Chapter 14: Bangkok’s Grand Palace

Ayutthaya -> Thon Buri -> Bangkok

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After re-boarding our boat Me: “Let me get this straight. The Temple of the Dawn has a heavy Chinese influence because the Chinese were encouraged to come to Bangkok after the Burmese attacked and pillaged Thailand?”

Guide: “Right. This was the end of the period in Thai history when the capital was located in Ayutthaya. This was from 1351-1767 - over 400 years. The Burmese actually occupied Thailand briefly until Taksin, a general of Chinese and Thai heritage, organized a resistance and repelled them. Taksin was made king in gratitude for his efforts. He moved the capital to Thon Buri at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River for defensive purposes. This is where we are now. The Temple of the Dawn is the most notable temple here. It is famous for its tall spires. Until 1972 Thon Buri was a separate city from Bangkok. They are joined by three bridges.”

Me: “When did Bangkok become the capital?”

Guide: “Thon Buri was only the capital from 1767 until 1782, at which time Taksin was replaced by Rama I, who moved the capital across the Chao Phraya River to Bangkok.”

Me: “Why was Taksin replaced?”

Guide: “He began thinking that he was a Buddhist Bodhisattva. He began to behave oddly. Many of the Thai people thought that he was going insane. To remedy the problem the Thai military murdered him. Because of the Thai taboo on touching the king, they placed him in a bag and then crushed his bones.”

Miranda: “Sounds pleasant.”

Guide: “Rama I, the king who replaced Taksin, was the first king of the Chakri dynasty, who still rule Thailand. Bangkok at the time was just a small fishing village. However under royal patronage, it quickly became the dominant city of Thailand. Located at the mouth of the Chao Phraya as it emptied into the Gulf of Thailand, it was ideally suited for trade.”

Me: “It was at this time that the Chinese were encouraged to settle here?”

Guide: “Yes. The Burmese pillaged our country on their way out. Thailand needed trade with China to refurbish our battered economy. Taksin began the trend, but it was also encouraged by Chao Phraya and his sons.”

Me: “Chao Phraya, the river?”

Guide: “Chao Phraya is the nickname of Rama I. It means Great Lord. The river was named in his honor.”

Me: “So was this when the Temple of the Dawn came into being?”

Guide: “No. It was during a temple building spree that occurred in the early 1800s under Ramas II and III. Many of the temples constructed during this time have a strongly Chinese flavor, which reflects the strong Chinese influence in trade and art. These temple complexes were not just for religious purposes. They were used for schools. libraries, hospitals, and recreation areas as well.”

Grand Palace

We arrived at the dock and wandered through a colorful open air market place which had everything from exotic Thai fruits, to clothes and shoes, medicine and herbs, souvenirs and works of art. It was just like the market places that are everywhere in the world but the USA. Hawkers selling their variety of wares - offering bargains - the negotiation begins - a balance is reached - and the merchant exchanges his product for some coin, paper, or plastic money. Everyone is happy. A win-win situation.

We entered a small minivan. Guide: “Now we’re going to the Grand Palace. It was begun by Rama I, but the Thai kings who followed have added their own structures and restored the old. Most of our kings have lived here. Our present king used to live here but has moved to the south for health reasons.”

As we approached the Palace we were immediately stunned by the diversity of architectural styles, which were apparent even from outside the Palace walls.

Guide: “Rama I built these walls in 1782. The perimeter is 1900 meters.”

Me: “For perspective that’s about a third the size of Angkor Wat.”

Laurie: “That’s still big.”

 

Note the three different types of spires included with the Chinese style roof tops. One spire represents the lingam of Shiva, while the other two are Buddhist. The ‘simplest’ Buddhist spire is entirely coated in gold leaf. The other Buddhist spire is so incredibly ornate that even a picture falls short. Note that the spire representing Shiva’s lingam doesn’t grow from the ground as the other spires do but instead emerges from the brightly colored Thai rooftop which is on top of a temple. Remember that the lingams of the Temple of Dawn were meant as shrines, not as temples. This sublime erection reminds one of the potency and power of the king. Indeed there are 8 mini-lingam spires at the entrance to the Grand Palace which further emphasize the royal vitality.

Note the brightly colored roofs in the temple complex. While the roof top shape is Chinese, the colors are distinctly Thai. These are quite visible flying into and out of Bangkok. They provide a prelude to the lush colors that one is greeted with everywhere that one looks.


The Emerald Buddha

Me: “I’m a bit confused. I thought that Thailand was Buddhist.”

Guide: “It is - almost 100% Theravada Buddhist, except in the south where it is mostly Muslim.”

Me: “And I thought that Theravada Buddhism was stricter than the Mahayana Buddhism of China.”

Guide: “Most definitely. For instance they believe in reincarnation. How can there be a reincarnation of the self when the self is an illusion created by Mind?”

Me: “But what about these shrines to Shiva?”

Guide: “What about them? Shiva is the God of Yoga and the Buddha practiced Yoga. Besides the main temple of the Grand Palace is devoted to the Emerald Buddha.”

Me: “The Emerald Buddha? Seems like we heard about that in Chiang Mai.”

Guide: “The Emerald Buddha is the most revered image of the Buddha in all of Thailand. It is carved out of jade and so looks green like an emerald. It was discovered in the 1400s and enshrined at Chiang Mai, the northern capital. After expelling the Burmese Taksin sent one of his generals, Chao Phraya Chakri, who was to become Rama I, on a punitive campaign to the north of Thailand. At this time he captured the Emerald Buddha and brought it south. When he became king he began construction on the Grand Palace, which included the Royal Chapel, which houses the Emerald Buddha. During his reign he installed the Emerald Buddha there with great pomp and ceremony. We will see him today. It will probably be one of the highlights of your trip.”

Me: “Rama I built the Royal Chapel to house the Emerald Buddha?”

Guide: “Certainly. It is the biggest temple in the Grand Palace. However it is the king’s private chapel. As you will see the Emerald Buddha sits high up in the center of the great hall on an altar of gold designed to represent the traditional aerial chariot of the Hindu gods.”

Me: “So this Emerald Buddha is meant to be associated with the Hindu gods.”

Guide: “Right. He is even dressed in different costumes depending upon the season of the year.”

Miranda, restraining laughter: “He has a spring and summer outfit?”

Guide: “That is correct. Here are some pictures of them.”

Before passing us the book with the pictures of the Emerald Buddha’s outfits. Our Guide performed some type of hand gesture, equivalent to crossing himself, and bowed to the book.

Guide: “Just as the Emerald Buddha represents the Buddha and should be treated with respect, so does this image of the Emerald Buddha deserve to be treated with the same respect.”

Me: “But you’re not that religious?”

Guide: “Not compared to most Thai people.”

Me: “So this entire temple is a royal chapel for the king with the Emerald Buddha as its centerpiece?”

Guide: “Right.”

Divine Rama King

Me: “It seems that the Thai people love their king?”

Guide: “Certainly. According to tradition he is like a god.”

Me: “A god?”

Guide: “Yes, of course. He is an incarnation of Vishnu. That is why our kings are called Rama.”

Tingling up my spine and in my fingertips.

Me: “From the Ramayana?"

Guide: “Actually we Thai call it the Ramakian. Rama I commissioned the most famous poet of Thailand to write a Thai version of the story during his reign. There is an entire mural devoted to the Thai version of the story in this complex.”

More tingling in my spine and my body starts vibrating inadvertently.

Me: “Just like Angkor Wat?”

Guide: “Yes. That’s here too.”

Me: “But Angkor is in Cambodia.”

Guide: “Of course. This is just a replica. This king was so impressed that he had his craftsmen create an exact duplicate of it in the Grand Palace, except that it is not in ruins and it is on a much smaller scale. We will also see it today.”

My body begins vibrating more violently as the universal energy flows through. I have been led here by some force beyond my comprehension. I am just a small boat on top of some huge waves - trying to ride them the best I know how. But I am surfing this wall of energy and it has led me into this vortex of enlightenment which transcends my personal self.

Me: “So the Thai king is an incarnation of Vishnu? Is that Buddhist?”

Guide: “Yes. Buddha himself is an incarnation of Vishnu.”

Me: “The Buddha is an incarnation of Vishnu?”

Guide: “Actually Vishnu is the Buddha.”

Me: “Wow. So here in Bangkok Hinduism and Buddhism are blended.”

Guide: “We have just incorporated Hindu symbols into Buddhism, but we Thai are strictly Buddhist.”

Me: “But we didn’t see so many Hindu symbols in Chiang Mai. They seemed more strictly Buddhist.”

Guide: “We Thai are all the same.”

His feathers seemed to be ruffled so I backed off this line of questioning.

Me: “If the king is divine it would probably not be a good idea to criticize or ridicule him?”

Guide: “Definitely not! There is actually a law against it. Thai people can criticize the government freely but not the king or his royal family. Well here we are.”

More Ramayana

Once we entered inside the gate, we were even more overwhelmed with the lush variety of structures. Immediately on our right was a huge well maintained brightly colored mural.

Guide: “Those are scenes from the Ramakian, known as Ramayana in India.”

Note the distinctive Shiva lingam of the Grand Palace in the left of the scene. As always in Southeast Asia the representation is not mythological or set in the distant past but is intended to be right Now. The Grand Palace is painted into the mural of the story. Also in the Thai rewrite Rama is the king of Ayutthaya, the previous capital of Thailand, not some prehistoric country.

Remember the Ramakian is the story of Rama rescuing his wife from the demon Ravana (the King of Longka in the Thai version) who has captured her.

We wandered through the grounds, quite awestruck by the multiplicity of architecture, including the replica of Angkor Wat.

         

There were also a diversity of sculptures, from Chinese warrior gods to mythological figures that belonged to the Mon-Khmer culture, which even preceded the Hindu influence. This was unlike anything that we had seen before.

Guide: "Go ahead and explore a little. I'll be right back."

He returned with a frown on his face.

Guide: “Unfortunately you are not going to be able to see the Emerald Buddha today. The king and his advisors are having a meeting.”

Me: “We don’t get to see the Emerald Buddha that we’ve heard so much about.”

Guide: “The public is not allowed inside. I hope that you’re not too disappointed. I know you were looking forward with great anticipation to seeing our national treasure.”

Me: “We are so overwhelmed with so much beauty and exotic variety that it is quite all right.”

Guide: “I’m so - so sorry.”

Laurie: “Don’t worry. We are very happy.”

Serena: “Yes. Please don’t be upset because we aren’t.”

Guide: “But it was to be the highlight.”

Miranda: “We really don’t care. We are having a marvelous time.”

Kuan Yin - Thai style

We walked over to the temple of the Emerald Buddha. It was by far the biggest structure in the complex. Peaking inside we could inlaid mother of pearl - more gold leaf - more Buddhas - and some more pictures - but we couldn’t see the Emerald Buddha. But then on the left of the temple, there was my old friend again - Kuan Yin.

Me: “Kuan Yin! What are you doing here. You’re definitely Chinese.”

Kuan Yin: “The Thai consider me the Goddess of Fertility.”

Miranda: “She’s decorated Thai style, with ribbons, candles and flowers.”

Laurie: “Look at the eggs for sale.”

Guide: “They are for her.”

Me: “It looks as if she is one of the most beloved goddesses.”

Guide: “She is. Especially for women.”

Serena: “Goddess of the Waterfront for sailors; Goddess of Fertility for women; and the Bodhisattva of Compassion for the Buddhists.”

Kuan Yin: “I get around.”

Me: “The Thai mix Hindu, Chinese, Theravada Buddhism, Thai, Cambodian, and prehistoric Mon-Khmer symbols in styles in the Grand Palace. What next?”

Guide: “Next we are going to see a meeting hall which has a French colonial base and a Thai rooftop. Then we are going to tour a residence made entirely out of teak which is an exact duplicate of European house.”

Me: “In the USA our structures and religion are either one or the other. Either you are Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jew, Democrat or Republican.”

Guide: “But that’s so limiting. We Thai people like to take the best of all worlds and make it ours.”

Me: “Both/And rather than Either/Or.”

Guide: “How limiting to restrict yourself to just one philosophy. The official emblem of Bangkok is the Hindu God Indra seated atop a white elephant with 4 tusks. This represents the ability to accomplish the impossible. We Thai people attempt to achieve the impossibility of blending the different warring cultures of the world into one harmony. Chinese and Indian, Hindu and Buddhist, East and West.”

Back at the hotel.

Me: “The religious tolerance of the Thai is amazing - especially coming fro m the Biblical West, where there are countless distinct religions, which hate each other.”

Miranda: “Remember when we read all the different mythologies when Serena and I were growing up.”

Serena: “Greek, Norse, Hindu, and Christian.”

Me: “Yes. I wanted to give you some choices.”

Miranda: “Then after we had read them all you asked me, ‘Which one do you like the best.’”

Me: “And you responded. ‘I like them all. I take the good and throw away the bad.”

Miranda: “Well that’s Thailand.”

Overwhelmed with the tolerant Thai syncretism, I bowed my head and prayed - giving thanks for such an incredible experience. The Universe rewarded me and my family for taking the risk and diving in. Unafraid of the future. Trusting in the Divine Plan. Quiet enough to perceive the Divine Signs and hear the Little Voice. And having the courage to take action and Obey. Rewarded beyond my wildest imagination.

And I mustn't forget. Bless my lovely ladies for accompanying me on this wondrous experience.

 

 

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