ON THE RIVER OF KINGS
Historic barges seemed to 'float off into heaven'
Chao Phya procession provides royals with a breathless experience; His Majesty enjoys magnificent sight for the first time
A slight rain started in the afternoon but ended in time for the Grand Royal Barge Procession to embark on its majestic journey to glorify His Majesty the King's 60 years on the throne.
The Royal Barge Procession, which started from the Wasukri Pier near Bangkok's Bangkhun Phrom, floated along the Chao Phya River at a leisurely pace - neither too fast nor too slow. The 2,200 oarsmen did not have to use all their muscles to guide the 52 royal barges forward as the current flowed from the north bringing along sediment that gave the river an orange hue.
Thousands of people packed both sides of the River of Kings to watch this historic exhibit of the picturesque royal barges, unseen anywhere else in the world. The Royal Barge Procession, which has been held 14 times during the Ninth Reign, celebrates the past and present glory of Thailand as a land of rich culture and tradition.
The Royal Barge Procession seemed to magically appear out of nowhere. One by one the barges passed Their Majesties the King and Queen, members of the Thai Royal Family and kings, queens and royal representatives from 25 nations at the Royal Navy Conference Hall. The Royal Barge Procession was one of the highlights of the celebration of His Majesty's 60 years on the throne.
Their Majesties the King and Queen and the royal guests changed into less formal suits to watch the Royal Barge Procession on the second floor of the Royal Navy Conference Hall before sunset. Earlier in the afternoon they all wore glittering formal uniforms, with medals and decorations, royal or traditional costumes to attend the formal reception party at the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. This marked the first time that the kings, queens and royal representatives from all over the world had gathered in one place at the same time - and they came with glad hearts to congratulate His Majesty the King's 60 years on the throne.
The Royal Navy Conference Hall, which stands within the old palace of King Taksin the Great, was the perfect site to watch the Royal Barge Procession. It is located on the Thon Buri side of the river, opposite the Royal Grand Palace. As the royal barges slowly passed by, with the Royal Grand Palace as the backdrop, the scene was quite spectacular. It looked as if these royal barges were about to float into Heaven and merge seamlessly with the Royal Grand Palace in a majestic view.
Phaothong Thongchua, a well-known Thai designer, said Thanphuying Butri Veeravaidhaya once told him that the King had remarked that he had never witnessed a Royal Barge Procession throughout the 60 years of his reign. The King normally takes part in the Royal Barge Procession himself and sits in the Suphannahongse, or the Golden Swan, the most important of all the royal barges.
Yesterday was the first time the King could watch the royal barges, which represent the might of naval power from the old Siamese Kingdom and the glory of the royal ceremony.
Nearby, on the right side of the Royal Navy Conference Hall, is the Temple of the Dawn with its momentous chedi, the first landmark that foreign visitors in the past saw when they travelled up to Bangkok. Nothing could be more picturesque and grandiose.
The current fleet of the royal barges was built during the reign of King Rama I, who founded Bangkok in 1782. There were more than 100 royal barges then, many being repaired and rebuilt during the subsequent reigns of the Chakri kings. During World War II, about half of the fleet was destroyed by bombing.
Of all the 52 royal barges in the procession, there were four principal ones - Suphannahongse, Narai Song Suban HM King Rama IX, Anantanakharaj and Anekachart Phuchong. Narai Song Suban HM King Rama IX was built specifically for His Majesty the King to commemorate his Golden Jubilee in 1996. The King took part in the Royal Barge Procession in that year to celebrate his Golden Jubilee.
Suphannahongse, which harks back to 1548 in the Ayutthaya period, has an elegant swan as its figurehead. The premier royal barge befits the regal status of the King of Thailand. The other barges "protected" these four main royal barges in a magnificent contingent, five layers deep. Altogether they stretched out some 1,200 metres along the river.
These escort barges were beautifully decorated in bright colours, with carvings of mythical beasts and characters from The Ramayana, such as Asura Vayuphak, Pali Rang Thaveep, Krabi Ran Ron Rap, Krut
Tret Traichak and Krut Hern Het.
Another equally important element of the Royal Barge Procession is the chanting of barge songs. In ancient times, barge songs were intoned to relax the oarsmen and give pleasure to the Ayutthaya kings and their entourages when they travelled to the Buddha's Footprint in Saraburi to take part in the Royal Kathin Ceremony.
The barge songs were composed in the old khap yani style. The khap yani usually followed a strict form, beginning with khlong si suphap as an overture before proceeding to the poetic body with the klon format. The rhyming of the khap yani must be perfectly executed to render the greatest poetic experience.
Navy Squadron Leader Thongyoi Saengsinchai composed the barge song in three parts for this particular occasion. The first part covers the glorification of His Majesty and his virtuous deeds for Thailand. The second depicts the beauty of the royal barges and the third part describes at length the long history of Thailand dating back to the Sukhothai period and how the Kingdom has evolved to become a great nation today.
For a moment in time, only the barge song could be heard from the great Chao Phya River as the royal barges commenced their journey. The rhythm of the barge song - alternated with a sailor's "aye, aye" - provided the oarsmen with the right tempo to paddle.
The Royal Barge Procession ended in a perfect execution. At 18.35 hours, Their Majesties left the Royal Navy Conference Hall along with the royal guests to the new building of the Royal Navy to attend an exhibition displaying the King's royal projects over the past 60 years.