Thai royal cremation set for six days in November (video & gallery)

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Not since the death in 1995 of Her Royal Highness Sangwal Talapad, known affectionately to the Thai people as Somdeth Ya – the Royal Grandmother – has something so deeply affected the people of Thailand as the death earlier this year of Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana.

Women pray as they hold a portrait of late Princess Galyani Vadhana at Bangkok's Siriraj hospital on January 2, 2008
Women pray as they hold a portrait of late Princess Galyani Vadhana at Bangkok’s Siriraj hospital on January 2, 2008 Reuters

Born a commoner, the daughter of a poor goldsmith, HRH Sangwal Talapad was orphaned when she was eight years old. At 20 she married a royal prince and gave birth to two sons who became kings. In the 100 days of mourning following Princess Sangwal’s death more than 2.3 million Thai citizens visited the Grand Palace to pay their respects.

When news of the death of Princess Galyani Vadhana Krom Luang Naradhiwas Rajanagarindra, Princess of Narathiwat, was announced on January 2nd this year the nation as a whole was immediately plunged into mourning.

Political and religious differences were put aside and the nation as one, from beer bars in tourist hot spots such as Pattaya and Koh Samui to the traditionally conservative northern cities of Lamphun and Lampang, took on a somber and muted tone at the death of the the royal often referred to as “Princess Mother”.

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Thais across the country dress in black

Princess Galyani Vadhana 1a | photo-journ's newsblog by John Le Fevre
Palungdham/ MCOT

On news of Princess Galyani’s death the country’s television stations all immediately broke with scheduled programming, with news readers and program hosts all wearing black.

Government employees and officials nationwide wore black for 100 days, while ordinary Thai people did the same for a minimum of 15 days.

Throughout the days following the death of Princess Galyani Thai television stations broadcast archival footage celebrating the life and work of this much loved and respected member of the Thai royal family.

While the death of 84-year-old Princess Galyani, elder sister to Thailand’s ruling monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was not unexpected, the Thai population had lived in hope and prayed for her recovery.

For seven months the Princess Galyani stoically battled abdominal cancer, but not even aggressive medical treatment could prevent her from occasionally leaving her hospital bed to undertake duties she deemed important.

When it was reported that she had suffered a stroke in October 2007, the nation as one prayed for her recovery, with large segments of the population adopting the same colored clothing worn by the king on his daily visits.

Born in London, England on May 6, 1923, Princess Galyani was elevated to Royal Highness after her brother, King Bhumibol Adulyadej ascended the throne in 1946.

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King Bhumibol Adulyadej (L) and Queen Sirikit attend to a ceremony for late Princess Galyani Vadhana at the Grand Palace in Bangkok January 2, 2008
King Bhumibol Adulyadej (L) and Queen Sirikit attend to a ceremony for late Princess Galyani Vadhana at the Grand Palace in Bangkok January 2, 2008 Reuters

Her many charitable works with children, education, public health, rural schools and the poor, earned Princess Galyani immense respect from the Thai people.

She wrote many books, including a best-seller about the Thai King and his older brother.

Princess Galyani also produced videos about her overseas trips and had a great desire to raise the education levels of Thai people above those of other countries.

Her thoughts were that videos were a wonderful way to do so and the videos she produced are still often shown on Thai television.

In the first six days after her death more than 118,000 people thronged the Grand Palace to sign the condolences book. In every province throughout Thailand ordinary Thai’s queued to do the same thing.

Thailand’s royal chariots

The royal funeral of the late Princess Galyani will take place between November 14 -19 at Sanam Luang Park in Bangkok, with a budget of Bt300 million (about US$8.8 million) being set aside for the ceremony.

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The first four days of the royal funeral ceremony are associated with the cremation, while the latter two days with the collection and entombment of the ashes and royal relics.

Phra Maha Pichai Ratcharot or the Royal Great Victory Chariot, was built in the reign of King Rama I in 1795
Phra Maha Pichai Ratcharot or the Royal Great Victory Chariot, was built in the reign of King Rama I in 1795 John Le Fevre

There will be six grand processions over the four days of the cremation ceremony (November 15, 16, 18, and 19) involving 3,294 soldiers and the three Thai royal chariots: Phra Maha Pichai Ratcharot (Great Victory Chariot), Phra Vejayanta Ratcharot and Phra Rajarot Puen Yai, or minor Chariot.

These magnificent 200-year-old chariots have undergone a full restoration since the death of the Thai royal princess by a team of Thai artisans skilled in traditional construction techniques.

Two royal palanquins, a type of wheel-less sedan chair known in Thai as Phra Yannamas, carried by human bearers will also be used.

The Thai royal chariot Phra Maha Phichai Ratcharot is 11.2 meters tall and 15.3 meters long. It was built in the reign of Thailand’s King Rama I in the Rattanakosin period, in 1795.

The Thai royal chariot Phra Vejayanta Ratcharot is 11.7 meters tall, 17.5 meters long, weighs 40 tonnes and requires 206 men – 160 in front and 46 at the rear – to draw it.

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It was also built in the reign of Thailand’s King Rama I, in 1799, for use to carry the remains of high-ranking members of the royal family to the Sanam Luang ground.

Three processions, lots of pomp & ceremony

Not nearly as large as the “Royal Chariot of Great Victory”, the smaller Phra Vejayanta Ratcharot chariot was built in 1799
Not nearly as large as the “Royal Chariot of Great Victory”, the smaller Phra Vejayanta Ratcharot chariot was built in 1799 John Le Fevre

The first three processions of the royal funeral will take place on Saturday, November 15 when the royal urn (Kosa in Thai) which has been crafted from three aromatic sandalwood trees, aged 142, 118, and 111 years, will be escorted from the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall by 662 soldiers to the Phra Maha Phichai Ratcharot at Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho).

The second procession will move the royal urn on Phra Maha Phichai Ratcharot to the royal crematorium at the Sanam Luang ceremonial site.

Escorted by 1,114 soldiers, it will proceed along Sanam Chai Road, pass Ratchadamnoen Nai Road, and finally turn left to the central road that crosses Sanam Luang.

The third procession, comprising 376 soldiers, will carry the royal urn by Phra Yannamas Sam Lamkhan to circle counter-clockwise three times around the royal crematorium. Then the royal urn will be moved back to the royal crematorium.

The Thai royal cremation will take place on a pyre of traditional Thai design with the construction similar to that commonly seen in traditional Thai palaces and castles.

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The Phra Rajarot Puen Yai, or minor Chariot (royal gun carriage)
The Phra Rajarot Puen Yai, or minor Chariot (royal gun carriage) John Le Fevre

A main aspect of the pyre, which has taken 200 highly skilled artisans from the Thai Fine Arts Department (FAD) more than seven months to construct, is that it has seven levels of Sawettachattra, symbolic of royal umbrellas used to protect members of the Thai royal family.

The seven-tier umbrella also signifies the Buddhist factors of enlightenment, awareness, wisdom, effort, delight, tranquility, concentration, and upekkha, or neutral thinking.

Though traditionally made of wood, the funeral pyre for Princess Galyani will be constructed with a steel frame and covered in wooden paneling to ensure stronger construction.

Thai royal cremation rituals

By tradition the royal pyre must be removed from Sanam Luang the day after the royal cremation to prevent bad luck. The royal pyre of the late Princess Mother was later used for a building at Patumwanaram temple, the nearest temple to Sraprathum palace.

The fourth procession, consisting of 822 soldiers, will take place on Sunday, November 16, when the ashes are collected.

It will transfer the royal urn containing the royal relics and ashes from the royal crematorium to the Grand Palace.

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The royal relic urn will be placed upon Phra Thinang Rajendhrayan, a royal palanquin, and the royal ashes placed on Phra Wor Siwigagarn, a covered palanquin with two carrying poles.

The fifth procession on Tuesday, November 18, will be joined by 329 soldiers and transfer the royal relics and ashes by Phra Thinang Rajendhrayan from Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall to Chakri Maha Prasat Throne Hall, within the Grand Palace compound.

The sixth procession will take place on Wednesday, November 19, when the royal ashes will be transferred from Phra Si Rattana Chedi, a stupa in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, to be placed in a stupa at Wat Ratchabophit Sathitmahasimaram in Bangkok.

Thais mourn late Princess Galyani Vadhana at the Grand Palace in Bangkok January 2, 2008
Thais mourn late Princess Galyani Vadhana at the Grand Palace in Bangkok January 2, 2008 Reuters

A full-dress rehearsal for the Thai royal cremation is scheduled for Sunday, November 2nd, with 2,500 soldiers participating.

For the first three days of the Thai royal cremation ceremony Thai people will wear black, while entertainment venues throughout the country have been asked to stop their programs, or reduce them in line with the somber occasion.

While the Thai royal cremation is not being promoted as a tourist event, the pomp, ceremony and pageantry associated with the occasion are sure to make the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, 11 years ago pale into insignificance.

The Committee on the Organising of the Thai Royal Cremation Ceremony is expecting hundreds of thousands of Thai’s to join in the cremation ceremony and have made special arrangements for the installation of large television screens at Sanam Luang for people to view the proceedings.

In addition, relief centers will be established near Sanam Luang and Ratchadamnoen Klang Avenue to provide food, drinking water, toilets, and first aid to those joining the ceremony to pay their last respects to the late Princess Galyani.

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Commemorative stamps and coins

In recognition of Princess Galyani’s contribution to Thai society, Thailand Post will issue a series of commemorative stamps, scheduled to go on sale before the ceremony of lighting the funeral pyre begins, showing the pictures of the Princess.

The Thai Treasury Department is also producing three commemorative coins to mark the Thai royal cremation.

Thai students pray before a shrine of late Princess Galyani Vadhana at Bangkok's Siriraj hospital January 2, 2008
Thai students pray before a shrine of late Princess Galyani Vadhana at Bangkok’s Siriraj hospital January 2, 2008 Reuters

The first coin will be a 15-gram gold coin 26 millimeters in diameter, with a value of Bt25,000 ($735). The second, a 15-gram silver coin 30 millimeters in diameter, is priced at Bt1,000 ($29), while the third will be a 13-gram copper coin, 30 millimeter in diameter, worth Bt50 ($1.47).

For Thais, the death of Princess Galyani is a wakeup call that their revered royal family is aging. The King has had some serious health issues recently and in late 2007 had a stroke and was hospitalised for several weeks.

At the time the King and his sister were in the same hospital in Bangkok and thousands of people sat outside holding photographs of the King and Princess, and burning incense to pray for their good health.

While the loss of such a loved and revered member of the Thai royal family as Princess Galyani has deeply saddened many Thais, the death of their beloved King, who at age 81 is the world’s longest-serving current head of state and the longest-serving monarch in Thai history, is something most Thais would care not to contemplate.

 

 

Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana slide gallery

 

Photos John Le Fevre

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John Le Fevre is an Australian national with more than 40 years experience as a journalist, photographer, videographer and editor.

He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.

He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.

In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.

Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.

In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.

Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me

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