Royalty Resplendent

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Spending Three Billion Baht ($90 million), Thai government did everything possible to make the funeral of the Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej a memorable event

By Mridu Kumari

Even in death, a king’s royalty remains gorgeous and resplendent. And it was in full display during the funeral of former Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok in the last week of October. A 50-metre tall three-tier golden crematorium, representing ‘Mount Meru’ (considered as sacred centre of the Hindu universe) was built to carry out the funeral of the king who had ruled the country for 70 years.  He died at the age of 88 last year on October 13. But since he was not a common man, the Thai government did everything possible to make the funeral of the king memorable. Three billion baht ($90 million) was budgeted for the funeral, perhaps the biggest in the living memory of human beings. Of this sum, a lion share was used in constructing the funeral pyre which, according to a report, took the country’s top artisans 10 months to complete. It comprised of nine gilded spires adorned with the images from mythology — 132 sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist deities and a central image of Narayana. The sandalwood coffin had engravings of 24 Garudas and 64 Apsaras.

In fact, the cosmological order of Thailand (earlier know as Siam) descends from ancient India, thus the cremation site was the replica of the Vedic universe, and funeral rites were performed by Brahmin priests. “The Ramayana took root in Siamese culture as the Ramakien, integrated with the teachings of the Buddha. King Bhumibol, a devout Buddhist, was the symbolic personification of Ram, the seventh avatar of Lord Vishnu,” Maura Moynihan, a New York-based researcher said, while writing in an Indian daily.

In 1345, King Lithai of the Sukhothai Phra Ruang dynasty, wrote the Traibhumikatha, (the three worlds of existence), based on the Vedic scriptures, wherein the cosmos is divided into three realms: Arupa-Loka, the formless realm; Rupa-Loka, the corporeal realm and kama-loka, the realm of sensation, where the worlds of devas, mankind and the underworld coexist. “The universal axis is Mount Meru, the abode of supreme deities, which rises from the forests of Himavanta — Himmapan in Thai — mystical habitat of the Naga, Kinaree, Singha and Garuda, the myriad creatures of Indian legend who populate the urban landscape of modern Thailand, on bank notes, official emblems and hotel logos,” Moynihan observed.

Known as Rama IX, a reference to his lineage stretching from Chakri dynasty’s founder Rama-I, Bhumibol commanded great love and respect in Thailand. In route to his visit to Japan in November last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi  had made a surprise stopover in Bangkok to pay his respect to dead king  Bhumibol whose body was lying in the state at the Grand Palace complex in the Thai capital. This was, otherwise, a diplomatic gesture, but is a must for those who want to have stronger relations with Thailand. This in a way also explains internal dynamics of this Southeast Asian nation where king Bhumibol was looked at with reverence. He was viewed as a beacon of peace and stability in a nation that suffered repeated violent coups and counter-coups since his coronation in 1950. Therefore, in line with social and political position of the late king, funeral arrangement was kept elaborate. It was a five-day funeral programme, which was attended by Spain’s queen Sofia, former German President Christian Wuff, Britain’s Prince Andrew, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Bhutan’s king  Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, his queen and his one year old son.

King Bhumibol was an ardent student of science and agriculture who held numerous patents, created Thai fonts for the first generation of personal computers, built his own sailboat and with it won a gold medal in 1967 South Asian Games, was an accomplished painter, photographer and composer whose jam sessions with Stan Getz and Benny Goodman earned him the popular sobriquet “The Jazz King.” During the five-day funeral, hundreds of musicians and dancers enacted king Bhumibol’s favourite episodes of Khon, the royal masked dance of the Ramakien. Orchestras played Bhumibol’s jazz and classical compositions. Actors performed the ‘Legend of Maha Janaka’, a Jataka tale of one of Lord Buddha’s past lives as a prince who showed great perseverance in his quest to regain the Kingdom of Mithila, which the late Thai king rewrote for modern Thai readers and became a best-selling book and an animated film.

Having been at the helms of royal power for seven decades, king Bhumibol uplifted poor, farmers and ethnic minorities from poverty. He launched more than 4200 agriculture and irrigation related projects across Thailand in order to ensure that poverty is banished out of the country. He turned the opium farming areas of the Golden Triangle (border of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar) into cultivation field for high yielding crops. Before this, first of all he adopted visionary stance; he stopped authorities from arresting people involved in the cultivation of opium as he feared that if they took action they would get scared and would join communism which many countries of the Southeast Asian region was then influenced with, thanks to China. As such, he took friendly way to take them into confidence. He asked them, “how much do you earn from growing the opium”? They replied, “the money that we earn is of the same amount as when we grow the Chinese plum.”  Following this, the king decided to set up the research center at the Golden Triangle to experiment many kinds of crops and fruits that suit with the weather. The outcome was very satisfactory. Different types of fruits and plants were introduced to those minorities with the technical supports to them together with the marketing strategy. Life of people living in that area started better after they decided not to grow opium and turn to follow the king’s suggestions.

King Bhumibol’s successor, Vajiralongkorn or Rama X, does not command the same respect as his father and has spent much of his adult life abroad, mostly in Germany. Since ascending to the throne, the 65-year-old who had a long military career has made amendments to the Constitution in order to strengthen his power.