Phra Meru, the celestial vessel, gleamed in the twilight haze as Lord Indra withheld the rain.
On October 26, 2017, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej was cremated in Bangkok. I turned on the television and dissolved in tears, to see the awful finality of the golden chariot bearing the king’s remains, columns of cavalry and infantry pacing towards Phra Meru, the site of the funeral pyre. I wept with millions of Thais and people across the globe, who loved and admired Thailand’s King of Hearts for 70 years, a man as good and kind and he was industrious and brilliant. I wanted him to live forever.
Lord Buddha said the cause of death is birth, and the time had come to send Rama IX to his moksha. I joined Thai friends at a local restaurant to follow the livestream on a vast flat-screen TV. We gazed upon the funeral rites Ayutthaya kings, ancestral pageantry enacted with ceremonious precision, in the 21st century. Holding the urn aloft on the chariot was Dr Pradit Panjaveenin, who cared for the king in his later years at Siriraj Hospital, wearing the white hat of a devadata, a heavenly protector. At dusk King Vajiralongkorn, the Thai royal family and foreign dignitaries assembled in a vihara near Phra Meru. The supreme patriarch, H.H. Ariyavongsagatanana, spoke of how Bhumibol Adulyadej embodied the Dasa Raja Dhamma, the Ten-Fold Virtues of a king. King Jigme Wangchuk of Bhutan, looked crestfallen, he was close to King Bhumibol, Queen Sofia of Spain, Queen Maxima of the Netherlands and others greeted the royal family warmly, knowing that the world had lost a king and they had also lost a father.
Phra Meru, the celestial vessel, gleamed in the twilight haze as Lord Indra withheld the rain. The royal family ascended the golden stairs to the inner sanctum, followed by kings, queens, diplomats, Thai officials and the many volunteers in black shirts and yellow kerchiefs who worked so hard for a full year, to lay a sandalwood flower — “dokmai chan” — upon the royal pyre. TV hosts announced that performances would play simultaneously on three stages until 6 am, also a tradition of Ayutthaya, to celebrate the king’s life and bring cheer to his people in this time of parting. We watched the Khon dance of the Ramakien, the Manorah Ballet with the king’s elegant score, puppet shows, theatre and wave after wave of jazz orchestras, playing the king’s hit songs all the way till dawn.
At 11.30 pm crowds at Sanam Luang saw coils of smoke rise from the cremation site. Sometime after midnight flames were seen and the crack of fire heard. “My body froze,” said a Bangkok grandmother who slept overnight on the sidewalk. “I was blinded by tears. People started wailing and sobbing. I sat there until 4 am. When the smoke was gone, then I knew my king was gone too.” King Bhumibol melted into his antyesti, Sanskrit for “last sacrifice” of the funeral fires, as his music soared through the night, and the world once more fell in love with the grace and skill of Siam’s artisans, dancers, poets and musicians. The people of Thailand did their King proud.
Thailand has retained its distinctive culture because its sovereignty was twice saved by Chakri Kings; Rama IV and Rama V resisted the clutches of 19th European colonialism, Bhumibol defended Thailand from communism. For decades Thailand gave sanctuary to refugees fleeing from the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese Communists, and the rapacious Burmese military. King Bhumibol was a peacemaker at home, and the vast majority of Thais are united in their opinion of their king. Anand Panyarachun, who twice served as Prime Minister during King Bhumibol’s reign, expressed what the Thai people saw in their monarch: “His Majesty knew the country by heart. He visited every province. He has crossed through forests, rivers and mountains. His Majesty had a tremendous sense of responsibility and duty. He was a working king who dedicated his life to the advancement of the kingdom and to improving the lives of his people.”
On October 29, the final rites were held at Wat Bowonniwet, where King Bhumibol took ordination as a Buddhist monk in 1956. A Thai friend kindly invited me to join her family, so I walked one last time across Sanam Luang, where thousands of people from every part of Thailand had come to say goodbye to their king. At Wat Bowonniwet monks, soldiers, officials in white uniforms with black armbands, gathered with gracious solemnity to receive the king’s ashes. At dusk we heard the approach of the royal motorcade. King Vajiralongkorn and Princess Sirindhorn entered, the monks received the golden casket and recited the last prayers. Bhumibol Adulyadej, the noble Dharma King of our turbulent era, was laid to rest.
The following morning, wandering though the streets of Bangkok, I heard the King’s jazz songs floating from tuk tuk radios, I saw his portrait in boutiques and noodle shops, people leafing through Thai newspapers, reading about his life and legacy. I recalled what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote: “When a great man dies, for years the light he leaves behind him lies on the paths of men.” The black and white mourning clothes are gone, but King Bhumibol will never leave the land he so loved; he will live forever in the hearts of Thai people.
The writer is a New York-based author and researcher who specialises in Asian history and current events