Rituals in a Royal’s death
The rites and funeral of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej are adhering to traditions in place for hundreds of years
MOURNERS FROM all over the country are continuously heading to the Grand Palace, with long lines forming along Sanam Luang to pay homage to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej who passed away peacefully at the age of 89 on October 13. The royal prayer ceremony will be held for 100 days with prakhom yum yam – the traditional instrumental band – performing daily every three hours from 6am to midnight.
The late King’s body was moved to the Grand Palace on October 14, a day after his passing, in a simple van said to be His Majesty’s favourite mode of transport while visiting his people nationwide. The royal procession moved out of Siriraj Hospital at 4.35pm accompanied by Somdej Phra Wannarat, the chief monk of Thammayut Buddhism, and members of the Royal Family, with hundreds of thousands of grief-stricken mourners lining the route.
The motorcade arrived at the Grand Palace through Viset Chaisri Gate at 5pm and His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn presided over the bathing ritual at Phiman Rattaya Throne Hall. The Throne Hall was built in the reign of King Rama I as one of the residential palaces in the complex and was also used as the bathing ritual venue for His Majesty the King’s grandmother, Queen Savang Vadhana, and elder brother, HM King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII).
After lighting the candle and incense for altar offerings, the Crown Prince paid respects to the late King’s body before bathing the King’s feet with scented water and turmeric water. In line with the traditional royal rites, the Crown Prince then combed the King’s hair once upward, then down and upward again. The comb was then broken in half and placed on a tray. The body was later moved to Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall for the royal funeral ceremony.
According to the “Thai Historical Archives” Facebook page, the act of breaking a comb is symbolic, suggesting that from this point onwards, beauty and worldly pleasure are no longer significant and no physical adornment is needed. At King Chulalongkorn’s bathing ritual, Queen Saovabha Phongsri performed the breaking of the comb.
A golden death mask and a comb were used during the royal funeral ritual of Her Royal Highness the Princess Mother. Photos courtesy of “A Chronicle of the Royal Funeral Ceremony of Her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra” by the Fine Arts Department, published in 1998.
In the old days before formalin was used to preserve the body, beeswax was used to fill all nine orifices to stop the leakage of bodily fluid. A golden death mask was also placed on top of the face to honour the monarch. His Majesty King Bhumibol also received a death mask to comply with the royal protocols but it was not fitted with the five-tier headdress, as his body was laid in a coffin and not propped upright in the royal urn. The five-tired headdress was instead placed beside his head in the coffin.
In his book “Thamniam Phraboromasop Lae Phrasop Chao Nai”, published by Matichon, Nontaporn Yumangmee explains that the tradition of bathing the deceased applies to both commoners and aristocrats in the belief that the body should be properly cleansed for the soul to move on to the next life. It is also believed that as the soul ascends to heaven, it pays respect to Chula Manee Chedi, the highly respected shrine believed to be located in the second level of heaven.
When King Chulalongkorn passed away on October 23, 1910, the ritual of bathing the body was done twice. The first rite took place at 10am in the king’s bed chamber at Amphorn Sathan Villa in the presence of close relatives and officials. The body was then moved to the reception room and placed on a golden platform brought from the Grand Palace for the rest of the Royal Family members to pay respect.
The royal funeral ceremony for Queen Rambhai Barni, Queen Consort of King Rama VII in 1984, was prepared with immense attention to detail, from the intricately carved platform, the fine silk pillow in white on which her body was placed, the full shrine with the Buddha image facing east, and an altar offering set in pure gold. A bouquet of lotus flower, rakam wood incense and candles and the golden headdress were placed on the queen’s head as she was placed in the urn. Slanted cushions were placed alongside for Their Majesties the King and Queen to pay respect.
A notable difference in the royal ritual is that, while commoners pour water on the deceased’s hands, those bathing a king’s body can only pour water on his feet, as he is revered as the figure with the highest status in the Kingdom. When HM King Bhumibol performed the ritual on Queen Rambhai Barni, he poured water on her chest instead of her hands or feet while HM Queen Sirikit poured water on the deceased queen’s feet, as did other members of the Royal Family.
Ancient royal traditions practised to this day dictate that at the demise of a king or a queen, or a high-ranking member of the Royal Family who has done service for the country, the royal remains should be ceremoniously encased in a royal urn, or phra kot, consisting of a jewelled gold ornamented outer urn and an unadorned inner one, and placed in state on a gilded catafalque in a royal hall.
The kot, or funeral urn, comes from the Sanskrit word for “something that covers or wraps”. This type of funeral urn is used for kings, Royal Family members, aristocrats and high-ranking noblemen according to the Brahman belief that, for the souls to return to heaven after death, the bodies have to be in a standing position or sitting or kneeling with two hands clasped.
Phra boroma kot refers to funeral urns used for kings and queens. Phra kot are those for Royal Family members and aristocrats while simple kot are those for commoners. Phra boroma kot and phra kot both comprise two interlocking parts. The outer part, called long, is made of a gold-plated wooded frame adorned with gemstones and coloured glass pieces. The decoration varies according to the rank of the deceased. The inner part is called kot and is made of bronze or gold-plated silver.
The kot is the actual vessel that holds the body. Constructed of rolled metal sheet, the cylinder-shaped container with a slightly flared top is approximately 95cm high. The diameter of the top is 65cm while the bottom is 46cm. The bottom is lined with a welded metal grille to support the weight of the body and for the convenience of cremation. The whole urn is propped on a wooden pedestal with a shallow bowl-shaped feature, or lined with a lotus leaf-shaped tin container, to collect fluids dripping from the decomposing body. In the old days, the deepest part of the bowl was fitted with a small hole and a long, thin pipe to carry bodily fluids to the “cave” below. The lid of the cave was then sealed with beeswax. The collected fluid was not discarded but dried in a hot pan along with fragrant herbs. The dehydrated fluid masses would then be cremated along with the body in the funeral pyre or Phra Meru.
In ancient times, royal funerals were usually held in the dry season, as the funeral pyre was normally set up outdoors and rain could disrupt the process. But death cannot be dictated. Those who perished in the rainy season would have to wait until the dry season to be cremated, and as they waited, their bodies started to decompose, especially when body- preserving chemicals did not exist. To keep everything gracefully neat, the body was usually defleshed before cremation. The remaining flesh and skin on the body was carefully removed from the bones. The flesh was then boiled with fragrant herbs and dried, waiting to be cremated along with the bones, the fluids from the cave and the burial shroud.
The last defleshing ritual mentioned in the national archive was for the cremation of Queen Savang Vadhana. Since then formalin has been used to preserve the bodies. The last body to be propped on the phra kot was Princess Bejaratana Rajasuda, the daughter of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI), in 2012.
Today, the bodies of royalty and high-ranking aristocrats are often placed in coffins, while the adorned urns are placed out front to maintain tradition. The bodies of Her Royal Highness the Princess Mother and Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana were also placed in coffins. HM King Bhumibol’s royal coffin is made of a single sheet of a century-old gold teakwood and plated with pure gold. The inside is lined with the finest silk in an ivory shade.
HM King Bhumibol ordered the building of a new royal urn in 2000 to replace the one created in 1900 during the reign of King Rama V. This royal urn was first used during the royal funeral ceremony of HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana in 2008 and is being used now in the rituals for the late Monarch. The royal urn is plated with carved pure gold with patterns regulated by tradition of royalty, characterised by exquisite craftsmanship of Thai art while presenting the honour and ranking of the Monarch.
Members of the public are able to pay homage to HM King Bhumibol before his portrait at Sala Sahathai Samakhom between 8.30am and 4pm daily. They will be allowed to pay respects in front of his royal urn inside the Grand Palace’s Dusit Maha Prasat Throne from October 28. The national mourning period is one year.
For the cremation, a temporary funeral pyre or Phra Meru will be constructed at Sanam Luang in line with tradition. Its size, design and magnificence have varied over time, but depend as well on the degree of beneficence of the deceased royal personage. This is in keeping with the Buddhist belief that when a person of great might dies, his and her soul proceeds to the Tavatimsa heaven on Phra Meru Mountain, to attain peace and happiness.
HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has assigned Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn to make the final decisions on the construction of Phra Meru for the royal cremation. The design is under the supervision of the Fine Arts Department.