The exquisite Grand Crematorium for Princess Galyani Vadhana, late sister of the King, is the nationís focus at Sanam Luang today as a people in mourning prepare for a final farewell in a ceremony with roots deep Thai tradition.
The practice is similar in Bali, where the bade, the Balinese pyre, is carried around with the deceased royal atop the structure, and the whole is eventually consumed by fire.
However, funerary pyres for royals in Siam were not burnt because of their great height and the practice of recycling: the timber and bamboo used were taken down after the ceremony for use by monasteries in building monks' cells and other structures.
In the Fifth Reign of the Bangkok Period, the pyre built for the Celestial Prince (Chao Fa) Siriraj was used to build Siriraj Hospital. The flames, in such cases, would be contained in a small compartment holding the royal remains.
The pyre is the expression of coming to terms with the cosmic order. The name meru denotes the central mountain and pivot of the universe in Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist cosmology.
It actually implies Everest, the highest point of the Himalayas, which is the world's greatest water reservoir. This reservoir is frozen, allowing peripheral melting and hence gradual release of water to flow down in the 10 great rivers, thereby sustaining life and agriculture in the valleys below where civilisation took root.
The pyre, in our case, is also the supreme expression of Thai ingenuity: all efforts are put into the architecture and decorations of the struc¨ture - carvings, sculpture and painting. It is "high art", but it is also ephemeral and philosophic in that it is built in order to be destroyed or dismembered, like the physical body.
In the Bangkok Period the royal remains are first mounted on a chariot in a procession which goes around the Grand Palace anticlockwise, ending at the Phra Meru (Phramain) Grounds or Sanam Luang. The royal remains are then transferred into the chamber atop the meru.
The meru built for Princess Galyani Vadhana is similar to the one for the Princess Mother. It is based on a steel structure following the constraints of modern times, when wood is in short supply. Also reflecting the modern era is the scale of the structure. The meru for Princess Galyani Vadhana, like that for the Princess Mother, reaches a height of just over 30 metres.
Several factors have influenced the height of meru down the centuries: the degree of reverence the successor had for his or her predecessor, which in the case of King Boromkot of Ayudhya was minimal; the royal rank of the deceased; recovery from war, as in the case of King Naresuan and the start of the Bangkok Period; and the various influences of economics in the mod¨ern era, starting from the turn of the 19th century.
The tallest recorded meru were 102.75 metres high, or the equivalent of a modern 32storey building. Authorities are baffled as to how the height could have been achieved in wood and speculate that either the chroniclers exaggerated or else the old units of measurement do not tally with ones used later in Bangkok.
The more recent and accurate records of the Bangkok period, however, confirm royal pyres of up to 80 metres. As a point of interest, these dimen¨sions should be compared to the 120.45metrehigh Phra Pathorm Chedi, the 67metrehigh prang of Wat Arun and Angkor Wat, which is only 42 metres high.
What this means is that Thai builders, working in wood and using essentially the same symbolism and classical grammar, exceeded the vertical scale of nearly all the masonry or stone buildings of Southeast Asia.
The amount of work, the high level of wood technology, the singlemindedness and the total mobilisation of labour and material resources beggars the imagination.
During the reign of King Rama II, for the 80metre royal pyre and the accompanying eight 50-metre-high secondary meru and other complementary structures, the amount of timber alone transported to the capital was:
896 large teak trunks
5,500 other tree trunks
2,800 bamboo slats
400,000 or more bamboo poles
These figures, however fantastic, did not compare with the scale of building and the elaborate funerary ritual of the Ayudhya period.
Yet considering that the country had barely recovered from the sacking of its old capital in 1767, the dynasty, by sheer reflex, continued as best it could the tradition of great timber building.
The last great meru in Bangkok was built in 1869. A royal decree subsequently abolished the practice, no doubt as a sign of the changing times, although smaller, simplified versions continued to be built to the present day.