Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thailand Royal Barge Procession





The Royal Barge, "Suphannahongsa" (Golden Swan)

Finally after one week of photo editing and post processing, I am ready to share the experience of witnessing last week's Royal Barge Procession in Bangkok.

The Royal Barge Procession is quite a unique event. The first Royal Barge Procession was conducted over 700 years ago. The purpose of last week's procession was to transport HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkom down the Chao Phraya River to Wat Arun where he would be making offerings of robes to the resident Monks.

Following the end of Buddhist Lent also referred to as Buddhist Retreat on 30 October of this year there is a one month period of special merit making known as Kathina. Kathina is a time when people show appreciation to the Monks by offering them gifts, typically robes.

The legend is that long ago thirty Monks were travel to spend the Buddhist Retreat with Gautama Buddha but they didn't make it to him in time.  The Buddhist Retreat started before their arrival at their destination so they stopped where they were.  When they finally got to Gautama Buddha after the Buddhist Retreat ended, he rewarded their obedience and faith by giving them some cloth that had been given to him.  The Monks were to make the cloth into a robe to be given to one of them.  They used a frame called a "kathina" to help in making the robe hence the term "Kathina" for the season and its associated festivals.  When the Royal Family of Thailand offers robes to Monks the merit making ritual is known as "The Royal Kathin Ceremony"

Sometimes The Royal Kathin Ceremony is determined by the King to require a Royal Barge Procession.  In the 19th century, previous King did not want to create more confusion and gridlock in the streets of Bangkok so he traveled by river to make the robe offerings which started the modern use of the Royal Barge Procession for the Royal Kathin Ceremony.

There are two formations for a Royal Barge Procession major and Minor.  For this procession the major as in "Major Battle Formation" was decided upon.  The major battle formation consists of five columns of barges where as the minor procession consists of three columns.  The main battle formation consisted of 52 barges and 2,200 costumed Thai Navy sailors rowing the craft.


Five Columns of Barges In the Major Formation

 
A Royal Barge Procession is a grand event which requires a great deal of planning, coordination, and logistics. Some of the barges are over 100 years old and must be inspected and repaired to ensure that they are seaworthy. Because the Chao Phraya River is a main commercial artery for Thailand, the river must be cleared of all traffic prior to the procession for the safety and security of the participants. Like many rivers in heavily populated areas, the Chao Phraya River also has a great deal of debris floating down it to the sea. Part of the preparations involved for the procession is cleaning the river of floating debris.

Picking Up Debris Prior to Procession
To ensure that the procession fulfilled expectations, starting on September 27th and ending on November 6th, there were 7 rehearsals and two dress rehearsals for the procession.

The Suphannahongsa Royal Barge Proceeding Down River - A Magnificent Sight
There are four Royal Golden Barges in the procession.  The grandest, which HRH Crown Prince Maha sat in is the Suphannahongsa (Golden Swan). The Hongsa or Hamsa (Pali, the native language of Buddhism in Thailand) is a mythical winged swan like creature that the Hindu god, Brahma, rides. The current vessel was launched in 1911.  It was constructed from a single teak tree and is 46.15 meters long.  It is propelled by 50 oarsman.



The Hamsa carries a garland from its mouth at the bow of the barge.  The garland is a polished wood ball covered with small mirrors, followed by chandelier type arrangement of mirrors after which are three crystal ornaments and finally a large tassel of yak fur. Yak fur?  Although there are no yaks in Thailand, yak fur was selected it is from an animal that is considered high and noble.  Yak fur also glistens in the light and does not mat together when it is wet (something to definitely consider for the front of a boat).  When dry, yak fur fluffs up very nicely as can be seen in this photograph.

The bow of Subannahongsa is adorned with a large floral garland made from fresh jasmine, roses, false globe and amsranth.

Royal Barge Anantanagaraj (Anata, The King of Serpents)
Second in ranking of the four Royal Barges is the Anantanagaraj Royal Barge.  It is 44.85 meters long, propelled by 54 oarsman, and was launched in 1914.  The figurehead of the barge is a seven headed serpent, a mythical creature named "Naga".  The Naga is said to have raised its heads and sheltered Buddha from a storm once while he was meditating.


Royal barge Anekkachatphuchong (The Variety of Serpents)
The oldest of the Royal barges is the Royal Barge Anekkachatphuchchong.  It is 45.67 meters long, propelled by 61 oarsmen, and was built in the late 19th century by order of King Rama V.  The most distinctive feature is rather the lack of a distinctive ornamental bow figurehead.  The Anekkachatphucchong is artistically pleasing in it's simple but elegant bow. It is a fine example of beauty and elegance in its simplicity.  It is the lightest barge displacing 7.7 tons.

Royal Barge Narai Song Suban Ratchakan Thi Kao (God Narayana on his Carrier Garuda)
The newest Royal Barge, Narai Song Suban Ratchakan Thi Kao, was launched on May 6, 1996 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of King Rama IX ascending to the throne.  The barge is 44.3 meters long and propelled by 50 oarsmen.  It is also the heaviest barges displacing 20 tons.

The Royal Barges are accompanied by five classes of escort barges.  The bows of escort barges have figueheads of mythical creatures from the Thai epic, "Ramakian" or a painting of a mythical creature.

There are two barges of the Suea Class.  These barges are distinguished by painted tiger (Suea) faces on the bow and tiger stripes along their side.  Cannons on these barges are mounted above the bow whereas on the other barges the cannons are mounted in the bow.  The Suea class barges are the Suea Thayan Chon and the Suea Kamron Sindh.  Each barge is propelled by 26 oarsman and are roughly 22,2 meters long.

Suea Class Barge, Sueaa Kamron Sin, Underway

 
The Ekachai Class Barges, Ekachai Hern How and Ekachai Lao Thong. have paintings, a pattern of gold leaf over black lacquer, of a half Naga half dragon mythical creature, the Hera, on them. The bow figureheads are tapered cylinders which represents the beast's horn. These barges do not have cannon on them.  They are a little over 29.6 meters long and propelled by 38 oarsmen.

A Ekachai Class Escort Barge with Crew

Four Krabi Class Barges participate in the Royal Barge Procession.  Krabi Class Barges are distinguished by Monkey Warrior figureheads.  The Monkey Warriors are mythical creatures from the Thai epic, "Ramakian".  Hanuman, white monkey warrior, is on the bow of the Krabi Prab Muang Marn.  Nilaphat, black monkey warrior, adorns the bow of the Krabi Ran Ron Rap. The other two Krabi Class barges have crowned figureheads of ruler from mythical land of Kishkindha kingdom.  The Pali Rang Thawip has a figurehead with a green body and the Sukrip Khrong Mueang has a red body figurehead.

Krabi Prap Mueang Man (Hanuman Figurehead)

The Pali Rang Thawip (foreground)
The procession includes two Krut Class Barges, the Krut Hen Het and the Krut Tret Traichak.  The figureheads on Krut Class barges are garudas that have nagas on their feet and wings.  Garudas are mythical creatures that transport the Hindu god, Vishnu.  They are also the enemies of nagas.  Again these creatures are creatures of the Ramakian.  Krut Hern Het has a red garuda and the Krut Tret Traichak has a pink garuda figurehead. They are propelled by 34 oarsmen.

Krut Hern Het
The last class of escort barges is the Asura Class.  There are two barges in the class, each propelled by 40 oarsmen.   Their figureheads are mythical creatures called Asura, half bird and half ogre.  The bottom half is bird with the top half being an ogre.


Two Asura Class Escorts


The remainder of the escort barges are smaller scout boats

A Scout Escort Barge

Another Type of Scout Escort Barge
Besides the stunning visuals of the various Royal Barges and the Escort Barges, the costumes of the various personnel on board the barges was extremely colorful and interesting.  Oarsmen wore distinctive uniforms depending upon the class of barge that they were assigned to.  Officers, Signalmen, Standard Bearers, Steersmen, Timekeepers, Drummers, and Chanter all have unique uniforms.








Besides the visual smorgasbord of shapes, colors, and textures be it barges or costumes, there was an audio component of the Royal Barge Procession.  Just before the start of the procession, perhaps 5 minutes before it commenced there were loud flourishes that trumpeted over the river.  The flourishes put the flourishes played for the President of the United States to shame but then again these were fit, if not for a King, then for a Crown Prince.  It was amazing how quiet the scene was.  The river had been closed to traffic for over 6 hours and due to import of the event the crowds were extremely respectful as well as quiet.  After the interlude following the flourishes, the silence was broken by a single voice broadcast over the river by powerful loudspeakers on the other side of the river.  The voice was a mature, I believe alto, and evoked memories of holy rituals.  I later found out that the lilting almost haunting chant was specifically written for this procession.  It was chanted by a man on the Royal Barge, Anantanagaraj, and broadcast to the sound systems along the river. Receivers and amplifiers on the various other barges except for the Suphannahongsa, so that the oarsmen can hear the chant and respond to it.  As the Procession got fully underway, his chanting was answered by the oarsmen in the barges and the staccato beat of wooden poles striking the bottom of  the escort barges by the fore and aft timekeepers for setting a rowing cadence.  At some points in the 45 minute procession, buglers on the escort barges would blare out some commands.  So the Procession was impressive to listen to as well as to observe.

At our hotel we were subjected to some special rules due to the Royal barge Procession.  People were not allowed to stand on their balconies, look out of their room's windows, our stand on the elevated terraces of the hotel.  Why?  Doing so would put common people in an elevated position over HRH The Crown Prince which would be a violation of protocol.  The swimming pool alongside of the river was also closed again so as to not violate protocol.  Guests were expected to be properly dressed also just as if you were to visit a Wat (Temple).  There were two policemen standing along the river with us for security purposes and to ensure protocol was not violated.  These were requirements were quite reasonable and willingly accepted by everyone for such a spectacular event.

The river remained closed until after sunset.  What goes down the river must go back up the river.  After the merit making of the Royal Kathin Ceremony at Wat Arun, Thai Royal Navy vessels towed the barges back up the river to their home berths or storage locations,

As Twilight Descends On Bangkok, Some barges Are Towed Up River
It had been a long day but a spectacular day for us.  It was so interesting to witness such a unique event, an event that has it origins over 700 years ago.  I know that given another opportunity to witness a Royal Barge Procession, we will take advantage of it.  My only concern will be how to witness some of the rehearsals and dress rehearsals as well.

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