The Grand Palace unveils the spiritual side of Bangkok, says Aruna Chandaraju
More than the exquisiteness of this jade sculpture and the dazzling sheen of its gold cover, the majestic hall in which it was housed, and the fabulous art all-round; it was the utter serenity of the Emerald Buddha’s expression and the blissfulness and peace he seemed to radiate that overawed us.
Even amid the chaos of the milling crowds inside this royal chapel — on the Sunday we visited, even standing space was hard to find — and the hundreds of people outside jostling to get into this hall while scores of others were gathered around the holy-water vat, this temple and its deity exuded tranquility.
We were in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha which is the biggest draw in the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The palace itself is the city’s — and perhaps the country’s — greatest tourist attraction and pilgrim centre. A huge complex of buildings, it contains spectacularly beautiful specimens of Buddhist art and architecture and Thai craftsmanship. At approximately 2.2 lakh square metres in area, the palace is enormous and the total length of the walls is nearly 2 km!
Popularly called Grand Palace, its actual Thai name is Phra Borom Maha Ratcha Wang! Okay, now you know why people prefer to stay with ‘Grand Palace’. As we will too!
During the days of absolute monarchy in Thailand, king Rama I moved the centre of administration away from Thonburi city and built this palace to serve not only as his residence but also for his various ministries. Construction began about 1782. Later kings added more buildings within this complex.
The Grand Palace architecture is a mix of classical Thai (largely), Chinese, Khmer, and European styles. For about 150 years, it served as the seat of the Thai royalty’s administration and home as well as the country’s major religious centre. The family later shifted to other residences and by 1932 when Thailand became a constitutional monarchy, all government offices had moved out. Some royal functions and important receptions are, however, still held here occasionally.
The Palace is a massive and splendid complex and consists of several buildings including enormous halls, pavilions, walled cloisters, open-air galleries, gardens, lawns, and courtyards. We passed from one building to another with a mounting admiration for the artistic traditions and craftsmanship of the Thais. The palace abounds in traditional Thai-style spires and tiered roofs, and several superbly ornate columns in rich colours and with highly impressive attention to detail. The coffered ceilings, murals and enamel work took our breath away.
And everywhere there were beautifully sculpted blissful Buddhas. Sometimes, a single one in a corner, and pairs in other places while some courtyards sported rows of them. Elegant stone and porcelain statues were aplenty too. And huge Chinese-style statues — believed to function as guardians — flanked the gates to the different courtyards.
The galleries around the main temple have some exquisitely beautiful paintings on the walls depicting scenes from Ramakien — which is the Thai version of the Ramayana and a popular element in the country’s art and culture. The Indian connection is visible in other places — in the several Garudas and Nagas and figures of Hindu gods and goddesses. Even some of the sonorous chants have a very Sanskrit-sounding content. In one hall with a splendid Golden Buddha towering above us we heard the devotees intone — Sirasaa Namaami (in Sanskrit, if you change the Sirasa to Shirasa, it translates to ‘we bow to you with our head’), while getting down on their knees and touching their foreheads to the ground in reverence.
Even if you have only a few minutes to spare and merely enough time to run in and out — as happened with us — you must visit the adjacent Wat Pho or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This majestic Buddha is about 45 metres in length. There is more than one Indian connection here too. This temple site originally had statues in yogic postures. And Wat Pho itself is named after a monastery in India where Buddha is believed to have lived. Also, there is a courtyard with a tree grown from a cutting of the original Bodhi tree in India under which Buddha received enlightenment.
Given its reputation, the Grand Palace is always spilling over with tourists — even getting a photo-op in front of any structure with just you or your friends/family in the frame might be near-impossible!
You have to purchase entry tickets. Photography is not permitted in select areas. The palace is open everyday except when it is being used for state functions. Some areas are off-bounds for tourists. Oh, one more thing. If you are not dressed appropriately, you risk being turned away from the Grand Palace. To get your dress-code right, stick to full-sleeved tops and a trouser or skirt which reaches down to the ankles.