State and people co-host a most poignant farewell
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State and people co-host a most poignant farewell

Lit up in full royal splendour: The majestic cremation of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Royal Crematorium. (Photo by Thanarak Khunton)
Lit up in full royal splendour: The majestic cremation of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Royal Crematorium. (Photo by Thanarak Khunton)

No event was grander in scale or significance than the royal funeral of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the end of October, which came as a fitting culmination of a year-long national mourning period.

The figures alone were staggering: 12,739,531 people flocked to the Grand Palace to pay their last respects to the late King whose body was lying in state at the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall, and about 157,000 people attended the solemn ceremony at Sanam Luang, the principal site of the royal cremation, on Oct 26 with 20 million more joining official memorial activities elsewhere in the country.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej had ruled for 70 years and 126 days and initiated more than 3,000 development projects credited with uplifting the standard of living of his subjects.

The numbers, however, do not tell the whole story. In fact, they only scratch the surface of the immense, unbreakable bond between the benevolent King, through whose guidance the country has pulled through tumultuous years, and the people who saw him as their "father".

The colour black set the national mood and tone this past year. But 2017 also marked a period of an unprecedented coming together of all people united in their spirit and labour forged by hugely invigorated volunteerism in action to see the late King off on his final, heavenly journey.

The King's passing on Oct 13, 2016, plunged the nation into profound grief as the government declared a year of mourning. As the late King had been laid in state inside the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall in the Grand Palace, crowds of mourners congregated along the entire length of the palace wall facing Sanam Luang, where they placed flowers and lit candles.

Soon, royal permission came which granted people access to the throne hall to pay their last respects to the late King. It was to be an introduction to one of the longest and largest funerals in Thai history where there were no hosts or guests but "helpers" expending their collective energy to prepare the royal cremation well-worth the late King's countless contributions to the people and the country.

The logistical challenge in managing the sheer number of mourners entering the throne hall's grounds was simply momentous. A queuing system was devised to shorten the waiting time and tents were put up stretching all the way up the road along Sanam Luang to shelter the crowds from sun and rain.

Despite the system, the wait lasted many hours, from morning sometimes into late evening. The long wait extended past meal times and not everyone had brought with them a bite to eat.

In a few days, a large kitchen packed with stalls had sprung up in Sanam Luang, ready to cook up a storm. The stalls spread out almost the entire length of an adjacent road as they handed out free food to those queuing up to pay their respects to the late King in the Grand Palace. The noise of clattering woks used to rustle up simple fried rice and the aroma of broth noodles in bowls being passed to people filled the entire ground.

People from nearby locations were shuttled to the Grand Palace by motorcycle taxis free of charge. Some of the drivers rendered the service even though they did not make a living driving their motorcycles and picking up passengers.

At the same time, hundreds of volunteers were enlisted to assist authorities in conducting security checks of people entering the palace and directing traffic in, out of and around Sanam Luang. Despite some early technical hiccups and operational fine-tuning, the traffic and logistical management of the palace-bound mourners soon functioned like clockwork.

Several months into the respects-paying period, the grounds at Sanam Luang were being prepared for construction of the royal crematorium and the auxiliary pavilions. Again, a united force was on full display albeit with the growing realisation that the final day for the royal farewell was on the horizon.

The construction of the crematorium combined engineering as well as artistic feats rarely seen in the kingdom's history. The areas around the majestic royal crematorium were adorned with mythical characters from the timeless literary epics connected to kingship which required the meticulous hands of top-rate artisans from various genres to put together.

Exhibited around the crematorium were exemplary rice fields and inventions which identified with the numerous royally-initiated development projects that speak of how deep the late King had touched and improved the lives of so many of his subjects.

The work that went into making the royal funeral momentous was down to the consolidated efforts of the authorities and the people. However, in the preparations for the royal cremation day on Oct 26 this year, there were, in a metaphysical sense, no real hosts or guests in the royal funeral and related events, according to Tongthong Chandrangsu, a noted scholar on royal affairs and former PM's Office minister.

While the government was the core supervisor and implementer of the royal funeral, it was executing the duty in the name of the people. An event of this scale and significance needed a multitude of labour skills and cooperation from the people to deliver.

When everyone turned up a willing party to join the once-in-a-lifetime event and the fact that they helped the business of organising the royal funeral proceed in an orderly fashion, it was clear the people were the co-hosts, Mr Tongthong said.

"The tremendous love and affection people had for the late King was evident in the unity we witnessed during the days and months leading to the royal funeral and on the actual royal cremation day.

"This unity went beyond Sanam Luang," he said, citing an example of the sandalwood funeral flower-making campaign where people sat down at the tables in department stores to assemble the flowers to be offered for use by mourners attending the royal cremation on Oct 26.

"People from every corner of the country wanted to be a part of the event. They all had their different experiences related to the late King," he said.

The royal funeral was also highly educational. Time-honoured royal customs and ceremonies were performed in their full splendour and glory, especially in the few days before and during the cremation.

Historians agreed that every piece of regalia right down to royal chariot on which the late King's body was transported to the royal pyre holds profound meaning of what kingship means to the country and its people as well the history behind it.

Mr Tongthong said some elaborate ceremonies associated with royal funerals which took place before and in October provided a wealth of education and they were reported about or were seen in action first-hand by people who witnessed the event.

"It's learning from watching the real things with one's own eyes. These living traditions are invaluable," he said.

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said that in the first half of the year, people in their tens of thousands filed into the Grand Palace each day to pay their last respects to the late King. Closer to the royal cremation day, people were focused on how they could be of service in order to ensure a smooth arrangement of the royal cremation befitting the honour of the late King.

"People were bound by their undivided loyalty to the monarchy. The royal funeral was the event at the very epicentre of our hearts in 2017."

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