The Royal Barge Procession Full Dress Rehearsals On the Chao Phraya River October 26 and 29, 2007 Please click to view
Three and twenty Mandarins of the lowest Order of the Palace appeared first, every one in a Balon [barge] of State…These were followed by fifty other balons of his Majesties Officers...[which] had from thirty to sixty oars apiece...After these came twenty balons more, bigger than the former...Next, the king appeared in his, raised upon a throne of a piramidal figure and extraordinary well gilt...and...rowed by six score watermen... We reckoned in all one hundred and fifty nine, of which the biggest were near six score foot long and hardly six foot over at the broadest place. — A description of the royal barge procession of 1685 by French Jesuit, Père Guy Tachard
Over three centuries have since passed, yet this breathtaking spectacle remains awe inspiring, not only in its majestic beauty but also the grace with which the fleet of 52 barges solemnly glides down the Chao Phraya River — the ‘River of Kings’.
When the gilded paddles of the principal barge, the swan-prowed Sri Suphannahongse, are raised in unison, it is as though a mythical bird is about to lift from the water.
The other 51 barges, arrayed across the river in what is traditionally termed a battle formation, create a panorama of rare regal splendour. The blare of conches and trumpets, the songs of the coxswains, and the stentorian chants of the paddlers provide the right cadence for the oar strokes, enhance the spectacle, and mesmerize spectators into respectful silence – much as these same rare sounds have done for hundreds of years.
The Royal Barge Procession is the ultimate reflection of the Thai fascination with water, the central element in Thailand’s rites of passage, festivals, and religion. An aerial view of Thailand’s northern and central plains reveals why. A vast silvery labyrinth of natural and hand-dug waterways slices through the lowland plains. Villages hug banks of rivers and canals and draw from them the life-sustaining water that nourishes lush crops and harbours fish, the two staples of the Thai diet. It is along these liquid highways that a variety of water processions have travelled over the centuries.
In descending order of importance, they include:
Coronations It was only appropriate that a prince travel in the most exalted vessel available to the most important event in his life: his coronation. Although wheeled vehicles have replaced barges, records of their magnificence abound in ancient manuscripts.
A Water-borne Procession with a Buddha image Since ancient times, barges have carried revered Buddha images. When King Naresuan the Great (1590-1605) rode to battle, the Suphannahongse royal barge bearing the Phra Chai Buddha (Victory Buddha) image containing relics of the Lord Buddha led the flotilla. In 1781, barges transported the Emerald Buddha from Ayutthaya to its final home in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaeow. The famous image that now occupies the nave of Wat Suthat was transported from Sukhothai to Bangkok on a raft.
Royal River Tour of the Great Capital In the former capital of Ayutthaya and also in Bangkok, kings embarked on royal river tours along the moats that embraced their stout city walls. It was for this reason, as well as defensive considerations, that until the late 19th century, no permanent bridges were erected over the moats, and the royal progress on these annual circuits went unimpeded.
The Royal Kathin Procession to Present Monastic Robes The progenitor of the Royal Barge Procession as we know it today dates from the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai (1275-1316 AD). The Lanna Chronicles note that the King was conveyed by night in a fleet of barges to present robes to the monks to mark the end of the three-month Buddhist Rains Retreat, a ceremony known as the Kathin ritual. By the mid-Ayutthaya period a few hundred years later, these processions were conducted during the day.
By the reign of Rama I of Bangkok (1782-1809), the rite had been combined with those for waterborne Buddha images. As it is celebrated today, the Praratcha Phithi Phra Yuha Yatra Cholamak (Royal Waterway Procession) involves barges carrying the deeply revered Phra Buddha Singha image and the Royal Family to present robes to the monks at Wat Arun to mark Awk Phansa, the end of the three-month Buddhist Rains Retreat in October.
The Petch Phuang Major Battle Formation The Petch Phuang Major Battle Formation, dating from the reign of King Narai the Great, is employed by the reigning king in the waterborne Royal Krathin Ceremony, the Royal Barge Procession of the Buddha Image, or in important occasions such as the Royal River Tour of the Great Capital.
The Petch Phuang Procession was originally the grandest of all royal barge processions. Based on a formation from ancient times, the Petch Phuang Major Battle Formation serves as a reminder of the time when barges served as Siamese battleships.
The rationale for adopting the battle formation for the Royal Kathin ceremony was because during times of peace, soldiers still needed to be prepared for emergencies or surprise attacks. The season of high water was normally the most suitable time for this since the tides made it easier for the complex manoeuvre. Young men were also free from farming obligations.
Boats in the Petch Phuang Major Battle Formation are arranged in five columns. The Royal State Barges occupy the centre flanked on each side by two columns of war barges. With the minor battle formation, barges are arrayed in three columns. The formations were used long after their original battle purpose had been superseded by peace and the advent of more modern naval vessels.
Procession to Welcome Foreign AmbassadorsLetters from foreign kings were borne in grand ceremony by barges to upriver palaces. Among them was one sent by France’s Louis XIV to King Narai (1657-1688) at his palace in Lop Buri.
The honours conferred on letters were later extended to welcome foreign ambassadors. In 1855, Sir John Bowring, Queen Victoria’s envoy, arrived in the Chao Phraya estuary to negotiate a new trade treaty. He was delightfully astonished to be greeted by a convoy of gilt barges which conveyed him to Bangkok to meet King Mongkut.
Extended Journeys into the CountrysideKings travelling to the countryside on royal inspection trips slept aboard boats sumptuously fitted out with the comforts of floating palaces, as polemen silently paced back and forth on the gunwales propelling the craft upstream.
PilgrimagesJust as royalty today travels in motor convoys through Bangkok’s streets and beyond, kings of yore rode on waterways to distant religious sites. King Narai partook in a grand annual pilgrimage procession of 324 barges to pay homage to the Phra Phuttabat image in Saraburi.
Boat Races The boat races conducted each October on Thailand’s rivers have roots in royal tradition. Early Ayutthayan palace records show that races were used to predict rice yields during the coming harvests. The Asayucha race pitted the King’s Samathachai Barge against the Kraisoramuk Barge belonging to the Queen. It was the Queen’s barge the spectators cheered, for if it won the harvest would be abundant.
Chong Priang Ritual The ancient Chong Priang ritual performed on the full moon night of November is the predecessor to today’s beautiful Loi Krathong, or Festival of Lights, when floral floats bearing candles and incense are launched along the waterways. Then, royalty rode barges to place lit lanterns on the river, making a delightful spectacle.
The magnificence of today’s Royal Barge procession amply conveys the mystique of the myriad processions of times past, a beautiful reminder of another age when rivers were roads and life was more fluid.
Chong Priang-Lote Chut-Loi Khome Long Nam Ancient Royal RitualThe Jong Priang-Lote Choot-Loi Khome Long Nam royal ritual begins with an assembly of Buddhist monks for the recital of evening prayers. The next morning, the monks receive offerings from the King. Special priests then perform a ritual in the Brahmin Hall. Candles and the priang receptacle, which contains oxen fat or butter, are presented to the King. The candles to be presented as sacred offerings are anointed with oxen fat or butter, lit by the King and placed in three distinct types of lanterns. Each denotes the rank and social status of the individual.
The khome chai lantern with its nine-tiered umbrella is symbolic of the King. Its bamboo frame is covered with white fabric decorated with stained glass or coloured mirrors. The khome chai lantern was fixed to a wooden lantern pole with swan-shaped hooks adorned with dainty bells. In contrast, the khome pratiab lantern of the royal concubine, features a seven-tiered umbrella, and the tubular-shaped bamboo khome boriwarn lantern of the royal entourage and attendants had a three-tiered umbrella.
The lit lanterns are hoisted on poles lining the palace walls as well as along the outer walls of the palace and the living quarters of the court attendants. At the end of the designated period, the lanterns are taken down from the poles and floated in the waterways.
Story by Steve Van Beek
GUIDE TO THE ROYAL BARGESThe Royal State Barges and the Royal Kathin CeremonyIntroducing The Principle Royal BargesThe Royal Barges in the Rattanakosin Period: A Precious HeritagePlease click to view A BRIEF HISTORY Please click to view
ROYAL BARGE PROCESSION FULL DRESS REHEARSALS OCTOBER 26 and 29, 2007Please click to view
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