Thailand on Saturday observed the beginning of an elaborate three-day coronation ceremony for its new king. Last time such a ceremony took place in the country was back in May 1950 for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX. Adulyadej passed away in 2016 at the age of 88, after having ruled for seven decades. Upon his death, the throne was inherited by Maha Vajiralongkorn, also known as Rama X, who had requested for some time to mourn his father’s death before taking over the kingdom symbolically.
The ceremony, which is expected to cost more than $30 million, will be an interesting mix of Buddhist and Brahminical rituals, symbolically declaring the king as devaraja (God-king) and upholder of Buddhism in Thailand. The Indian roots of the Thai king’s coronation ceremony are reflexive of the rich, long relationship that South East Asian countries have shared with Hindu and Buddhist communities in India.
Why Thai coronation ceremony has an Indian touch
French scholar George Coedes is known to be the first person to have carried out an in-depth study of the process of ‘Indianisation’ in South East Asia, whereby he coined the term ‘Farther India’. Trade was perhaps the foremost cause of contact between the two regions. As Coedus notes, individual traders had perhaps set up small kingdoms in South East Asian states, thereby carrying with them Buddhist and Hindu cultural motifs and value systems.
The Brahmanical character of the Thai coronation ceremony needs to be located in the context of such cultural exchange. The Siamese preserve the ancient term for coronation as ‘Rajabhisheka’ which in ancient India referred to the coronation of ordinary kings. “For the Siamese, Rajabhisheka is rather a Rajasuya, a ceremony for the consecration of an emperor, and it is extremely interesting to find that some of its features can be traced back to the Vedic Rajasuya described in the Satapatha Brahmana,” writes author Horace Geoffrey Quaritch Wales, who was the advisor of Siamese King Rama VI and Rama VII.
The existence of Brahminical features in the coronation ceremony can be traced back to the Sukhothai Kingdom of the thirteenth century. Since then, despite the growth of Buddhism in the country, Brahmins had an extremely important role to play in the royal court. “Although Buddhism was the religion of the people, and was protected by the kings, Hinduism was still considered as essential to the monarchy, and received a great share of royal favour,” writes Quaritch Wales.
During the period of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, Brahmins were appointed in the court from Cambodia and from the Indian peninsula. The Brahmanical nature of the court ceremonies was destroyed only when the Ayutthaya kingdom was sacked in the 18th century by the Burmese troops of the Konbaung Dynasty.
King Rama I, who founded the Rattanakosin Kingdom in the late 18th century, brought back the Brahmanical tradition of the coronation ceremony which continues to be observed till date. As noted by Quaritch Wales, when Rama I first mounted the throne, he underwent a small ceremony of anointment. “But two years later, having collected all available information concerning the coronation ceremony of the Ayutthaya period, he was anointed and crowned with full rites, which afterwards became the model for all future coronations,” he adds.
Thai King’s coronation: These are the rituals expected
Thai society being historically located around rivers, water is of huge ritualistic significance in the coronation ceremony. Preparations began in April with the collection of water from across Thailand to be used in this weekend’s ceremonies. The water was then blessed in Buddhist ceremonies at major temples. The water is used ritualistically first to ‘purify’ the king and then to anoint him as monarch.
Rama X will then proceed to the Bhadrapitha throne to be officially crowned. He will sit under a nine-tiered umbrella where he will be presented with the royal regalia which consists the great crown of victory, the royal slippers, the royal fan and fly whisk, the royal sword of victory and the royal scepter. The crown, made of gold and studded with diamonds weighs approximately 7.5 kgs and is believed to symbolise the responsibilities of the king. After the crowning ceremony, the newly consecrated king will give his first royal command.
The following day, the king will be carried in a palanquin across the streets of Bangkok to greet the public. He will also grant titles to members of the royal family. Reportedly, a light and sound show and a display by drones are planned for the evening.
On Monday, the king is expected to grant public audience from the balcony of his palace and later in the day, he will hold a reception for diplomatic corps.
The final rite of the ceremony will be held in October when the king will present robes to Buddhist monks at Wat Arun (the temple of dawn) along Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river.