By The Nation
With just two days to go before Thais say a final farewell to their beloved monarch, His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the final preparations for the royal cremation are now in place.
Palace artisans recently presented the expertly hand-carved banana stalks that will decorate the outside of the Royal Pyre – Phra Chittakathan as it is known in Thai – and which also prevent the flames from spreading outwards.
For more than 500 years, since the Ayutthaya era, a temporary crematorium has been constructed in the middle of the city for the funerals of a deceased king or queen and other high-ranking royals. Its function is not just to pay the highest honours to the beloved monarch but also to serve for the cremation itself and so the tradition of vegetable carving on the royal pyre has also been preserved as a final tribute.
Phra Tamnak Suankularb School in Nakhon Pathom province hosted a merit-making ceremony at its building in the Grand Palace last week. Artisans from the court, joined by nearly 40 of their colleagues from Phetchaburi, Ubon Rachathani, Maha Sarakham, Songkhla and Bangkok’s Thon Buri district, started sculpting the trunks. Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn performed the auspicious sacred offering ceremony to appease the natural spirit of all fresh items, the tools as well as artisans and master carvers.
The decoration of the royal pyre for the late King Bhumibol is identical to that used for the cremations of King Rama V, King Rama VI, and King Rama VIII. The Phra Chittakathan features a nine-tiered Busabok made of banana stalks with seven-tiers of decorative fresh flowers at all four corners. It measures 4.80 metres in width, 6.50m in length and stands 13 metres high.
The carving is carried out in the final days in order to reserve freshness. The Royal Household ordered 108 Tanee banana trees (Musa balbisiana colla) from Ang Thong, Chantaburi, Nonthaburi and Phetchaburi provinces and passed them to 323 artists and carvers across the country. Once the carving process is complete, court officers will install the fresh masterpieces at the Royal Pyre tomorrow, one day before the Royal Crematorium.
The sculpted trunks are beautifully designed in traditional Thai motifs. The Tanee banana tree is good for carving as it contains enough water to enable it to stay fresh for days. Traditionally, Thais believe there is a spirit inside the plant. Banana stalks are carved by artists into the form of art known as thaeng yuak.
The traditional patterns of vegetable carving and flower wreath motifs are used for the base and include the bua cherng batra and singha.
The layers they form are used for the thaeng yuak art, the outer edge of which is known as yuak rad klao and features fresh papaya carved into traditional prachamyam patterns. The four corners are decorated with krajang patterns made of banana stalk, while the top parts display 70 pieces of flower quivers called parichat representing the 70 years of the late King’s reign.
The parichat flowers are created from the petals white orchids dyed yellow in 16 floral shapes while the leaves are formed from beetle wings and a vine is created from the leaves of orange jasmine (Murraya paniculata). The 16 floral shapes represent the highest levels of heaven where the God Brahma lives.
The nine-tiered net meanwhile is decorated with crown flowers instead of jasmine and chambak tassels made of orchids dyed yellow and sheathed in wax to maintain their freshness.
The sculpted trunks themselves feature a pattern of traditional Thai motifs with the Thai numeral for nine, in reference to King Rama IX, as the highlight.
Eight celestial bodies in a kneeling position have also been carved and hold double-edged knives in their hands. They are to guard the King and attend upon him as he makes his way to heaven.
That so many of these traditions and art forms remain alive today can be put down to the efforts of Princess Sirindhorn, who has taken pains to preserve the wisdom and knowledge of Wichian Premchan. A master artisan, in 1996 Wichian carved the banana stalks for the Royal Cremation of HRH Princess Sri Nagarindra, the Princess Mother of King Rama IX. The Princess then instructed Wichian, who was aged 70, to impart his knowledge and skill to only four students in the royal craftsman school.
Carver Suan Nudlah, 54, who also worked on the carvings for cremation of late HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana, the late sister of King Rama IX and HRH Princess Petcharat Rajsuda, the daughter of King Rama VI, said he felt honoured to have been chosen to help prepare the banana stalks for the cremation of the revered King Bhumibol.
A resident of Songkhla province in Thailand’s south, Suan learned the craft from local artisans but adds that he would not be using his techniques this time. “As the art pieces will be dedicated to the King, I will use the technique determined by the Royal Household,” he says. “The pattern we are using this time is also designed specially by royal designers for King Rama IX.”
Another carver, Wiriya Susuth, 47, from Phetchaburi province, learned his skills from his father as a youngster and has lent his expertise to three royal cremations – that of the Princess Mother, Princess Galyani Vadhana and HRH Princess Petcharat Rajsuda. “I will do my best to perform the job for our beloved King,” he says.