Monday, November 17, 2008

Cremation of a Princess

Princess Galyani Vadhana, the elder sister of King Bhumibol Adulaydej, was cremated Saturday with elaborate pageantry at Sanam Luang in Bangkok. And I was there, in the midst of the crowd of hundreds of thousands of mourners clad in black.

The six-day funeral began on Friday with a private ceremony in the Grand Palace where the body of the Princess has lain in state since her death from cancer at the age of 84 last January. The actual funeral was to take place in the adjacent parade grounds where a spectacular temple complex has been constructed for the cremation. The centerpiece is Phra Merumas, a 128-foot structure towering over the adjacent structures. In a mythology borrowed from Hindu and Buddhist traditions, royalty are considered gods and after death they ascend to the top of Mount Meru, a mountain at the center of the universe, to take their place among the deities. The glittering crematorium is adorned on all sides by sculptures of the gods, half-human, half-animal statues. As the tower spirals upwards, the statues get smaller, symbolizing the ascension to pure spirit, according to the chief architect, Arvuth Ngernchuklin. The price tag for the first royal funeral since that of the King's mother in 1996 has been set at 300 million baht (8.9 million dollars). Once the funeral period is over and the public has had a chance to view the crematorium, the buildings will be demolished.

I paid my first visit on Friday morning when I expected crowds to be small. The trees around Sanam Luang have obscured my view of the crematorium when passing on the bus and it was my first chance to look at it up as close as the fences and guards would allow. Set against at backdrop of the stupas of the Grand Palace behind, the scene was one of exotic luxury and mystery. The monarchy and the rituals surrounding it are the glue that holds Thai culture together. The people's reverence for the King and his family is unfathomable to a westerner, but, like all deep faith, impressive to behold. Before the big day there were hundreds of visitors in black, circling the buildings like me to get a good look at where the Princess would ascend to heaven. Vendors were selling commemorative books, buttons, medallions and posters. The trees had been wrapped with blossoms and the plants in the garden featured blooms of blue, her favorite color. The roads around Sanam Luang were still open but most of the sidewalk had been blocked off and pedestrians were forced to squeeze by each other single file or risk being struck by traffic. The closed-off portion of the sidewalk was empty and the reasons for crowd control, as always, were mysterious. As noted in previous blogs, Thais love to restrict access whenever possible.

Events on Saturday began at 7 a.m., too early for this farang. I could see more on television anyway. The day was to feature three processions to the crematorium by over 6,000 participants in colorful costumes, ancient and new. The giant chariot carrying the urn with the body was drawn by 216 men. Walking in the procession was Crown Prince Maha Vagiralongkorn, likely to succeed to the throne when his 80-year-old father dies, and Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the favorite of the people. There were bands and a variety of musical instruments including a Siamese oboe, bugles, conch shell and drums, and in the field several big artillery guns began a booming accompaniment to the slow-moving marchers.

Since the processions were to take over four hours, I had plenty of time. Now all of the streets in the vicinity were closed and I could take a bus only as far as the river, then walk over the empty Pinklao Bridge to Sanam Luang where the atmosphere was electric. The large oval of Sanam Luang had been divided in half with the crematorium complex taking up one end with the crowds on the other sheltered by tents for shade around the periphery. There were few western faces among the throng of Thais of all ages, many of whom had arrived before dawn on buses from upcountry. The official figure was 100,000 but I estimated more. I was there in a similar crowd last December for the King's birthday celebration (then the dominant color was happy yellow compared with Saturday's somber black). There were families, students, monks (their orange robes a startling contrast) and nuns in white, many old people walking with difficulty, boy and girl scouts, and organizations obvious from their shared outfits. Vendors were doing a brisk business selling souvenirs and food, but I also saw food and water given away for free. It was warm but not oppressively humid. People found shade and refreshment on the grounds of nearby Thammasat University and Wat Mahathat. The periodic boom of the big guns hurt my ears.

From my vantage point in the midst of the crowd I could see little of the ceremony. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of military headgear and sometimes parts of a body passing. After the chariot had transported the remains of the Princess to the crematorium, I saw it from a distance on a side road as it traveled into a compound beyond a fence. Some of the participants strolled on the edges of the crowd and let people take their pictures. I should add that 9 out of every 10 mourners had cameras and were taking photographs. The ease of inexpensive digital photography has turned everyone, at least in this country, into a photographer and often all you see if people taking pictures of people taking pictures of... Around noon, when the heat began to get oppressive, I walked through Thammasat's campus to the river where I found the S&P restaurant I like still open, and I ate some chicken with cashew nuts and rice while resting my feet, along with a lime freeze. On the back roads, people were buying and selling momentoes of the day and, like me, eating lunch. I saw a passing truck full of horses who were gazing out placidly and allowing their noses to be stroked by admirers.

The next event scheduled was the placing of sandalwood flowers on shrines dedicated to the Princess at several locations in the field. They would be added to the funeral pyre, allowing her subjects to participate. After the last drum beat of the procession, thousands lined up and guided by soldiers presented their flowers in rows on silver platters. I had been told that over 200,000 of the sweet-smelling flowers made from wood shavings had been prepared, but I did not know where to find them. In any event, waiting for a long time in the hot sun was not my idea of respect for the dead. So I went back home and took a nap.

In the late afternoon I arrived back at the action just before the King. I even saw a flash of his gold limousine pass by not far away (not the privileged look into the car I got, twice, during his birthday celebration). In this view, on one of the big screen TVs set up around Sanam Luang, you can see both the King and Queen and their three children. The King, who reportedly suffers from Parkinson's disease, could be seen walking with difficulty and it was painful to watch. He had two duties, to light the crematorium fire and then, after an interval of five hours, to preside over the actual cremation when royalty and honored guests would add their sandalwood flowers to the flames. There were three large stages in the field and following the initial lighting ceremony, each would present cultural performances for the crowd. Puppet plays and music were scheduled. The beginning of the cremation rite included much chanting from the assembled priests and I maneuvered my way as close to the actual events as possible. At night the brightly lit crematorium complex was spectacular. I could almost see inside to where the cream of Thai society, as well as generals and politicans, were gathered. This close there was no TV screen, but the sounds were broadcast over loudspeakers.

By this time my feet were feeling the strain of walking and standing for nearly ten hours (yes, I know, but the nap was only a short break). I tried sitting in one of the few places where the crowd had thinned out. Earlier I had gotten caught in a jam where the normally passive Thais were pushing and shoving with abandon. First the tide moved one way, then another, with no clear direction. Then, as suddenly as it began, the surge ended, and after the King passed people had their picture taken with members of his honor guard. At one corner of the field I spied a line of people and saw that free food was being dispensed. I was hungry and I found the end of the line which had been moving rapidly. Just as the bus you want I've discovered is always the least frequent, the line stopped as soon as I entered it. I waited, and I waited. Farang are noticeably impatient. But I had no way to request an explanation. After about 15 minutes we began moving again. I accepted gratefully the small portion of chicken and rice offered, and sat on the grass to eat. The entertainment, scheduled to begin at 7 had not commenced 45 minutes later, and so I decide to return home. After a long walk across the bridge and a short bus ride home, I watched the final lighting of the cremation fire on television and saw the smoke rise above Phra Merumas. The King and his entourage were treated to a puppet play and he reportedly did not leave until 1:30 in the morning. Entertainment for the public on the field was scheduled to last until 6 a.m.

On Sunday morning I watched on TV as the Prince collected the ashes of his aunt which were then taken in another large procession to the Grand Palace. More ceremonies take place at the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall on Monday and Tuesday before the ashes of the Princes are finally enshrined at Wat Ratchabophit. The crowds have gone back home and the buses are running again across the river. Now I can put my black duds away until the next extravagant royal funeral, which might not be far off.

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