Thailand grieves in elaborate final goodbye to King Bhumibol
With solemn faces and outright tears, Thais said farewell to their king and father figure with elaborate funeral ceremonies that cap a year of mourning and are steeped in centuries of tradition.
Smoke rose just before midnight Thursday from the spectacularly ornate crematorium built in the year since King Bhumibol Adulyadej died. On Friday morning, his son, current King Maha Vajiralongkorn, participated in a religious ceremony to move his father's ashes to special locations for further Buddhist rites. Thai television broadcast pictures of Vajiralongkorn bathing Bhumibol's relics — charred bones — and placing them in golden reliquary urns.
The five-day funeral began Wednesday with Vajiralongkorn performing Buddhist merit-making rites. On Thursday, a ceremonial urn representing Bhumibol's remains was transferred from Dusit Maha Prasad Throne Hall to the crematorium in somber processions involving thousands of troops, a golden palanquin, a gilded chariot and a royal gun carriage.
The urn, placed under a nine-tiered white umbrella and accompanied by a palace official, was hoisted into the main chamber of the golden-spired crematorium as monks chanted, traditional instruments wailed and artillery fired in the distance. The king then climbed the red-carpeted steps to light candles and incense in honor of his father.
On a day designated a public holiday in the kingdom, tens of thousands of mourners dressed all in black watched the processions from streets in Bangkok's royal quarter and millions more saw broadcasts aired live on most TV stations and shown at designated viewing areas across the country.
Before dawn, 63-year-old Somnuk Yonsam-Ar sat on a paper mat in a crowd opposite the Grand Palace. Her granddaughter slept in her lap and her husband rested his head against a metal barrier. The family came from the coastal province of Rayong, where they run a food stall.
Somnak waved a fan to cool herself but said she was not tired.
"I feel blessed to be able to sit here, and be part of this," she said. "It's an important day for us."
Bhumibol's death at age 88 on Oct. 13, 2016, after a reign of seven decades sparked a national outpouring of grief. Millions of Thais visited the throne hall at the Grand Palace to pay respects.
Deceased Thai royals have traditionally been kept upright in urns during official mourning. But Bhumibol, who spent much of his early life in the West, opted to be put in a coffin, with the royal urn placed next to it for devotional purposes.
The ceremonial urn was at the center of Thursday's processions, including one led by the current king when the golden container was placed upon the Great Victory Chariot. Built in 1795 and made of gilded and lacquered carved wood, the chariot has been used to carry the urns of royal family members dating to the start of the Chakri dynasty.
As the chariot, pulled by hundreds of men in traditional red uniforms, passed the mourners lining the parade route, they prostrated themselves, pressing their folded hands and head on the ground in a show of reverence.
In the evening, a symbolic cremation was witnessed by royalty and high-ranking officials from 42 countries. Orange-robed monks chanted Buddhist prayers to bless Bhumibol's spirit as the official guests waited to offer sandalwood flowers at the crematorium built to represent mystical Mount Meru, where Buddhist and Hindu gods are believed to dwell.
Bhumibol's ashes and relics will be transferred to the Grand Palace and the Temple of The Emerald Buddha for further Buddhist rites, and on the final day of the funeral, they are set to be enshrined in spiritually significant locations.
The funeral is by design an intensely somber event, but also rich in history and cultural and spiritual tradition.
The adulation Bhumibol inspired was fostered by palace courtiers who worked to rebuild the prestige of a monarchy that lost its mystique and power when a 1932 coup ended centuries of absolute rule by Thai kings.
That effort built a semi-divine aura around Bhumibol, who was protected from criticism by a draconian law that mandates prison of up to 15 years for insulting senior royals.
But he was also genuinely respected for his development projects, personal modesty and as a symbol of stability in a nation frequently rocked by political turmoil, though his influence waned in his final years.
Thais have braved tropical heat and torrential monsoon rains to secure street-side vantage points to witness the funeral.
Thousands of police and volunteers were on hand to ensure order and entry into the historic royal quarter was tightly controlled to eliminate the faint possibility of protest against the monarchy or military government.
An activist was detained earlier this week after writing on Facebook that he planned to wear red clothing on the day of Bhumibol's cremation, a color associated with support for elected governments ousted in coups in 2006 and 2014.