An expert in royal ceremonies explains the complexities involved in preparing the funeral of the late monarch, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej
An encyclopaedic knowledge of the hallowed world of royal ceremonies and pageantry brings Thongthong Chandrangsu regularly to the television screen to explain the complicated proceedings of a royal occasion and its background. He’s been back on TV recently to explain the interesting facts behind the funeral of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. However, it is rare that he talks about this subject in English and so his lecture at the Siam Society on January 26 provided a much welcomed opportunity for foreigners to learn more about Thai culture.
A lawyer by training, Thongthong has served as dean of Chulalongkorn University’s faculty of law and permanent secretary to the Prime Minister’s Office. He has written several books on Chakri-dynasty monarchs and royal traditions and ceremonies and is well known among Thais as an expert in royal ceremonies.
Thongthong has lived through a number of royal funerals at Sanam Luang, the royal main ground to the north of the Grand Palace, which has served as the only royal cremation ground since the founding of Bangkok on April 21, 1782.
He was barely a year old when the funeral of Queen Savang Vadhana of Siam, a consort of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) was held in 1956. Sanam Luang would not be used for another cremation until 1984, this time for Queen Rambai Barni, Queen consort of King Prajadhipok (Rama VII). The funeral of the Princess Mother was held there in 1996 and in 2008, he witnessed and wrote about the funeral of Galyani Vadhana, Princess of Naradhiwas. In 2011, he witnessed yet another royal funeral, that of Princess Bejaratana Rajasuda, the only child of the King Vajiravudh of Thailand (Rama VI).
The elaborate royal crematorium for the late and muchloved King, HM Bhumibol Adulyadej – Rama IX – will be the highest of any such structures since the reign of King Rama V. The royal crematorium will be 50.49 metres high. Photo/Fine Art Department
“The monarchy is one of the most important things in Thailand,” he says, noting that a monarch is considered as a demi-god who commands total respect from his subjects.
The Thai monarchy is considerably influenced by the Hindu and Buddhist concepts of cosmology. Royal ceremonies like funerals are full of Hindu symbolism.
An elaborately designed crematorium hall lies at the heart of any Thai monarch’s funeral, he says.
True to fundamental Hindu beliefs, the royal crematorium hall represents Mount Meru, a sacred mountain with five peaks that is so high that it reaches heaven, the abode of gods and deities. Mount Meru is mentioned in Buddhist and Jain texts (in which it is referred to as Mount Sumeru) and forms part of the Buddhist universe. It is depicted in the Buddhist Mandalas as the centre of the universe.
Indra, the lord of the heavens, lives on the top of the mountains while four heavenly kings reside on four sides of the mountain.
The royal crematorium is designed to symbolise Mount Sumeru – the centre of the Buddhist Universe. Photo/Fine Art Department
Mount Meru acts as the centre of the universe, surrounded by perfume-laden oceans and continents.
According to Thongthong, a Thai monarch descends to earth as an incarnation of one of these gods on a mission to eradicate suffering and give happiness to his subjects for a period of time before his return to heaven.
Therefore, a crematorium hall is always a grand and imposing building, a symbolic representation of Mount Meru that is designed to rise to the heavens. Around the crematorium hall are different smaller buildings to represent continents and oceans in accordance with Hindu cosmology.
“This crematorium concept dates back to the Ayutthaya period. I believe royal funerals are designed along the lines of those in the Ayutthaya period,” he says.
Thongthong says the first royal funeral on the cremation ground of Sanam Luang was that of Somdet Phra Prathom Borom Maha Rajchanok, father of King Rama I. The funeral conformed to the Ayutthaya-period royal funeral format.
“Bangkok came into being 15 years after the fall of Ayutthaya. Many Ayutthaya traditions were likely continued in Bangkok. That funeral was the first time a member of the royal family was cremated in Bangkok in the cremation ground of Sanam Luang,” he says.
In those days, Thongthong adds, only royalty was cremated within Bangkok’s city walls at the royal main ground. The remains of commoners were not allowed to be cremated inside the city walls, so the bodies had to be taken out of the city through the “Ghost Gate” near what is now Wat Saket, or the Golden Mount.
Thongthong says that during the Bangkok period, no crematorium was grander, taller and larger than that of King Mongkut (Rama IV). Rama IV’s crematorium hall reached a height of more than 100 metres, making it taller than the central prang (Khmer-style tower) of Wat Arun.
Mongkut’s son, King Chulalongkorn, who witnessed the resources and manpower used in the construction of his father’s crematorium hall, instructed his courtiers to build a smaller, more economical edifice when he passed away.
“King Chulalongkorn realised that his father’s crematorium halls took two years to build. At some point, he reckoned a crematorium for his own funeral need not be that big, and he noted down this request in his will,” Thongthong says.
However, the elaborate royal crematorium for the late and much-loved King, HM Bhumibol Adulyadej – Rama IX – will be the highest of any such structures since the reign of King Rama V. The royal crematorium will be 50.49 metres high.
The Fine Arts Department is creating the Himmapancreatures for the decoration of the royal crematorium. Photo/Fine Art Department
The royal crematorium is designed to symbolise Mount Sumeru – the centre of the Buddhist Universe. It will be surrounded by eight pointed-roof pavilions, to represent Mount Sumeru’s surrounding mountains, and decorated with the Himmapan-creature sculptures. The Himmapan Forest is situated at the foot of Mount Sumeru, according to Buddhist cosmology. Pillars for the royal crematorium will bear Garuda, the vehicle for Lord Vishnu.
The design features nine spires and was inspired by the King’s words. It will accommodate 7,400 people.
Construction of the royal crematorium will begin after a worship ritual for the late King is held in late March or early April. The structure will take one year to complete. Once the cremation is over, the crematorium will be torn down.
The late King Bhumibol’s funeral may bring great sadness to the entire nation, but it’s also an occasion to celebrate the return of the deceased king as a god to heaven.
“It’s common to see entertainment as part of a Thai monarch’s funeral. This is to celebrate the occasion in which the deceased monarch returns to heaven,” says Thongthong.