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Thailand's ancient coronation rites take stage in modern world

Tried and tested royal traditions continue in the House of Chakri

BANGKOK -- The elaborate rites at Thailand's crowning and enthronement ceremony in Bangkok on Saturday continued to serve the mystique of a dynasty more than two centuries old, even as the country evolves.

Few Thais are old enough to recall the last coronation of a monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, almost 69 years ago to the day -- on May 5, 1950. The ceremony for his son and successor, the 66-year-old King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, is only the third in well over a century. 

Thailand's latest king is the 10th in the Chakri dynasty, founded in Bangkok in 1782 and among the world's oldest.

King Vajiravudh, the sixth in the dynasty, decided in the early 20th century that Chakri kings also should be titled Rama, marking their place in the dynastic flow clearly. Backdated, the first Chakri king thus became Rama I, while King Vajiravudh added the title Rama VI to his countless others.

The new system was a blessing for foreigners, who often struggle with exceptionally long Thai names and titles as well as their torturous spellings. Bangkok's poetic full title in Thai is the world's longest for any capital city.

Thailand's latest king, Rama X, has already disproven an ancient prophecy that there would be only nine Chakri kings, and his official coronation finally confirms this.

Rama I had two coronations, the second in 1785 once key structures in the new Grand Palace were completed. Kings Rama V and VI also held two coronations for different reasons.

King Ananda Mahidol, Rama VIII, died very young in 1946, the victim of an unexplained gunshot while asleep in the Grand Palace. He was not crowned in life, but his rank was raised posthumously.

Thai people hold pictures of King Vajiralongkorn in Bangkok on May 4. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

Thailand's arcane and sumptuous coronation rites have multiple influences including Hindu, Brahmin and Khmer. These date to at least the 13th century and the ancient Siamese kingdom of Sukhothai, which was followed in the 14th century by the kingdom of Ayutthaya.

Ayutthaya was sacked by Burmese invaders in 1767, and a powerful general, King Taksin, established his court on the west side of Chao Phraya river in Thonburi. It was opposite a small riverside area called Bangkok, the place of olives or plums.

King Taksin was ousted in a coup in 1782. Building a new palace and staging a credible coronation after moving the then-Siamese capital to its present location on the east side of the Chao Phraya were crucial to Rama I's consolidation of power. Elaborate, mystical ceremonies were important for projecting a royal aura -- none more so than a coronation.

King Bhumibol, following his coronation, was credited with restoring Thailand's monarchy, which had been undermined by a coup in 1932.

From the late 1950s onward, King Bhumibol spent much of his time in provincial areas working on rural development projects that bolstered his popularity. He also participated in elaborate ceremonies that imbued his reign with a powerful sense of mystique. This only grew as his record-breaking 70-year reign rolled on.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn has followed his father's example on the ceremonial front. Following King Bhumibol's death on Oct. 13, 2016, the new king unexpectedly delayed what turned out to be a rather elaborate succession ceremony until December, ostensibly to allow more time for national mourning.

"I accept this invitation in order to follow His Majesty King Bhumibol's will and for the benefit of all Thai people," the king said when he finally responded to the formal invitation from the National Legislative Assembly, the unelected parliament installed after a coup in 2014.

Thai Royal Guards attend the coronation of King Vajiralongkorn in Bangkok on May 4. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

The king's signing of Thailand's 20th constitution in April 2017 was the most elaborate ceremony of its kind in half a century. And the cremation of King Bhumibol in October 2017 has gone down as one of the grandest funerals in world history.

The years of delay between Rama X's accession upon his father's death and the coronation are not unusual -- the intervening period was actually longer in 1950.

Like his father, King Maha Vajiralongkorn has taken a queen shortly before his coronation, Queen Suthida Vajiralongkorn na Ayudhya. Unlike Queen Sirikit, the king's elderly and infirm mother, the former Suthida Tidjai is not of royal descent. The 40-year-old once worked as a flight attendant for Thai Airways International, and later as deputy commander of the Royal Security Command.

A distinctive feature of Thai coronations involves the king placing the 7.3 kg stupa-shaped "Great Crown of Victory" upon his head. The great weight then bearing down is a metaphor for the future of the reign. In 1950, King Bhumibol promised: "We shall reign with righteousness, for the benefit and happiness of the Siamese people."

Thailand has changed and prospered almost beyond recognition in the intervening years, with the population more than tripling to nearly 70 million and average life expectancy rising from around 50 to over 75.

But a survey last year also revealed its wealth distribution to be the most unequal on Earth, more skewed than that of even Russia or India. King Maha Vajiralongkorn is among the richest people in the country, having taken personal ownership of banking and conglomerate assets previously held on the throne's behalf by the Crown Property Bureau.

"Thais are still hesitant to talk publicly about the institution," David Streckfuss, a Thai-speaking U.S. academic at Khon Kaen University, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Nonetheless, in comparison with the previous reign, the institution has been under increased public scrutiny. It is unclear what kind of role the new king might play. But whatever it is, people will be watching and, in certain situations, may be more willing to speak out."

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