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

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


Tuesday, 21 March 2017 – ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute had the pleasure of having Professor Jan Barend Terwiel to speak on “A 500 years ‘Cosmic Ritual’: The Cremation of a Royal Corpse in Thailand”.

The seminar was based on Professor Terwiel’s research on a scroll which he had personally helped to identify and decipher when it was discovered. It depicts the cremation of King Phetracha who died on 5 February 1703 and was cremated more than a year later on 26 December 1704. As one of two pictorial scrolls that were found rolled up in a canister in the storerooms of the Dresden State Art Collections, Professor Terwiel reported that the illustration of the larger scroll, almost four meters long, was drawn in ink and applied with a fine pen by an expert Siamese artist and commissioned with an European audience in mind. According to him, the scroll was a contemporary illustration of an actual historical event, and it was unique as there was no tradition in Siam of illustrating a specific royal funeral. It was also a significant document as no other pictorial manuscript of that age has survived from Siam with a secure provenance and dating.

The scroll illustrated a funeral procession moving from right to left. Professor explained to the audience the significance and meanings of the various scenes and figures in the ceremony. On the left end of the scroll was a courtyard enclosing an elaborate tower which, Professor Terwiel explained, represented the Buddhist cosmic mountain of Meru. On the other end of the scroll was the illustration of a massive and elaborate four-wheeled catafalque carrying the urn containing the king’s corpse. The catafalque is shown to be travelling towards the recreation of Meru where the cremation would eventually take place.

Several distinct figures and scenes are depicted along the passage of the catafalque to Meru. These include Phra Yom––Lord Yama, the God of Death––in a pose pronouncing judgment, with his assistant Jettakup (Chitragupta) in a forecourt immediately to the right of the Meru complex; a series of mythological animals, mounted on sledges and pulled by people in formal dress; and the hierarchical illustration, based on its location from the top to bottom height of the scroll, of various activities from prayer to acrobatic performances.

Professor Terwiel also drew attention to words in Dutch script identifying the mythological animals and the people in three carriages, and argued that only an owner would add such annotations on a fine document. He identified the person who commissioned the illustration as Aernout Cleur who had worked for The Dutch East India Company (Dutch: Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie) which had traded in Ayutthaya from 1608 to December 1765.

Dr Benjamin Loh, who chaired Professor Terwiel’s seminar, felt that the seminar provided a rich and detailed analysis of the royal cremation and funeral in history. Not only did the talk explain the key elements of the ritual and added to the audience knowledge of the extraordinary ceremony, it also sheds light on Thai-Dutch relations during the 17th and 18th century when observations of the funeral were made.

Professor Terwiel concluded the seminar by drawing out similarities in function and structure of the Thai Meru complex with that of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, as well as a discussion on how the historical ritual will continue to be adhered to later in the year in Bangkok. He pointed out the misconception that there has been no model in most living memory for the mourning of a Thai king in the past 70 years. In addition to a five hundred year history of the royal funeral ceremony, the ceremony is also occasionally extended to people of importance or stature by a reigning monarch who decides that a somewhat simplified version of the full ceremony may be held. Professor Terwiel said that this was done for the Patriarch of the Buddhist Church, and for King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s sister. On the ceremonial aspect, artefacts and objects such as the man-high urn, the huge catafalque, and the ceremonial sunshades, as well as the erection of a Meru is routine. The troops that accompany the corpse will also be trained till nobody steps out of line. The lowering of the urn from the catafalque and its passage to the Meru will be practiced till the event has been fully internalized.