Later this month—25 to 29 October to be precise—the world will witness what is probably one of the biggest, and most elaborate, funerals in Thai history: the royal funeral of King Bhumibol, the beloved monarch whose 70-year reign blessed the country with countless initiatives, economic and social growth, and, to a certain, extent, national harmony. Thailand wouldn’t be what it is today if not for his benevolent guidance. The entire country mourned when the great monarch passed away on 13 October last year. After twelve months of grieving, Thailand plans to send the spirit of the god-like king back to heaven with elaborate ceremonies that have not been seen elsewhere in the world.
Time Out Bangkok honors King Bhumibol’s legacy and remembers his philanthropy to Thai arts and culture with an in-depth look into the exquisite elements and one-of-a-kind artistry and craftmanship that have gone into preparing the monarch’s royal crematorium.
THE ROYAL FUNERAL
According to the Buddhist-Hindu beliefs long-rooted in Thai culture, kings are avatars of the god Narayana. The passing of these god-like kings could only mean their return to heaven. To celebrate their legacy, kings are honored with the grandest ceremonies in the most elaborate forms.
The crematoriums of the late kings of Thailand—and before that, Siam—were designed to depict Mount Meru (Khao Phra Sumeru in Thai), the mythical five-peaked sacred mountain that’s home to all gods. According to old photographs and inscriptions, the resting places of the late kings in the Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and early Rattanakosin kingdoms often featured a massive stupa-like structure covering the entire crematorium, not to mention seven mystical ponds that surround it. It was not until the royal cremation of King Chulalongkorn, the king who led Siam to the modern age, in 1911 that the stupa-shaped structure was replaced with a pavilion-like gilded throne (called Busabok in Thai), which eventually became the royal etiquette for later kings.
THE ROYAL CREMATORIUM
To create the royal crematorium for King Bhumibol, the Fine Arts Department’s design team, headed by the Office of Architecture’s Korkiat Thongphut and Theerachat Weerayuttanon, decided to preserve royal tradition by creating a Mount Meru-themed, Busabok pavilion-style crematorium, but with added elements that reflect all things related to King Bhumibol.
Standing at the center is a massive, 53-meter-tall Busabok throne, which serves as the cremation pyre. This is surrounded by eight smaller thrones positioned on two lower levels, making a total of nine golden Busabok structures to honor King Bhumibol, who was the ninth monarch of Thailand’s Chakri Dynasty. To imitate the likes of Mount Meru, all nine Busabok thrones are placed atop a giant platform, and are surrounded by a pond depicting the Anodard Pond at the foot of Meru. Sculptures of mythical creatures and angels stand guard over the structures.
The royal crematorium is situated at the center of Sanam Luang, the traditional cremation grounds for royalty.
Throughout his seven-decade reign, King Bhumibol was widely recognized and profoundly praised for bridging the best of both the old and new worlds. He introduced new technologies and global arts and motifs to Thais, and appropriated them to a local context. The crematorium that was built for the king’s funeral was designed to reflect this vision.
With a limited time frame of seven months to finish this massive construction (it would usually take up to three years to complete construction), The Fine Arts Department adapted the latest engineering techniques, such as replacing wood, typically used in ancient crematoriums, with knock-down steel units that helped shorten the construction period by two-thirds of the time. Lifts were added for convenience, and LED lights were installed where needed.
Despite having a modern structure backed by the latest engineering technology, the artistic components of the crematorium were still crafted in the most traditional and authentic way.
ART OF THE ARTS
The creation of the royal crematorium for King Bhumibol brought together the most renowned Thai artisanal masters, the biggest gathering of artistic talent in Thai history. Many of these artists work in traditional Thai arts and crafts with the Fine Arts Department’s Office of Traditional Arts. For decades, this small office has prevailed to preserve the long-established methods of creating Thai art, passed on through generations for hundreds of years.
The royal cremation pyre for King Bhumibol is made of sandalwood, which has been considered an auspicious part of royal ceremonies since ancient times. Sandalwood has long been valued in royal funerals because its aromatic scent helps mask the “undesirable smells” wafting from the pyre. The Fine Arts Department selected dead-standing sandalwood from Kui Buri National Park in Prachuab Khirikhan. These were cut into logs and elaborately carved with traditional Lai Rod Nam patterns, before being painted with gold leaf. This long-running technique has been practiced for hundreds of years since the time of the ancient Ayutthaya kingdom.
According to traditional royal etiquette, the cremation pyre will be covered up on all four sides with panels painted with murals. Painting masters from the Office of Traditional Arts have put their hearts and souls into creating jaw-dropping paintings that depict eight of Narayana’s avatars and imply that the body of the ninth avatar lay inside.
Since the crematorium is supposed to symbolize Mount Meru where the gods live, the Office of Traditional Arts created more than 132 sculptures of various Hindu gods, including that of the main four deities—Shiva, Indra, Brahman and, most importantly, Narayana, whose face was sculpted to look like His Majesty King Bhumibol to promote the belief that kings are the avatars of Narayana. These sculptures will be installed throughout the crematorium. It’s also worth noting that, instead of using a purely traditional Thai style, the Office of Traditional Arts opted for a more modern technique in which each sculpture depicts realistic human features and anatomy, a style considered to have been developed during King Bhumibol’s reign.
Mount Meru is also home to mythical creatures that live in a forest called Himmapan and a pond called Anodard. The Office of Traditional Arts also created elaborate sculptures of these creatures to guard over the cremation pyre. They include garuda (the half-human, half-bird servant of Narayana), naga (serpent), singha (lion) and kinnari (half-human, half bird beings). Sculptures of other auspicious animals like elephants, lions, horses and cows were also created to “accompany” the king into the after-life.
King Bhumibol’s affection for his pet dogs was widely acknowledged throughout his reign. So sculpted likenesses of two of his most famous pet dogs, Thong Daeng and Jocho, were created to accompany their master to heaven—something that has never happened in previous royal funerals. Thong Daeng was a Thai-African basenji that served the monarch for 17 years until he passed away in 2015. Jocho, a name that’s lesser known to many Thais, was his pet Great Dane in the ’50s. Both sculptures, crafted by Chin Prasong, a respected artist and the former head of Sculpture at the Office of Traditional Arts, will be placed closet to the cremation pyre on both sides.
Apart from phenomenal structures inspired by traditional Thai arts and crafts, the royal funeral of King Bhumibol will also feature an exhibit that displays some of the monarch’s inventions such as a Chaipattana aerator set in an imitation of a paddy field in Chitralada Villa.
THE ROYAL URNS AND COFFIN
According to Thai tradition, when royalty or a high-ranking aristocrat passes, his or her bodybe placed in an urn in a sitting position. This long-running tradition dates back to the ancient Ayutthaya kingdom, several hundred years before our time. The urn containing the body is then put inside a bigger, more lavish outer urn that indicates the social ranking of the person who passed: the higher his or her ranking, the more elaborate the urn. So when it comes to kings, the supreme golden urn (Phra Ghote Thong Yai) is used. In later years, however, to adhere to international etiquette, the body was placed in a coffin and the urn enshrined alongside it to define the departed’s status. The funeral of King Bhumibol will also follow this modern practice. The golden urn is now used as a symbol of royal ranking, which range from kings, queens, princes and princesses and other royalty.
Since the beginning of the Chakri Dynasty, three Phra Ghote Thong Yai have been created for kings, princes and princesses that have passed. The two of them were made in the reigns of King Rama I and Rama IX, and are now displayed at The National Museum in Bangkok. The supreme urn, which will be used for King Bhumibol, was built in 1910. It's made of auspicious wood and is entirely dressed in gold leaf.
Apart from this supreme golden urn, a small golden urn was also made for keeping H.M. King Bhumibol’s ashes. The urn will be kept in the Grand Palace along with those of the other late kings in the Chakri Dynasty, the current ruling royal household in the land.
At the final stage of the royal cremation ceremony, the golden urn will be removed and will be replaced with a sandalwood urn (Phra Ghote Chan) of the same size. The sandalwood is an auspicious wood that has long been used for royal funerals, and is prized for its aromatic fragrance that helps mask any undesirable smells when the body is being burned. For this two-meter-plus-tall sandalwood urn, more than 100 of the country’s best craftsmen spent eight months assembling more than 10,000 delicate pieces of sandalwood—so delicate many of which are only two-millimeters thick—by hand. These craftsmen also built a sandalwood coffin using another 30,000 pieces of sandalwood.
The Office of Traditional Arts injected many auspicious designs to the royal sandalwood urn and the coffin of King Bhumibol—24 garudas, each made of 53 pieces of wood around the coffin, and 64 angels around the urn to accompany the Narayana-like king back to heaven.
There’s also a marble urn for containing the remaining ash after the cremation process. This urn will be put inside the small 99-centimeter-tall golden urn.
THE ROYAL CHARIOTS
Equally important to the royal funeral are the royal chariots and palanquins that will serve as the main carriages during the royal procession of the royal urns to and from the Grand Palace. There are three important chariots and palanquins that have served the monarchy since the reign of King Rama I.
Meaning “The Chariot of Great Victories,” this massive 11-meter-long, 13.7-ton chariot was built in 1795 during the reign of King Rama I for the procession of his father’s urn. Though more than two centuries have passed, the gilded Phra Maha Phichai Ratcharot chariot remains in perfect condition, thanks to the comprehensive maintenance of the Fine Arts Department. Phra Maha Phichai Ratcharot is reserved for carrying only the royal urns of kings, queens and high-level members of the Thai royal family. Atop the giant chariot is a wooden Busabok-style pavilion embellished with gold leaf and glass mosaics. This is where the golden urn will be enshrined during the procession. At 13.7 tons, 216 people are needed to move the chariot forward. When not in use, Phra Maha Phichai Ratcharot is exhibited at the Bangkok National Museum.
Phra Yannamat Sam Lamkhan is a 7.73-meter-long gilded litter with three poles. Made of wood, this massive 700-kilogram wheel-less vehicle requires 90 strong individuals to carry it up above the ground. This palanquin serves as a royal carriage for transferring the golden urn from the Grand Palace’s Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall, where it has been enshrined for the past 12 months, to the Phra Maha Phichai Ratcharot chariot (see above) for an official procession to the royal funeral site at Sanam Luang. There, the golden urn will be transferred to Phra Yannamat Sam Lamkhan for a circular procession around the crematorium before it’s placed in the Busabok throne in the crematorium. In perfect condition, boasting lavish golden details, a lacquered wooden surface and dramatic ornamentation, it’s hard to believe that the litter is already a few hundred years old, built as it was in the reign of King Rama II.
The smaller Rachentarayan palanquin was built in the reign of King Rama I to serve as a man-carried seated throne for the king’s procession outside the palace grounds as well as for royal ceremonies. Refurbished with a newly-gilded surface and reflective mosaic decoration, the Rachentarayan palanquin will serve, in the funeral of King Rama IX, as a royal vehicle for carrying the king’s ashes back to the Grand Palace. Also, The Fine Arts Department commissioned the Office of Traditional Arts to create a Rachentarayan-like palanquin called Rachentarayan Noi to carry the other cremated remains of His late Majesty back to the Grand Palace.
The five-day royal funeral will strictly be for royal family members and their guests, but the funeral grounds will be open to the public after the royal funeral ceremonies (dates tentative). The surrounding structures will be turned into exhibition halls narrating the making of the cremation pyre and displaying King Bhumibol’s initiatives throughout his reign.