Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand’s previous king, will be cremated on Oct. 26 on a grassy patch of land in front of the Grand Palace in central Bangkok. He died a year ago, after a 70-year reign, and he is credited with transforming Thailand into a modern nation-state and unifying the country during times of political turmoil.
An army of royal artists and artisans has built for the occasion an elaborate set of structures that, in Thai Hindu-Buddhist cosmology, symbolizes the mountains, continents and oceans at the edge of the universe. The funeral pyre, precisely 50.49 meters tall, represents Mount Meru, which is thought to connect the human realm to the divine.
A select 7,500 people have been invited to the palace grounds for the five-day ceremony, but more than 250,000 mourners are expected to gather in surrounding areas. The government is reported to have spent between $30 million and $90 million on the preparations. Eighty-five replicas of the site in Bangkok have been erected across the country, as well as nearly 100 memorials throughout the world.
The cost, the crowds, the exquisite re-enactment of ancient spectacle — all of it may seem fit for a king, but the scale of the pomp signals a remarkable evolution. Although the main rituals of a Thai royal cremation have barely changed since the 14th century, the pageantry surrounding them has, reflecting the political concerns of each period. Over the last century or so, the Thai monarchy has gone from seemingly frugal to unabashedly rich — and it has managed that by casting King Bhumibol as a Buddha-like figure.
During the 19th century, the integration of Siam, as Thailand was known then, into the world economy consolidated the royal family’s power and wealth. But that also made the monarchy vulnerable to charges of despotism and wastefulness, precisely at a time when the public was becoming more outspoken, emboldened in part by the ferment of revolution in other countries. For centuries before that, commoners had been encouraged to celebrate a Siamese king’s ascent to the heavens with theater, fireworks and other public events. Yet the cremation ceremony proper was held away from the eye of the people.
By the turn of the 20th century, especially after the abolition of slavery in Siam in 1905, even royal ceremonials adapted to shifting norms about state accountability. The cremation of King Chulalongkorn, also known as Rama V, in 1911, was the first to reflect such concerns. Partly in keeping with royal funerals in Europe — the place perceived then as the vanguard of modernity — no celebratory events were held, but the general public was allowed to attend the cremation itself. Yet it would be a modest affair, according to the instructions King Chulalongkorn had left: He asked that his funeral pyre be reduced from 80 meters — the height of the structure used for Rama IV’s cremation in 1868 — to 33 meters.
The cremation pyre of Rama VI in 1926 was smaller still: Even though an attempt to overthrow the monarchy in 1912 had failed, complaints about its extravagance had grown louder. After the revolution of 1932 transformed Siam from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, the cost of official ceremonials naturally remained a sensitive political issue.
Then in 1946, Bhumibol ascended to the throne, and after a discreet first decade, largely out of the limelight, his reign gained momentum. A military coup in 1958, pro-American and high on Thai pride, placed the (U.S.-born) king at its center, and the Thai public reacted enthusiastically.
Today, six decades later, there is little discussion over the expense of King Bhumibol’s cremation. Twelve million Thais are said to have visited his body as it lay in state over the last year. The funeral pyre of King Bhumibol, or Rama IX, is the largest since that of Rama IV.
King Bhumibol is often credited with foiling a Communist movement during the Cold War, liberalizing the Thai economy and keeping the country together despite its often-fractious politics. But another of his great successes, at least for the monarchy, has been to make royal wealth seem sacred, and any contribution to it appear virtuous.
In a country afflicted by economic inequality and widespread corruption, King Bhumibol was portrayed as benevolent and frugal, detached from the material world and concerned first and foremost by the well-being of his subjects. (A squeezed-out tube of his toothpaste was exhibited to the public, set on a golden cloth, after his death, as evidence of his fabled economy.) By appearing to embody the virtues of a great Buddhist ruler — “love-kindness,” charity and perseverance, as the sacred texts go — King Bhumibol acquired the aura of a bodhisattva.
King Bhumibol’s very status as a Buddha-in-the-making also helped transform the Thai monarchy from a beleaguered institution, struggling for political and financial survival, at the start of his reign into a thriving corporate operation today.
The royal family, thanks in part to a raft of projects with business, academia, the arts and charities, has implanted itself at the center of Thailand’s cultural and social life — apparently far from the messy, brutal realities of capitalism and political gamesmanship. Giving money or labor to a royally endorsed project has come to be seen as a good deed, and so an opportunity to improve one’s chances of an auspicious rebirth in the Buddhist reincarnation cycle.
Donations to the royal household since King Bhumibol’s death have totaled more than $26 million. Tens of thousands of Thais have volunteered to support the cremation ceremony, providing accommodation, transportation and security, as well as cleaning services. According to the government’s public relations department, volunteers under 17 will be given a piggy bank inscribed with this statement by the late king, “The power of people who think positively, do good deeds and are grateful is the power that will bring about peace and prosperity to families, communities and the country.”
King Bhumibol’s material legacy also is great. The Crown Property Bureau, the agency that manages the royal finances, has vastly expanded its business portfolio. Neither the bureau’s assets nor its operations are entirely known, but the Thai monarchy is now thought to be the world’s richest, with an estimated fortune of at least $30 billion. Under King Bhumibol, the royal family of Thailand has become fabulously rich by cultivating an appearance of frugality and making wealth seem immaterial — or rather, divine.
Matthew Phillips is a historian of modern Thailand at Aberystwyth University, Wales.