4 things to know about the funeral of King Bhumibol

Mourners wait for the start of the funeral procession for Thailand's late King Bhumibol Adulyadej before the Royal Cremation Ceremony in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Mourners wait for the start of the funeral procession for Thailand's late King Bhumibol Adulyadej before the Royal Cremation Ceremony in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (AFP) - The spectacular send-off for Thailand's late King Bhumibol Adulyadej began on Thursday (Oct 26) with an elaborate collage of Buddhist rituals and palace protocol, ahead of his cremation at the gilded pyre erected in Bangkok's historic heart.

The US$90 million (S$122 million) ceremony is a final act of devotion to the "father" of the nation, who died in 2016 aged 88.

Here are a few things to know about the funeral of a king revered as a demi-god, and who reigned for seven decades.

THE SITE

At the heart of the cremation complex is a 50m high funeral pyre symbolising Mount Meru, the allegorical centre of the universe in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cosmology.

The gold-painted structure is adorned with dozens of intricate sculptures of animals, deities and mythical creatures from Buddhist and Hindu lore.

Pride of place will go to sculptures of the late king's beloved dogs.

Arranged symmetrically around the main tower are eight smaller structures representing the mountains surrounding Meru.

The sprawling site, nearly a year in the making, is studded with references to the king's welfare projects, including a small rice field and an irrigation wheel.

King Bhumibol's body is kept in a separate coffin to the symbolic Royal Urn, which will be carried up a ramp on a golden chariot to the pyre. Both the urn and coffin will be cremated, allowing his soul to pass into the afterlife according to Buddhist belief.

 
 

THE CEREMONY

While sombre, the funeral is also a celebration as the late king ascends to heaven, with music and traditional dancers a key part of the ceremony.

The funeral formally began on Wednesday with a Thai Buddhist religious ritual led by King Bhumibol's only son King Maha Vajiralongkorn, known as Rama X. His father was Rama IX of the Chakri dynasty.

On Thursday, the king joined monks in a remarkable ceremony, aided by palace officials shuffling on their knees to take the Royal Urn down for a procession from the Grand Palace to the cremation site.

A gun salute also rang out.

On its way to the cremation site it will pass tens of thousands of black-clad mourners who are expected to bow and prostrate where possible.

A bank of monks will lead Buddhist prayers throughout the day-long ritual.

As dusk falls, the king and other royals will lead the laying of sandalwood flowers at the urn.

The cremation itself will take place at 10pm local time when Rama X will light the pyre.

Three days of ceremonies to remove royal relics from the ashes will follow. The ashes will be taken to the Grand Palace while the relics will be enshrined in two temples.

THE GUEST LIST

The funeral procession will be headed by the king, Rama X, with his sister Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn leading the rest of the royal family.

It is not clear how much of a role King Bhumibol's wife Queen Sirikit will play, as she has been in ill health for years.

Power players from Thailand's junta and the all-important privy council will also be prominent in the procession.

Royals and dignitaries from over 40 countries will attend the cremation, including Britain's Prince Andrew, Japan's Prince Akishino and Princess Akishino, Queen Maxima from the Netherlands, the King and Queen of Bhutan, and US Secretary of Defence James Mattis.

Officials estimate that some 250,000 Thais will crush into the surrounding roads, while television will relay blanket coverage of the event.

The meticulously planned funeral comes with a long list of guidelines for attendees in a country where all things royal are tightly controlled.

Photographers are prohibited from taking direct shots of the king, while male journalists have been ordered to shave their beards and moustaches.

TONED DOWN

Roads across Bangkok's historic centre, including the Grand Palace, will be shut.

Tourists are not expected to wear black like most Thais have done since the king's death in October 2016, but visitors have been asked to dress and behave "respectfully".

Bangkok's racy strips of go-go bars have closed for the cremation, while nightlife will be toned down throughout the funeral period.

Many businesses - including the ubiquitous 7/11 stores - will close for much of the cremation day.