- - Tuesday, October 17, 2017

BANGKOK — For the past year, the body of King Bhumibol Adulyadej has lain in a coffin blessed by chanting Buddhist monks, as millions of Thai mourners prepare for the Oct. 25-29 royal cremation.

More than 12 million people already have prostrated themselves on the floor in front of Bhumibol’s coffin and urn during guided visits over the past year, said officials at the Grand Palace, where the king has lain in state.

Bhumibol, also known as Rama IX, died Oct. 13, 2016, in a Bangkok hospital after a lengthy illness. He was 88 and had reigned as a constitutional monarch for 70 years.

Today, his coffin and urn rest atop a tall, golden catafalque in the Grand Palace’s Dusit Maha Prasat Hall under an ornate spired roof.

“The information about King Rama IX is that the body of the king is lying flat in a coffin, an ordinary coffin. But the upright urn, the royal urn, is placed in front of that coffin as a piece of royal regalia in his honor,” said Chakrarot Chitrabongs, who teaches Thai culture and customs at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

A retired permanent secretary of the Culture Ministry, Mr. Chakrarot described Thai rituals to foreign diplomats and journalists during a recent visit to the crematorium arranged by the Foreign Ministry, the Culture Ministry and the National Museum.

Bhumibol’s funeral last year mixed Hindu and Buddhist traditions spanning hundreds of years, unique to Thailand’s 95 percent Buddhist population.

Following generations of royal procedure, Bhumibol wore a crown and “a gold-embossed mask to cover the face of the dead king” before being placed in a hand-carved sandalwood coffin, according to the Culture Ministry.

“Before the lid is closed, both the golden mask and the golden crown are placed on the body,” Mr. Chakrarot said. “However, as the undertaker closes the lid, he will secretly, sight unseen, remove both the mask and the crown. In this way, the two objects of royal regalia are never soiled by this decomposing body within the coffin.

“They are secreted into safe keeping, ready to be used on the next occasion. The whole process takes place on the day of death and after the royal family has performed the [Buddhist] bathing rites,” he said. “I can confidently state that King Rama IX is not wearing his golden mask inside his coffin.”

Mr. Chakrarot speculated that Bhumibol may have preferred a regular coffin — the first for a Thai king — as a display of humility.

Bhumibol’s afterlife is officially described as freedom from the cycle of human reincarnation because he was a “deva raj,” or king from the Hindu gods, and also a “bodhisattva” who delayed his entry into Buddhism’s nirvana so he could help others.

On Oct. 25, the cremation ceremony begins in the Dusit Maha Prasad Hall and, if it follows tradition, Bhumibol’s remains will be taken from the coffin so that Buddhist monks can pour blessed coconut water onto them to consecrate them.

His remains then will be wrapped in a fresh white sheet and returned to the coffin.

The next morning, the empty royal urn will be placed in front of the Grand Palace on a bargelike, red-and-gold teakwood Great Victory Chariot, which rolls on four large wooden wagon wheels. First used more than 200 years ago, the chariot symbolizes Hinduism’s sun god Surya, who carries the dead to a cosmological Mount Sumeru.

Hundreds of courtiers on foot, wearing traditional clothes, will pull the chariot and several other adorned vehicles in a solemn procession through the street.

Accompanied by Hindu Brahman priests and Buddhist monks, the chariot procession will enter the nearby Sanam Luang cremation ground.

Sanam Luang has been the royal cremation site since King Rama I’s funeral in 1809 and is otherwise a public park.

“I have heard that the double urn will be transferred to the crematorium without the body inside, with some symbolic representative objects instead,” Mr. Chakrarot said.

“The body will be cremated within the coffin,” he said. “The coffin is secretly taken to the crematorium late at night, the day before, and stored out of sight in the crematorium.”

The cremation will begin at 10 p.m. on Oct. 26, and Bhumibol’s son — King Maha Vajiralongkorn, or Rama X — will ignite the pyre.

On the morning of Oct. 27, Buddhist undertakers “gather whatever is left of the king’s body, which is mainly pieces of bones and ashes. They will fashion, on the pyre, a human body [shape] out of the ashes,” Mr. Chakrarot said.

“They will fit a bone from where it came from originally. A piece of skull where the head is. A piece of rib for where the chest is, in this model of ashes,” he said, describing a common Thai ritual.

The king [Rama X] will come to the pyre in the morning. He will sprinkle some sacred water symbolizing the putting out of the fire and sprinkle it on the pile of bones,” Mr. Chakrarot said, noting that the sprinkling symbolically re-creates the celestial rain that is said to have quenched the Buddha’s pyre more than 2,500 years ago.

On Oct. 29, the bones will be enshrined as “royal relics” in the Grand Palace, and Bhumibol’s ashes will be enshrined at two Buddhist temples in Bangkok.

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