More than 500 sculptures to be made for cremation of Thailand’s late king
Thailand’s best craftsmen are hard at work producing these monuments to King Rama IX
By Karnjana Karnjanatawe
Nopparat Bunmee adds a tiny clump of clay to the back right leg of Ratchasi, the mythical lion. He adjusts the leg position of the sculpture, then paces back and forth around his creation to make sure that the creature displays a majestic pose of a lion on the move.
“The graceful walk of Ratchasi implies that Thai people must move on after our late King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away,” he said.
Craftsmen are now hard at work at the sculptural hall of the Fine Arts Department’s Traditional Arts Office in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Sharing the same working space are a dozen artisans assigned to create more than 500 sculptures for decorating Phra Merumat, the palace-like structure where the royal urn will be housed at the royal cremation later this year.
One of the eye-catching sculptures is a 2.75 metre tall Hindu god Narayana, which also has some facial features of the late king. Based on traditional beliefs, the king is an avatar of Narayana. Next to the Narayana sculpture is a 2 metre-tall sculpture of one of four heavenly kings known in Thai as Thao Chatulokkaban, a 2 metre-tall standing garuda, which is Narayana’s vehicle, a seated angel, sacred oxen and Kotchasi, the mythical elephant.
The sculptors concentrate on their work while soft music composed to honour the late king plays in the background. This is the opportunity of a lifetime for these artisans to show their skill for such an important event for the Kingdom. It is also the last opportunity for them to pay tribute to King Bhumibol.
Nopparat, 57, said he felt deeply honoured. Working in the Traditional Arts Office for more than 30 years, he has created sculptures for decorating four royal funerals including that of Queen Rambhai Barni in 1985, Her Royal Highness the Princess Mother in 1996, Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana in 2008 and Her Royal Highness Princess Bejraratana Rajasuda in 2012.
“This time is my fifth chance. The royal cremation of King Bhumibol will be grand and majestic. It must be special because it was the royal funeral pyre for a king. Every detail of my sculpture must be perfect. I will do my best,” he said.
The 500 sculptures to be made are categorised into 16 groups and half of them, about 26 major characters, are created by the artisans of the Traditional Arts Office while the remaining 11 characters, mostly animals and some mythical creatures, are created by craftsmen in Ayutthaya, Ang Thong and Pohchang Academy of Arts in Bangkok.
Phra Merumat was designed by Korkiat Thongphud of the Fine Arts Department. The idea of the royal funeral pyre is to signify Mount Sumeru, which is where King Bhumibol’s divine spirit will return, according to traditional beliefs influenced by both Brahmanism and Buddhism.
Mount Sumeru in Hindu mythology stands at the centre of the universe. It is the residence of the gods. Its foothill is surrounded by Himmaphan (Himavanta or Himalayas), the legendary forest and home to fantastical creatures such as naga (serpents), singh (lions) and kinnari (half-human, half bird).
When completed, Phra Merumat will be 50.49m high with an elaborate seven-tier roof. The structure will have four levels and will be adorned by several hundred sculptures.
There will also be four ponds at four corners of the base of Phra Merumat. The north pond will be decorated with elephant herds and the south with sacred oxen. The west pond is for horses and the east pond is for singh.
There will also be sculptures of rabbits, the birth year of the late king and also the 70cm-tall statue of Thongdaeng, the king’s favourite pet dog, carved by Chin Prasong, the former chief of the Sculpture Division of the Fine Arts Department.
The team from the Fine Arts Department started working on the sculptures right after they received the blueprint of Phra Merumat last November. They have worked seven days a week ever since.
The first process is to sketch out a figure and posture of each sculpture. They will later create a small sculptural model by using plasticine. The model will help sculptors examine the right scale while creating the real statues.
A newly employed artisan Phrakakita Kaewpanya was very excited when he was assigned to carve Thao Dhatarattha, king of the Gandharvas, or celestial musicians, and one of the four heavenly kings. He researched and studied the character from many books before drawing the picture and sculpting the model.
“As a musician, Thao Dhatarattha must be good-looking and smart,” he said. Based on his model, Thao Dhatarattha has long hair and a charming face. He also holds the neck of his lute with his left hand.
The sculptor has worked on carving the figure for two months. He said he is about halfway done.
According to another artisan Charoen Hancharoen, each sculpture has a metal framework as the core. The sculptor attaches hundreds of fillers, which are wooden crosses, to the armature before moulding it with clay.
The clay must be refined, said Prasopsuk Ratmai, the chief of the Sculpture Division of the Fine Arts Department’s Traditional Arts Office.
They use aged clay from Pathum Thani because it doesn’t have the usual dark grey colour, but yellowish brown like the colour of café au lait. The colour can reflect light and help artisans see the right dimension while sculpturing each statue, he said.
“Every piece is a work of art. We try to make our sculptures look as if they are alive. Their postures and faces must have feeling like a human, not a statue. This is the most challenging part,” he said.
So far about half of the sculptures have been done. The craftsmen are expected to finish their work by the end of April.
When finished, each clay sculpture is transported to another working space at Sanam Luang. Another artisan team will create moulds of the clay sculptures. The sculptures will be made of fibreglass and be coloured before being placed at Phra Merumat.
The fibreglass statues will takes less time to produce and won’t be too heavy when compared with material like bronze, said Prasopsuk, adding that the cost of fibreglass is also much lower.
When the royal cremation is over, Prasopsuk expects that the sculptures will be kept in a dedicated place to showcase art in the reign of King Rama IX.
“I hope that there will be a museum to exhibit the sculptures for young generations to learn about this art in the future,” he said.