This is the year of the Diamond Jubilee of the King of Thailand's accession to the throne 60 years ago. The celebration begins on June 9th and honors the world's longest, reigning, living monarch--His Majesty, Bhumibhol Aduljadej. Crowds of tourists from around the world as well as Thai citizens will witness the spectacular royal ceremony June 12th, which will feature groups of elaborate royal ceremonial vessels embarking from Wasukri royal pier along Chao PhrayaRiver to the Wat Aroonratchawanaram. Over 2000 oarsmen from various naval units will take part in the procession which comprises 52 barges.
The ChaoPraya River flows through 11 provinces of Thailand from the branch of the rivers in the north. The four rivers Ping, Wang, Yom and Nan unite in Nakornsawan province. We could say that this river is the Thai 'cultural' river from ancient time to the present. Water was a frequent used means of transports for Kings in ancient times. During the Sukhothai period, Phra Ruang used barges to float kratongs (lighted candles in floats) in the Jong Priang Ceremony in the great pond as well as to display fireworks on full-moon nights. In the Ayudhaya period, the capital was an island surrounded by many rivers and canals. Thus boats played a crucial role in transport as well as in battles. Many warships were then built during this period.
Even in a normal situation, soldiers still needed to be prepared for emergency or surprise attack. The flood season was naturally the most suitable time to practice battle formation as the young men were also free from farming. The season also coincided with the Kathin festival when the King would also present Kathin robes to the temple. So the Kathin ceremony with barges became a tradition for public celebration.
A royal barge procession was also organized when the King wished to travel for both personal enjoyment and for official ceremonies such as a coronation, the worship of Buddhist relics, or to welcome foreign envoys
The specially designed and decorated barges astonished foreigners who came to forge relationships with the historical Siam. King Narai the Great (1656-1688) ordered these barges to welcome the French emissary from the King Louis XIV. Nicholas Chervais, who wrote "Histoire naturelle et politique du Royaume de Siam," described a naval procession during Ayuthaya period as:
"Unmatched in beauty by any naval spectacle, the procession consisting of over two hundred boats, is led by the Royal Barge manned by oarsmen themselves seated in a double row and distinguished by the red bands on their tunic sleeves. Each oarsman wears a headgear, tunic, and trousers marked by gilded bands. The strokes are synchronized and orchestrated by the rhythmic songs sung in praise of the King. The oars are also gilded. The drapes lining the Royal Barge are embellished with precious stones."
Among the 52 vessels this year, there are four grand royal barges:
1. The Royal Barge Suphannahongse was built in the reign of King Mongkutklao (Rama VI), deriving its name from the Royal Barge Sri Suphannahongse which was built in the Reign of King Phra Buddhayodfa Chulalok the Great (Rama I). Rear Admiral Phraya Rajsongkram (Korn Hongsakula) was the naval architect of Royal Barge Suphannahongse as barge of the Royal Barge Ging class. The bow is made into a head of Royal golden swan, gold-lacquer painted and richly decorated with glass ornaments. The hull is painted black outside and red inside. She is 44.90 meters in length, 3.14 meters at the beam and the depth of her hull is 90 centimeters, with the draught of 41 centimeters. Her driving power of 3.50 meters per 1 stroke of 50 paddlers with 2 steersmen, 2 officers fore and aft, 1 standard bearer, 1 signalman, 1 chanter and 7 royal regalia bearers.
2. The first Royal Barge, Narai Song Suban, which was one of the principal Royal Barges with an animal figurehead was launched during Ayutthaya period by King Maha Chakrapat who had turned a Rua Sae, a regular barge used to transport troops and supplies in to a Rua Chai, a fast armed barge with cannons installed at the prow. The prows of the barges were generally carved in the shape of different animals, which existed or were first discovered during His Reign or those which were of a purely mythological nature. Some of these were the emblems of various ministers such as Rachasee or the King of Lions, Kochasee or the elephant-headed lion and Naga or the serpent. Some of the principal Royal Barges had decorated figureheads which resembled Royal Emblems. The prow of the royal Garuda Barge was fashioned in the shape of the Royal Emblem, a Garuda in full flight thereby signifying that the King, who was revered as the reincarnation of a 'Deva', was onboard.
With regard to its historical background, the Narai Song Suban dates back to the reign of King Rama III in the early Rattanakosin Period(1824-1857). The King commanded that the Royal Barge be built along the lines of a traditional Royal Barge of the Ayutthaya Period. There is in fact an entry in the Dynastic Chronicles to the effect that King Rama III deemed that the construction of the Narai Song Suban Royal Barge or the Monkolsuban Royal Barge as it was called at the time, brought honour to the country as a whole.
This Royal Barge was 44.30 meters long, 3.20 meters at the beam and 1.10 meters deep. The interior of the Barge was painted red and had a full complement of 65 oarsmen. The original prow was carved in the shape of the King of the Garudas or of a Garuda holding a Naga, with a porthole beneath the Garuda for the cannon.
Construction of the present barge was commissioned by the Royal Thai Navy and the Fine Arts Department to commemorate the 50th anniversary of His Majesty King Bhumiphol Adulyadej's accession to the throne. She was launched in Kathin festivals 1996, 1999 and APEC meeting 2003.
3. The Royal Barge Anekchatbhuchonge was built anew in the reign of King Chulachomklao (Rama V) as the barge of the Royal Barge Sri class. Her graceful prow is intricately carved and gilded in a delicate pattern of small Naga figures. Her hull is painted pink outside and red inside. She is 45.40 meters in length, 3.15 meters at the beam and the depth of her hull is 1.11 meters, with the draught of 46 centimeters. Her driving force is 3.50 meters from 61 paddlers, 2 officers fore and aft, 1 standard bearer, 1 signalman, 1 chanter and 7 royal regalia bearers.
4. The Royal Barge Anantanagaraj was built anew in the reign if King Mongkutklao (Rama VI) to replace the old barge built in the reign of king Mongkut (Rama IV). Her bow is made into the 7 heads of Nagaraj gold-lacquered and richly decorated with glass ornaments. The barge is of the Royal Barge Ging class, with the hull painted green outside and red inside. She is 42.95 meters in length, 2.95 meters at the beam and the depth of her hull is 76 centimeters, with the draught of 31 centimeters. Her driving power is 3.02 meters from 54 paddlers with 2 steersmen, 2 officers fore and aft, 1 standard bearer, 1 signalman, 1 chanter and 7 royal regalia bearers.
There are four chants, sung at different times. The first is called the kroen-hay. This verse says that the beautiful boat is ready to begin moving. The second, the chalawa-hay, is slow in tempo, and is heard when the boat is moving gradually away from the pier and the oarsmen are still rowing slowly, before the fun starts. It has a wonderful text that praises the King. The third chant is the most fun. It is called moonla-hay and is about the magnificence of the procession of boats. The oarsman have a good time because they really get into the rhythm of the song as the boats pick up speed.
The entire ceremony is simply a spectacular sight and not just an entertainment. It is also a ceremony of deep meaning for the Thai people as they define their place in the world. It connects them throughout their entire history and honors the central symbol of their culture: The King. It also reveals the sustaining breadth of Thai design and decorative arts.
You can hear the ceremonial song-chant at: