In an exclusive interview, FAD officer Kokiat Thongphud, chief architect for the Royal Crematorium, describes the design of King Rama IX’s funeral edifice
It would be very difficult to overestimate the significance of this month’s five-day funeral for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away on October 13th 2016 following a long period of illness.
The death of the 88-year-old monarch capped a seven-decade reign—the longest rule of any king in the 20th and 21st centuries—during which his dedication to public works earned great reverence from all levels of Thai society. King Bhumibol also served as a symbol of unity in a country which, between the time of his 1946 coronation and his death last year, has survived two dozen prime ministers and 10 military coups.
The last time the nation held a funeral for a Thai king was in 1950, when King Bhumibol’s older brother, and then king, Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII), was cremated. But the most recent royal funeral in Thailand took place in 2008 for Rama IX’s elder sister Princess Galyani Vadhana. That funeral followed a 100-day mourning period, while this one ends a full year, plus 13 days, of national mourning.
Aside from paying tribute and expressing love for a great king, the five-day funeral ceremonies, which commence on the 25th of October (October 26th for the actual Royal Cremation), bring together some of the most complex Thai art, architecture, and ritual seen in Thailand since the Ayutthaya era.
The epicentre for the event is Sanam Luang, a large field to the north of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, traditionally used for royal funerals. Thailand’s Fine Arts Department (FAD) began building an immense, ornate Royal Crematorium at Sanam Luang early this year, but the actual designs commenced the very day King Bhumibol passed away. Bangkok 101 had a chance to sit down with Kokiat Thongphud (above), chief architect for the Royal Crematorium, for a two-hour, one-on-one interview during which the FAD officer described the design process for the 500-million-baht edifice.
“The evening of the King’s death, I was summoned to a meeting at the Bureau of the Royal Household in the Grand Palace,” Kokiat says. Present were representatives from the bureau, the FAD, the government, and the Privy Council of Thailand.
“I was told I had until 10am the next day to come up with an overall design for the Royal Crematorium. The next morning, I brought in five different plans that I’d sketched out in pencil in my notebook.”
Kokiat showed us his original notebook sketches. Thai Royal Crematoriums by tradition consist of open-air pavilions clustered to form a mandala-like constellation that represents the peaks of Mount Meru, the mythical abode of the gods in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology. The Thai term for Royal Crematoriums, Phra Merumat, refers to this central symbol.
At the second meeting, Kokiat’s five sketches received tentative approval and so he and his drafting team expanded each sketch into larger, more detailed blueprints.
The 50-year-old architect, a Pho Chang graduate who has worked for the FAD for 26 years, showed us all five plans up close. For three of them, the pavilion “peaks” numbered nine—in reference to King Bhumibol’s status as the ninth king of the Chakri dynasty—while one plan featured five peaks, and another only one. On the 15th of October, just two days after the King’s passing, one of the nine-peaks plan was approved and Kokiat’s team set about creating a full set of architectural plans for the ambitious project.
“The only guidance the bureau gave us at this point was that we should make this meru as unique as possible, and that we shouldn’t compare the specs to the meru of any previous king,” he says.
“Don’t make it the biggest. Make it the most beautiful,” Kokiat was told.
Kokiat and his team of around 70 architects, engineers, and draftspersons unveiled the final designs for the cremation complex on October 28th. Construction went into full swing in February 2017, contracting three separate building companies involved in different phases of the project, with as many as 10,000 workers on site during the year.
The magnificent central pavilion at the Rama IX meru rises 50.49 metres high, with a seven-tier roof that borrows features of classic Thai stupa architecture, including a bell-shaped section topped by an elaborate spire. By comparison, photos of the crematorium for Rama IV (1851-1868) show the principal pavilion rising 80 metres, about the height of the famous riverside Wat Arun. The roof tiers, however, number only five, and there are five pavilions altogether.
Together, the nine pavilions and associated platforms and causeways for the Rama IX meru cover 3,600 sq.m, stacked along three ascending levels (four if you count the ground-level causeway). On the first raised level, the haw pleuang—oddly mistranslated as “Dismantling Hall” on English-language plans—stand four pavilions reserved for articles and implements used during the various rituals. Next up, receding in size, is the chaang, a platform with four pavilions where seated monks will chant Pali verses from the Abhidhamma—the metaphysical third volume of Theravada Buddhism’s tripartite scriptures—during the Royal Cremation.
The uppermost, and final level, receding again in size, is the busabok, devoted to the ninth, principal pavilion where the Royal Urn containing the King’s body will be placed for cremation. Surrounding the urn platform are chak bang phloeng, four elaborate firescreen panels painted with Hindu deities, angels, flowers, and animals associated with Buddhism.
The platforms and cornices of the Phra Meruthat are adorned with around 500 sculptures fashioned by FAD artisans over the last year, starting with clay models carved by hand at the Office of Traditional Arts in Nakhon Pathom and other locations. These were later brought to the crematorium project headquarters at the National Theater and National Museum in Bangkok where fibreglass statues were carefully cast using the clay cores, and then painted.
According to the project’s head sculptor Nopparat Bunmee, “We tried to make our sculptures look as if they are alive. Their postures and faces must evoke the feeling they’re human, not statues.”
Principal figures include 2.75-metre-tall images of Indra, Shiva, Brahma, and Narayana (Vishnu) at the corners of the upper level. In proportion and detail, the sculptures display a naturalistic style that the late King, himself an accomplished artist, preferred. Artists working on the Narayana statue intentionally included facial features like those of the late king, reinforcing the belief among many Thais that Bhumibol was an earthly incarnation of Narayana. Other statues include a two-metre tall standing Garuda, Narayana’s vehicle and guardian of the Thai state, rabbits (representing the birth year of the late King in the Chinese zodiac), and a variety of mythical animals from Mount Meru’s Himmaphan forest.
A realistic, 70 cm-tall statue of Thongdaeng, the King’s favourite pet dog and a favourite metaphor in the late king’s annual public speeches, stands alongside the bier at the top level. It took Chin Prasong, former chief of the FAD’s Sculpture Division, two months to carve. Meanwhile, the surrounding causeway incorporates four ponds, a rice field, a reservoir, and a water mill to pay homage to the late King’s famed rural development projects.
Standing separate from the crematorium platforms is the 200-metre-long, 2,500-seat Royal Merit-Making Pavilion, where the King’s son and successor, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, or Rama X, will preside over official guests of the funeral, including members of the royal family, heads of state, cabinet ministers, senior officials, foreign ambassadors, and other honoured attendees. Colourful murals lining three walls of the pavilion depict 46 key scenes from the late monarch’s life—particularly civil works—painted by more than 300 volunteer artists. It’s also worth noting that the Royal Merit-Making Hall is a glassed-in, air-conditioned building (the only structure in the cremation grounds that’s not open-air).
Together the buildings and area surrounding the Royal Crematorium will accommodate 7,400 people. All construction was complete by the end of September, save for sheer gold curtains to surround the bier, floral arrangements, and other decorative elements which will be freshly installed the early morning of the funeral.
The five-day schedule of ceremonies and processions starts on October 25th with a royal merit-making ceremony at the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall at the Grand Palace. The Royal Cremation takes place at Sanam Luang the second day, October 26th. The next day, October 27th, the royal remains will be divided among six separate urns. One urn will end up permanently at the Chakri Maha Prasat Throne Hall and the five others will be presented to King Maha Vajiralongkorn and other royal family members.
On the fourth day, another royal merit-making ceremony takes place at the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall to bless the urn transferred there temporarily. On the fifth day, food will be offered to monks at the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall before the Royal Urn is transferred to its final resting place at Chakri Maha Prasat Throne Hall.
Six grand processions are planned for the ceremonies. The first three, on the 26th of October, bring the Royal Urn on the Golden Palanquin from the Grand Palace to the Royal Funeral chariot, which will be parked in front of Wat Pho. Made of carved wood that is lacquered and gilded, and decorated with glass mosaic, the chariot was built in 1795 for the cremation of Rama I’s father, and recently restored for the funeral. Weighing 13 tons and measuring 18 metres long, the vehicle must be pulled by 216 bearers.
The second procession follows the chariot from Wat Pho to Sanam Luang, where a third procession makes three circuits around the crematorium, ending with the transfer of the Royal Urn to the uppermost pavilion.
After cremation, the fourth procession takes the principal urn to the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall, and the fifth from there to the Chakri Maha Prasat Throne Hall. In the sixth and final procession, the 4th Cavalry Regiment King’s Guard parades on horseback from Phra Si Ratana Chedi, the 19th-century stupa enshrining Buddha relics at Wat Phra Kaew, to Wat Ratchabophit and then to Wat Bowonniwet, as a mini-pilgrimage in homage to the late King.
According to Kokiat, the Royal Crematorium will be left in place for at least a month after the Royal Cremation to allow the public the chance to admire the infrastructure of the grandest royal funeral in the world in decades.
Rama IX Royal Funeral Schedule
Final night vigil before the Royal Urn and Coffin at the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall, Grand Palace
11am: Meal offering to monks
1pm-4:30pm: Funeral procession from the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall to the Royal Crematorium at Sanam Luang
6pm: Sunset memorial service
7pm: Ceremonial first lighting of the funeral pyre and final salute by the 3rd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, King’s Guard and the 1st Artillery Battalion, King’s Guard on behalf of the Royal Thai Armed Forces (three-volley salute and 21-gun salute)
10pm: Royal Cremation proper, followed by outdoor performances of Thai classical dance, music, and puppetry
7am: Removal of the royal ashes and relics from the crematorium followed by a breakfast service
10am: Royal procession for transfer of the royal ashes and relics to the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall of the Grand Palace
11:30am: Final service held before the royal relics
1pm: Transfer of the royal relics to the Chakkri Maha Prasat Throne Hall
All Thai provinces are building Royal Crematorium replicas (Bangkok will have 9 replicas), so people can pay respect at these location during the funeral ceremony. After the cremation, the crematorium in Sanam Luang will be open to the public from November 1st to the 30th.
For more information regarding the Royal Cremation site, visit: www.kingrama9.net
Words and photos by Joe Cummings/CPA Media
Additional photos by Lekha Shankar