October 13, 2017 9:27 pm JST

A funeral fit for a king

Cremation of Thai monarch will highlight traditional artistic and craft skills

MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR, Asia regional correspondent

Workmen inspect the Great Victory Royal Chariot, which will carry the royal urn during the procession for the cremation. (Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar)

BANGKOK -- The fragrance of sandalwood fills the air in a well-lit room in a government compound in Bangkok's historic quarter, rising from an ornately carved coffin and a giant urn placed on stands in the center of the room. Visitors troop by in respectful silence.

Thai craftsmen have spent months producing these funeral artifacts, with exquisite attention to detail, blending slivers of delicately carved wood and miniature figures of the mythical Garuda, Thailand's bird-like national emblem. Each Garuda comprises 53 slender pieces of sandalwood. The urn is even more elaborate: it has 10,000 pieces.

The display showcases the very best of the country's traditional wood carving skills. But it also represents an outpouring of skills in a nation preparing for an event without parallel in its modern history. There is an almost palpable air of solemnity as the nimble-fingered workmen put the final touches to the casket and urn.

Their work will become the focus of national attention on Oct. 26, when the country's long-reigning monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, will be cremated in an elaborate ceremony at Sanam Luang, a historic parade ground in the heart of old Bangkok, surrounded by gilded Buddhist temples and the Grand Palace. King Bhumibol died on Oct. 13 last year, after seven decades on the throne.

An army of artisans, directed by the Fine Arts Department, a government body, has worked since February to erect and decorate a towering funeral pyre, with nine-tiered roofs and spire, surrounded by eight smaller pavilions. This sprawling structure, measuring 60 meters by 60 meters at the base, and 50 meters high, resembles the gently rising contours of a mountain. It symbolizes Mount Meru, a sacred mountain in Hindu mythology.

Although Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist, with the world's largest Theravadha Buddhist population, Hinduism also has a long history in the country, as in other parts of Southeast Asia. Hindu gods and other motifs are ubiquitous in Thai art, literature and popular festivals, many of which bear a striking similarity to Hindu festivals in India. Thais believe that the late king was a reincarnation of Vishnu, one of the principal deities in a Hindu trinity that also includes Brahma and Shiva.

The sculptures and the mountain-shaped royal crematorium are a nod to the ease with which Hindu influences co-exist with Buddhist rituals in Thailand. Thai rituals and national narratives draw extensively from the Ramayana, an ancient Hindu epic, which the Thais call Ramakien. The ancient Indian poem appears, for example, in elaborate illustrations at Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand, which is adjacent to the site of the royal cremation ground. Many royal rituals performed through the year, such as the announcement of the start of the rice planting season, are conducted by Hindu Brahmin priests -- a role the public has come to accept.

Celestial beings

In line with this tradition, artisans have decorated the main crematorium and the adjacent pavilions with a rich mix of celestial beings and mythical creatures intended to represent heaven, which Thais believe is the final abode of monarchs after death. By the time they are done, the craftsmen working at the cremation site will have carved figures representing 40 gods, 20 Garuda birds and an assorted mix of animals. "The crematorium was designed on the belief that the late king should reside in Mount Meru, where Vishnu is residing," said Pornthum Thumwimol, one of the crematorium's designers at the Fine Arts Department.

However, artistic preparations for the funeral are not confined to Bangkok. The ruling military junta, which took power in a 2014 coup, is tapping a countrywide talent pool for the nation's final tribute to King Bhumibol. Provincial craftsmen and women are working on smaller replicas of the royal crematorium, replete with nine-tiered rooves, in each of the country's 76 other provinces.

The occasion has also provided ordinary Thai citizens with an opportunity to display their handiwork. Since mid-2017, thousands have gathered in organized groups and informal settings to make symbolic sandalwood flowers from high-quality cream-colored crepe paper. These floral tributes, a Thai tradition, are complete with petals, leaves and stems, and are variously shaped as roses, daffodils, lilies and orchids. Bangkok alone is expected to complete 10 million of these paper flowers.

"Sandalwood flowers have been used in cremation ceremonies in Thailand since olden days," says a note about royal cremation rituals produced by the government committee in charge of the funeral. "It is believed that the fragrance of sandalwood will lead the souls of the deceased to heaven."

The public response to flower-making serves as a way of highlighting a tradition rooted in the country's history, which is often seen in the decorative styles of traditional mask makers and the intricate patterns produced by silk weavers. The deft manner in which Thais sculpt soap for high-end stores and carve fruit for sale by street vendors reflects a talent passed through families and communities that has become embedded in the national character.

Not surprisingly, the final journey of the late king will emphasize these Thai skills. The traditional procession to the crematorium from the historic royal temple, where the body has been kept for the past year, will have as its main feature the Phra Maha Phichai Ratcharot (Great Victory Royal Chariot), which is 11.2 meters high, 18 meters long and weighs nearly 14 tons.

The chariot, an intricate structure of carved wood, gilded edges and cut glass, will carry the royal urn, as it has for many former monarchs.

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