The end of the age of South-east Asia's god-kings

Thai mourners lining up to pay obeisance to the Royal Urn of the late King Bhumipol in Bangkok on Oct 29.
Thai mourners lining up to pay obeisance to the Royal Urn of the late King Bhumipol in Bangkok on Oct 29. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The outpouring of grief in Thailand over the death of King Bhumipol Adulyadej (Rama IX of the Chakri dynasty) has no comparison in recent history. For the majority of Thais who have lived their lives under his reign, their late King is viewed with deep affection as a fatherly figure, the head of the Thai family. But there is another aspect of King Bhumipol which is seldom discussed, and that is his personification as probably one of South-east Asia's last "devarajas" or god-kings.

Given that Thailand was never colonised by Western powers, the continuous preservation of Thai royalty provides one of the most authentic links with the region's glorious Indianised past and its institution of devarajas and "cakravartins" (Buddhist-inspired universal rulers).

Like many polities in mainland South-east Asia, Thai kings for centuries took on religious, spiritual and sacred personifications. First instituted in Angkor under Jayavarman in CE802 as an object of Lord Shiva to protect the kingdom, kings were bestowed demigod attributes and deified as devarajas or literally god-kings (deva: god; raja: king).

Over the centuries, the interpretation of god-kings was also fused with the Buddhist king or cakravartin. Given the syncretism of religions in the region, Hindu ideas of kingship were mixed with Buddhist statecraft. Hindu-Buddhist concepts of kingship were sometimes fused with the Islamic-based sultanates in insular South-east Asia.

Based on their godly incarnations, devarajas in the eyes of their subjects possessed divine characteristics. Most god-kings or political leaders who behaved like devarajas spoke softly - to the point of being inaudible.

The late Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew, in his autobiography, noted how President Suharto believed he was part of the Javanese Hindu kingship. In their "empat mata" (four-eye) sessions, the Indonesian President spoke so softly, Mr Lee could hardly hear him.

Thai mourners lining up to pay obeisance to the Royal Urn of the late King Bhumipol in Bangkok on Oct 29. Thai mourners lining up to pay obeisance to the Royal Urn of the late King Bhumipol in Bangkok on Oct 29. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Devarajas also seldom betrayed human emotions. In Bali, for example, as noted by anthropologist Clifford Geertz, cremation ceremonies of royalty rarely involve displays of grief by family members. After all, gods, goddesses and deities do not cry. That also explains the title of a popular book on the Thai King: The King Never Smiles.

Often devarajas appear stern and stoic. This emotionless front has led some Western observers to jump to the conclusion that the South-east Asian royalty and power elites lack human feelings and thus are diabolical characters - difficult to fathom and understand.

In Thailand, the idea of the devaraja is embedded in the public arena. Photos and paintings of past Thai kings adorn shops, homes, taxis, buses, cars and offices, and certainly King Bhumipol's portrait is ubiquitous. He is revered not just as king but as a divine being to be prayed to, as part of syncretic Thai religious practice. In Bangkok, traders and hawkers on the sidewalks around the Sapankwai BTS station sell all sorts of sacred amulets, icons, statues, scapulars and memorabilia of past kings which Thais wear or keep, for protection from evil forces or for good health and luck.

It is common for peoples in mainland South-east Asia to believe in the Hindu avatar tradition and accept that every important king or outstanding ruler is a personification of god. The fact that the Thai royal insignia is the Garuda, the man- eagle vehicle of Vishnu, the Hindu god of avatars, helps to reinforce King Bhumipol's deification.

In Thailand, the devaraja cult is manifested in various royal rituals, customs, rites and symbols. Despite being a Buddhist country, Hindu Brahman priests conduct all the main royal spiritual rituals in the godly language of Sanskrit.

Broadly speaking, there are two important ways the devaraja cult is perpetually signified in the eyes of the public. Spatially, the devaraja is the centre of the universe and hence the royal sacred city of Bangkok is for the Thais the centre of the cosmos, with the royal palace - where the late King now lies in state - at its heart.

Socially, King Bhumipol was the centre of Thai society, the apex of the Thai social pyramid and its spiritual and political centre. He was also the source of the country's fertility and that was best seen at the annual ploughing ceremony at Sanam Luang, where the King ritually impregnated the soil with the royal plough and symbolically fertilises all Thailand's farmlands.

Given his exemplary and benevolent behaviour, no Thai would doubt the spiritual eminence of King Bhumipol. As a mark of ultimate respect and reverence, Thais never raised their heads above their King when meeting him. Even his photos and portraits were always placed above that of others in homes, offices and shops.

But unlike previous divine kings, King Bhumipol was different in choosing not to be cloistered within the palace confines. Instead, he mingled with his subjects freely, dispensed administrative advice, engaged actively in government projects and travelled extensively all over his kingdom. He was actively interested in Thai development and efforts to eliminate poverty; he was not content with being a ceremonial monarch and royal figurehead and instead strived to be the people's king.

He followed the long royal tradition emanating from the Khmer devarajas and cakravatins and Thai kings of Sukothai who developed their city-states through spiritual catalysts and religious ideology. Past devarajas who were notable in history as empire builders in Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand were progressive and modern in their own time and he was no different in 20th century Thailand.

With his death, and despite the Thai military's attempts to preserve the sanctity of Thailand's monarchy, the worry among Thais, the power elites and government leaders is whether the royal tradition will continue to serve as the nation's moral compass, its sacred symbol and catalyst for national unity in a country torn by widening economic disparities, social disruptions and ideological differences.

The death of King Bhumipol might very well spell the end of a long tradition of celebrated god-kings in South-east Asia who made the difference in their kingdoms' development.

•Associate Professor Victor R. Savage retired from the National University of Singapore Geography Department in June and is currently adviser at its Office of Alumni Relations.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2016, with the headline The end of the age of South-east Asia's god-kings. Subscribe