How Siam lifts its loved ones to Heaven
Phra Meru-mas – meru for short – is a funerary pyre built for high-ranking royalty. The one built for Her Royal Highness the late Princess Bejaratana Rajsuda, a structure a little over 30 metres high, follows a tradition and an antecedent that goes back several centuries.
With the possible exception of the royal barges and the procession on water, the meru and its associated rite must be ranked at the top of Thai cultural manifestations. It is certainly at the apex of Thai classical architecture in terms of symbolism, scale and solemnity.
The pyre in its basic form, as in India, would be merely a pile on which the body is placed, the whole being then put to the torch.
In Siam and Indianised Indo-China, the pyre for an important person short of royalty, such as a revered monk or an abbot, becomes a meru, an ornate structure in which the deceased is placed, the whole going up in flames together in the cremation.
However, in the royal funeral rite, the meru becomes such a major structure that it is impractical to burn. In this instance, the fire is kindled under the royal urn or casket in a chamber located under the mondop or central spire of the structure so that the latter remains intact.
In Hindu Bali, the meru for the local princes, known as bade, is small enough to be carried by able-bodied men in a cortege. The procession, for the most part boisterous, would wind its way through the villages to the cremation site. There, it is torched, body and structure, without much ado.
In contrast, the royal funeral procession in Bangkok is distinguished by an elaborate chariot called Phra Maha Phichai-rajrot that carries the urn. The procession solemnly circumambulates the Grand Palace anti-clockwise to arrive at the cremation site, Thung Phra Main, known today as Sanam Luang.
Immediately after the cremation, the meru is dismantled and its component parts are donated to temples or to charity. In 1888, after the cremation of the child Prince Siriraj, the wooden posts, beams and planks from the pyre became construction materials for the first buildings at Siriraj Hospital.
The meru, as the word implies, represents Mount Meru in Hinduism. It is the Pivot of the Universe and abode of Vishnu whose principal incarnation, Rama, in the case of Siam, is in the person of the king.
Actually the King of Siam is the incarnation of other Hindu gods at the same time, including Shiva and Indra, who are invariably associated with Mount Meru or Mount Krailas in the Hindu cosmography.
The other important point about the meru is that it is ephemeral: It makes a brief appearance and then disappears after the ceremony to become an architectural formula in the mind.
Even if the meru is architecture in the mind, it has not prevented architects and engineers from creating some of the most sublime and daring structures ever. To appreciate this point, we have only to compare them with their counterparts in masonry – prang, chedis and stupas – to see that they surpass the scale of nearly all the known Hindu-Buddhist monuments.
The accompanying table gives a list of merus built in the Ayudhaya and Early Bangkok periods, together with their dimensions. From this, the differences in the heights attained can be seen.
They were the result of many factors: the degree of reverence the successor had towards his predecessor, which in the case of King Boromkot was minimal; the royal rank of the deceased; recovery from war, as at the end of King Naresuan’s reign and at the start of the Bangkok period; and the impact of the economy in the modern era starting from the reign of King Rama IV.
Finally, there was the drive for Westernisation under King Rama VI, when not only was the scale of the meru curtailed, but the accompanying activities became relatively modest – shadow plays, music, drama and dance performances, acrobatics and innumerable other displays. (The traditional Thai funeral was never meant to be an unhappy occasion.)
In the table, the tallest merus recorded were 102.75 metres high – the equivalent of a modern 30-storey building, a height unchallenged by Bangkok skyscrapers until about 1980. Authorities are baffled as to how such a height could have been achieved in wood, and speculate that either the chroniclers exaggerated, or else the old units of measurement do not tally with the ones used today.
Yet we have to forgo our disbelief when the more recent records of the Bangkok period refer to royal pyres of up to 80 metres high. As a point of interest, these dimensions should be compared to the 106.5-metre-high Phra Pathom Chedi, possibly the tallest brick structure in the Buddhist world, the 65 metre-high prang (khmer-styled spire) of Wat Arun, and Angkor Wat which is only 42 metres high.
What it means is that, working in wood and using essentially the same symbolism and classical grammar, Thai builders far exceeded the vertical scale of most masonry or stone buildings in the history of Hindu-Buddhist architecture.
The amount of work, the high level of wood technology, the single-mindedness and the total mobilisation of labour and material resources are beyond imagination. During the reign of King Rama II, for the royal pyre of 80 metres and the accompanying eight 40-metre-high meru-thits, ra-tha and other complementary structures, the amount of timber and bamboo transported to the funeral site in the capital was as follows:
* 896 large teak trunks
* 5,500 other tree trunks
* 2,800 bamboo slats
* 400,000 or more bamboo poles
The above, however fantastic, did not compare with the scale of the structure and the elaborate ritual of the Ayudhaya period. Yet, considering that the country had barely recovered from the sack of its old capital in 1767, the new dynasty, by sheer reflex, continued the best it could the tradition of great timber building in the meru.
The last great meru, however, was built in 1869. A royal decree effectively abolished the practice, no doubt as a sign of the changing times, although smaller versions continue to be built today.
Even before the decree, modern times had made themselves felt. Already in the reign of King Rama I, the Prince of the Palace to the Front (Wang Na) had built a masonry pyre – in effect, a crematorium – that could be used on a permanent basis. In the succeeding reigns more masonry meru-shaped crematoria were built, while the traditional wooden ones were scaled down.
Doing away with the great wooden merus was like taking away an important part of the instinct and self-confidence of the nation. By 1911, when a much smaller pyre was required for the cremation of King Rama V, a European engineer had to be called in to calculate the structure.
At this point it is perhaps appropriate to pay tribute to our meru builders, that special breed of people who climbed and built the structures, as well as to the people who conceptualised the merus, the architects.
Besides possessing a thorough knowledge of carpentry and building in wood, the former had to be especially agile in order to work, balancing in the air at great heights. We know that until recently a group of men called yuan-hok worked in a special department (krom) under the direction of Prince Krom Khun Vorjaktharanuphap, a designer and decorator of note who lived between 1816-1872.
Although their job was to climb to the top of long poles and display acrobatic skills for special festivities, they were also employed to erect scaffolds, tall edifices and chedis. Tradition has it that they came from a long line of people associated with krueang-mai-sung, literally meaning “woodwork in tall structures”.
Several great architects were known to have built Mount Merus in both wood and masonry. The prang of Wat Arun, which we must not forget represents Mount Meru, was designed by a number of architects during the reigns of Kings Rama II and Rama III, and was finished in its present form by Phraya Rajsong-khram (That Hongsakul) in the reign of Rama IV.
Prince Krom Khun Rajsihavikrom, who lived between 1816-1868, was the architect of Phra Pathom Chedi, Prasat Phrathepbidorn and the meru for the Second King Phra Pinklao in the reign of King Rama IV, as well as the naga boat Anantanakraj. Phraya Aphaironrit built several wooden merus, including the one for King Rama IV. He was also the architect for the Bathing Pavilion in 1886, a model of Mount Krailas in the Grand Palace, and a naga boat called Anekchatphutchong.
In more recent times, architects Phraya Jindarangsan designed the meru for King Rama V, and Prince Krom Phraya Naris designed five other such pyres between 1920 and 1929.
Architects who designed and supervised meru building in the olden days must have been regarded as superhuman. In the building of the 102.75-metre-high meru for King Boromkot in 1759, which the chroniclers clearly said was designed in accordance with Mount Sumeru (Meru), the architect was given his due. His name title was recorded as Khun Sumeru-thipraj. He was in effect identified with the Pivot of the Universe and as such immortalised.
Merus continue to occupy an important place in Thai classical architecture, albeit with light steel sections replacing timber in more recent times. However, the bias that “civilisations can only be defined by stone” has effectively excluded merus from the history of art and architecture. Without stone or the concept of permanency, merus have appeared time and again throughout the ages and are therefore very much part of the history of architecture.
Sumet Jumsai is an architect and Thai National Artist. His article is based on “The Royal Pyre as Pivot of the Universe”, published in The Nation in 1985 on the occasion of the funerary rite of Her Majesty Queen Rambhai Barni.