Otherworldly send-off for revered Thai king
Thailand is gripped with preparations for the royal cremation of deceased monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej, a spectacular Hindu-Buddhist cosmic ritual with ancient antecedents
Millions of mourners are bracing for the opulent royal cremation on October 25-29 of Thailand’s deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The monarch had a Golden Death Mask placed over his face and has lain for the past year in a coffin blessed by chanting Buddhist monks and a distraught weeping public.
Bhumibol, also known as Rama IX, died in Bangkok’s Siriraj hospital after a lengthy illness on October 13, 2016, aged 88. He was still reigning as a constitutional monarch after 70 years on the throne at the time of his death.
Today, his coffin and urn rest atop a tall, glistening, golden catafalque in Bangkok’s Grand Palace’s exquisite Dusit Maha Prasad Hall under an ornate spired roof.
The hall’s porticos feature wood-carved golden images of the Hindu god Vishnu astride his mythical half-man, half-bird winged Garuda, as Thailand’s monarchs are presented as living incarnations of Vishnu.
Bhumibol’s passing has left many Thais feeling orphaned in a society where the late monarch is still described officially and informally as “father.”
He is projected as an altruistic, pristine example of the finest qualities a human can possess, which should be mirrored by his subjects in this Southeast Asian kingdom.
Strictly enforced lese majeste laws frequently jail people for up to 15 years for statements or behavior perceived to negate that ubiquitous positive image. After Bhumibol’s death, a spate of fresh convictions have been handed down.
Bhumibol’s centuries-old Chakri dynasty continues with his son, the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn, or Rama X.
Meanwhile, the nation’s grim mood is tightly focused on the cremation. Local media spotlights people’s grieving, while security forces prepare for massive crowds as Thais descend from upcountry on the capital.
During the past year, more than 12 million people prostrated on the floor in front of Bhumibol’s coffin and urn in guided clusters of visitors, officials said.
The royal funeral’s rituals mix Hindu and Buddhist traditions spanning hundreds of years, unique to Thailand’s estimated 95% Buddhist population.
Following generations of royal procedure, Bhumibol wore “a gold-embossed mask to cover the face of the dead king” before being placed in a hand carved sandalwood coffin, according to the culture ministry’s published description of the preparations.
“Before the lid is closed, both the Golden Mask and the Golden Crown are placed on the body,” said Chakrarot Chitrabongs, a former culture ministry permanent secretary who teaches Thai culture and customs at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, in an interview at the cremation site.
“However, as the undertaker closes the lid, he will secretly, sight unseen, remove both the mask and the crown. In this way, the two objects of royal regalia are never soiled by this decomposing body within the coffin,” he said.
“They are secreted into safe keeping ready to be used on the next occasion. The whole process takes place on the day of death and after the royal family has performed the [Buddhist] bathing rites,” Chakrarot said.
“I can confidently state that King Rama IX is not wearing his Golden Mask inside his coffin.”
Chakrarot’s grandfather designed crematoriums for previous Thai kings, queens and their children. Chakrarot described the rituals during a visit to the crematorium arranged by the foreign ministry, culture ministry and National Museum for foreign diplomats and a handful of journalists.
A slender metal urn — placed inside a wider golden wooden urn — had previously been used to contain the bodies of Thai kings in an upright sitting position, with hands together in prayer, for cremation.
“The information about King Rama IX is that the body of the king is laying flat in a coffin, an ordinary coffin. But the upright urn, the royal urn, is placed in front of that coffin as a piece of royal regalia in his honor,” during the past one year, Chakrarot said.
He speculated Bhumibol may have preferred a normal coffin — the first for a Thai king — as a display of humility.
Bhumibol’s afterlife is officially described as freedom from the cycle of human reincarnation because he was a “deva raj”, or king from the Hindu gods, and also a “bodhisattva”, who delayed his entry into Buddhism’s nirvana so he could help others.
On October 25, the cremation ceremony begins in the Dusit Maha Prasad Hall and, if it follows tradition, Bhumibol’s remains will be taken from the coffin so Buddhist monks can pour blessed coconut water onto them to consecrate them.
His remains would then be wrapped in a fresh white sheet and returned to the coffin. The next morning, on October 26, the empty royal urn will be ceremoniously placed in front of the Grand Palace on a barge-like, red-and-gold-colored teakwood Great Victory Chariot which rolls on four large wooden wagon wheels.
Hundreds of courtiers on foot, wearing traditional clothes, will pull the chariot and a handful of other adorned vehicles in a slow, mournful procession through the street.
The Great Victory Chariot, first used more than 200 years ago, symbolizes Hinduism’s sun god Surya who carries the dead to a cosmological Mount Sumeru.
Accompanied by Hindu Brahman priests and Buddhist monks, the chariot procession will then enter nearby Sanam Luang’s cremation ground. Onlookers are allowed along the route but not too close to the temporary crematorium.
The chariot cortege includes royal officials who beat drums and blow conch shells and bugles. Sanam Luang has been the royal cremation site since King Rama I’s funeral in 1809 and is otherwise a public park.
“I have heard that the double urn will be transferred to the crematorium without the body inside, with some symbolic representative objects instead,” Chakrarot said. “The body will be cremated within the coffin.
“The coffin is secretly taken to the crematorium late at night, the day before, and stored out of sight in the crematorium,” he said.
That may be to ensure the traditional public movement of the royal urn on the chariot is performed, because the chariot is not designed to carry a coffin.
“The ramp takes the urn up to the pyre in full view of everybody upon its arrival at the crematorium,” Chakrarot said. The actual cremation will begin on October 26 at 10 pm. Bhumibol’s son, the new king, will ignite the pyre.
“Normally when the king cremates somebody, the fire is lit for him using the magnifying glass, using the sunlight to light the sacred fire,” Chakrarot said.
That ensures the flame is untouched and pure, according to Hindu and Buddhist rites. A similar flame can be brought from the nearby Temple of the Emerald Buddha, if needed.
The combustion chamber atop the ramp is on an elaborate temporary structure more than 150 feet (50 meters) tall, built of steel pillars covered with wood and fabric. It portrays Mount Sumeru, the Hindu and Buddhist center of all physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes.
Nearby pavilions will shelter earthly diplomats, officials and other invited mourners. The public will see smoke billowing into the night sky, but not see the screened chamber’s fire.
In the morning on October 27, Buddhist undertakers “gather whatever is left of the king’s body, which is mainly pieces of bones and ashes. They will fashion, on the pyre, a human body [shape] out of the ashes,” he said.
“They will fit a bone from where it came from originally. A piece of skull where the head is. A piece of rib for where the chest is, in this model of ashes,” he said, describing a ritual common to all Thai Buddhist funerals.
“The king [Rama X] will come to the pyre in the morning. He will sprinkle some sacred water symbolizing the putting out of the fire, and sprinkle it on the pile of bones,” Chakrarot said.
The sprinkling symbolically recreates celestial rain, which is said to have quenched the Buddha’s pyre more than 2,500 years ago.
“Then he [King Rama X] will pick pieces of bone and they will be placed in a miniature upright coffin. This collection will be taken back to the palace and kept as a final resting place,” he said.
On October 29, the bones will be ceremoniously enshrined as “royal relics” in the Grand Palace. Bhumibol’s ashes will also be enshrined at two Buddhist temples in Bangkok. Mount Sumeru will eventually be dismantled and its wooden pieces distributed to Buddhist temples for honoring.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist, reporting news from Asia since 1978.