Wat Chaiwattanaram, Ayutthaya

The Bangkok Post features the temple of Chaiwattanaram in Ayutthaya, which is the architectural model of the Thai royal crematorium. The wat contains many significant architectural features that encode Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, elements that are commonly found in other Hindu-Buddhist architecture in the region.

Royal crematorium has historical roots
Bangkok Pos, 06 April 2008
Link in Bangkok Post is no longer available

Royal crematorium has historical roots

The architecture of ancient Siam is alive and well, writes Anchalee Kongrut in Ayutthaya
Bangkok Post, 07 April 2008

When King Prasart Thong of Ayutthaya built Wat Chaiwattanaram in 1630, he wanted the structure to accentuate his status as a god-king. Centuries later, the temple was left in a sorry state after two major wars with Burma and constant looting by antique smugglers.

The temple, a symbol of architectural grandeur, is one of the most significant structures in the former capital.

Historians believe that the temple was the original blueprint for royal crematoria, including those for HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana, which is under construction at Sanam Luang, and for the Princess Mother.

”People today assume that Phra Mane is reserved for royal funeral rites. But our ancestors thought differently,” said Roongroj Bhirom-anukul, a history lecturer at Dhurakij Pundit University.

Phra Mane is short for Phra Sumane – the sacred mount that served as the residence of deities in Hindu belief – and it was a symbol of the centre of the universe, he told reporters during a cultural tour in Ayutthaya last week.

A number of kings since the Ayutthaya period built temples and palaces to imitate the Phra Sumane feature – a main pavilion surrounded by eight stupas – which symbolised heaven in Hindu belief.

These ancient structures were used for various purposes, including as campsites for armies before they went off to war. But superstitious beliefs later limited Phra Mane to funerals.

”Phra Mane is architecture which reflects the ancient Hindu belief that kings were divine. Therefore, a king like King Prasart Thong built a structure resembling Phra Sumane to demonstrate his power,” said Mr Roongroj.

Phra Mane or Phra Merumas for kings and senior royal family members are used in royal cremations.

Similar beliefs were found in neighbouring countries, including ancient Khmer kingdoms.

King Suriyavarman II, the great Cambodian king, had Angkor Wat built for his funeral.

Angkor Wat was the symbol of the place where the king returned to heaven after his death.

However, Mr Roongroj insisted Wat Chaiwattanaram was not a miniature version of Angkor Wat.

Local artists at that time made some improvisations to incorporate Buddhist beliefs, he said.

The temple had multiple tiers, similar to Angkor Wat but on a smaller scale. Eight miniature stupas around the main pavilion were transformed into galleries, and royal adornments and Buddhist statues decorated with crowns were placed inside.

Mr Roongroj said court craftsmen used the temple as a blueprint for royal crematoria until the reign of King Rama V, over a century ago.

King Rama V saw that a lot of manpower and money was spent on building the royal crematorium for his father, King Rama IV. It was 100 metres high and had eight galleries, plus full-scale decorations.

”It took a lot of money to build the royal crematorium and King Rama V put in his will that his royal crematorium must be a modest and economical one,” said Mr Roongroj.

Architects in later generations omitted the surrounding eight galleries or scaled them down.

Artists have used paintings, decorative motifs and sculptures of deities and mythical animals to create the impression of heaven, including on the royal crematorium now under construction for the late Princess Galyani Vadhana.

The royal cremation of the late princess is expected to take place in October.

Related Books:
Ayutthaya-Venice of the East
The Kingdom of Siam: The Art of Central Thailand, 1350-1800 by F. McGill
Ayutthaya and Sukhothai: World Heritage – Reflections Of The Past (2 Volume Boxed Set)
The Arts of Thailand by S. Van Beek and L. Invernizzi
The Sacred Sculpture of Thailand: The Alexander B. Griswold Collection, the Walters Art Gallery by H. W. Woodward

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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