A Momentous Royal Coronation
Flowing tirelessly for centuries, the Chao Phraya River bore witness to the rise and fall of countless ancient kingdoms of Thailand. together with her people, joyous times have been celebrated and times of sorrow have been mourned. Now, this much-loved river will take on the honourable task as a grand passage way later this year for the final part of the Royal Coronation Ceremony or “Phra Ratcha Phithi Boromma Racha Bhisek” in this Rattanakosin period.
[Elaborate ceremonies marking the Coronation for His Majesty King Rama X will occur over a period of three days, beginning on May 4 to 6 in the capital city of Bangkok. Already, sacred Buddhist and Brahmin rituals have been performed in the month leading up to the formal crowning in May.]
Words: Chusri Ngamprasert
Sources & Photos: Fine Arts Department, Ministry of Culture
Influenced by Indian precepts by way of neighbouring Cambodia, the Royal Coronation Ceremony is vastly different from the ones in western countries where the placing of a crown upon the head of a monarch and the presentation of items of regalia are symbolic actions of a formal investiture of regal power. In the Thai language, Phra Ratcha Phithi Boromma Racha Bhisek translates as, “royal bathing to bestow kingship”, therefore the highlight of the Royal Coronation Ceremony is the Royal Purification or Ablution Ceremony or “Song Phra Muratha Bhisek”. King Rama IV was the first monarch in the Chakri dynasty to emphasise the rite of being crowned.
The starting preparation for the royal ceremony requires collecting water from several and important water sources in the Kingdom. The waters will be combined and blessed for the Royal Purification Ceremony and Anointment Ceremony.
According to the ancient Brahmanism textbook, water for the Royal Purification Ceremony must come from Pancha Maha Natee, the five sacred streams in India: the Ganges, Mahi, Yamuna, Sarayu and Aciravati, which is believed to flow down from Mount Kailasa, the abode of Isvara.
Historical records indicate that in the Ayutthaya period, water for the Royal Purification Ceremony was collected from four sacred ponds in Suphan Buri province: Sa Ket, Sa Kaeo, Sa Khongkha and Sa Yamuna.
In the Rattanakosin period, the water resources, the sequence and certain details of the ceremony change in accordance to what is appropriate in each reign.
From the reigns of King Rama I to Rama III, water from the Five Virtuous Rivers known as Bencha Suttha Khongkha (namely Bang Prakong, Pa Sak, Chao Phraya, Ratchaburi and Phetchaburi) was added to that collected from the four sacred ponds in Suphan Buri. King Rama IV added holy water blessed by the monks chanting the Phra Paritra Mantra to the original mixture. Additionally, King Rama V got sacred water from Pancha Maha Natee during his trip to India, so it was added to the holy water in his second Royal Coronation Ceremony. King Rama VI instructed that water gets collected from various sources in the kingdom for his second Royal Coronation Ceremony. The water consecration ritual would be done at the province’s principal temple and then again at the royal temple.
The Royal Golden Plaque with the inscription of the King’s official title or “Phra Suphannabat,” the Royal Golden Plaque of the Royal Horoscope, the Royal Seal of State, including pedestals and venues for the royal ceremony have to be prepared months ahead. The procession of the Royal Golden Plaque, the Royal Horoscope and the Royal Seal of State starts from the ubosot or main all of Wat Phra Sri Rattana Satsadaram, also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, to the ceremonial stage at Baisal Daksin Throne Hall a day before the ceremony.
In the reign of King Rama I, the Royal Coronation Ceremony took place at the Indra Bhisek Maha Prasad Throne Hall. The venue for King Rama II and following Kings was the Phra Maha Monthira Group, consisting of the Chakrapat Biman Royal Residence, the Baisal Daksin Throne Hall and the Amarindra Vinijaya Mahaisuraya Biman Throne Hall. King Rama VI was the only one using the Dusit Maha Prasad Throne Hall, a replacement of the former Indra Bhisek Maha Prasad Throne Hall, as a venue for his second Royal Coronation Ceremony.
Preliminary ceremonies to the Primary Royal Coronation Ceremony started three days before the auspicious day. The new sovereign would give alms to the monks in the morning, then light a candle and pray while monks chant in the evening. Brahmanism rituals were performed as a part of the ceremony. According to records from the reign of King Rama V, the Brahmins would raise the Royal Seven-Tiered Umbrealla, Saptapadol Saweta Chatra, over the Atha Disa and the Bhadrapitha Royal Thrones inside Baisal Daksin Throne Hall with oblations or offerings to deities at various Brahman shrines in Bangkok. The Brahmin would offer sacred ceremonial objects like the conch shell, a bael leaf to wear behind the ear, and Bai Samit (bundles of three auspicious leaves of mamuang (mango), bai thong (gold leaves) and takhob (Indian plum) to the new sovereign. The king symbolically brushes himself with the Bai Samit, and the leaves are later burned by the chief Brahmin as part of the purifying ritual. King Rama IX shortened the religious practice from three days to one evening before the day of the Royal Coronation Ceremony.
The actual Royal Coronation Ceremony starts with the Purification. The monarch, now changed into a white garment with gold trim, lights candles to pay homage to all deities before sitting on a bench of fig wood called Udumbara Raja Asana in the pavilion constructed for the Purification Ceremony. The fig is believed to be a symbol of Vishnu in Hinduism. The presiding official releases a water shower called “Sahasathara” allowing the sacred water to sprinkle over the monarch for the Ablution. Then the supreme monk sprinkles holy water from “Krop Yantra Nophakhun” vessel onto the king’s hands. A high-ranking royal family member pours consecrated water from the “Phra Tao Benchakhap” vessel on the king’s hands. The king in turn accepts the “Phra Rao Nophakrau” vessel from Phra Hora Thibodi, the royal augur, and pours the holy water on his shoulders.
The chief Brahmin presents the king with holy water from Phra Maha Sang, the great conch shell, with holy water from the Phra Tao Benchakhap, and Phra Krop Samrit water containers. He then presents the bael leaf for the king to wear behind his ear and a river tamarind leaf to hold. A high-ranking officer then presented “Phra Maha Sang Thaksina Wat”, The Great Conch for Circumambulation, to the king.
Now wearing the official Regal Costume, the king moves to the Baisal Daksin Throne Hall. Seated on the fig wood octagonal bench called Atha Disa Throne under the Royal Seven-Tiered Umbrella, the monarch, facing the East, accepts the Anointment Water from a representative of the Parliament. The chief Brahmin presents the holy water while the king moves in eight cardinal directions of the compass until he faces East again. The Chief Brahmin gives his address of benediction and presents the king with the Royal Nine-Tiered Umbrella of State, “Nophapadl Maha Saweta Chatra”.
From the Atha Disa Throne, the king proceeds to the Bhadrapitha Throne under the Royal Nine-Tiered Umbrella. The chief Brahmin chants as homage to the Kailasa then presents the Royal Golden Plaque, the Royal Regalia, the Ancient and Auspicious Orders, the Royal Utensils, and the Weapons of Sovereignty. The king then crowns himself with the Great Crown of Victory.
The Brahmin offers blessings, and the newly-crowned king presents the First Royal Command then pours water as an offering to the Goddess of the Earth to ratify his responsibility to rule the kingdom righteously.
The final session of the ceremony can be adjusted as deemed appropriate. It includes the Granting of an Audience, the Installation of the Queen, the Formal Declaration of Faith, demonstrating the willingness to become the Royal Patron of Buddhism, Paying Homage to the Royal Relics of previous Kings and Queens, the Assumption of the Royal Residence Ceremony, and the Procession around the city.
According to Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, the father of Thai History, the Assumption of the Royal Residence is another essential part of the Royal Coronation Ceremony for the King to reside in the palace. However, the two ceremonies could be separate occasions.
In the Assumption of the Royal Residence ceremony, women of the royal families would carry the Royal Auspicous Items and the Royal Utensils to Chakrapat Biman Royal Residence. The Royal Auspicious Items are the “cat” or Wila, the mortar grinder, auspicious seeds, a green gourd, a golden key, a gold betel nut blossom, a whisk made from the tail of a male white elephant and a white rooster.
The finale of the Royal Coronation Ceremony takes place inside the Grand Palace with a sermon. Seated on a special pedestal with the Royal Nine-Tiered Umbrella, the Supreme Patriarch and a group of “Phra Racha Khana” monks would preach the sermon to the new king.
Epic and traditional, the royal barge procession along the serene majesty of the Chao Phraya River will never cease to amaze. The final and befitting end to the Coronation Ceremony is undeniably significant, with a newly-crowned sovereign and a shared event for the witnesses to history.