The body of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, has been lying-in-state at Phra Thinang Dusit Maha Prasat (พระที่นั่งดุสิตมหาปราสาท) throne hall within the compound of Bangkok’s Grand Palace (พระบรมมหาราชวัง — Phra Borom Maha Ratcha Wang) since it was moved from Sirioj Hospital on the evening of October 14, 2016, a day following his death at the age of 88 years old. In just a few days from now, early on the morning of October 26, 2017, the body will begin its journey from the palace to the newly-constructed Royal Crematorium at the northern end of Sanam Luang (สนามหลวง), the site for the cremation of kings, queens, and high-ranking princes since the reign of King Rama I. The Royal Funeral may be the most lavish ever staged in what is currently the Kingdom of Thailand.
The Grand Palace has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (and later Thailand) since 1782. The king, his court and his royal government were based on the grounds of the palace until 1925. King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), resided at the Chitralada Royal Villa and his successor King Vajiralongkorn (Rama X) at the Amphorn Sathan Residential Hall, both in the Dusit Palace, but the Grand Palace is still used for official events. Several royal ceremonies and state functions are held within the walls of the palace every year. The palace is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Thailand.
Construction of the palace began on May 6, 1782, at the order of King Phutthayotfa Chulalok (Rama I), the founder of the Chakri Dynasty, when he moved the capital city from Thonburi to Bangkok. Throughout successive reigns, many new buildings and structures were added, especially during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). By 1925, the king, the Royal Family and the government were no longer permanently settled at the palace, and had moved to other residences. After the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932, all government agencies completely moved out of the palace.
In shape, the palace complex is roughly rectangular and has a combined area of 2,351,000 square feet (218,400 square meters), surrounded by four walls. It is situated on the banks of the Chao Phraya River at the heart of Rattanakosin Island, today in the Phra Nakhon District. The Grand Palace is bordered by Sanam Luang and Na Phra Lan Road to the north, Maharaj Road to the west, Sanamchai Road to the east and Thai Wang Road to the south.
Rather than being a single structure, the Grand Palace is made up of numerous buildings, halls, pavilions set around open lawns, gardens and courtyards. Its asymmetry and eclectic styles are due to its organic development, with additions and rebuilding being made by successive reigning kings over 200 years of history. It is divided into several quarters: the Temple of the Emerald Buddha; the Outer Court, with many public buildings; the Middle Court, including the Phra Maha Monthien Buildings, the Phra Maha Prasat Buildings and the Chakri Maha Prasat Buildings; the Inner Court and the Siwalai Gardens quarter. The Grand Palace is currently partially open to the public as a museum, but it remains a working palace, with several royal offices still situated inside.
The construction of the Grand Palace began on April 6, 1782, at the order of King Phutthayotfa Chulalok (Rama I). Having seized the crown from King Taksin of Thonburi, King Rama I was intent on building a capital city for his new Chakri Dynasty. He decided to move the seat of power from the city of Thonburi, on the west side of the Chao Phraya River, to the east side at Bangkok. The new capital city was turned into an artificial island when canals were dug along the east side. The island was given the name Rattanakosin. The previous royal residence was the Derm Palace, constructed for King Taksin in 1768.
The new palace was built on a rectangular piece of land on the very west side of the island, between Wat Pho to the south, Wat Mahathat to the north and with the Chao Phraya River along the west. This location was previously occupied by a Chinese community, whom King Rama I had ordered to relocate to an area south and outside of the city walls; the area is now Bangkok’s Chinatown.
Desperate for materials and short on funds, the palace was initially built entirely out of wood, its various structures surrounded by a simple log palisade. On June 10, 1782, the king ceremonially crossed the river from Thonburi to take permanent residence in the new palace. Three days later on June 13, the king held an abbreviated coronation ceremony, thus becoming the first monarch of the new Rattanakosin Kingdom. Over the next few years, the king began replacing wooden structures with masonry, rebuilding the walls, forts, gates, throne halls and royal residences. This rebuilding included the royal chapel, which would come to house the Emerald Buddha.
To find more material for these constructions, King Rama I ordered his men to go upstream to the old capital city of Ayutthaya, which was destroyed in 1767 during a war between Burma and Siam. They were tasked with the dismantling and removal of as many bricks as they could find, while not removing any from the temples. They began by taking materials from the forts and walls of the city; by the end they had completely leveled the old royal palaces. The bricks were ferried down the Chao Phraya by barges, where they were eventually incorporated into the walls of Bangkok and the Grand Palace itself. Most of the initial construction of the Grand Palace during the reign of King Rama I was carried out by conscripted or corvée labour. After the final completion of the ceremonial halls of the palace, the king held a full traditional coronation ceremony in 1785.
The layout of the Grand Palace followed that of the Royal Palace at Ayutthaya in location, organization, and in the divisions of separate courts, walls, gates and forts. Both palaces featured a proximity to the river. The location of a pavilion serving as a landing stage for barge processions also corresponded with that of the old palace. To the north of the Grand Palace there is a large field, the Thung Phra Men (now called Sanam Luang), which is used as an open space for royal ceremonies and as a parade ground. There was also a similar field in Ayutthaya, which was used for the same purpose. The road running north leads to the Front Palace, the residence of the Second King of Siam.
The Grand Palace is divided into four main courts, separated by numerous walls and gates: the Outer Court, the Middle Court, the Inner Court and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Each of these court’s functions and access are clearly defined by laws and traditions. The Outer Court is situated on the northwestern part of the Grand Palace; within are the royal offices and (formerly) state ministries. To the northeast is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the royal chapel and home of the Emerald Buddha. The Middle Court housed the most important state apartments and ceremonial throne halls of the king. The Inner Court, situated at the most southern end of the complex, was reserved only for females, as it housed the king’s harem.
During the reign of King Phutthaloetla Naphalai (Rama II), the total area of the Grand Palace was expanded southwards up to the walls of Wat Pho. Previously this area was home to offices of various palace officials. This expansion increased the area of the palace from 2,299,970 square feet (213,674 m²) to 2,351,000 square feet (218,400 m²). New walls, forts and gates were constructed to accommodate the enlarged compound. Since this expansion, the palace has remained within its walls with new construction and changes being made only on the inside.
In accordance with tradition, the palace was initially referred to only as the Phra Ratcha Wang Luang (พระราชวังหลวง) or ‘Royal Palace’, similar to the old palace in Ayutthaya. However, during the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV) the name Phra Boromma Maha Ratcha Wang or ‘Grand Palace’ was first used in official documents. This change of name was made during the elevation of Prince Chutamani (the king’s younger brother) to the title of Second King Pinklao in 1851. The proclamation of his title described the royal palace as the ‘supreme’ (บรม — Borom) and ‘great’ (มหา — Maha) palace. This title was given in order to distinguish the palace from the Second King’s palace (the Front Palace), which was described as the Phra Bovorn Ratcha Wang (พระบวรราชวัง) or the ‘glorious’ (บวร — Bovorn) palace.
Throughout the period of absolute monarchy, from 1782 to 1932, the Grand Palace was both the country’s administrative and religious center. As the main residence of the monarch, the palace was also the seat of government, with thousands of inhabitants including guardsmen, servants, concubines, princesses, ministers and courtiers. The palace’s high whitewashed castellated walls and extensive forts and guard posts mirrored those of the walls of Bangkok itself, and thus the Grand Palace was envisioned as a city within a city. For this reason a special set of Palace Laws were created to govern the inhabitants and to establish hierarchy and order.
By the 1920s, a series of new palaces were constructed elsewhere for the king’s use; these included the more modern Dusit Palace, constructed in 1903, and Phaya Thai Palace in 1909. These other Bangkok residences began to replace the Grand Palace as the primary place of residence of the monarch and his court. By 1925, this gradual move out of the palace was complete. The growth and centralization of the Siamese state also meant that the various government ministries had grown in size and were finally moved out of the Grand Palace to their own premises. Despite this, the Grand Palace remained the official and ceremonial place of residence as well as the stage set for elaborate ancient ceremonies of the monarchy. The end of the absolute monarchy came in 1932, when a revolution overthrew the ancient system of government and replaced it with a constitutional monarchy.
Today, the Grand Palace is still a center of ceremony and of the monarchy, and serves as a museum and tourist attraction as well.
The Phra Thinang Dusit Maha Prasat (พระที่นั่งดุสิตมหาปราสาท) dominates the Maha Prasat group of buildings in the Grand Palace. The throne hall was built on a symmetrical cruciform plan, the roof is topped with a tall gilded spire. The hall is considered an ideal archetype of Thai traditional architecture. Every aspect of the exterior decoration of the throne hall is imbued with symbolism. The hall is built in the shape of a tall mountain to represent Mount Meru, the mythological center of the universe.
The spire can be divided into three sections. The lower section, which is the base, is formed of seven superimposed layers, each layer representing a level of heaven in accordance with the Traiphum Buddhist cosmology. The middle section is in the shape of a bell; however the roundness has been flattened to create a four sided shape. This represents the stupa in which the Buddha’s ashes have been interred. The top section is similar to the top of chedis, depicting a tapered lotus bud or the crystal dew drop signifying the escape from the Saṃsāra or cycle of rebirths. The spire is supported by garudas on its four sides; as well as being the symbol of kingship, the garuda represents the mythical creatures of the Himavanta forest surrounding Mount Meru.
The pediments are decorated with the figure of Narayana riding on the back of a garuda, this figure symbolizes kingship and the king’s association with the Hindu deity. According to legend Narayana descended from heaven in human form to help mankind by alleviating them from suffering. Thus the deity represents all the ideal qualities in a king. The throne hall stands on a high base with convex and concave moldings. The bottom layer, according to Thai beliefs resembles a lion’s foot, the lion is a symbol of the Buddha’s family and alludes to the Buddha’s own royal heritage.
The most unusual feature of the throne hall is the small porch, projecting out at the front of the building. Under this porch stands the Busabok Mala Throne (พระที่นั่งบุษบกมาลา), whose spire echoes that of the larger building itself. The high base of the throne is surrounded by praying deities. During the reign of King Rama I, the throne was used when the king appeared before his vassal states; later it was used for certain ceremonies. The two doors to the hall is situated at the sides of the throne.
The interior walls of the throne hall are painted with a lotus bud design arranged in a geometric pattern. Within the lotus buds are seated praying deities, a common Thai motif often associated with holy places. The ceiling, which has a coffered octagonal shape section directly below the spire, is decorated with glass mosaic stars. This reinforces the impression of being in a heavenly abode. The interior panel of the door and window shutters depicted standing deities facing each other holding weapons as guards for the king. The thickness of the walls allow further spaces between the shutters and the wall to be decorated, these are decorated with murals depicting trees in Chinese style.
The two arms of the cruciform plan contains different thrones for use in different royal functions; these included the Mother-of-Pearl Throne (พระแท่นราชบัลลังก์ประดับมุก) which stands almost at the center of the hall between the intersecting points of the four arms. The square-shaped throne is entirely inlaid with mother-of-pearl, dating from the reign of King Rama I. It was saved from the Amarinthara Pisek Maha Prasat, when the throne hall burnt down in 1789. The throne is topped by the Royal Nine-tiered Umbrella.
To the eastern transept is the Mother-of-Pearl Bed (พระแท่นบรรทมประดับมุก) which was made to match the Mother-of-Pearl Throne. The bed was once the king’s personal bed and was kept inside the Phra Thinang Phiman Rattaya; however once it was no longer used it was transferred to the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall. The bed is in the form of a high platform with many layers, and small steps leading to the top. When royal ceremonies are carried out within the throne hall, member of the royal family take their seat in the southern transept, while government officials sit to the north, Buddhist monks to the east; the funeral urn is to the west. During such times the throne and bed were used as altars for Buddha images.
Behind the Mother-of-Pearl Throne is the Phra Banchon Busabok Mala Throne (พระบัญชรบุษบกมาลา — Phra Banchon Butsabok Mala). This half throne protrudes from the southern wall of the throne hall and opens like a window into the hall. The style of the throne is similar to Busabok Mala Throne on the porch outside. The throne was built during the reign of King Rama IV, in order for the palace women to attend important ceremonies through the window but behind a screen, separating them from men arriving from the outside.
While numerous stamps have been issued over the years picturing the Grand Palace, I actually have very few in my collection — six, in fact (and four or those are from the 1950 Coronation set). Only one of these stamps portrays the palace in multicolor: Scott #561 released on October 24, 1970, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the United Nations. Oddly, the stamps released during the 1970s into the early 1980s to mark UN Day often pictured some element of the Grand Palace. The 50-satang stamp featured today was printed using the photogravure process by the Government Printing Bureau of the Japanese Ministry of Finance and perforated 13½. Three million copies of the stamp were printed.