The coronation of HM King Vajiralongkorn [in full: His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, Rama X] held a large portion of the Thai population fascinated last weekend, May 4-6, two and a half years after he became the tenth king of the Chakri Dynasty upon the death of his father. Extensive news coverage and tens of thousands of pictures appearing on-line have recorded what happened. [See picture 1] But I think most of the news media failed to address the deeper question, “What did the coronation accomplish?”
This essay will attempt to answer that question in three steps: (1) The mega-narrative in support of royalty, (2) specific actions in the coronation that reiterated that narrative, (3) the rationale for such an extravagant production.
THE MEGA-NARRATIVE: the Thai perspective
The world we live in was created by eons of physical and chemical processes, of course. But to discern the MEANING of the world and our place in it we resort to symbolic narratives we have inherited from ancient India. Over long centuries, sages meditated on these narratives and developed sub-narratives. One important such story that has much to say about social order is the story of Rama, the rightful king of Ayutaya, and his beloved Sita, and how their relationship was challenged by demonic Totsakan. In order to retrieve Sita, whom Totsakan had abducted, Rama had to enlist the gods and the powers of nature centered on the world mountain in the Himmapan Forest high among the mountains of eternal snow.
All rulers who would have their kingdoms prosper should follow the principles that Rama exemplified, but certain kingdoms are blessed to be heirs of the Kingdom of Ayutaya and its Divine Lord Rama, seventh avatar of Lord Vishnu. This heritage includes a treasure of sacred lore and rites.
In time the wisdom of the sages was expanded, never more importantly than by another Prince of India who was (according to Hindu narrators) another avatar of Vishnu and Rama, Gautama who became the Buddha, the Enlightened One.
It took about a thousand years from the time of the Buddha for migrating people to move among earlier natives and settle into city states in fertile valleys of mainland South East Asia. During that time the legacy and lore of Rama and Sita were passed from the Empire of King Asoka of India to the lands of Lanka and Java, and from there to the Khmer lords who built Angkor Wat and the Khmer Empire. Throughout these years Buddhist teaching and practices expanded and gradually replaced the sacrificial ceremonies of the Hindus, but the intricate links between the royal households and the Kingdom of Lord Rama were cherished. Direct blood links were unnecessary, but as long as the heritage was preserved through sacred cultic rites the succession was legitimate.
The time came when the Khmer kingdom weakened and the legacy passed to the lords of Ayuthaya, another city named for the one ruled by King Rama. Ayuthaya had previously been an important vassal of the Khmer Empire built on an island between branches of the Chao Phraya River (in the rice plains of present-day Thailand). Ayuthaya also superseded the Buddhist kingdom of Sukhothai, located still further upstream from Ayuthaya, considered the first full-fledged kingdom of the Thai (Tai) people. For nearly 400 years the kings of Ayuthaya kept the religion of the Lord Buddha strong, and also the culture of the Khmer court. Kings of Ayuthaya maintained the literary heritage, arts, and esoteric mysteries extending all the way back to Lord Rama, and beyond that to the mythic world mountain, the center of creation.
In 1767 Ayuthaya was sacked by the Burman armies of Ava. Rather than continuing to hold onto Ayuthaya and its vassal city-states, however, the Burmese turned their attention to an expected invasion from China, and then were taken over in two phases by the British. So, in a very short time, the defeated people of Siam reorganized and built a new capitol city (first in Thonburi and then across the river in Bangkok, on Rattanakosin Island) as the successor to Ayuthaya and Angkor.
Insofar as possible, all the wisdom, language, rites, and royal protocols of Ayuthaya and Angkor were maintained, despite the disastrous loss of written records when the libraries of Ayuthaya burned. The most important of the old court customs had to do with the birth, coronation, and death of the kings, in order to preserve the chain of royal succession back to the dawn of creation.
CORONATIONS PRESERVE THE HERITAGE
The birth of an heir to the throne of Thailand is potentially a connection to the divine Rama and his divine ancestors. It is, in fact, the coronation of the king that ratifies that connection and validates the king’s legitimacy. Although King Vajiralongkorn became King immediately upon the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, on October 13, 2016, in mythic terms his reign was tentative until his coronation. One set of rites enacted that connection.
On the first morning of three days of coronation events, the King took a bath. This purification ritual signified his participation in the divinity inherited from Rama and Vishnu. First, clad in a white bathing robe with one shoulder bare, the King was abluted to wash away his imperfections that might be an obstacle. [picture 2] He was also anointed with water collected from throughout the kingdom as well as (most significantly) from the sacred rivers of India which flow mythically from Mount Himmapan. [picture 3] Then he was fit to acquire the symbols of office.
In Europe a crown signifies royal status, although sometimes those are augmented by other regalia. In Thailand the regalia includes a robe made of gold thread with the King’s monogram braided throughout, a 16 pound crown [picture 4] that now has diamonds after the King’s ancestor (Rama IV) realized European crowns held jewels, and a sword said to have been rescued from lake Tonle Sap after the fall of Angkor. [picture 5] Other items of regalia have symbolic significance, including golden slippers recalling Hanuman’s worship of Rama by holding the king’s foot, a yak-hair whisk to swipe away evil, a fan and scepter, and (separately) a medallion of office to add to medals already received. These were handed to him by Brahman priests, preserving a tradition that extends back to Persian priests in the Court of Ayuthaya. Their first presentation was a gold plaque inscribed with the King’s astrological reading. The King received each of these items while seated on a throne reserved for ceremonies of this level of significance under a nine-tiered umbrella (for the first time, since only consecrated kings have that right).
Immediately, the King made his first declaration, “I shall continue, preserve, and build upon the royal legacy and shall reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the people forever." [picture 6] This will be remembered and repeated as a sacred promise about his duties.
Buddhist ceremonies followed, scattered over all three days, including the King’s second declaration in office, to be the protector of Buddhism in Thailand, made in the Chapel of the Emerald Buddha. [picture 7] The chapel and the chapel compound, which are part of the Grand Palace, actually symbolize both the Buddhist legacy and its mythic precursors. The King listened to the Buddhist Supreme Patriarch chant a sermon outlining 11 precepts for a righteous king to follow.
The first day ended with a ceremonious move into the Royal Suite of the Grand Palace, which he will occupy with his new (fourth) wife of three days, whom he married and proclaimed Queen. [picture 8] Throughout the coronation this marriage reflects the final chapters of the Ramayana story, wherein Rama and Sita are reunited to rule Ayutaya. A king may reign in Thailand without being married (Rama VI married late), but the symbolism of the Rama narrative is incomplete without a queen. [picture 9]
The second day began with visits by all members of the royal family, [picture 10] although the King’s Mother, Dowager Queen Sirikit was unable to attend and the King’s youngest sister is also seriously ill as is his first wife [see picture 24] (although both of them made brief appearances). Later in the day the public at large was treated to a grand spectacle in which HM the King was carried on a palanquin to various temples and past important places in the heart of Rattanakosin Island. [pictures 11, 12, 13] Symbolically, this was to impress on the population that they had a new sovereign. The procession included military units garbed in uniforms of various eras of the Chakri Dynasty. In the background cannons were firing throughout the celebrations. [picture 14]
The main coronation event of the third day was an appearance on a balcony of the Grand Palace [picture 15] to be seen and heard by a massed assembly of the people. [picture 16] Audiences were held in which delegations presented gifts and assurances of loyalty, including leaders of all the non-Buddhist religions in the country. [picture 17]
WHAT THE CORONATION ACCOMPLISHED
1.The coronation completed the traditional consecration of the King. A key event was his being presented with a 9-tiered umbrella by his Brahman priests. Only consecrated kings are allowed a 9-tiered umbrella. [picture 18]
2.The ablution with water from all 76 provinces of Thailand, administered by a Buddhist monk [picture 19] and poured by the King himself in a pavilion from which women were excluded, together with anointing with water from the sacred rivers of India whose headwaters are high in the Himalayas where the mythic Himmapan Forest and seven seas originated, was the sacramental way of elevating the King to the symbolic status of a demigod.
3.The coronation events reasserted the power of unity between the three primary institutions that support Thai culture: the monarchy, the Buddhist religion, and the Thai state (including all the civil, political and military apparatus). [picture 20] It is an important trope that all Thai people are loyal to those three institutions, without which Thai culture would cease to exist. In fact, it is occasions like this that reinforce the concept and make it as real as it is.
4.Similarly, the elaborate coronation events, extensively televised and with public participation, were meant to demonstrate the loyalty of Thai people, and especially their love of the Royal Family and devotion to the King. [picture 21] It goes without saying that this is also meant to counter rumors of public disaffection. In fact, the massive show of people attending the spectacles of the coronation showed a more complete picture of the King whose absences from Thailand have been extensive, and created a wave of appreciation for him.
5.The coronation, requiring the painstaking work of countless experts, coordinated to the last detail, signified that the Palace is still the guardian of Thailand’s sacred cultural traditions. It strongly implies that the Palace knows best when it comes to issues related to royalty and cultic state practices, as well as the controversial lèse-majesté laws prohibiting criticism of Thai Royalty. [picture 22]
6.The nationwide effort to support the coronation, including especially the heightened need for security and demands put on all civil organizations, gave the government the opportunity to show its effectiveness, and coincidentally justified effort which had effects on such diverse functions as the national election (delay of publishing election results) and traffic (streets closed in the heart of Bangkok). [picture 23]
7. Actually, the less official aspects of the coronation as conveyed on the media, including the social media in which members of the Royal Family participated, clarified the status of each and every member of the Royal Family. [picture 24] I believe observers were relieved to see rumors of conflict dispelled.
8.The coronation, displayed Thailand as a major unique culture. In comparison to other nations, including those with monarchs, Thailand’s way of doing such spectacular events and the rich culture behind it is unrivaled. [picture 25] The question, “Why spend so much money on an event like this?” is never raised by most Thai people. Such splendor is a matter of great pride. The publicity value alone, from the government’s point of view, is priceless.
9.To this list of accomplishments, it must be added that the coronation reiterated that the Royal Family is the paragon of the social elite in Thailand. It was very important, and not widely seen, that the social and political elite were rewarded with a whole range of favors during this three-day schedule of events.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.