In 1926, the remains of Siam's last absolute monarch were cremated on Bangkok's royal parade grounds, Sanam Luang, in a highly decorated ceremonial pyre known as the phra merumat or phra men. Modeled on Mount Meru, the center of the Vedic and Buddhist cosmos, ephemeral structures like this drew on the Traiphum phra ruang, a fourteenth-century text that elaborated the hierarchical structure of the universe and the exalted place of royalty within it. After the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932, the sanctity of Sanam Luang was challenged when a controversial crematorium for commoners who died defending Siam's nascent constitution was built in the area once reserved for royalty. Together, the two crematoria played an important role in representing new forms of national belonging in the twentieth century that were consistent with older conceptions of social hierarchy. In A Tale of Two Crematoria: Funeral Architecture and the Politics of Representation in Mid-Twentieth-Century Bangkok, Lawrence Chua examines literary, pictorial, and architectural representations of the monumental crematoria from which powerful, meritorious people were historically dispatched to the upper echelons of the cosmos. As seen in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century temple murals and literature, the phra men was historically depicted as a space in which diverse social groups were brought together but hierarchically segregated. By the twentieth century, the above-noted crematoria for king and commoners—although radically different in appearance and ideology—could be understood as complementary structures that allowed older spatial and political approaches not only to survive but also to flourish in an era of turbulent social upheaval. Key to this continuity was the deployment of new modes of architectural representation such as the plan and section. Associated with Siam's nascent architectural profession and the rational representation of space, these tools depicted a modern form of political community and premodern social hierarchy while underscoring the shared fate of citizens and the state.
On 24 March 1926, the body of King Vajiravudh (also known as Rama VI, r. 1910–25), Siam's penultimate absolute monarch, was cremated in an elaborately ornamented, 35.5-meter-high structure on Bangkok's royal parade grounds, Sanam Luang (Figure 1).1 Since its inception in the mid-eighteenth century, this open field in front of the Grand Palace had been reserved for royal ceremonies that glorified the authority of the monarchy and its claims to divine legitimacy. Vajiravudh's dramatic cremation ceremony was no exception. The event lasted for several days and was attended by large crowds of local residents as well as by foreign dignitaries.2 The spectacle was intended to shore up support for Siam's embattled monarchy, then struggling to assert its political authority against the worldwide decline of monarchism and the regional encroachment of European colonialism. The ceremony did not, however, prevent the overthrow of the monarchy in 1932.
One year later, the royal sanctity of Sanam Luang was violated in a massive display of military fanfare and popular support when the bodies of seventeen commoners—soldiers and policemen who had died suppressing a royalist rebellion led by Prince Boworadet (1877–1947)—were cremated in an unornamented, flat-roofed, open-plan structure (Figure 2). This was the first time that nonroyal bodies had been accorded this honor, and the architecture of the crematorium was a defiant gesture on the part of the new state toward the institution of the monarchy.
Central to each of these spectacles was the monumental but ephemeral structure known as the meru, or men.3 A symbolic representation of the center of the Vedic and Buddhist universe, Mount Meru, the men functioned not only as a crematorium but also as the site from which the physical body of a powerful, meritorious person was symbolically dispatched to the upper echelons of the cosmos. The radically different appearances of the two crematoria discussed here reflected two seemingly opposite political ideologies, absolutism and constitutional democracy, yet together the crematoria may be understood as complementary transitional structures that allowed older cosmological approaches to space and politics to survive, and even flourish, in an era of turbulent social upheaval. Key to this continuity was the deployment of new modes of architectural representation, such as the academic-style plan, elevation, and section, which had been cultivated under the absolutist reign of Vajiravudh. Associated with Siam's nascent architectural professionalization and the rational representation of space, these tools supported a modern worldview that, paradoxically, drew on premodern social hierarchies. Understanding this apparent contradiction is critical to comprehending the ways that seemingly opposing political ideals—such as militarism and utopianism—could be conjoined through architectural representation in mid-twentieth-century Siam.
During the twentieth century, the absolutist court and the constitutionalist regime that displaced it both deployed the symbolic forms of funeral architecture to articulate new ideas about national belonging, civic sacrifice, and political power in urban public space. The crematorium was transformed from a ritual space reserved for members of the royal family and the titled bureaucracy to a public space for the performance of political spectacle. Just as important, the Theravada Buddhist image of Mount Meru (from which the phra men took its form) became identified with modern ideas of utopia as the nation-state replaced the monarch as the primary object of public veneration.4 For example, the first declaration by the People's Party after the change of government in 1932 announced the arrival of the felicitous Buddhist realm of sri ariya metteya—an era of “the greatest happiness and progress,” associated with the future incarnation of the Buddha, Metteya.5
What this new utopia would look like, however, was unclear to the architects and ideologues of the period. By the 1920s, Siam began to reject Westernization as a strategy for modernization and sought to articulate its own, distinct modern identity.6 Before the mid-nineteenth century, the country operated as a constellation of diffuse regional political allegiances, or a “mandala polity,” revolving around a divinely appointed monarch. As European colonialism encroached on the court's realm of influence, Siam moved decisively toward becoming a centralized nation-state with clear geopolitical borders. Architectural methods of representing space, such as the plan and elevation, played a significant role in this transition. They not only helped depict the architectural form of this new utopia but also perpetuated the hierarchical social relations of the past, ensuring the continuity of spatial conceptions in which those relations were performed.7 The men played an important role in representing new forms of national belonging that were consistent with older conceptions of social hierarchy, ideas articulated in temple murals and manuscript illustrations. The men of the twentieth century operated not only as propaganda but also as larger-than-life representations of a world that could be inhabited by the citizens of a modern nation-state. By the time the crematorium for the soldiers and policemen who died fighting against the Boworadet rebellion was built, the men could accommodate older worldviews within a modern representational framework, one that sacralized the nation-state rather than the body of the king.
The Sacred Mountain and the Three Worlds
The men derived its spatial organization from a fourteenth-century manuscript known as the Traiphum phra ruang (The three worlds according to King Ruang). An understanding of the influence of this text on the philosophical orientation of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Siamese court literature and ecclesiastical murals opens a view into how twentieth-century Siamese architects and craftsmen mapped this same terrain using new tools and technologies of representation.
The cosmology of the three worlds (trailokya) has a long history that predates Buddhism, yet the Traiphum phra ruang was the first text to describe the thirty-one planes of existence that constitute the Buddhist and Vedic universe.8 It is generally believed to have been assembled from more than thirty Buddhist doctrines by King Phaya Lithai in 1345.9 However, historians have questioned these origins and suggested that the text as currently known was composed in 1778.10 Because no complete copy predates this, the Traiphum is best understood as a text that came to political significance with the founding of Bangkok by the Chakri dynasty in the eighteenth century.11 As such, it was a key text in the creation of a dynastic patrimony that linked the Bangkok court with older groups and served as a textbook of both Siamese Buddhism and Southeast Asian kingship.
Derived from Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist teachings, the Traiphum incorporated secular attitudes about righteousness, justice, and other aesthetic and political virtues derived from Khmer understandings of the godlike stature of the king, or devaraja.12 It was instrumental in merging the Khmer concept of the devaraja with the Buddhist notion of the cakkrawadirat (the righteous monarch who conquers the universe). It elaborated the ten duties of the righteous king, aligning the body of the worldly ruler with the bodhisattva, or Buddha-to-be.13 The righteous monarch of the Traiphum sat on top of Mount Meru with a shimmering jeweled disk—an exemplar of kingly conduct and the “desire to lead all creatures beyond the ocean of sorrows of transmigration.”14 This forged a relationship between the Theravada Buddhist clergy (sangha) and the monarchy, whereby the clergy legitimated the king's authority as consistent with Buddhist values while the king defended and supported the monastic order.15
The cosmos of the Traiphum was organized into thirty-one domains across three planes of existence: the Sensuous Plane (Kammaphum), the Corporeal Plane (Rupaphum), and the Incorporeal Plane (Arupaphum). The Traiphum described the three planes as disks or “inverted alms bowls.”16 All three were of the same pattern and were described in quantifiable terms. Distances within the three worlds were calculated in terms of yojana, a measure equivalent to 1.6 kilometers (Figure 3).17 Nirvana was a city, Nakhon Niphan, that surpassed the perfection of heaven and was located outside the universe (Figure 4). In simplified terms, the surface of the Sensuous Plane was the land of human beings, the space above the disk was heaven, and the thickness of the disk was the subterranean space of hell.18 The center of the Sensuous Plane was Mount Meru, the vertical axis of the universe, encircled by sixteen mountain ranges and oceans that functioned as walls and moats.19 At the peak of the sacred mountain was Phaichyon Prasat, the palace of Indra.20 The Traiphum further transformed the representation of Mount Meru from the temple form of Vedic tradition to a palace complex, with the royal shrine at the center of the cosmos.21
The Traiphum had an enormous impact on Siamese society and also influenced city planning, architectural design, symbolism, and ornamentation. For instance, the organization of the Buddhist monastic complex, or wat, was informed by the Traiphum. In the ordination hall (ubosot) of a typical wat, a mural of Mount Meru was painted behind the main altar, creating a trompe l'oeil effect that placed the image of the Buddha at the center of the cosmos. Kings used symbols from the Traiphum, such as the garuda, a mythical bird with human characteristics, to show that they were equal to the celestial beings who inhabited the sacred mountain and also to mark the gable ends of the monastic complexes, palaces, and public works they built.22 Structures like the phra merumat were adorned with royal paraphernalia, seals, and emblems drawn from the Traiphum that announced royal power and enforced social stratification. Their appearance set norms that the lower ranks could emulate but never achieve.23 Further, the sumptuary code of the Siamese court was closely related to specialized construction skills.24 Knowledge about construction and ornament was passed down through generations of royal builders, or nai chang, who were descended primarily from three families.25 Within these families, pattern books and architectural manuscripts were closely guarded.26 The royal code of architectural elements (thananusakdi nai ngan sathapatayakam) that the nai chang developed was part of a larger code in which the use of certain symbolic designs was limited to the monarchy.27 Violating these codes amounted to committing lèse-majesté.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the position of the righteous monarch and the moral world of the Traiphum was redefined by the influence of Western science as colonial powers made incursions into Siam.28 The Siamese court undertook a series of intellectual and religious reforms in an effort to project itself as a modern institution on par with European monarchies. The Traiphum, too, now had to compete with new worldviews and philosophical systems brought about by these reforms.29 The challenge for the court during this period was to demonstrate its embrace of rationalism while maintaining the difference and hierarchy that legitimated the rule of the absolute monarch.
In 1872, the Siamese minister of foreign affairs, Chaophraya Thiphakorawong (born Kham Bunnag), published Nangsu sadaeng kitchanukit. The first book produced under Siamese supervision, the Kitchanukit used empirical methods of applied science to explain social hierarchy. “If one reflects on the evidence one concludes that men are born unequal, differing from one another,” the author wrote.30 At the same time, he reaffirmed Buddhist values and underscored the rational qualities of the religion. He did not dismantle Buddhist cosmography but rather reworked and refined it so that it could coexist with other constructions of reality.31 The Kitchanukit separated the natural world from the moral world, using the physical sciences to explain natural phenomena while attributing other phenomena to moral actions. For example, the text dispelled the idea that rain fell because rainmaking deities ventured out of their homes and recognized rain instead as the product of winds drawing water from the clouds. However, the author also asserted that variations in human status were due to the merit people accumulated in previous lives.32 Inadequate for describing the natural world, the Traiphum, in Thiphakorawong's analysis, could nonetheless explain the consequences of immoral acts. The Kitchanukit thus served to renovate the older cosmological view, restating its vitality in the new world of reason, maps, and machines.
In nineteenth-century Siam, knowledge was changing, and the social order threatened to change as well. By adjusting the institutional spaces in which traditional social practices occurred, Siamese architects ensured that social hierarchies remained consistent, albeit in a modern form. One can see this by comparing representations of phra men in murals and poetry of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with twentieth-century renderings using plan, elevation, and section.
Literary and Visual References to the
Court poetry and temple murals were important sources of information about the phra men for early twentieth-century architects and political patrons. Largely from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these poems and artworks were produced in a period that covers the eclipse of Ayutthaya as the dominant polity in the region and the rise of new urban centers: King Taksin's Thonburi and the Chakri dynasty's Bangkok. These sources tell us much about the ideal forms and the relevance of the phra men to early modern Southeast Asian urban societies. Representations of funeral architecture in poetry and in wat murals sought to persuade worshippers of the moral consequences of their actions; they endowed liturgical narratives with a vivid and easily apprehended realism. More important, they depicted where the individual fit within the cosmos.33 In particular, the poetry and murals of the eighteenth century reveal how royal cremations made the aesthetic codes of social hierarchy legible to clergy, courtiers, and common people. Such representations were accomplished in three ways: through public displays of mourning that demonstrated the emotional status of the king as “Lord of Life”; through the use of lavish and rare materials in the construction of the pyre and the burning of the corpse; and through public displays of common, royal, and exotic entertainments.
The funeral architecture of Siam's absolutist monarchs was the focal point of spectacular popular entertainments and celebrations. These ritual entertainments were cultural-cum-political means through which new rulers asserted and publicized their authority. Like the architecture that housed them, these events offered models of the paradisiacal pleasures that lay in store for the deceased while creating a shared sense of belonging among the members of the living community that witnessed them.34 The phra men, representing Mount Meru, occupied the symbolic center of the funeral complex, with the Phaichyon Prasat (or palace of Indra) representing the central pavilion (busabok) at its apex. Outlying structures included halls and open spaces for acrobatics, masked theater, Chinese opera, puppet theater, boxing, and exotic displays of human endurance, such as lying on nails and spears.35 In Nang Utai klon suat, an eighteenth-century poem, the author vividly describes the cremation ceremony:
|When everything is ready||Royal servants tell the king|
|Serfs shave their hair||The royal corpse is moved to the site|
|The royal parasol and entertainment||Both dancers and flowers|
|Pour lustral water||A windmill of fireworks|
|Flower-shaped explosions||Cry out and reverberate loudly|
|Fireworks dot the sky||Resembling stars|
|Drama and songs||Some dance and some sing|
|Go into the ring||Go up the pole and somersault36|
|When everything is ready||Royal servants tell the king|
|Serfs shave their hair||The royal corpse is moved to the site|
|The royal parasol and entertainment||Both dancers and flowers|
|Pour lustral water||A windmill of fireworks|
|Flower-shaped explosions||Cry out and reverberate loudly|
|Fireworks dot the sky||Resembling stars|
|Drama and songs||Some dance and some sing|
|Go into the ring||Go up the pole and somersault36|
Royal cremations were lively public events featuring numerous entertainments, but they also helped to assuage some of the grief associated with the deaths of monarchs. A later poem commemorating a royal funeral of the early eighteenth century describes the role of these entertainments in helping people navigate the grieving process:
|Civilians young and old||And middle-aged|
|Dress up and look sharp||Step elegantly|
|Observe||Celebrate and preen|
|Delighted, intent on||Plucking off sorrow, being happy37|
|Civilians young and old||And middle-aged|
|Dress up and look sharp||Step elegantly|
|Observe||Celebrate and preen|
|Delighted, intent on||Plucking off sorrow, being happy37|
The attention to real-life details in these eighteenth-century poems signifies a shift away from the mystic, ritual forms and purposes of earlier court-oriented literature and arts.38 Artists and intellectuals of this era began focusing on human beings and the present, rather than on the Buddha, mystical creatures, and the afterlife.39 This new interest in the everyday is seen in religious murals found at monastic complexes built during the eighteenth century in Thonburi and Bangkok. While the Buddha and other mystical creatures continued to appear in these murals, they increasingly shared space with royal persons and the slaves and serfs who served them. These groups shared the same field but were separated into different spatiotemporal zones.
A thirteen-panel mural of scenes from the life of the historic Buddha Sakyamuni in the ubosot of Wat Thongthammachat in Thonburi shows how ideas about hierarchy were communicated through depictions of the phra men and the cremation ceremony. In the mural, the lives of deities, aristocrats, and common people are juxtaposed against one another in parallel but unequal dimensions. The panels also reveal how funeral ceremonies reinforced social order by depicting the different acceptable behaviors for people of different classes, even when they occupied the same time and location.
Wat Thongthammachat is believed to have been built sometime during the Ayutthaya period (1351–1767), and it had fallen into disrepair by the time Bangkok was established in the eighteenth century. The wat was renovated several times during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most notably in 1915 by order of Vajiravudh. While there is no way of knowing for certain when the mural panels in the ubosot were executed, some sources suggest that they date from the reign of King Nangklao (1824–51).40 This is highly likely, given both the use of light colors to depict landscape and the lack of linear perspective, a technique that became popular only for a brief period during the reign of Mongkut (1851–68).41 While it is possible that early twentieth-century conservators added their own details to the scenes, the use of parallel perspective has survived repeated restorations of the mural to the present day.
In the mural's tenth panel, parallel perspective is used to depict the Buddha's ascension to nirvana—his mahaparinibbana (Figure 5). Parallel perspective renders all objects represented in the same size, so that the sides of the structures are arranged parallel to one another and do not disappear at the vanishing point. The images on these panels demonstrate the importance of leisure and entertainments in the cremation ceremony and show these entertainments as part of a larger spectacle that reinforced the spatial and social hierarchies of the cosmos. On the left of the tenth panel is the Buddha's phra men, with its five spires (yod) representing the sacred mountain's five peaks. On the altar of the phra men is an elaborate urn (kot), which holds the remains of the Buddha. Adjacent to the phra men is a ritual space for monks and nobles. Outside the ritual area is a stage for celebratory entertainments. At the top of the panel, acrobats perform what was known at the time as yuan hok, a type of acrobatic theater thought to have originated in Vietnam.42 Members of the royal family are shown engaging in refined activities, as in the procession of a royal lady and her entourage seen entering the ritual compound to pay their respects to the remains of the Buddha. Their comportment is markedly different from that of the people in the large crowd assembled in front of a puppet play. These commoners are shown nursing babies, carousing, smoking, fondling one another, and vomiting as a result of overindulging in food and drink.
The eleventh panel shows the lighting of the funeral pyre of the Buddha (Figure 6). This portion of the mural features a redented phra men, which contains the remains of the Buddha, encircled by a high white wall and surrounded by small shrines (chedi). On either side of the ritual area, large crowds are assembled to watch not the cremation ritual, from which they have been excluded, but the theatrical performances connected to it. On the right of the enclosure, a stage is set for a performance of a scene from the Kraithong, a folktale. The crowd is rowdy; some audience members grope one another as the drama ensues onstage. Three figures are seen at the edge of the crowd, entering the walled enclosure. Their crouching, deferential posture as they leave the entertainment space and approach the cremation suggests that appropriate behavior was relative to the different parts of the ceremonial field.
Discussing ideas of space in premodern Thai culture, historian Nidhi Eoseewong notes that these involved spatiotemporal “parts,” or suan, rather than discrete units with clearly demarcated borders situated within universal time. Each suan had its own temporality and rules of behavior, different from those of other suan. In order to move from one suan to another, one had to change oneself. People of noble birth were able to enter more suan than ordinary people because they had what Nidhi calls itthireut—potency or supernatural power.43 To enter paradise (suannakhot), for instance, it was necessary to change one's personality. This view is consistent with the Buddhist idea that one can attain nibbana—a place or a state free from suffering—only by transforming oneself through the noble eightfold path. Sites that were potent served as reminders of three things and their relationship to one another: the possibility of change in oneself, the superiority of the aristocracy, and the organization of space into suan that required different behaviors. Hence, murals became a medium for mediating and broadcasting ideas about how power was enacted within social spaces where different classes interacted.
Parallel perspective was employed in temple murals to emphasize the supernatural power of noble-born beings to move from one suan to another. They could ascend into the higher realms of the Traiphum cosmos in a way that common people, tied to mundane desires, could not. Murals like those at Wat Thongthammachat made social and political relations visible in a way that images based solely on linear perspective could not. As an integral part of the architecture of the monastic complex, they served to inculcate the simultaneous, hierarchical spaces that constituted the cosmos of the Traiphum in the daily ritual practices of temple visitors. In these murals, the higher realms of the Traiphum existed alongside profane space, but while royal persons could move across these spaces, commoners rarely did.
The representation of the men's hierarchical spaces changed when newer, more scientific methods of rendering space—the plan, section, and elevation—were introduced by Siam's nascent architectural profession. Like the murals in monastic complexes, these new modes of representing space drew on parallel perspective.44 Just as the Traiphum view of social hierarchy underwent a renovation when Siam encountered European rationalism, traditional Siamese representations of spatial hierarchy were transformed—rather than eliminated—in the twentieth century.
Phra Men of King Vajiravudh
The design of Vajiravudh's phra men is credited to Krom Phraya Narisaranuwattiwong, also known as Prince Naris; it was executed by the Siamese Department of Fine Arts under the direction of the Ministry of the Royal Household.45 The son of King Mongkut and his consort Phannarai, Prince Naris was active during a long and eventful period, from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. He served as minister of public works, minister of war, minister of justice, and minister of the treasury.46 His art- and architecture-related accomplishments included the renovations of Sanam Luang, most of the significant structures of Wat Benchamabophit, and the murals in the ubosot of Wat Ratchadiwat.47 An autodidact, Prince Naris learned to draw by studying the work of both Siamese muralists and the Italian painters employed by the Siamese court in the nineteenth century.48 His political and artistic career bridges the shift from the nai chang, or royal craftsman, to the sathapanik, or professional architect.49 He oversaw much of the work undertaken by the largely Italian coterie of engineers and architects who came to Bangkok in the late nineteenth century to design the city's public works and palaces.50 Early in his career, Prince Naris was tasked by his half brother, King Chulalongkorn, with improving the charnel grounds of Wat Saket and introducing lavatories in the royal residence.51 He continued to play an influential role in designing Bangkok's built environment even after the 1932 change to a constitutionalist government. His long career and noble origins are indicative of the continuities in Thai architecture during this period.
The phra men that Prince Naris designed was erected at Sanam Luang, the central field or royal plaza that served as a stage for political spectacles and a site for leisure activities such as kite flying. The field began its life in the eighteenth century as the Thung Phra Men, an open area outside the walls of the Grand Palace dedicated to royal cremations (also known as a place where serfs and prisoners of war would catch lizards for food).52 During the reign of Nangklao, rice was cultivated on the field as a symbolic gesture aimed at the Vietnamese court, the message being that the Bangkok court was so prosperous that rice grew even within the royal precincts.53 It was during the reign of Mongkut, however, that Sanam Luang was first used as a site for political spectacles and given its current name.54 At first, the field was walled in, suggesting that the audience for these spectacles was to be strictly limited. This changed during the reign of Chulalongkorn (1868–1910), when the field was used as a military parade ground, as the site of the country's first national exhibition, and, most significantly, as a place where acts of obeisance to the monarch (jong rak phak) were publicly performed. To accommodate these new uses, Chulalongkorn ordered Prince Naris to widen the area to its current dimensions. This enlargement took place after the viceroy's residence, the Front Palace, or Wang Na, was removed, indicating Chulalongkorn's consolidation of absolute power.
The field's transformation into a public space occurred alongside attempts to transform Bangkok's royal precincts into a modern capital on par with European metropoles. This was part of the monarchy's larger refashioning of itself as a “civilized” institution equivalent to European monarchies.55 Although Sanam Luang was used throughout its history for leisure activities, it was never a place for commoners until the overthrow of the absolute monarchy. By the reign of Mongkut, it was considered the sacred place where the spirits of kings were sent to the heavenly echelons of the cosmos.56 In fact, the entirety of Rattanakosin, the old city in which Sanam Luang was located, was deemed sacred. Commoners could be cremated only outside its walls.57
Inside Sanam Luang, the phra men for Vajiravudh stood in the center of a square about an acre in size. It was enclosed by a lattice fence decorated at intervals with multitiered royal parasols (chatri) and ornamented posts. Galleries and pavilions to accommodate nobles, monks, and officials ran along the inside perimeter of the fence. The new king's pavilion was set apart from these and was the most lavishly decorated. At each of the four corners of the compound was a tower occupied by a party of four monks, who chanted on the day of cremation.58 The main pavilion, or busabok, at the center of the phra men was built on four enormous teak tree trunks taken from the country's northern forests and floated down the Chao Phraya River to Bangkok.59 They were driven more than 9 meters into the ground and inclined so as to form a truncated pyramid with a square base. At their tops they were joined by a roof, on top of which was built a yod, crowned by a chatri. The topmost tier of the chatri stood 35.5 meters above the ground, making the phra men more modest in height than previous royal structures of its type.60 The upper part of the spire was fashioned to represent the four faces of Brahma and then tapered into Vajiravudh's royal crest, the mongkut.61
The royal crest played an important role in the royal sumptuary code and was used exclusively on the gable ends of royally patronized buildings. On the gable end of the ubosot of Wat Benchamabophit (Bangkok, 1899–1915)—one of Prince Naris's best-known projects—the royal crest of King Chulalongkorn marked the building as both patronized by the crown and symbolic of a new spatiopolitical order. With its Greek cross–shaped plan, the Carrara marble–clad hall included images of various relic stupas (that) from around the country; these advanced claims about the monarch's centrality within both the cosmos and the political geography of the nation-state.62 The placement of Vajiravudh's royal crest above the image of Brahma at his phra men signified the hierarchically superior position of the monarch atop the cosmos. Compared with the iconographic program at Wat Benchamabophit's ubosot, however, Vajiravudh's crest did not place him within the geography of the nation-state. Rather, his body came to signify the body of the nation itself, as seen in the elevation and plan of the phra men that Prince Naris designed for Vajiravudh.
The drawings of Vajiravudh's phra men represented a new form of rendering space and social relations in Siam (Figures 7 and 8). Although the design is credited to Prince Naris, the drawings were made by Phraphrom Bhichitr, a young architect appointed to the Fine Arts Department in 1912 who built many works for the constitutionalist government after 1932. Designs for royal phra men were not usually drawn on paper. Instead, they were drawn on the temple floor of Wat Mahathat, the monastic complex adjacent to Sanam Luang.63 While architectural drawings such as Phraphrom Bhichitr's were intended to communicate the dimensions of the phra men to the workers who built it, they were also indicative of the new rationalist tendency that sought to represent the world in quantifiable, scientific terms. The hierarchical, symbolic worlds of the Traiphum thus merged with the rational discourse of modern time and space through the tools of the architect. Phraphrom Bhichitr's drawings can also be understood in relation to Vajiravudh's ideas about Thai national identity, involving as these did the three pillars of the nation, the Buddhist religion, and the monarchy (chat sasana phra mahakasatri). The English-educated king was familiar with the British national trinity of God, king, and country, and his version of Thai identity amalgamated older belief systems with new ones that identified the monarch with the nation.64
The early years of Vajiravudh's reign were marked by political challenges involving migrant laborers and European colonial interests, as well as an abortive coup in 1912. The class of bureaucrats that had developed under Chulalongkorn's reign questioned the authority of the monarch, whose legitimacy was now understood to be derived from the people rather than from the heavens (devaraja). In a series of lectures delivered between 26 May and 4 July 1911 to the Wild Tiger Corps, the paramilitary organization he founded, Vajiravudh made clear that only by working in the national (and thus royal) interest could an individual satisfy his sense of being.65 In these lectures, Vajiravudh linked the term chat, originally understood as “birth” or “life,” to the concept of the national community (chat banmuang).66
If I am willing to sacrifice my pleasure, my body, and my life for the benefit of the nation and if you are willing to sacrifice just the same then we can be certain that the Thai nation will be secured. But if you do not make a resolution to make such a sacrifice then I do not see how the Thai nation can survive and escape from disaster. Therefore, I ask you to keep it in your minds that you and I are in the same boat and cannot be separated or escape from each other. If we sink, we sink together; if we survive, we survive together. … If it is our kamma not to make it across the ocean, then do not try to escape, let us die together.67
The concept of kamma, or “action,” has multiple associations in South and Southeast Asian philosophy. Buddhism radically transformed the older Vedic concept of kamma into a critique of the caste system, one that held human beings accountable for their actions in the present rather than attributing their status to previous lives. In the Pali intellectual corpus, reincarnation is described as the end of a process that provokes another process that has structural similarity to the first.68 The fifth-century Theravada Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosa compared reincarnation to how a disciple repeats a text recited by his teacher, or to the flame of a lamp lighting the wick of another lamp.69 By the twentieth century, Vajiravudh could appropriate the Buddhist conception of kamma and instrumentalize it for the nation. The phra men played an important role in transforming the critique of tribalism implicit in early Buddhist attacks on the caste system into a rationale for the shared habitation of national space.70 Rather than emphasize the social critique implicit in the Buddhist conception of kamma, Vajiravudh connected it with chat in order to underscore the idea that the actions of the sovereign and those of his subjects were inextricably tied. By transforming the once-private sanctum of the phra men into a public spectacle, Vajiravudh's pyre connected not only his life to his subjects' lives but his afterlife as well.
The attempt to join the kamma of the nation-state and its citizens with that of the king is seen in an elevation drawing of Vajiravudh's phra men (see Figure 7). Rendered in ornate, animated, fine lines, ornament and structure were integrated here. There was no discernible difference between the line weights of the supporting pillars and those of the finials marking the structure as a royal project. Lightly rendered clouds entered from the upper right corner of the drawing, as if the structure were the product of a burst of wind from another world rather than one of terrestrial human labor. Four terraced flights of stairs ran from the ground to the platform of the elevated pavilion. Easily visible to the crowd, these staircases were accessible to only a small circle of nobility.71 One staircase was reserved for the exclusive use of the heir to the throne. All of the stairs and terraces were decorated with tiered chatri and heavenly figures (devata) holding large sunshades; the anthropomorphic features of these figures were subdued, lessening their iconographic effect. The stairs led to a smaller tiered structure that terminated in a truncated top, made of iron with gilt overlay.72 They operated as stages for the ascension of the heir to the throne and marked his symbolic route from the lived, geographical spaces of the nation through the levels of the Buddhist cosmos to the conceptual power of the absolute monarch.
The hierarchies of social space can be seen in Phraphrom Bhichitr's plan of the phra men (see Figure 8). Each level accommodates fewer and more socially elevated people, with the broad steps linking them operating as stages, allowing the elect to be seen by the crowds assembled at the peripheries of the cremation ceremony. A cosmic mandala rendered as an architectural plan, this drawing marks the historical moment when the funeral pyre moved beyond its traditional symbolic function to become a form of modern public space. Although elaborate, the king's phra men was a deliberately modern and formally minimized version of previous ones, such as that of Mongkut, which featured lesser pavilions on the lower platforms surrounding the crematorium (Figure 9).
Vajiravudh's cremation ceremony itself was an abbreviated and more public version of earlier royal cremation rituals. It was divided into two parts, one in the morning and one in the evening, so as to avoid the hottest part of the day and to accommodate the large numbers of people who assembled to pay respects to the king.73 In the morning, the golden urn (kot) containing the king's body was paraded on a gun carriage and circumambulated the pyre three times, followed by the new king, Prajadhipok, and his entourage. The kot was then placed on the eastern stairway (kela) and raised by pulleys up the inclined plane of the pyre. When it reached the highest platform, it was installed in a catafalque inside the busabok and wreathed with the red, white, and blue tricolor recently adopted as the national flag; this symbolized Vajiravudh's triple values of Buddhism (white), king (blue), and nation (red for the blood the people were expected to sacrifice in its defense). At the front of the urn was a pedestal with a golden bowl holding the late king's field marshal's helmet. Behind this was his admiral's hat. A garland of flowers decorated the base of the urn. In the afternoon, the golden kot was replaced with one made of sandalwood and a curtain was drawn around the upper platform.
It was not until evening, however, that Prajadhipok ascended the long stairway and lit the pyre from a lamp containing sacred fire.74 The ignition was attended by artillery fire, a fanfare of trumpets, and the playing of the national anthem. The structure was illuminated by electric lamps, and the fire was tended throughout the night by attendants who ensured that none of the remains escaped the flames. By morning, consecrated water was poured on the hot cinders and, after further rites, the ashes of the former king were placed in a small golden urn and carried in state to the Grand Palace.75
Historians have described the king's funeral ceremony as the most important rite of the court, equal in significance to the coronation.76 In an earlier period, it was a way of testing the loyalty of the members of the court. Those who did not attend the ceremony revealed themselves as politically suspect, while those who did demonstrated their fealty to the new “Lord of Life.”77 Vajiravudh's cremation was modified to reflect the Bangkok court's new position within a global network of nation-states, and also to broadcast to a national public the king's position within the modern trinity of chat sasana phra mahakasatri. The nationalist trappings of the cremation—the exhibition of the tricolor, the playing of the national anthem, and the sacralization of military insignia—framed the deceased king as both divinely appointed absolute ruler and leader of the nation. H. G. Quaritch Wales, a British-born adviser to both Vajiravudh and Prajadhipok, suggested the political significance of Vajiravudh's phra men:
It is particularly important that a Royal Cremation should be celebrated with the greatest possible pomp, because death is the greatest danger that the idea of divine kingship has to combat. It strikes right at the roots of the whole conception, and instills doubt into the minds of a people who, until recently, had not dared even to contemplate the possibility of a king suffering from any mortal infliction; and now, with the spread of western education, modern skepticism, and the shadow of communism, the Royal Cremation plays an even bigger part than formerly in impressing on the people that the king is not dead, but has migrated to a higher plane, where he will work out his destiny as a Bodhisattva for the good of all beings.78
Vajiravudh's phra men was not simply a prop in a theatrical display of military and religious power, however. It was a structure through which the material and rhetorical spectacle of absolute power could be performed for the Siamese public in a way that included them in the process. Both the materials and the ritual deployment of the structure reinscribed the position of the monarchy at the center of a modern political order and an ancient spiritual universe. The phra men was where the “real” lived world of the body politic met the divine, literary world of the Traiphum phra ruang. The phra men was a model of the home of the gods as well as the place where the late king ascended to that sacred mountain. Vajiravudh's phra men enhanced the public's identification of the monarch's body with that of the nation-state. Most important, it made the transcendent power of the absolute monarchy visible for a mass audience. The public space of the phra men became even more pronounced after the absolute monarchy was overthrown on 24 June 1932 by a coalition of civilian and military leaders known as the People's Party.
Utopia and the People's Party
Founded in Paris on 5 February 1927, the People's Party of Siam was initially made up of military, legal, and science students along with a lawyer and a deputy from the Siamese mission in Paris. The group formulated a six-point program that advocated national sovereignty, public safety, economic planning, equal rights, and universal education and built on a rising tide of popular sentiment—cultivated in the Bangkok press—against royal absolutism. Pridi Banomyong, a law student, would become the group's intellectual leader and an advocate for the controversial step of collectivizing the Siamese economy. In Paris, Pridi had been exposed to utopian ideals by professors Auguste Deschamps and Charles Gide.79 The influence of utopian socialists such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon as well as Buddhist philosophy can be seen in the first statement made by the People's Party after the group overthrew Siam's monarchy in a bloodless coup on 24 June 1932:80
Everyone will have equal rights and freedom from being serfs [phrai] and slaves [kha, that] of royalty. The time has ended when those of royal blood farm on the backs of the people. The things which everyone desires, the greatest happiness and progress which can be called sri ariya will arise for everyone.81
Sri ariya refers to the temporal period when Metteya, the successor to the historic Buddha Gautama, will arrive to teach the dhamma. The extracanonical Thai Buddhist text Phra Malai reports that upon Metteya's descent to earth, wish trees (kalapapreuk) will grow to provide humans with all that they require for material sustenance.82 To realize the wish trees of sri ariya in the present, Pridi proposed collectivizing land under the auspices of the state, nationalizing industries, and instituting cooperative farming. Pridi's utopian ambitions, however, were premature. His plan would have dispossessed the monarchy and its institutions of valuable real estate and industrial assets accumulated through political power and tax revenues.83 The proposal thus raised tensions latent within Siamese society to a simmering point. Pridi was denounced as a communist and exiled. Soon thereafter, an anticommunist act was passed that defined communism as any theory advocating the total or partial abolition of private property.84
Another military coup in June 1933, however, allowed Pridi to return from exile. This inspired royalists in the army under Prince Boworadet to stage their own counterrebellion on 11 October 1933. Boworadet, a former minister of defense and ambassador to France under the monarchy, charged then prime minister and general Phraya Phahonphonphayuhasena with lèse-majesté.85 Together with senior military officials, Boworadet led royalist troops from the eastern region of the country to Bangkok, where they were defeated by troops loyal to the constitutionalist government. Seventeen government soldiers and policemen died suppressing the Boworadet rebellion.
Phra Men of the Constitution's Defenders
From 17 to 19 February 1934, the Siamese constitutionalist government held cremation rituals for its defenders on Sanam Luang. The People's Party believed that the royalist rebellion was supported by Prajadhipok. Whether the monarchy was involved in the rebellion is a subject beyond the scope of this article; what is undeniable, however, is that the rebellion's suppression presaged the decline of the monarchy and the abdication of the king.86 Tensions between the constitutionalist government and the crown are evident in an exchange of correspondence between the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of the Palace regarding the cremation of the seventeen government soldiers and policemen at Sanam Luang.87 In a memo dated 4 January 1934, Chaophraya Woraphong of the Ministry of the Palace addressed the prime minister: “I have asked His Majesty and His Majesty has instructed me to inform you that if you can choose another spot, for example, Lumphini Park or the Phya Thai field, it would be more appropriate.”88 Neither of these alternatives—both public parks without the royal imprimatur of Sanam Luang—was deemed appropriate by the prime minister's office. The next day, the prime minister wrote again, entreating the king to reconsider the request. This time he suggested another part of Sanam Luang as a compromise: the area in front of the Soldier's Memorial designed by Prince Naris in 1919 to commemorate the Siamese soldiers who fought in the European theater of World War I. This site symbolically faced away from the Grand Palace, suggesting either that the crematorium would not confront the historic seat of the monarchy or that it would turn its back on the king.89 Finally, on 6 January 1934, the Ministry of the Palace relented in a curtly worded memo:
Whereas it is His Majesty's command that if the government intends to have this affair at Sanam Luang, His Majesty will not object, but please understand that the royal opinion is not as such. He has already discussed this matter with Mom Chao Wan Waithayakon.90
This terse exchange indicated the tensions that existed between the crown and the government as well as the symbolic importance of Sanam Luang as a site for cremation. It also called into question the conflicting uses of public space in Thailand during the 1930s. A royal space by virtue of its location next to palaces and royally patronized monastic complexes, Sanam Luang had been used to stage spectacular royal funerals for public audiences. As the lines between state and crown were redrawn, however, the choice of Sanam Luang proclaimed not only the ideological triumph of the new government over conservative royalists but also the reshaping of the political landscape by the People's Party.
The form of the crematorium for the seventeen fallen People's Party defenders was as controversial as the choice of site. The constitutionalist government required a new form for the pyre, one that did not aggrandize the institution of the monarchy. Like the other buildings in the complex, the new pyre replaced the royal signifiers of the yod and chatri with a flat roof (Figure 10). The only ornamental element was the national tricolor, which flew from a pole atop the phra men. Three other buildings were erected as part of the cremation ceremony: a long pavilion, a smaller hall dedicated to a merit-making ceremony known as the rong kongtek, and a pavilion for entertainments (rong mohorosop). All of these structures eschewed the royalist ornamentation typically associated with such buildings and drew instead on recognizably modern forms. These vaguely neoclassical modern forms embraced a new tendency in Thai architecture, described by architects of the period as khwam riap ngai (simplicity) or sathapatayakam samanchon (an architecture of the common people). Geometrical simplicity coupled with the minimal use of decorative elements was said to represent two of the cardinal values of the People's Party: equality and economic welfare.91
The simple geometries of the crematorium for the dead soldiers and policemen can be seen as a deliberate attempt to abandon the hierarchies of the previous era. Yet this building did not completely eschew the symbolism of the absolutist period. Inside, the coffins of the soldiers were arranged radially around a large post on which the phan ratthamnun, a gold offering tray holding the constitution, was placed. The constitution was represented by a box traditionally used to store concertina-folded palm-leaf and mulberry-paper manuscripts. The gold tray upon which it rested was of the kind used to make offerings to royalty or monks so as not to profane them with the touch of commoners. It presented the document as a sacred object and a ritual offering (Figures 11 and 12).92 Such public presentations of the constitution dated back to 30 December 1932, when a “permanent” constitution was first displayed at the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, which the People's Party had used as its headquarters since the overthrow of the monarchy.93 This display of the constitution followed a ritual inside the throne hall during which King Prajadhipok signed the document on a gold offering tray. The document thus became a symbol of the constitutionalist regime, bestowed upon the people by the king, and the gold tray became a vessel that linked the celestial worlds of the monarch and the Traiphum with the profane, political world of the modern era.94
Treating the constitution as a sacred document on par with the illustrated manuscripts of the Traiphum embodied an irreconcilable contradiction.95 If the constitution was a charter of the democratic and universal rights of all citizens of the Siamese nation-state, why would the touch of commoners profane it? Yet the symbol of the phan ratthamnun would appear repeatedly in public buildings and monuments throughout Thailand during the tenure of the People's Party.96 It crowned the monument where the remains of the soldiers, encased in artillery shells, would eventually be interred (Figure 13).97
The People's Party sought to create a new, egalitarian funerary language through its use of simple geometric shapes and minimal ornamentation. Yet the contradictions embedded within the form of the phan ratthamnun suggest that rather than displace the inequalities of the previous era, the party rationalized them through modern technologies of spatial representation (such as plan and elevation drawings) and construction materials (like concrete and steel). Continuities between the absolutist and constitutionalist regimes appeared also in the cremation ceremony. In spite of the “modern” appearance of the men, the ceremony was comparable to that held for Vajiravudh. The bodies of the soldiers were ritually consecrated by members of the Buddhist clergy and their coffins wrapped in the national tricolor.98 The procession accompanying their bodies to Sanam Luang was believed to be the largest in the history of Thailand. Although exact figures are unknown, photographs and news reports of the event confirm that it was exceedingly well attended.
The continuities between Vajiravudh's phra men and the crematorium of the constitution's defenders are underscored by the role of Prince Naris, who ascended the steps of the latter crematorium to light the sacred fire and lay wreaths and candles on the seventeen coffins. Prime Minister Phraya Phahonphonphayuhasena then lit the pyre from the fire Prince Naris had lit, ritually passing on the sacred flame from a member of the royal family to the bodies of common soldiers. Prince Naris's participation suggested that although the men was modern in appearance, its spatial organization was consistent with earlier absolutist iterations. Just as the commentator Buddhaghosa likened the kammic inheritance to the wick of a lamp being lit by another, a nobleman initiated the cremation and a commoner—albeit one bolstered by the power of the military and the state—kindled it into a larger fire.
The crematoria of Siam's absolutist regime and the constitutionalist government that overthrew it were produced through seemingly conflicting architectural approaches and worldviews. Built during a period when positivist science and empirical reasoning encountered Vedic cosmologies and Buddhist truth claims, and when the techniques of the modern architectural profession met those of royal craftsman, the modern crematorium reconciled older cosmologies with a new, rational understanding of the world. The use of the plan, section, and elevation to articulate the modern forms of the phra men drew not on the development of linear perspective but on the long history of parallel perspective that informed earlier temple murals. The use of the open plans, flat roofs, and cubic geometries associated with modern architecture to accommodate the hierarchies of the Traiphum suggests the endurance of seemingly archaic concepts like nibbana and absolutism in the twentieth century. Modernity did not erase these older cosmological associations and ways of thinking about space but was itself transformed in the encounter. Rather than displacing one another, two competing ideologies were sustained within the forms of the crematorium.
Although architectural history conventionally frames modernity as a rupture with the past, the crematoria of Vajiravudh and the defenders of Siam's constitution suggest instead an understanding of modernity as antinomy. One approach did not simply yield to another. Rather, the modern men could sustain heterogeneous and discordant temporalities—the past, present, and future—within a single structure while also supporting conflicting philosophical, political, literary, and artistic views.
Although the two crematoria were constructed by opposing political movements, they used similar approaches to both real and imagined space. Both drew on the cosmological structure of the Traiphum and linked it with the nation. Sacrificing one's life for the new nation was framed within the men as something meritorious and beautiful. The men allowed for the reincarnation of Vajiravudh's absolutist nationalism as a new form of nationalism, one that linked the nation and its subjects through shared kamma. The crematorium of the soldiers in 1934 demonstrated to a nascent Thai public that common-born citizens could be glorified, just as Vajiravudh had been. The state aestheticized the sacrifice now required of Siamese citizens in order to naturalize it as an ideology of loyal service to the nation.99 The result was that the public, and not only the military, furnished the social energy necessary to sustain a new hierarchical order.100
The remains of the soldiers were treated as if they were sacred relics, similar to those of Vajiravudh. However, instead of being enshrined in a chedi under the royal spire representing Mount Meru, they were interred in a political monument under the symbol of the phan ratthamnun in Bang Khen. This northern settlement is today a suburb of Bangkok, but in the 1930s it was an outlying area where the decisive battle in the Boworadet rebellion was fought. The Monument to the Defense of the Constitution, or Anusawari Pitak Ratthamnun, framed the historicist idioms of the dynastic past by using new materials to produce a nationalist architecture that reconciled seemingly contradictory impulses.
Unveiled in 1936, the monument integrated the symbols of both utopia and militarism. Its octagonal base was oriented toward the eight cardinal and subcardinal directions that surround Mount Meru. The shaft of the monument resembled both a bayonet and a yod, emerging from a concrete lotus blossom.101 On top of the bayonet sat the phan ratthamnun, nestled in a gilded lotus blossom. The lotus has historically symbolized the Buddha's enlightenment and its emergence from an acknowledgment of suffering. Here, it suggested the ways that the constitution emerged from the sacrifices of common people. A plaque with the names of the seventeen soldiers and policemen adorned the west side of the shaft. On the south side was a frieze of a model Thai family—the father holding a scythe, the mother a shaft of rice, the son a rope. A dhamma wheel was fixed to the north side, and facing east was a poem by Vajiravudh, Siam anusati.102 The final lines provided a clear indication of the shared kamma and responsibility of Siamese citizens to the nation:
(If Siam still abides
We will also endure
If Siam perishes, can the Thai still endure?
We will also end with the extinction of Thai lineage)
The appeals to nationalism in Vajiravudh's lyrics would be reprised in the crematorium built on Sanam Luang in 1973 for the seventy-seven people killed by troops while protesting the military dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn and Praphat Charasuthian. This was the second, and last, time that commoners were cremated on the royal parade grounds. This time, the men was built with the approval of the reigning monarch, King Bhumibol (r. 1946-2016), who presided over the ceremony. The pyre built for the protesters drew on both Vajiravudh's phra men and the crematorium for the seventeen soldiers and policemen of the Boworadet rebellion, reproducing the hierarchical forms of the former in the simplified language of the latter. The resulting structure allowed the antigovernment protesters to be represented as nationalist martyrs who had sacrificed their lives for the benefit of the nation (Figure 14).
In contrast with the monumental tombs dedicated to unknown soldiers in European and American cities, which allowed modern nation-states to identify themselves as timeless polities, the men offered spectacular evidence of the secular transformation of fatality to continuity. The crematoria were ephemeral constructions that linked the imagined community of the nation to an afterlife, rather than eternal life. While human beings, even royal ones, had mortal bodies, the concept of the nation embraced multiple lifetimes and extended well beyond the present.103 In the timber and concrete spaces of modernity's first nationalist funeral pyres, citizens learned to recognize their fellowship as part of a sacred community with apparently endless incarnations.