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AS soon as his Majesty had recovered from his genuine convulsion of grief for the death of his sweet little princess, Somdetch Chow Fâ-ying, he proceeded, habited in white, with all his family, to visit the chamber of mourning. The grand-aunt of the dead child, who seemed the most profoundly afflicted of all that numerous household, still lay prostrate at the feet of her pale cold darling, and would not be comforted. As his Majesty entered, silently ushered, she moved, and mutely laid her head upon his feet, moaning, Poot-tho! Poot-tho! There were tears and sighs and heart-wrung sobs around. Speechless, but with trembling lips, the royal father took gently in his arms the little corpse, and bathed it in the Siamese manner, by pouring cold water upon it. In this he was followed by other members of the royal family, the more distant relatives, and such ladies of the harem as chanced to be in waiting, — each advancing in the order of rank, and pouring pure cold water from a silver bowl over the slender body. Two sisters of the king then shrouded the corpse in a sitting posture, overlaid it with perfumes and odoriferous gums, frankincense and myrrh, and, lastly, swaddled it in a fine winding-sheet. Finally it was deposited in a golden urn, and this again in another of finer gold, richly adorned with precious stones. The inner urn has an iron grating in the bottom, and the outer an orifice at its most pendent point, through which, by means of a tap or stop-cock, the fluids are drawn off daily, until the cadavre has become quite dry.
This double urn was borne on a gilt sedan, under a royal gilt umbrella, to the temple of the Maha Phrasat, where it was mounted on a graduated platform about six feet high. During this part of the ceremony, and while the trumpeters and the blowers of conch-shells performed their lugubrious parts, his Majesty sat apart, his face buried in his hands, confessing a keener anguish than had ever before cut his selfish heart.
The urn being thus elevated, all the insignia pertaining to the rank of the little princess were disposed in formal order below it, as though at her feet. Then the musicians struck up a passionate passage, ending in a plaintive and truly solemn dirge; after which his Majesty and all the princely company retired, leaving the poor clod to await, in its pagan gauds and mockery, the last offices of friendship. But not always alone; for thrice daily — at early dawn, and noon, and gloaming — the musicians came to perform a requiem for the soul of the dead, — "that it may soar on high, from the flaming, fragrant pyre for which it is reserved, and return to its foster parents, Ocean, Earth, Air, Sky." With these is joined a concert of mourning women, who bewail the early dead, extolling her beauty, graces, virtues; while in the intervals, four priests (who are relieved every fourth hour) chant the praises of Buddha, bidding the gentle spirit "Pass on! Pass on!" and boldly speed through the labyrinth before it, "through high, deep, and famous things, through good and evil things, through truth and error, through wisdom and folly, through sorrow, suffering, hope, life, joy, love, death, through endless mutability, into immutability!"
These services are performed with religious care daily for six months;1 that is, until the time appointed for cremation. Meanwhile, in the obsequies of the Princess Fâ-ying, arrangements were made for the erection of the customary P'hra-mène, — a temporary structure of great splendor, where the body lies in state for several days, on a throne dazzling with gold and silver ornaments and precious stones.
For the funeral honors of royalty it is imperative that the P'hra-mène be constructed of virgin timber. Trunks of teak, from two hundred to two hundred and fifty feet in length, and of proportionate girth, are felled in the forests of Myolonghee, and brought down the Meinam in rafts. These trunks, planted thirty feet deep, one at each corner of a square, serve as pillars, not less than a hundred and seventy feet high, to support a sixty-foot spire, an octagonal pyramid, covered with gold leaf. Attached to this pyramid are four wings, forty feet long, with handsome porches looking to the cardinal points of the compass; here also are four colossal figures of heroic myths, each with a lion couchant at its feet.
On one side of the square reserved for the P'hra-mène, a vast hall is erected to accommodate the Supreme King and his family while attending the funeral ceremonies. The several roofs of this temporary edifice have peculiar horn-like projections at the ends, and are covered with crimson cloth, while golden draperies are suspended from the ceiling. The entire space around the P'hra-mène is matted with bamboo wicker-work, and decorated with innumerable standards peculiar to Siam. Here and there may be seen grotesque cartoons of the wars of gods and giants, and rude landscapes supposed to represent the Buddhist's heaven, with lakes and groves and gardens. Beyond these are playhouses for theatrical displays, puppet-shows, masquerades, posturing, somersaulting, leaping, wrestling, balancing on ropes and wires, and the tricks of professional buffoons. Here also are restaurants, or cook-shops, for' all classes of people above the degree of boors; and these are open day and night during the period devoted to the funeral rites.
The grand lodge erected for the Second King and his household, at the cremation of his little niece, resembled that of his brother, the Supreme King, in the regal style of its decorations.
The centre of the P'hra-mène is a lofty octagon; and directly under the great spire is a gorgeous eight-sided pyramid, diminishing by right-angled gradations to a truncated top, its base being fifty or sixty feet in circumference, and higher by twenty feet than the surrounding buildings. On this pyramid stood the urn of gold containing the remains of the royal child. Above the urn a golden canopy hung from the lofty ceiling, and far above this again a circular white awning was spread, representing the firmament studded with silver stars. Under the canopy, and just over little Fâ-ying's urn, the whitest and most fragrant flowers, gathered and arranged by those who loved her best in life, formed a bright odoriferous bower. The pyramid itself was decorated with rare and beautiful gifts, of glass, porcelain, alabaster, silver, gold, and artificial flowers, with images of birds, beasts, men, women, children, and angels. Splendid chandeliers suspended from the ceiling, and lesser lights on the angles of the pyramid, illuminated the funeral hall.
These showy preparations completed, the royal mourners only waited for the appointed time when the remains must be laid in state upon the consecrated pyre. At dawn of that day, all the princes, nobles, governors, and superior priests of the kingdom, with throngs of baser men, women, and children, in their holiday attire, came to grace the "fiery consummation" of little Fâ-ying. A royal barge conveyed me, with my boy, to the palace, whence we followed on foot.
The gold urn, in an ivory chariot of antique fashion, richly gilt, was drawn by a pair of milk-white horses, and followed and attended by hundreds of -men clad in pure white. It was preceded by two other chariots; in the first sat the high-priest, reading short, pithy aphorisms and precepts from the sacred books; in the other followed the full brothers of the deceased. A strip of silver cloth, six inches wide, attached to the urn, was loosely extended to the seats of the royal mourners in this second chariot, and thence to the chariot of the high-priest, on whose lap the ends were laid, symbolizing the mystic union between death, life, and the Buddha.
Next after the urn came a chariot laden with the sacred sandal-wood, the aromatic gums, and the wax tapers. The wood was profusely carved with emblems of the indestructibility of matter; for though the fire apparently consumes the pile, and with it the body, the priests are careful to interpret the process as that by which both are endued with new vitality; thus everything consecrated to the religious observances of Buddhism is made to typify some latent truth.
Then came a long procession of mythological figures, nondescripts drawn on small wooden wheels, and covered with offerings for the priests. These were followed by crowds of both sexes and all ages, bearing in their hands the mystic triform flower, emblematic of the sacred circle, Om, or Aum. To hold this mystic flower above the head, and describe with it endless circles in the air, is regarded as a performance of peculiar virtue and "merit," find one of the most signal acts of devotion possible to a Buddhist. And yet, as the symbol of One great Central Spirit, whose name it is profanation to utter, the symbol is strangely at variance with the doctrines of Buddhism.
The moment the strange concourse, human and mythological, began to move, the conch-shells, horns, trumpets, sackbuts, pipes, dulcimers, flutes, and harps rent the air with wild wailing; but above the din rose the deep, booming, measured beat of the death-drums. Very subtile, and indescribably stirring is this ancient music, with its various weird and prolonged cadences, and that solemn thundering boom enhancing the peculiar sweetness of the dirge as it rises and falls.
Under the spell of such sounds as these the procession moved slowly to the P'hra-mène. Here the urn was lifted by means of pulleys, and enthroned on the splendid pedestal prepared for it. The silver cloth from the chariot of the high-priest was laid upon it, the ends drooping on the eastern and western sides to the rich carpet of the floor. A hundred priests, fifty on either hand, rehearsed in concert, seated on the floor, long hymns in Pali from the sacred books, principally embodying melancholy reflections on the brevity and uncertainty of human life. After which, holding the silver cloth between the thumb and forefinger, they joined in silent prayer, thereby, as they suppose, communicating a saving virtue to the cloth, which conveys it to the dead within the urn. They continued thus engaged for about an hour, and then withdrew to give place to another hundred, and so on, until thousands of priests had taken part in the solemn exercises. Meanwhile the four already mentioned still prayed, day and night, at the Maha Phrasat. A service was likewise performed for the royal family twice a day, in an adjacent temporary chapel, where all the court attended, — including the noble ladies of the harem, who occupy private oratories, hung with golden draperies, behind which they can see and hear without being seen. As long as these funeral ceremonies last, the numerous concourse of priests is sumptuously entertained.
At nightfall the P'hra-mène is brilliantly illuminated, within and without, and the people are entertained with dramatic spectacles derived from the Chinese, Hindoo, Malayan, and Persian classics. Effigies of the fabulous Hydra, or dragon with seven heads, illuminated, and animated by men. concealed within, are seen endeavoring to swallow the moon, represented by a globe of fire. Another monster, probably the Chimera, with the head and breast of a lion and the body of a goat, vomits flame and smoke. There are also figures of Echidna and Cerberus, the former represented as a beautiful nymph, but terminating below the waist in the coils of a dragon or python; and the latter as a triple-headed dog, evidently the canine bugaboo that, is supposed to have guarded Pluto's dreadful gates.
About nine o'clock fireworks were ignited by the king's own hand, — a very beautiful display, representing, among other graceful forms, a variety of shrubbery, which gradually blossomed with roses, dahlias, oleanders, and other flowers.
The flinging of money and trinkets to the rabble is usually the most exciting of the pranks which diversify the funeral ceremonies of Siamese royalty; in this mal à propos pastime his Majesty took a lively part. The personal effects of the deceased are divided into two or more equal portions, one of which is bestowed on the poor, another on the priests; memorials and complimentary tokens are presented to the princes and nobles, and the friends of the royal family. The more costly articles are ticketed and distributed by lottery; and smaller objects, such as rings and gold and silver coins, are put into lemons, which his Majesty, standing on the piazza of his temporary palace, flings among the sea of heads below. There is also at each of the four corners of the P'hramène, an artificial tree, bearing gold and silver fruit, which is plucked by officers of the court, and tossed to the poor on every side. Each throw is hailed by a wild shout from the multitude, and followed by a mad scramble.
In this connection the following "notification" from the king's hand will be intelligible to the reader.
"In regard to the mourning distribution and donation in funeral service or ceremony of cremation of the remains of Her late Royal Highness celestial Princess Somdetch Chowfa Chandrmondol Sobhon Bhagiawati,2 whose death took place on the 12th May, Anno Christi 1863.
"This Part consisting of a glasscoverbox enclosing a idol of Chinese fabulousquadruped called 'sai' or Lion, covered with goldleaf ornamented with coined pieces of silver & rings a black bag of funeral balls enclosing some pieces of gold and silver coins &c., in funeral service of Her late Royal Highness the forenamed princess, the ninth daughter or sixteenth offspring of His Majesty the reigning Supreme King of Siam, which took place in ceremony continued from 16th to 21st day of February Anno Christi 1861 prepared ex-property of Her late lamented Royal Highness the deceased. and assistant funds from certain members of the Royal Family. designed from his Gracious Majesty Somdetch P'hra Paramendr Maha Mongkut, Her late Royal Highness' bereaved Royal father. Their Royal Highnesses celestial princes Somdetch Chowfa Chulalonkorn the full elder brother, Chowfa Chaturont Rasmi, and Chowfa Bhangurangsi Swang-wongse, the two younger full brothers, and His Royal Highness Prince Nobbawongs Krommun Maha-suarsivivalas the eldest half brother. Their Royal Highnesses twenty-five princes, Krita-bhinihar, Gaganang Yugol &c. the younger half brothers, and their Royal Highnesses seven princesses, Yingyawlacks, Dacksinja, and Somawati, &c., the elder sisters, 18 princesses, Srinagswasti, &c., the younger half-sisters of Her late Royal Highness the deceased, for friendly acceptance of — — — who is one of His present Siamese Majesty's friends who either have ever been acquainted in person or through means of correspondence &c. certain of whom have ever seen Her late Royal Highness, and some have been acquainted with certain of her late Royal Highness the deceased's elder or younger brothers and sisters.
"His Siamese Majesty, with his 29 sons, and 25 daughters above partly named, trusts that this part will be acceptable to every one of His Gracious Majesty's and their Royal Highnesses' friends who ever have been acquainted with his present Majesty, and certain of Their Royal Highnesses or Her late Royal Highness the deceased, either in person or by correspondence, or only by name through cards &c. for a token of remembrance of Her late Royal Highness the deceased and for feeling of Emotion that this path ought to be followed by every one of human beings after long or short time, as the lights of lives of all living beings are like flames of candles lighted in opening air without covering and Protecting on every side, so it shall be considered with great emotion by the readers.
"Dated ROYAL FUNERAL PLACE.
BANGKOK, 20th February, Anno Christi 1864."
Thus twelve days were passed in feasting, drinking, praying, preaching, sporting, gambling and scrambling. On the thirteenth, the double urn, with its melancholy moral, was removed from the pyramid, and the inner one, with the grating, was laid on a bed of fragrant sandalwood, and aromatic gums, connected with a train of gun powder, which the king ignited with a match from the sacred fire that burns continually in the temple Watt P'hra Këau. The Second King then lighted his candles from the same torch, and laid them on the pyre; and so on, in the order of rank, down to the meanest slave, until many hundreds of wax candles and boxes of precious spices and fragrant gums were cast into the flames. The funeral orchestra then played a wailing dirge, and the mourning women broke into a concerted and prolonged keen, of the most ear-piercing and heart-rending description.
When the fire had quite burned itself out, all that remained of the bones, charred and blackened, was carefully gathered, deposited in a third and smaller urn of gold, and again conveyed in great state to the Maha Phrasat. The ashes were also collected with scrupulous pains in a pure cloth of white muslin, and laid in a gold dish; afterward, attended by all the mourning women and musicians, and escorted by a procession of barges, it was floated some miles down the river, and there committed to the waters.
Nothing left of our lovely darling but a few charred bits of rubbish! But in memory I still catch glimpses of the sylph-like form, half veiled in the shroud of flame that wrapped her last, but with the innocent, questioning eyes still turned to me; and as I look back into their depths of purity and love, again and again I mourn, as at first, for that which made me feel, more and more by its sympathy, the peculiar desolation of my life in the palace.
Immediately on the death of a Supreme King an order is issued for the universal shaving of the bristly tuft from the heads of all male subjects. Only those princes who are older than their deceased sovereign are exempt from the operation of this law.
Upon his successor devolves the duty of providing for the erection of the royal P'hra-mène — as to the proportions and adornment of which he is supposed to be guided by regard for the august rank of the deceased, and the public estimation in which his name and fame are held. Royal despatches are forthwith sent to the governors of four different provinces in the extreme north, where the noblest timber abounds, commanding each of them to furnish one of the great pillars for the P'hramène. These must be of the finest wood, perfectly straight, from two hundred to two hundred and fifty feet long, and not less than twelve feet in circumference.
At the same time twelve pillars, somewhat smaller, are required from the governors of twelve other provinces; besides much timber in other forms necessary to the construction of the grand funeral hall and its numerous supplementary buildings. As sacred custom will not tolerate the presence of pillars that have already been used for any purpose whatever, it is indispensable that fresh ones, "virgin trunks," be procured for every new occasion of the obsequies of royalty. These four great trunks are hard to find, and can be floated down the Meinam to the capital only at the seasons when that stream and its tributaries are high. This is perhaps the natural cause of the long interval that elapses — twelve months — between the death and the cremation of a Siamese king.
The "giant boles" are dragged in primitive fashion to the banks of the stream by elephants and buffaloes, and shipped in rafts. Arrived at Bangkok, they are hauled on rollers inch by inch, by men working with a rude windlass and levers, to the site of the P'hra-mène.
The following description of the cremation, at Bejrepuri, of a man "in the middle walks of life," is taken from the Bangkok Recorder of May 24, 1866: —
"The corpse was first to be offered to the vultures, a hundred or more. Before the coffin was opened the filthy and horrible gang had assembled, 'for wheresoever the carcass is, there will the eagles (vultures) be gathered together.' They were perched on the ridges of the temple, and even on small trees and bushes, within a few feet of the body; and so greedy were they that the sexton and his assistants had to beat them off many times before the coffin could be opened. They seemed to know that there would be but a mouthful for each, if divided among them all, and the pack of greedy dogs besides, that waited for their share. The body was taken from the coffin and laid on a pile of wood that had been prepared on a small temporary altar. Then the birds were allowed to descend upon the corpse and tear it as they liked. For a while it was quite hidden in the rush. But each bird, grabbing its part with bill and claws, spread its wings and mounted to some quiet place to eat. The sexton seemed to think that he too was 'making merit' by cutting off parts of the body and throwing them to the hungry dogs, as the dying man had done in bequeathing his body to those carrion-feeders. The birds, not satisfied with what they got from the altar, came down and quarrelled with the curs for their share.
"While this was going on, the mourners stood waiting, with wax candles and incense sticks, to pay their last tribute of respect to the deceased by assisting in the burning of the bones after the vultures and dogs had stripped them. The sexton, with the assistance of another, gathered up the skeleton and put it back into the coffin, which was lifted by four men and carried around the funeral pile three times. It was then laid on the pile of wood, and a few sticks were put into the coffin to aid in burning the bones. Then a lighted torch was applied to the pile, and the relatives and other mourners advanced, and laid each a wax candle by the torch. Others brought incense and cast it on the pile.
"The vultures, having had but a scanty breakfast, lingered around the place until the fire had left nothing more for them, when they shook their ugly heads, and hopping a few steps, to get up a momentum, flapped their harpy wings and flew away."
1 Twelve months for a king.