[Sri Suphunahongsa Barge]
Some 300 years ago, Louis XIV of France commissioned Monsieur La Loubert as ambassador to the Court of Siam during the reign of King Narai the Great of the Ayutthaya period . The group was accompanied by a number of Jesuit priests, one of whom was Father Guy Tarchard. in his diary Voyage de Siam des Peres Jesuit, he described the barge procession that came to receive the Royal Message and gifts, saying "Four enormous barges came to welcome us, each manned by 80 oarsmen. I have never seen such a sight. The first two were in the shape of sea-horses and entirely gilded, looking extremely realistic as they sailed up from afar. Two members of the King's Royal Guards accompanied the barges to receive the gifts from the King of France. Upon accepting the gifts, the barges stood by in the middle of the river as a sign of reverence to the precious cargo. " Father Tarchard also described the barge procession carrying the Royal Message and gifts out of Ayutthaya. "The long Royal Barge procession that moved in an orderly fashion consisted of over 150 barges. Together with other boats, they covered the river as far as the eye could follow. It was a breathtaking sight. The sound of traditional chanting reverberated along both banks of the river which were crowded with people who were waiting to see the spectacular event."
This picture of the barge procession is nothing new to the Thai people. Thais have always lived along rivers and canals, and boats were naturally the most convenient form of transportation. The high water level leads to a time of great merriment and festivities, and Royal ceremonies or important festivals will see a larger number of observers and boats than one would expect. During the Ayutthaya period, Van Viet, a Dutch businessman in Siam observed that in Royal ceremonies along the river, or the procession to welcome ambassadors, funeral processions and even boat races, the number of participating boats was tremendous. One foreigner noted in the 18th century that Ayutthaya possessed a total of 200,000 boats, and each ceremony by river could have a total of 300-400 boats manned by some 14,000 people. Another French priest named Bouvet once tallied a number of 30,000 oarsmen.
"The Royal Barge Procession consists of 7-8 barges, manned by 400 oarsmen, followed by some 1,000 - 1,200 courtiers riding in the beautifully carved and gilded barges. Some were exclusively for the musicians."
[Ananta Nakha Raj Barge]
From these memoirs, some may find that it sounds unbelievable that a boat procession could consist of so many boats and people. But evidence can be found nowadays. In the National Library, an ancient manuscript depicts a scene of the Royal Barge procession during the reign of King Narai the Great in a space of 9 metres. The introduction explains that it was a pro cession to pay homage to Phra Buddha Paht in Saraburi. A total of 324 barges are listed -* the usual number for Royal ceremonies in those days.
The above mentioned barge procession refers to the Royal procession by water with the barges in accordance with the naval fleet formation of old.
Mom Rachawongse Sangsura Ladaval, highly knowledgeable on the topic of court ceremonies, explains the philosophy behind the Royal Barge procession.
"The barges used in the procession are in fact battle ships used for battle in the river. The Royal Thai Navy has explanations of the ancient battle ships in the Short History of the Royal Barge 5uba~nahongsa which says "There were two types of ancient battle ships for river battles and sea battles. The former were older since sea battles were rare. River battle ships were thus of greater importance, the opposite of which is true today. Nowadays, river battle ships are a thing of the past, and are instead used for Royal ceremonies."
Formerly, when battle ships for the river were still an important force, the Royal procession in any ceremony would then be a form of showing the country's power. For the coronation procession, or trips overnight under the risk of attacks by enemy ships, the battle formation would be used. This also goes for the procession to present the Kathin robes.
The reason for the battle formation in the Kathin ceremony was because during times of peace, soldiers still needed to be prepared for any emergency or surprise attack. The season of high water was normally the most suitable time for this since the high water level made it easier for the manoeuvre of the barges while young men were free from farming. This coincided with the Kathin festival, and the King decided to present Kathin robes to temples along the river by barge procession in battle formation. The public approved since the Kathin ceremony was deemed to be oftutmost importance in the Buddhist religion. Soldiers also felt honoured to take part in the Royal Kathin ceremony, and the event became a tradition, and even when the barges were no longer needed for battle, the battle formation for the procession was not discontinued.
[The Royal Barges in front of the Grand Palace]
Some historians or archaeologists believe that this tradition began when Sukhothai was the capital, 700 years ago. However, the earliest evidence dates from early Ayutthaya (approximately 1357). King Boromatrai Lokanat drew up a palace law governing the members of the Royal Household. A number of sections mention the Royal barge procession in detail, such as the reference to the Asayucha ceremony - the predictory race taking place in the 11th lunar month between the Samathachai Barge belonging to the King and the Krai- soramuk Barge belonging to the Queen. According to the custom, if the King's barge lost, the harvest would be good and the people would be happy. But should the King's barge win the race, disaster would ensue. Thus during the race, oarsmen for the King's Barge would conserve their energy somewhat in order to let the Queen's barge win the race, for the prosperity of the people throughout the year.
Section 164 of the Palace Law also refers to the Chong Pariang ceremony on the full moon night of the 12th lunar month, giving extensive details of this ceremony including participants, entertainment and procedures.
Some 100 years later, in the chronicles of the reign of King Naresuan the Great who restored the country's freedom from the Burmese invaders: on his journey to attack Matambang, he travelled by boat from~Ayutthaya. The chronicles describe the journey in which the victory sounded at the au- spicious departure time. The Phra Chai Buddha image containing the relics of the Lord Buddha was placed in the Royal Barge Suphannahongse and led the procession followed by the other barges. On another occasion, when King Naresuan went to battle against Phra Maha Uparaj of Burma, he also travelled by boat, led by Phra Chai, the Victory Buddha. Prince Paramanuchit Chinoros described the beauty of the procession in his poem Lilit Taleng Phai.
Later during the reign of King Narai the Great, the spectacle of the procession was apparent in the memoirs of a number of foreign dignitaries who witnessed the event. A member of the French diplomatic corps who described the event in his book History of the Kingdom of Siam notes:
"...It is impossible to compare the beauty of the immense procession with 200 boats. The Royal barges travelled in two in the front. All oarsmen have been trained to an admirable proficiency, dressed uniformly in gold-trimmed hats, tunic, knee and arm bands. All rowing in synchronized movemen( and rhythm. The oars also of go Id, touch the water with a sound that harmonizes with the boat song sung in praise of the King."
The boat song mentioned by this foreigner is well-known among Thais to be a way of keeping rhythm and as a mcthod of forgetting the monotony of the rowing movements. And since the trip was often long and arduous, the traditional boat song was begun. Poets write songs to be sung in rhythm to musical instruments. Generally, these boat songs describe the beauty of the boats in the procession, and the beauty of nature on both sides of the river as the procession passes by. Time cannot destroy the beauty and perfection of the boat song written by Prince Dhamma Dhibes in the late Ayutthaya period.
However, beauty wanes according to the Buddhist philosophy. Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese in 1767 which proved to be a great loss for the Thai nation. Hundreds of royal barges were burnt to ashes in the plundering fires. The Chao Phraya River, normally traversed by a continuous flow of happy people was now deserted. The dry season, the blood and tears of the Thai people helped to make the river more murky than it had ever been. The Thai people had never been so downhearted in their lives. But our ancestors did not lose heart. They stood up with dignity, and within one year had established Thonburi as the new capital of Thailand on the west bank of the river where a community had existed since the reign of King Narai the Great. During the short span of 15 years as the capital, King Taksin the Great commissioned new barges to be built for battle purposes.
The attempt to revive the golden age of Thailand is nowhere so explicit as in the King's orders given on the occasion of the installation of the Emerald Buddha from Vientiane in the old capital of Ayutthaya. A total number of 115 barges were used in the procession, carrying the Emerald Buddha, Buddhist monks and scriptures, musicians, the King's representative and his entourage. The King himself joined the procession in Ayutthaya back to Thonburi. This leg of the journey was full of merriment and a total of 246 barges featured entertainment of all types including musicians, Chinese opera and Thai classical dance groups.
In 1782, King Rama I moved the capital from Thonburi to the opposite bank which was a better location in terms of battle. M.R. Saengsura Ladaval explains in his book The Royal Barge Procession saying that the Royal Kathin Ceremony by water existed since the reign of King Rama I. Even though all the battle vessels in the Ayutthaya period were destroyed during the Burmese invasion, they were needed for ceremonial purposes. The Kathin procession during the reign of King Rama I was composed not only of barges in the ancient battle formation, but also allowed members of the Royal Family, courtiers and the general public to decorate their private boats and join the procession. These were decorated in the form of crocodiles, shells, fish and other aquatic animals. Some boats carried musicians and dance groups. The same can be said of the reign of King Rama II. Even when the boats were no longer needed for battle, they were kept for Royal ceremonies as a form of preserving ancient Thai traditions.
In 1982, political changes occured. The King no longer resided in the Kingdom and the Royal Kathin ceremony did not take place for another 30 years. But the tradition did not die because King Rama IX, the present King, revived the event tn 1959. The Lord Chamberlain Mom Thavivongse Thavalyasak explained to officials of the Foreign Ministry that the King visited the Royal Barge Shed on Kiong Bangkok Noi and saw that the barges were in poor condition. He declared then that the ceremony should be revived but it should not involve large costs. Rowers would come from the Navy, uniforms would last many years, whereas the benefits were diverse. The barges with great artistic value would receive constant attention and restoration and ancient custom and tradition would be revived and preserved as part of the national heritage. At the same time, it would promote the Thai customs to foreign eyes.
Thus this ceremony once again appeared in Thailand, as evidence of time-honoured Thai civilization.
There are two formations for the Royal Barge Procession : the major formation and the minor formation. The two were often confused until 60 years later, Field Marshal Prince Nakhorn Sawan Worapinit, Acting Minister of the Navy during the reign of King Rama VII requested royal permission to recognize the barge formation based on the existing fleet with the ancient battle formation a secondary guideline. With a constant rotation of boats in use they would all be maintained in good condition. He designed new formations for the King's approval
In short, the major procession is arranged into 4 lines, 5 including the centralized Royal Barge. The main procession is arranged into 2 lines, 3 including the Royal Barge. The details can be rearranged according to the barges available for official use.
After the Royal Barge Procession on the occasion of Bangkok's 150th anniversary as capital in 1932, the ceremony was discontinued until 1957 for the celebrations of the 25th century of the Buddhist Era. A Barge procession was held during which a Buddha image, Buddhist scriptures and monks were carried along the Chao Phraya River in religious reverence. The minor for- mation was used but hardly complete since many barges were not seaworthy due to bombing during the World War.
Then in 1959, King Rama IX revived the Royal Kathin Ceremony at the Temple of Dawn. Again the formation was incomplete. Many amendments were made to utilize the available barges. The government saw the necessity of the restoration of this event in order to preserve ancient Thai tradition as a cultural heritage. Those involved were the Royal Thai Navy and the Fine Arts Department. New Barges were built, some entirely, and some with the original mastheads which were kept in the museum. On occasion of the Rat- tanakosin Bicentennial in 1982, the King travelled to pay homage to the past monarchs by Royal Barge Procession in the major formation. The public were able to witness this spectacle with pride that this ancient Thai heritage had been revived.
This unique procession is an indication of the national heritage that everyone takes pride in. This cannot be bought for money, since the spirit of the Thai nation cannot be bought and sold. Future generations can have a chance to admire the event just as we do now.
The chanting of the boat song reverberates from afar, continuously repeated like the flow of the Thai life that goes on endlessly.