully develop.


Gerini and Le flanerie


Walter Benjamin, in his work on the passages in Paris (Passagen), uses the word flaneur to identify a cultural attitude with an acute observation of reality. The flaneur of Benjamin is a promeneur solitaire, who looks to the places of transition more than to the location of stability. For the flaneur, the landscape is a way of historical understanding.

Gerini has been a flaneur and the flanerie has been one of his means to develop his relation with Siamese culture. In the period he was in Thailand, a lot of reports were edited by western officers temporarily living in the country. Most of the books I looked at present a high degree of colonial culture and western pre assumptions on the East. Although in a most colorful and open minded way. In a way, this culture was the stability of the authors, which denied to them the chance of knowing guaranteed from the intellectual Nomadism of an honest external observer.

Even not discussing the scientific value of Gerini's works, we have to recognize that he is still influenced to some degree by Colonial culture. He never denies his western background and uses it to understand better the Siamese reality without transforming it in a permanent filter.

He is not the kind of amateur, whom he believed, was representative of a superficial approach to oriental cultures and he tried to practice the modesty of the erudite.

He was a good example of an open mind with attention to local reality. In a world of cultural conflicts and so called globalisation, his works could be useful to many of us.




Clifford Hugh " Further India " White Lotus, Bangkok, 1990

Hamey Robert " L' immigrazione Italiana e ie frontiere della civilta' occidentale " Venezia, 1979. Lach Donald F. " South east Asia in the eyes of Europe. " ( The sixteenth century ), The

University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1965.

Miller J. Innes " The Spice trade and the Roman Empire. 29 B.C. to A. D. 641" Oxford

University Press, Oxford, 1969

Morn Chao Chand Chirayu Rajani " Towards a history of Laem Thong and Sri Vijaya " Institute

of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Asian Studies monographies n. 034,

Bangkok, 1987 Pliny the old " HistoriaNaturalis " Engl. Trans. H. Rackarn, W. H.S. Jones.D. Eichholz, London 1938 62. Italian ed. Einaudi, Torinoi,1978.

Wolff C. " Europe and the peoples without history " Italian edition " L' Europa e I popoli senza

storia " Feltrinelli Milano. 1990.



















[1] Prof Renato Novelli, University of Ancona, Italy. A paper presented at the First Italian-Thai Conference, Bangkok, 1997

[2] In the introduction of the edition of 1976, in a short note signed by the Publication Committee of Siam Society, it is been marked that " Phya Anumanrajadhon, under his well - known Thai pen - name , Sathirakoses, wrote four volumes on Thai customs and left out only one ceremony - the tonsure ceremony- since he felt that he could not match the old savant " (Gerini's description ndr.) Gerini G.E. " Chulakantamangala. The Tonsure ceremony as performed in Siam " The Siam Society, Bangkok 1976.

[3] Z Gerini G. E. op. cit. pp.5 - 6 Bangkok,1976


[4] ' Gerini G. E. op. cit. p. 22, Bangkok 1976


[5] Gerini G. E. op. cit. Pag. 58 Bangkok, 1976.

[6] Gerini G. E. op. cit. Pag. 99 Bangkok, 1976.

[7] Bagrow L. " The origin of Ptolemy 's Geographia "

[8] Ptolemy and his byzantine follower mistook the real distances from one place to the

  other one, the coast lines and ignored most of the isles of South East Asia.

[9] Gerini G. E. " Researches on Ptolemy 's Geographia of Easterne Asia " London, 1909 In the following years this thesis has been followed by many authors, some of whom believe that there was a sea passage though the peninsula. M. C. Chand Chirayu Rajani underlines that "The evidence is scientific, geographical, geological. So it is not a question of accepting Ptolemy or the unidentified Byzantine scholar or even Colonel Gerini. It is a straight question of accepting passes which had been there millions of years before Ptolemy." M. C. Chand Chirayu Rajani "Towards a history of Laem Thong and Sri Vijaia" Chualalongkorn University, Bangkok, 1987. This author accepts the intuition of Gerini that the soil of the Ligor area could have been a sea bottom , which had emerged at a comparatively recent period.

[10] " Ptolomeus Claudius " Geographia " ed. Nobbe C. F. Leipzig, 1843-45. II ed. 1898-99.

[11] Gerini quotes not only Sanskrit names to justify his choice, but also, the arab traveler Abu Zeid (851 916). It has to be here remembered that Gerini found and translated in Takua Pa a tamil inscription of the TX-X centurv A D.


[12] Harney Robert " L' immigrazione Italiana e ie frontiere della civilta' occidentale "

   Venezia, 1979.