Bidding farewell to a king: Memorial Service for the Royal Cremation of His Majesty the Late King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand

On 26 October, 2017, after a year of national mourning, Thailand paid its final tribute and farewell to its late King, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away on 13 October 2016.


Photo courtesy: www.thairath.co.th

Royal Cremation Ceremony was held in Bangkok at the Royal Cremation Ground near the Grand Palace in the evening of the 26th, presided over by the present King, His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun and attended by hundreds of thousands of Thais, and also by foreign leaders, kings, queens, princes and presidents, representatives of more than 40 friendly governments, including India’s Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar. During the one year that His Majesty the late King was lying in state at Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall in the Grand Palace, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a brief 3-hour stopover in Bangkok on his way to Tokyo, to pay his respect to the late King on 10 November 2016, having called him in his twitter “one of the tallest leaders of our time”.


Photo courtesy: http://static.dnaindia.com

Elsewhere in the Kingdom, Thai people came out in droves to memorial services held at the same time as the Royal Cremation, in every province and in many places around Bangkok, to bid farewell to the beloved King.


Photo courtesy: news.thaipbs.or.th

Outside Thailand, the Thai Government has instructed all Thai embassies and consulates to hold the “Memorial Service for the Royal Cremation of His Majesty the Late King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand” to give opportunity to Thai communities around the globe to honour His Majesty the Late King for the last time. In New Delhi, the Royal Thai Embassy held this memorial service at Palika Service Officers’ Institute (PSOI), Nehru Park, in Chanakyapuri, with the kind cooperation from New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), who waived all rent for the use of the park, as their contribution to pay homage to the King and Thai-Indian friendship.

In other parts of India, the Royal Thai Consulate-General in Chennai held its memorial service at the Consulate-General, and the Royal Thai Consulate-General in Mumbai had its ceremony in the historic building of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum, Mumbai. The Royal Thai Consulate-General in Kolkata, in collaboration with the Thai Dhammaduta Buddhist missionary delegation to India, held a spectacular ceremony at Wat Thai Bodh Gaya, or the Royal Thai Monastery (near the Bodhi Tree that marks the spot where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment two and a half millennia ago), where, apart from laypersons, hundreds of Thai and foreign monks of various sects came to honour the late King.


Ceremony at Wat Thai Bodh Gaya

In Delhi, I was tasked with being one of the two masters of ceremony at the event in PSOI Nehru Park, attended by about 335 Thais from Delhi and vicinity, as well as from Aligarh, Lucknow and Varanasi, and invited foreign guests such as Smt. Preeti Saran, Secretary (East) of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, and ambassadors, high commissioners, charges d’affaires, and diplomats from ASEAN embassies to India and those embassies which are also accredited to Thailand from New Delhi. Together we watched the royal ceremony in Bangkok, televised live nationwide and globally by the Television Pool of Thailand, before conducting our own memorial service after His Majesty the current King had ascended to the Royal Crematorium to light the pyre.

It is remarkable to note how deep-rooted our Thai-Indian ties are, with so much common cultural heritages that can be clearly seen during this Royal Cremation Ceremony. According to the Thai Buddhist tradition, the body of a deceased king would be cremated (quite similar to Hindu and Sikh traditions of “Antim Sanskar”).  In the old days fragrant sandalwood logs were used as firewood for the cremation of kings and princes. Later the sandalwood would be shaped into a small symbolic bouquet to be used generally in Thai Buddhist funerals. So on that day the foreign guests were invited to join us, and the whole Thai Nation, in this symbolic last act to honour His Majesty the late King by offering the sandalwood flower in the receptive trays set before his Royal Portrait. Hundreds of handmade sandalwood flowers had been prepared by Thai expats volunteers in New Delhi before this event.


Hundreds of handmade sandalwood flowers had been prepared by Thai expats volunteers in New Delhi

However, I told our guests that Thailand is also an open and multicultural society, and by royal tradition His Majesty the Late King, as well as other Thai Kings before him, considered himself to be the Defenders of All Faiths observed by his people, so we encouraged them to pay respect to him in accordance with their own respective customs. The sandalwood flowers would be available for those who were willing to do it the Thai Buddhist way. But we do realise that they were there as our friends, bound with us in spirit by the same deep respect we ourselves have for our King, and we are grateful for their kind presence and gestures. So they could also bow, curtsy, or give a salutation to His Late Majesty in manner according to their beliefs.


Muslim students pay respect to the King

While we waited for the Royal Ceremony to commence in Bangkok, I told the gathering about the part of the ceremony that had been carried out earlier that morning in Thailand.  Based on an age-old Thai tradition, on the day of the Royal Cremation Ceremony for a reigning king, the Royal Urn in which the body of the king was held (called in Thai “Phra Baromma Kos”, the same word as Parama Kosh in Sanskrit) had to be moved from the Palace to the Royal Crematorium by the royal procession of honor called in Thai “Rew-Ka-Buan”. That morning, the Royal Urn was moved from Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall to the Royal Crematorium by three processions.


Rew-Ka-Buan

The first procession was that of the Palanquin with Three Poles, or “Phra Yannamas Sam Lam Khan” to transfer the Royal Urn from Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall in the Grand Palace to the Chariot at the eastern side of Wat Phra Chetuphon temple, known also as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This first procession spent 30 minutes to cover the distance of 817 metres.


Phra Yannamas Sam Lam Khan

The “Palanquin with Three Poles” was built in the reign of King Rama II for the Royal Cremation of his father King Rama I, the first Chakri king of the Bangkok Era. It is a large palanquin made of carved wood, gilded, and decorated with glass. It is 7.73 metres long and 1.78 meters high, weighting 700 kilograms.

The second procession’s focus was “Phra Maha Phichai Ratcharot” or “the Great Victory Royal Chariot”, used to transfer the Royal Urn from the Temple of the Reclining Buddha to “Sanam Luang” or the Royal Cremation Ground.  The Royal Urn was put in the special throne called “Busabok”, and placed on top of the Chariot.     The Thai name for such movable throne, Busabok, is derived from Sanskrit, “pushpaka”, which is the name of the self-propelled vehicle of Lord Kubera, brother of Ravan, who gave his pushpaka to Lord Rama in the Story of Ramayana.


Phra Maha Phichai Ratcharot

For our friends who speak Hindi or who are familiar with Sanskrit, the Thai name of this Chariot should be easy to understand. Maha means great, and Phichai is the same words as vijay or vijaya, meaning victory, while Ratcha is the same word as raja, meaning royal, and Rot means chariot, the same word as rath in Hindi, hence “the Great Victory Royal Chariot”.  This chariot is made of carved wood, lacquered and gilded, and decorated with glass. It was built in 1796 in the reign of King Rama I for the royal cremation of his father.  Later, it has been used to carry royal urns of kings, queens, and members of the royal family at their funerals. “Phra Maha Phichai Ratcharot” is the largest Royal Chariot with a height of 11.2 metres, width of 4.84 metres and length of 18 metres. It weighs 13.7 tons. Two hundred and sixteen men at a time are required to move and steer the chariot “Phra Maha Phichai Ratcharot”, and this procession spent 2 hours to cover the distance of 890 metres.

In the third procession, the “Ratcharot Puen Yai”, or the Royal Gun-carriage, was used to transfer the Royal Urn from “Phra Maha Phichai Ratcharot” to the Royal Crematorium. The “Ratcharot Puen Yai” carried the Royal Urn on 3 counter-clockwise rounds of the Royal Crematorium, (the same practice as “prasavya” in Hindu funerals,) before transferring the Royal Urn to “Phra-Jit-Ga-Than” or the royal platform inside the Royal Crematorium. “Ratcharot Puen Yai” is used in the royal cremation of a king or a high-ranking royal who held a military position. This practice was initiated by King Vajiravudh, Rama VI, who explained in his own last will and testament in 1920 that “Because I am a soldier, I would therefore like to make this final journey of mine, as a soldier.”


Ratcharot Puen Yai

This final journey would end at the Royal Crematorium itself, which is called in Thai “Phra Meru Mas” or the Golden Mountain of Sumeru. This is ancient Thai artists’ imagination of what paradise would look like.  The name itself – Phra Meru Mas – signifies, again, the common cultural heritage Thailand shares with India.  Sumeru Mountain or Mount Meru in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain cosmology is a mythical sacred mountain at the central pillar of the whole universe.  It is supposed to have five major peaks surrounded by smaller mountains, and one can see clearly that the structure of the Royal Crematorium also has five major peaks. The middle and tallest building is where the Royal Urn was.


Phra Meru Mas

When the Royal Urn and the body of the Late King was deposited to the Royal Crematorium, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun would preside over the Royal Cremation rite, beginning with the sermon from His Holiness the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand (who is an alumnus of Banaras Hindu University. His Holiness received his Master Degree in History and Archeology from BHU in 1969.) In summary, His Holiness’ sermon referred to the last teaching of Lord Buddha just before He Himself passed over into Nirvana (in present day Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh). The Master urged his disciples to be mindful, always pay heed to the fact that all conditioned things are impermanent and changing, and with that realisation, to try our best to strive on with wisdom and mindfulness, and diligently do what is to be done toward fellow men and for ourselves.

At around 17.10 hrs. (Delhi local time) His Majesty the present King of Thailand ascended to the Royal Crematorium to light the pyre for His Majesty the Late King. That was the signal for all Thai embassies and consulates around the world to commence their own memorial services. H.E. Chutintorn Gongsakdi, Ambassador of Thailand to India, proffered the offerings before the Royal Portrait of the Late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He then proceeded to light the fire from the royal fire box, graciously given by His Majesty the present King from Bangkok to the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs for all Thai missions abroad. The royal fire box, consisted of a candle, a lighter and a bouquet of sandalwood flower, just arrived at our embassy by diplomatic pouch only three days before. In Thailand, the royal fire was bestowed to all provincial governors in the form of a lit lantern from the palace.

After that, the Thai Ambassador and Madame were the first ones to offer their sandalwood flowers into the receptive trays before the portrait, followed by our guests the foreign dignitaries, members of the “Team Thailand” of the Royal Thai Embassy and other Thai offices in New Delhi, as well as Thai people and their families.

On that day, the entire Thai nation – Thais of all ethnicities, religions, or birth; from all walks of life; including members of Thai communities around the world, united in spirit to symbolically pay our last tribute to the beloved Great King, in accordance with our respective faiths. At Nehru Park, one could see Thai Buddhist monks, nuns, and lay people; some 70 Thai Muslim students who travelled over from other cities; some Thais of Indian origin, including Thai Sikhs and Hindus, and some Christians. Everyone came to show their respect to the late King in their ways. Buddhist monks would meditate, standing, in front of his portrait. Government and military officers as well as Thai volunteers in uniforms saluted. Most Thais would bow or curtsied and offered their sandalwood flowers. Thai Muslims would not offer the sandalwood flowers as there is no cremation in Islam, but instead stood at attention in front of the portrait and bowed. Other Thais and some Indians did the “pranam” gesture. A little boy coming with his mother also tried to curtsy when he saw his mother did that. At one point after submitting the offerings and saluting, H.E. the Thai Ambassador took off his uniform cap, and prostrated himself in obeisance to the late King, following an old tradition of the Siamese Royal court.

When everyone had the chance to pay final tribute to King Bhumibol, the embassy officers collected all offered sandalwood flowers to send back to Thailand, as instructed by the Foreign Ministry.

His Late Majesty did not have a chance to set foot in India during his lifetime, although his illustrious grandfather, King Chulalongkorn the Great, Rama V, did visit India under the British Raj in 1872. His uncle, King Vajiravudh, Rama VI, was a scholar well-versed in Sanskrit and Hindu literature, including the Ramayana and the Mahabharata epics. He translated many stories from these epics into Thai and also penned Thai plays inspired by Indian literature, such as Kalidasa’s Shakuntala and King Harsha’s Priyadarshika.  Another uncle of his, King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, received one of the greatest poets of India and of humankind, Rabindranath Tagore, at his palace in Bangkok in 1927. King Bhumibol himself had expressed his wish to visit India and see the Royal Thai Monastery at Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, which was built for him in 1994 to mark the 50th anniversary of his reign and was since placed under his royal patronage, but his frail health prevented him from coming to India.

In performing his duty as king of Thailand, King Bhumibol played host to President V.V. Giri of India when the president and his wife made a state visit to Thailand in 1972. Some years earlier, he received in audience an Indian diplomat who was appointed as India’s Ambassador to Thailand during 1967-1969. The Ambassador, K.R. Narayanan, later went on to become India’s 10th President and its first Dalit president.

Their Majesty the King and Queen of Thailand with President V.V. Giri of India and Madame, during the President’s State Visit to Thailand in 1972.

His children are not strangers to India, as his son, His Majesty the present King, visited India three times when he was the Crown Prince and mentioned the fact in his replying letter to the then president of India, Pranab Mukherjee, when the latter offered his condolences at the time King Bhumibol passed away. King Bhumibol’s daughters, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and Princess Chulabhorn, are also frequent visitors to India. Princess Sirindhorn is a Sanskrit scholar in her own right and the recipient of both the World Sanskrit Award and the Patma Bhushan Award from the Government of India. Princess Chulabhorn, a biochemist, attends meetings with the World Health Organisation South East Asian Regional Office in New Delhi every year.

His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej has passed away, but his legacies live on. The cordial ties between India and the Royal Family of Thailand are one of the most important factors contributing to the everlasting friendship between Thailand and India.

By Apirat Sugondhabhirom
Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission,
Royal Thai Embassy, New Delhi