The architect of the Royal Crematorium talks about his inspirations for the elaborate structure
HIS MAGNIFICENT Phra Merumas, the royal crematorium, is almost complete but artist Kokiart Thongphud is not counting the days until it comes into use.
“While I know that this is the most magnificent and majestic structure I have ever designed, I am neither glad nor proud to see it become a reality. My heart is crying and I don’t want October 26 to come – the day when I will send my beloved King back to heaven,” says the 49-year-old artist with the Fine Arts Department, who started work on designing the crematorium only hours after His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away on October 13 last year.
The royal crematorium of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej is almost complete.
Like all Thais, Kokiart did not let his grief and suffering keep him from his work. The elaborate royal crematorium for King Bhumibol is the tallest of any such structures since the reign of King Rama V.
“My respected master Prince Naris – Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs, considered the great master of Siamese art – once said that the highest and widest structure of Phra Merumas signified the greatest dignity. My first design had the structure standing 80 metres high on a 120-metre-wide base, but it was too large for Sanam Luang as it is today. I eventually had to settle on a practical structure 55.18 metres high and 60 metres wide,” says Kokiart, who was the right-hand man of the celebrated late architect Arwut Ngernchuklin, designer of the royal crematoria for HRH the Princess Mother, HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana and Princess Bejaratana Rajasuda in 1996, 2008 and 2012 respectively.
This sketch of the royal crematorium of the beloved monarch was prepared by Kokiart Thongphud on the night of his passing, a year ago today.
Kokiart prepared five draft designs of the royal crematorium in the busabok style in line with the structures sketched by the old masters since the reign of King Rama V. These showed elaborate pavilions with ornately decorated tiered roofs topped by one, five and nine spires respectively. The five drafts along with other artists’ sketches were presented to Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the president of the Royal Funeral Committee, and the Princess selected his design featuring nine pavilions, each standing independently of the others.
The royal crematorium comprises nine busabok-style pavilions sitting on a three-tiered, square shaped base with a staircase on each of the four sides. On the topmost tier is the seven-tiered, spire-roofed principle pavilion, which will house the royal urn, while each of the four corners on the second tier have five-tiered, roofed pavilions called sang, which will be used by monks to chant scriptures during the ceremony. The remaining four pavilions are located at each of the four corners on the first tier.
Kokiart also marks the centre of the royal crematorium from where two axes intersect – one from the spire of the Phra Si Ratana Chedi pagoda in the adjacent Wat Phra Kaew and the other from the middle of the phra ubosot or ordination hall in the nearby Wat Maha That.
The structure is in three key colours of gold, white and grey. Gold doesn’t just symbolise kingship, but is also used as a substitute for yellow – the colour of Monday, the day on which the King was born. White represents both purity and righteousness and grey – a shade known as “dove-grey” – is the shade King Bhumibol chose for the structure of the Bangkok City Pillar Shrine and the roof of Wat Praram Kao Chalerm Phrakiat, built at his initiative.
“There is very little difference in the design shown in the first draft, which was completed on the night the beloved Monarch passed away, and the structure that is nearly complete,” says Teerachat Virayuttanond, an architect with the Fine Arts Department, who translated Kokiart’s hand-written sketches for the computer-aided design program and also helped with designing the architectural landscape of the supplementary structures in the ceremonial ground.
Unlike the previous royal crematoria that were mainly made from wood, new construction technologies in the computer age have allowed the Phra Merumas structure to be built with pre-fabricated steel. These have been produced away from the funeral ground then transported to Sanam Luang for assembly. The inner steel structures are covered with wood that’s intricately decorated with an elaborate design. It can accommodate more than 7,000 people.
“Without the references of the old masters like Prince Naris, Phra Phrombhichitr, Ajarn Praves Limparangsi and Ajarn Arwut, I probably wouldn’t have been able to complete this task,” says Kokiart who was among the speakers in a recent talk “Phra Merumas of HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej” at Silpakorn University, held as part of the exhibition “Phra Merumas of the Rattanakosin Period”.
As the royal crematorium symbolises Mount Sumeru, the centre of the universe, to where the late King will return, the base is decorated with auspicious animals and mythical creatures to represent the Anodard pond in the heavenly Himmaphan Forest.
“Ajarn Arwut always taught me that in design, we must first think who we are designing for and the end user. I therefore tried to translate the late Monarch’s greatest contributions to the country into a magnificent visual structure while ensuring it was functional for those coming to bid a final farewell to their beloved King.”
The works of the masters referred to by Kokiart can be seen in the exhibition that continues until October 31. Visitors will be able to admire reproductions of the architectural designs of the royal crematoria built for King Rama VI by Prince Naris, for King Rama VIII by Phra Phrombhichitr, for Queen Rambai Barni - Queen consort of Rama VII - by Praves, and for HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana by Arwut.
Thai architectural students of Silpakorn University create a model of the royal crematorium of King Rama VI that follows the design of Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs.
Silpakorn University’s architecture students have added to the grandeur of the exhibition by building models of the royal crematoria of King Rama VI, Queen Rambai Barni and Princess Galyani Vadhana.
Based on the original design by Arwut Ngernchuklin, a model of the royal crematorium of Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana is created by Silpakorn University students.
“The monarch is highly revered as a divine king, a tradition influenced by Hinduism and Buddhist beliefs. Therefore, the royal crematorium hall must be a grand and imposing building designed to ascend to heaven - a symbolic representation of Mount Meru, which is the centre of the universe in Buddhist cosmology.
An old photo shows the grandeur of the royal wood crematorium of King Rama IV in prang (Khmer-style tower) style and was taller than the central prang of Wat Arun.
“During the early Rattankosin era, no crematorium was grander, taller and larger than that of King Rama IV whose crematorium hall reached a height of more than 80 metres, making it taller than the central prang (Khmer-style tower) of Wat Arun,” says Patsaweesiri Preamkulanan of Silpakorn University’s Faculty of Archaeology.
King Rama V, however, considered that the massive size of the royal crematorium required tons of wood and wasted both manpower and money and ordered that his own crematorium be scaled down so that it fitted better with Siam’s opening to the world.
King Rama V scaled down the size of his royal crematorium, which was designed in busabok style and became the model for the crematoria of his successors.
“Instead of the usual prang-style pavilions, King Rama V’s royal crematorium was done in shape of |busabok and served as a model for later Kings.
“Though the late King Bhumibol’s funeral brings great sadness to the entire nation, it’s a rare occasion for all of us to witness a revival of Thai traditional arts and architecture and thus be able to pass that knowledge on to the next generation,” says Patsaweesiri.
Splendours of the past
The exhibition “Phra Merumas of the Rattanakosin Period” continues until October 31 at Silpakorn University’s Wang Tha Pra campus. Call (02) 623 6115-21 or visit www.Su.ac.th.
Learn more about King Bhumibol’s royal crematorium and the cremation ceremony at www.KingRama9.th.