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Majestic splendour

November 5, 1999 -- THE grandeur of the reign of King Rama IX was further enhanced yesterday by the revival of the ancient tradition of a Royal procession down the Chao Phya River with glittering barges featuring different august animals.

There is perhaps nothing more picturesque than this Royal Barge Procession, which is at once a festival of colour and mythical splendour. The procession evokes a sense of continuity just like the great river, a connection with the glories past, the grandeur that was Ayudhya and the magnificence that is Krungthep. It is an awe-inspiring event that reflects the rich cultural heritage of Thailand.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, upholder of the Buddhist faith, used the traditional transport by setting sail on the Suphannahongse in the afternoon from the Vasukri pier to preside over the Kathin merit-making ceremony, marking the end of Buddhist Lent, at the Temple of the Dawn.

A slight drizzle at the beginning of the ceremony gave it an auspicious, tranquil and refreshing prelude. By the time the procession sailed from the Vasukri pier, the sky had cleared. On both sides of the river, Thais and foreigners marvelled at the spectacle. Tears of joy brimmed in many eyes as the beloved monarch pointed his camera at his loyal subjects.

His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn and Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn also accompanied the King in another barge, the Narai Song Suban, in the procession that was made up of a total of 52 vessels and extended to about one kilometre.

The spectacular procession moved in parallel rows, a formation evolved from traditional military manoeuvres on rivers. Some of the barges were also equipped with cannons, a demonstration of the power of the Kingdom.

The Suphannahongse glided elegantly on the mighty Chao Phya River or River of the Kings, reminiscent of a poem in the famous Royal barge songs composed by Prince Thammathibes, the foremost poet, during the Ayudhya period.

Prince Thammathibes wrote:

Golden Hansa with pendant

Delicately rests on the water,

Like the bird-carriage of the Great Brahma,

Gorgeously making its way.

And when the Suphannahongse began its journey, at times looking as if it was skimming the surface of the water, a boat song composed by Commander R N Thongyoi Saengsingchai was sung in extended rhythm to glorify the occasion. This was also reminiscent of Prince Thammathibes' Royal Barge songs, which go as follows:

''Music is loud and cacophonous

Amongst singers and revellers

Shouting and merry-making

Everybody is enjoying.

The magnificent fleet sails out

From the capital city;

It delights the heart to see

Fish of all species in great number.

In the old days, between the end of the Buddhist Lent to the day of the full-moon, which lasts about a month, the Ayudhya Kings traditionally performed the presentation of robes to monks in the Kathin Ceremony as part of the Buddhist ritual.

During this period of high tides, the Kings travelled by barge to the royally-patronised temples to fulfil their duties.

The Kathin Ceremony is of great significance to the Kings, considered the paramount keeper of Buddhism. The occasion also permits oarsmen, mostly sailors, to work on their muscles and their craft in preparation for unexpected wars.

The Royal Barge Procession, which can be traced back to the Sukhothai period, was in vogue until 1932, the year of the revolution that ended the absolute monarchy.

The procession on water served three purposes: the Kings going to war against enemies, the Kings' travelling to royally-sponsored temples to participate in the merit-making ceremony and the Kings' making a pilgrimage to Buddha's Foot Print in Saraburi.

It was King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who in 1959 revived the royal procession on water. The King sees in this procession a great tradition that must be safeguarded to dignify Thailand.

Still, the Royal Barge Procession is a rare event, having taken place only five times, including yesterday's, during his reign.

It also served as an overture to the grand celebration of His Majesty the King's birthday on Dec 5. Already His Majesty has surpassed all other Kings in the Chakri Dynasty in the greatness of his reign.

By Thanong Khanthong


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