Heaven built on Earth

Art October 19, 2017 01:00


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An exhibition in Bangkok shares the amazing story behind the Royal Crematorium

FOR ORDINARY citizens who won’t be able to get too close to the royal crematorium at Sanam Luang in Bangkok – and for anyone else wishing to understand the structure’s individual components better – the Thailand Creative and Design Centre has a wonderfully explanatory exhibition on the subject.

“Insight Thai Architecture”, continuing through January 7 at the centre in the Grand Postal Building on Charoenkrung Road, features full-scale models of the elaborate elements that have been affixed to the crematorium of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Each piece is accompanied by a textual explanation of its placement and meaning.

The royal crematorium that has risen at Sanam Luang over the past year is called Phra Merumas and incorporates the utmost achievements in Thai architecture – along with some decidedly modern advances in methodology. 

Associate Professor Dr Chaiyasit Dankittikul, dean of architecture at Silpakorn University, notes that royal crematoria are “conceptual and temporary structures that are taken apart after the ceremony and never used again”.

“But each one is unique in its design, since it’s built for an individual funeral,” he says, and each time, traditional Thai architecture poses specific challenges in terms of achieving accuracy in shapes and scale. 

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a reduced-scale model of the entire crematorium, embodying a veritable renaissance for Thai architectural creativity. The artists are, after all, seeing to recreate Heaven on Earth.

Surrounding the structure are statues of celestial beings – the garuda, the naga and other mythical creatures found in classical Hindu and Buddhist literature and in the Trai Bhumi beliefs that encompass final honours bestowed on a king. 

It’s interesting to see the careful thought and painstaking creativity that’s gone into this and how the technology used in building the Phra Merumas has evolved over different reigns and eras. 

Exhibition visitors also learn that full-scale architectural blueprints are crucial in getting the proportions right. Erecting a royal cremation is an exacting science and architects’ drawings amount to no less than masterpieces. 

Professor Dr Praves Limparangsri, a National Artist and an architect who specialises in Buddhist art, recalls Silp Bhirasri – the revered “father of Thai modern art” – telling him that “1:1 scale artwork is pure architecture”. Silp said it shouldn’t even be attempted if the architecture is in any way “impure”, since it would only lead to mistakes. 

“If the planning is faulty, we end up with an unbalanced building that has to be demolished.”

The planners might rely on techniques such as perspective distortion, in which depth of field is artificially adjusted as a guide towards the final aesthetics. But they know that that the dimensions of a given structure, even a large hall with a stupa, have to be precisely mapped out first in an actual-size drawing. 

The government’s Fine Arts Department prepared an atelier expressly for this purpose, which Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn named the Witanasatapa- kasala, referring to an architectural workshop. 

Here the top of the Phra Merumas, 28 metres in height, was first drawn actual size, as well as blueprints for the adjoining pavilions. 

Here, too, modern technology came into use for the first time in the construction of a royal crematorium. Whereas in the past the models had to be individually carved in wood, a time-consuming process, Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining was used to create 3D samples. 

The architect first draws an annotated pattern for each level, to actual scale. This is pasted on a waxed sheet and guides the gradual layering of many sheets of wood. A properly dimensioned perspective emerges, no different from the models produced in the past by skilled craftsmen.

The millions of mourners who queued to pay their respects to King Bhumibol at the Grand Palace got to admire the meticulous carving in the sandalwood sheaths that contain the Royal Urn and Royal Coffin. 

These entailed more than 30,000 stencil-cut pieces of sandalwood enmeshed to sheath the urn and coffin around a template of plated iron. Visitors could make out the traditional motifs in the garland-like carvings – lotuses, krajang, garuda, lions. 

At the Design Centre, some of the mythical creatures are shown rendered in stencils of creased gold paper. This technique too is a component of “temporary architecture” and has this time been used in decorating the Royal Dharma Pavilion (Phra Thinang Song Dhamma), where members of the royal family and invited guests will assemble to listen to a sermon prior to the cremation.

Working from a stencil with a uniformly consistent pattern, artisans layer textured gilt paper (not the more durable gold leaf) and affix it to a wooden plank. A chisel is used to cut out the pattern, and finally coloured paper – sod waew – is fitted to the back. 

The painters, of course, have an important role in the decorating. Their pigments adorn the surfaces of sculptures, canvases and the architectural components themselves. Visitors to the exhibition can learn the fine art of colour tapping, which involves punching a pattern in plastic sheets and using a sponge ball to tap colours through the stencil onto a separate material. 

Smooth movements and steady hands can produce decorations of remarkable beauty and consistency. Traditionally, though, paper is used instead of plastic, gold leaf rather than paint pigments. 

Fine Arts Department architect Patiwat Tuion notes that the chance to witness the revival of classical art forms is at least a minor consolation amid the heartbreaking loss of the beloved King. 

“I was really delighted to see architecture students from Silpakorn and Chulalongkorn universities volunteering to help in any way they could,” says Patiwat, who designed the pavilion in front of Suddhaisavarya Prasad Hall for members of the royal family to pay homage before the late King’s remains. 

“The students were very helpful in enlarging our architectural sketches for the crematorium to actual size. 

“In learning about traditional Thai architecture, 90 per cent of the knowledge and skills come through hands-on experience. Kokiart Thongpud, who designed the crematorium itself, is a graduate in fine arts, not Thai architecture, but he learned his craft working closely with the late great Arwut Ngernchuklin, who designed the crematoria for Their Royal Highness the Princess Mother and Princess Galyani Vadhana and Princess Bejaratana Rajasuda.”

Patiwat says such work has always relied on the “old masters”, such as Arwut, Praves and Phra Phrombhi- chitr. 

“I want to see more talents blossom in traditional architecture. Every educational institute should have a department of Thai traditional art. It’s crucial that we teach the younger generations to preserve this exquisite art.”