Seminar: A 500 Years ‘Cosmic Ritual’: The Cremation of a Royal Corpse in Thailand


About the Seminar

After a Siamese king has died, and when his successor wants to honour him, the corpse will be embalmed and it may take more than a year before the remains will be cremated. A lengthy duration of time is needed to prepare for his festive “send off” from the world which includes a seven-day ritual involving thousands of participants, fireworks and popular entertainment, and the erection of a tall building representing the Buddhist cosmic mountain of Meru. The cremation will eventually take place in this recreation of Meru.

On the day of the cremation, an urn with the royal remains is placed on top of a massive four-wheeled catafalque and it will be transported slowly towards the Meru. Up till recently, the catafalque was preceded by more than seventy drays with depictions of mythological animals that lived at the foothills of Meru. Coins were scattered in the crowd and thousands of Buddhist monks received alms. Six such rituals are described in detail in the Royal Annals, and the height of the Meru––the tallest reaching a dizzying 120 metres––is mentioned in these accounts.

Various European accounts will also be referred to, the earliest dating from the mid-sixteenth century. Special attention will be given to a recently discovered scroll in the Dresden State Art Collections, which depicts the cremation of King Phetracha on 26 December 1704. It shows key elements of the ritual and adds to our knowledge of this extraordinary ceremony that involves a complex chain of events.

This talk will prepare us to what we may expect later in the year in Bangkok where the more than 500 year tradition is expected to be adhered to.


About the Speaker

Barend Jan Terwiel, born 1941, was educated in Utrecht and Canberra. He did fieldwork in Mainland Southeast Asia and Northeast India. He held senior positions in universities in Australia, Germany and The Netherlands. In 2006 he retired from the Chair of Thai and Lao Languages and Literatures in Hamburg University. He has written extensively on Thai history, on Buddhism, and on the Tai peoples. Best known are his books The Ram Khamhaeng Inscription: the Fake that didn’t come true (2010), Thailand’s Political History from the 13th century to recent times (2011), and Monks and Magic (2012).  Most of his journal articles can be accessed on


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