Royal dog statues take pride of place on Thai King Bhumibol's pyre

Thai sculptor Chin Prasong poses for a portrait next to two sculptures of dogs owned by the late Thai King on Aug 31, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

NONTHABURI, THAILAND (AFP) - At a studio near Bangkok, a pair of immaculate metre-high statues of the dogs of Thailand's late King Bhumibol Adulyadej are getting a last lick of paint before adorning his funeral pyre.

Bhumibol, a monarch whose reign spanned 70 years, died last October, plunging the country into mourning.

His cremation will take place on Oct 26, just over a year after his death, in a spectacular funeral to be marked by elaborate palace ceremony and Buddhist ritual.

Eight months in the making, three master sculptors have nearly finished the statues of Tongdaeng and Cao Cao, the late King's favorite canines.

The dogs will soon be installed at the top tier of Bhumibol's 50-metre (165 foot) pyre.

It is "a very special spot that's close to the king," said Chin Prasong, a veteran sculptor who describes his task as "the work of a lifetime."

The late king's pyre has been constructed to resemble the mythical Mount Meru, the centre of the Hindu and Buddhist universe - and is set as a final stage for Bhumibol, who was revered by Thais as a demigod.

Bhumibol's body, currently in the Grand Palace, will be placed at the centre of the pyre and set alight allowing his spirit to travel to the afterlife.

The tower, will be decorated by over 500 sculptures of animals, gods and mythical creatures - headed by the pair of royal dogs.

The two dogs were made on request of the palace for the special occasion.

Thais prefix references to Tongdaeng with the honorific "Khun" - roughly translating as ma'am - in a sign of the reverance commanded by all things royal in Thailand.

The creature was frequently present at Bhumibol's public appearances.

A 2002 book about the dog penned by the King was that year's best-selling title in Thailand.

Critics said it was a homily for how Thais should live with devotion, loyalty and a keen sense of their place within the kingdom's rigid hierarchy.

In 2015 the dog was at the centre of a controversy after a man was charged under a tough royal defamation law for allegedly 'liking' a satirical Facebook post about the favoured canine.

Thailand's monarchy is shielded from any debate and criticism by one of the world's harshest lese majeste laws.

Anyone convicted of insulting the revered King, Queen, heir or regent, can face up to 15 years in jail on each count.

Prosecutions have surged since the army, which styles itself as the champion of the monarchy, grabbed power in 2014.

The artists captured the second dog, a boxer named Cao Cao who was the king's pet in the 1950s, with a pipe in his mouth - a homage to old photographs taken by former monarch.

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