Ride to Heaven: The chariot of the late Princess Galyani Vadhana

muralroyal chariotmural

Princess Galyani Vadhana
princess galyani
princess galyani


Willard G. Van De Bogart
October 22, 2008

Photography: Willard Van De Bogart
Photograph of Princess Galyani from Nation Newspaper

Princess Galyani, the elder sister of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, passed away on Jan 2, 2008. Ever since that day Thailand has been in mourning and all government employees wore black for the first 100 days. If you are not from Thailand it is very difficult to understand the significance of the passing of Princess Galyani and the effect she had on the people of Thailand.

King Bhumibol is called “The King of Hearts” and is the longest reigning monarch in the world. Since age fourteen, when he ascended the throne, he has looked after the people’s needs in Thailand. The royal families religious beliefs are governed in great part by Hindu rituals as well as ceremonial protocol which was used by the kings of the late Khmer Empire especially those between 1100 and 1300AD. The fusion of ritual and ceremony defines the current belief structure of the royal family with the chief Brahmin priest, Phra Rajaguru Vamadevamuni, leading the rituals for Princess Galyani.

The passing of Princess Galyani set the stage for the most elaborate royal ceremony ever to be seen by the Thai people. In a world constantly being subjected to the forces of sectarian strife, economic instability and political turmoil the Royal Family of Thailand appears set in another time or even in another world. The monarchy in Thailand is for all accounts neutral in its response to any political strife but shows immense humanitarian support in times of natural disasters and high profile human interest stories.

Understanding the lifestyle and culture of the Royal family is limited to what is shown on the government controlled media and then what is usually seen are dedication ceremonies, funerals, commencement exercises and the international goodwill which takes family members all around the world to visit heads of state and cultural landmarks. The numerous activities conducted by the Royal family are similar to the activities of heads of state of non-royal backgrounds with the one outstanding difference being the religious heritage of the Thai monarchy. The belief structure of the Royal Thai family is a syncretism of Buddhism and Hinduism with a Brahmin priest presiding over all family religious functions. Having witnessed many religious ceremonies in Thailand as well as researching the Khmer royal heritage and Hindu belief systems the announcement of the construction of a new royal crematorium as well as the refurbishing of an 18th century royal chariot to carry Princess Galyani’s funeral urn captivated my attention.

Royal Pyre

Royal Pyre of Princess Galyani Vadhana

Over the months since Princess Galyani’s passing more and more memorials showing various stages of her life appeared in every province of Thailand testifying to the influence of a royal family member on the Thai population. Her life story is shown daily on the government media channels and the announcement of a royal chariot to be refurbished to carry her coffin at first sounded routine for a royal family member but a chariot to take her to heaven piqued my curiosity. The Hindu based beliefs of the Royal family is the reason for sending their Princess off to a garden in heaven in a golden chariot. The Royal pyre is surrounded by mythical animals that reside in this heavenly abode all carefully executed by Arvuth Ngoenchuklin who is one of the five great traditional Thai architects. Ngoenchuklin’s sense of detail can easily be seen by looking closely at all the art work in the construction of the royal pyre.

The Royal chariot was one of the most splendid chariots ever to be constructed during   the Chakri dynasty. The Phra Maha Pichai Ratcharot chariot (Great victory chariot) was built in 1795 during the reign of King Rama I (1782-1809). Upon close inspection of the details of the art work one is easily transported into the realm of deities and nagas.

Phra Maha Pichai Ratcharot

Phra Maha Pichai Ratcharot

Slowly news would be released in the Thai press of the work that Group Captain Arvuth would have to do to ready the chariot for this very holy occasion. Eventually a picture emerged as to what all the ritual construction would look like. It was apparent something very special was being constructed.

Even during the most difficult times of political turmoil within the country, known now as Black October, as well as the military skirmishes over boundary demarcation issues with Cambodia concerning the ancient Hindu temple of Preah Vihear, the dedication ceremony plans for the late Princess Galyani were being conducted as if these daily events within Thai society were non-existent.

To say that Royal activities were part of another reality, one bordering a heavenly world composed of gods and goddesses and mythical animals, may sound quite fantastical or even unrealistic but from the visible effects, which the King has on his subjects, this heavenly world is made believable. There is a frame of mind that needs to be taken into consideration when trying to understand the significance of the efforts made by thousands and thousands of public officials, military commanders and all the artisans of Thailand to fully appreciate what is going on in the Thai psyche. The teaching of Lord Buddha is only one level that constitutes the Thai psyche. Mixed with Buddhism are the numerous superstitions that come from an ancient world of animism, ancestor spirits, and lastly and least understood by the Thai people are the influences of the Hindu gods. As ancient as these Hindu deities are they have come to life and every possible effort has been extended to ask for their acceptance of Princess Galyani to enter Mount Meru
or Phra Sumane both known as the mythical center of the universe where the gods that make up this celestial paradise reside.

Our predominantly secular world will witness this royal chariot, drawn by 221 soldiers in ceremonial dress, transporting Princess Galyani to heaven. Digital cameras by the thousands and television cameras from all parts of the world will record this sacred, ineffable, illusory and spiritual event that will transcend even all these holy qualities that are catapulting Princess Galyani into heaven. These qualities cannot be recorded by any man made device and only by allowing the holiness of the moment to wash over the mind may an insight to the workings of the gods be understood by the secular psyche. For here in the 21st century is enacted the same identical ritual passed down for thousands of years ever since Krishna visited Arjuna on the battlefield of Kuruksetra in his golden chariot making the ancient world appear once again seen perhaps from the sun reflecting off the golden naga heads leading the procession.


Phra Maha Pichai Ratcharot

Once these thoughts of another world coming down from heaven crystallized in my mind a plan was devised to see how best a document could be crafted about this holy event. On October 11th an effort was made to visit the National Museum in Bangkok as if I were sent on some mission filled with curiosity as a way to witness not only the chariot going to heaven but the handi work of Thai craftsmen.  I entered the National Museum without any prior announcement of my visit or my intentions, and stood at the front desk inside the museum’s auditorium and asked if I could see the chariot. My mission preempted my thinking of buying a tour ticket for the museum because it was only the chariot I was interested in seeing. Perhaps it was how I made my request, the tone of voice I used, or my obvious inquisitiveness that resulted in the next series of events. In a few minutes a curator of the National Museum, Dendoa Silpanon, came out of her lecture presentation in the auditorium and kindly escorted me to the place where the chariots were housed. She apologized for having to leave me so quickly but said she had left her audience in the lecture hall and had to return. Certainly if ever there was special attention given to a request to see the Royal chariots Dendoa Silpanon filled the request ever so well. I learned that the meaning of her name was “bright star” and it was then I sensed my mission had been designed already in the heavens.

Left standing in front of the chariots alone with only the workers making their last finishing touches I felt as though I was witnessing a vehicle that was destined for eternity. Starring me in the face were hundreds of naga heads with glittery diamond like eyes all watching me as I walked slowly from side to side to see just what kind of chariot would be going to heaven.

Front view Phra Maha Pichai Ratcharot

Front view Phra Maha Pichai Ratcharot

The size of the chariot struck me immediately. Towering high above the sea of nagas surrounding the base of the chariot was a temple high atop all the praying deities where Princess Galyani’s urn would be placed to make her final journey.

A picture of the chariot is one thing in order to become familiar with this celestial vehicle, but the essence of the chariot that can be felt while standing in front of it before it would make this heavenly flight, to be witnessed by millions of people around the world, was all I could see before me. The chariot appeared heavy but also seemed light, golden but also appearing like a celestial fire, stationary but seemingly moving, and all these aspects presented themselves to me as I gazed over the golden deities and naga heads. Here I was on earth looking at a vehicle that was about to be transported to heaven. These two realities of an earthbound existence and a heavenly kingdom went back and forth in my mind as I tried to understand a world dedicated to the Hindu gods.

Royal chariot with canopy to  carry urn of Princess Galyani

Royal chariot with canopy to carry urn of Princess Galyani

After trying to capture this mythical chariot with my camera it became all too apparent that being witness to something other worldly left an impression that was not easily understood. Perhaps being subjected to images of fantasy and modern screen plays depicting far away worlds had diluted any feelings I would have even if I did come face to face with a chariot of the gods. Certainly there could not be any more magic left in the world that could still awaken those ancient stirrings found in myth and legend. Nonetheless, there was a mysterious quality to these chariots. They were old, golden and would soon be gliding over the earth to the grandest of all places; the Royal Crematorium demarking this world to the next, that ineffable luminal threshold where the gods can be communicated with. To be able to witness this event now became my soul mission. These feelings certainly did not come from my familiarity with the life of the late Princess Galyani, but it seemed things were put in motion that indicated an other worldly phenomenon was going to take place which I had to witness. I had a hunch that something very unusual was going to happen and only by returning to see the chariot be pulled out of its slumber would I know more. So, I left for Bangkok for a second visit on October 18th to see the celestial chariot greet the morning sun on October 19th.


Part II
Phra Rajaguru Vamadevamuni

At 5am on the morning of October 19th the celestial chariot sat quietly under an over cast sky behind the south east corner of the Grand Palace waiting for the arrival of the urn of Princess Galyani. There was not going to be any sun greeting the chariot early that morning but instead quite another lord of the heavens was going to make an appearance first with an entrance befitting his stature.

Dhevasatan Brahmin Shrine

Dhevasatan Brahmin Shrine

But before I describe the events that took place that early morning when Indra, known as the deity of the atmosphere, who governs the weather and dispenses the rain sending forth his lightings and thunder I’ll first describe events leading to the interview with the Royal Court Chief Brahmin; Phra Rajaguru Vamadevamuni. There is only one Brahmin shrine in all of Thailand where eleven Brahmins have their spiritual center know as the Dhevasatan Shrine or Bot Brahmin in Thai. Next to the ancient Brahmin Shrine is the Giant Swing built in 1794 by King Rama I; founder of the Chakri Dynasty. The ancient Hindu legend associated with the Giant Swing deals with the creation of the world overseen by Shiva. It was the location of these two ancient Hindu centers that I would start my quest before witnessing the royal procession planned for Princess Galyani.


This would be my second time entering a location unannounced that was associated with the Royal procession the first being at the National Gallery. When I entered the Brahmin shrine the morning of the 18th the court yard was full of burning incense with flowers draped over incense burners filling the air with a delicate sweet odor. At the rear of the shrine I found a library with a librarian on duty to whom I immediately asked if Phra Rajaguru was at the temple. She said he was not but I could call him on his mobile phone. I wasted no time and placed a call and when he answered I simply said I wanted to have a meeting to talk about the Princess Galyani ceremony. He was instantly obliging and we scheduled a meeting for four o’clock at the National Museum that same afternoon.  All these chance meetings and arrangements may sound routine or normal and nothing out of the ordinary was taking place. However, in both situations an opening into another possibility led me closer to witnessing an event which I had a premonition of something very otherworldly going to take place.

Phra Rajaguru Vamadevamuni arrived at the National Museum in his full dress Brahmin white attire radiating a genuine kindness and friendliness with a pleasant smile accented with a flushed countenance. We finally sat on a bench facing the chariot barn and I have to admit at that very moment I felt that I had embarked on a mission to meet my own Hindu god as the questions I had prepared seemed much too simplistic to ask of the Royal Priest of the Office of the Royal Household. But, being an English teacher, going on now for six years in Thailand, I was aware of the difficulty to ask questions of a native Thai speaker using formal English grammar. This fact became apparent as I began speaking to Phra Rajaguru as I had to phrase my questions that could be understood knowing that the exchange of vocabulary would be limited but the understanding would be of a deeply profound nature. Phra Rajaguu admitted that finding the right English word to describe the meaning of the ritual for Princess Galyani first took place in his mind using Sanskrit then he would translate that knowledge into Thai. Making another translation into English was, he admitted, a bit more formidable so we both had to adjust to our language differences. The conversation that transpired was truly enlightening.

My leading question was how you summon the Hindu gods for Princess Galyani’s entry into heaven. The question was structured to include the three subjects of Hindu gods, Princess Galyani and heaven. Vamadevamuni responded, “The King is a god who walks near the gods and through his good actions for all the people of Thailand he develops karma so he is always thinking near the gods. The King’s family is also is also near the gods and in the ritual, blessings are offered to Princess Galyani and a request is made to let her come to the heavenly realm of the gods. This joining of the Princess with the gods comes from the heart of the people of Thailand as all pray as one family with the King and his family. The King reaches out to all his people as one family to ask the gods to receive her in heaven”.

The next question concerned the meaning of using the chariot in the ceremony. It was at this point in our conversation that my hunch of something otherworldly was going to happen began to come into focus. Vamadevamuni said, “The chariot symbolizes the sun god Surya and it is Surya’s chariot which will carry Princess Galyani to heaven and prayers will be offered to Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. Lord Surya will take her to Mount Meru, the center of the universe in Brahmin cosmology.” It was pointed out that the top most part of the chariot was symbolic of a castle in the Hindu heaven (Devaloka).

Clearly there can be no mistake about the divinity reserved for the Royal family as expressed by Vamadevamuni. From our time together a picture emerged about all the mythology that was so much a part of this ceremony. The golden sun god Surya with his chariot going to the center of the universe were the things we talked about in the late afternoon making me very aware of how the Hindu gods would be summoned for Princess Galyani’s entry into heaven. Considering everything that was said I now knew how extensive the ritual for Princess Galyani was connected to the Hindu gods. From many generations ago, when the Brahmana families migrated from Southern India to Thailand in the 5th and 6th centuries these families are still active today with an unbroken succession from father to son.

I was already suspecting that this ceremony had a deeper meaning than could be learned from the information provided by local media outlets or even what I could find in my own research. The feelings I anticipated instilled in me a deep sense solemnity knowing that the Hindu gods were going to be asked to receive a Royal Family member. But I also knew the ceremony was going to be a grand Royal event, and whatever the word Royal conjured up in the mind, the Thai monarchy had designed a ritual that would set the standard for interpreting the concept of Royalty. Behind all the golden nagas, praying deities carved in profusion, and all the mythical animals was an Indian cosmology kept alive countless generations by a few Brahmin families serving the Royal Household with their ascetic devotions.

Considering the difficulties in finding the right words to convey the deeper meaning of the ceremony for Princess Galyani, Phra Rajaguru Vamadevamuni was still able to describe the Hindu gods and provide a glimpse into an ancient ritual that enabled communication with these gods.

Part III
The wrath of Indra

Phra Maha Pichi Ratcharot

Phra Maha Pichi Ratcharot

Sitting under the morning twilight Phra Maha Pichi could only be described as a craft which had landed from another world. It was 5am and it was unusually quiet and it was also very dark with heavy clouds hovering above the chariot. If this was the chariot of the sun god Surya it did not appear that any golden rays were going to be radiating from this celestial chariot this morning. At 5:39 am a streak of lightning dashed across the morning sky and far on the western horizon there appeared a sky that was as back as coal. The eastern sky was trying to clear to allow the sun to come forth but the western sky became darker and darker. The drama of the morning slowly shifted to the heavens where the interplay of light and dark played out its eternal dance with the cosmic forces. Thunder made its grand entrance shaking up the serenity of the early morning and the winds began to turn up the loose leaves and everything was swirling in the air. Indra had come to steal Surya’s chariot wheel. In that instance with a bolt of lighting shooting down towards the earth I realized this was a grand enactment of a mythology written about thousands of years ago. Now the words of Vamadevamuni were coming to my mind and I could see Surya’s chariot sitting on the earth as if it had just been bolted out of heaven. Now the mythologies were coming to mind as there are many passages in the Rig Veda  talking of this primeval occasion in which Indra stole the chariot wheel of the ancient sun-god and flung it  across heaven:
Empowered by thine own might, O Sage, thou stolest Surya’s chariot wheel (RV I:175:4). 
Waxed strong in might at dawn he tore the Sun’s wheel off (RV I:130:9).
Indra hurls the cakra in order to scatter the Asuras-demons (RV VIII:85:9).

Indra is said to have taken the wheel of the chariot of the sun and to have cast it against the demon of draught, and from these myths a story unfolds that seemingly was being enacted that early morning directly behind the Grand Palace with few, if any, aware of the drama unfolding. There is not enough space in this paper to devote to the mythology of Indra and his association with Surya’s chariot wheel, the axle, and pillar of heaven. But if that morning storm was any indication of the symbolism associated with Princess Galyani’s chariot being prepared to enter heaven, with Indra making sure the demons were killed, the waters of life replenished, and the stability of the universe re-established, then that early morning storm was a symbolic representation of every myth found in the Vedic scriptures concerning Surya, Indra and the chariot wheel. The gods had definitely arrived and I knew my hunch was correct that something was happening in the heavens mirroring what was going to transpire on earth. These recognitions may have only been figments of my imagination, but if one were to compare the Vedic myths with the statements made by Vamadevamuni concerning the devotion paid to the Hindu gods then I felt there was a world adjoining the one we relate to daily and a way to recognize the appearances of those celestial deities when they arrived. If one were to compare the extensive effort to create a Royal vehicle as well as a symbolic mountain to which this vehicle was going to travel to, then within that effort there has to be a mindset, which for those not brought up in the Thai heritage would find nigh impossible to relate to.

The symbolic chariot wheel of the Sun God Surya


The symbolic chariot wheel of the Sun God Surya

And the rains came that morning as if the tidal world of the heavens was unleashed upon the Grand Palace, and if continued would create a sea for Surya’s chariot to float upon. The lightning punctuated every silent moment that tried to establish a place that morning and with all these tempest raging aspects of Indra each and every one of the soldiers, students, military commanders, ceremony officials were all attending to their duties and standing in perfect formation as if not a drop of rain was falling or a thunder bolt was crashing. With clothes soaked to the skin and shoes covered by the flooding waters the urn of Princess Galyani was ceremoniously carried on the royal palanquin to the chariot awaiting her behind the Grand Place. I doubt there would be any way to prepare for such a storm because what was expected was a favorable day where these inclement forces would not be present. But Indra was present, and all the Thai people appeared to not in the least, as far as I could see, be at all disturbed by his presence. What was more important was to make sure that the rehearsal for Princess Galyani took place, and no manner of interruption would be allowed or tolerated; gods included. Again the implications of this devotion shown by the Thai people deserves more space than this paper allows but what it did provide me with was an insight into the deep rooted devotion and obedience Thais do have towards their rituals to the gods.

Part IV
God’s Soldiers

The storm ended, the sun came out and Surya’s chariot gleaned in the morning sun as if some brilliant apparition had made itself present for everyone to see in sheer disbelief. Yet there it was with 216 of god’s soldiers pulling a 40 tonne chariot to Mount Meru.

Phra Maha Phichi Racharot carrying the  urn of Princess Galyani


Phra Maha Phichi Racharot carrying the urn of Princess Galyani

With the temple of the Emerald Buddha in the background it was all I could do to concentrate on what my eyes were beholding. I have to say that I was transfixed in everyway imaginable as I tried to focus my camera, look for that right angle to get the best shot, and meanwhile observe a procession of the most extreme beauty and surreal existence slowly being pulled in front of me by 216 soldiers. Each step of the soldiers was carefully placed in front of the other creating some sort of unbelievable synchronization with the turning of the chariot wheels. How any one person could conceive of the affects all these images would have on the deep subconscious mind would be impossible. I even asked myself what was being triggered in my own mind as the golden deities passed before me?

Chariot deities


Chariot deities

The rain had left sheets of reflective pools all along the processional way reflecting back the chariot as it passed before me. The myth of the gods was being portrayed right in front of me. Again the Rig Veda Hymn I: 50 speaks to the sun.

His brilliant banners draw upward the god who knows all creatures, so that everyone may see the sun.
The constellations, along with the nights, steal away like thieves, making way for the Sun who gazes on everyone.
The rays that are his banners have become visible from the distance, shining over mankind like blazing fires.
Crossing space, you are the maker of light, seen by everyone, O Sun.
You illuminate the whole, wide realm of space.
You rise up facing all the groups of gods, facing mankind, facing everyone, so that they can see the sunlight.
Translation by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty

Then the moment had arrived when myth and reality finally made its appearance as if the Vedic Scriptures were in fact a portrayal of a time when the gods were in fact on the earth. I suppose every once in a while there are those moments when there is a glimpse of  another world, perhaps in a dream or in some state of euphoria, but I did not expect it to come from under the wheels of the chariot. But all along I knew that this chariot was a celestial chariot and it was the reason which had brought me to Bangkok both times having been escorted; once by a bright star and then by a Royal Brahmin Priest. I was looking at the chariot wheels rolling over the pools of water thinking of all the mythology associated with the chariot when an image jumped out at me that caught me off guard. I knew for an instance I was looking at heaven as the chariot was going up through the stars to Mount Meru. Was it my imagination playing tricks on my mind? It didn’t matter, I focused my camera on the reflective pools and when the film was developed all my questioning and wondering was satisfied and I saw what I had all along been suspect of; Heaven on Earth.

Heaven on Earth

Heaven on Earth

Of course I knew what created the image, but the way in which the banners were intermixed with the reflections on the road appeared as if a heavenly craft was being pulled along the Milky Way on its way to a far of place known as Mount Meru.

Directly behind the chariot, as it was being pulled into heaven, was Phra Rajaguru Vamadevamuni and the other Brahmin priests with their Brahmin dress completely soaked by the morning rain. So, when the media broadcasts the final ceremony to millions of people around the world maybe there will be an image that will speak to the viewers as it did to me of the Hindu gods visiting the earth to receive a member of the Royal family of Thailand. The ritual will be officiated over by a Brahmin priest whose lineage goes back thousands of years with the voices of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma speaking through him as did Vamadevamuni speak of the importance of the heart being the key to enter the realm of the gods.

“The King is a god who walks near the gods and through his good actions for all the people of Thailand he develops karma so he is always thinking near the gods. The King’s family is also is also near the gods and in the ritual, blessings are offered to Princess Galyani and a request is made to let her come to the heavenly realm of the gods. This joining of the Princess with the gods comes from the heart of the people of Thailand as all pray as one family with the King and his family. The King reaches out to all his people as one family to ask the gods to receive her in heaven”.
Phra Rajaguru Vamadevamuni – October 18, 2008

Phra Rajaguru Vamadevamuni

Phra Rajaguru Vamadevamuni

After my two experiences of being able to see the chariot and Phra Rajaguru Vamadevmuni I felt encouraged to send a letter to His Masjesty asking if it would be possible to attend the funeral ceremony for Princess Galyani. I don't think I ever imagined the day I would do such a thing as try and ellicit a response from his majesty. But after what I had experienced I felt that it was a normal progression and was hoping my feelings bore out a positive response. A little over a week had passed and I received a letter from the Royal Palace. My anticipation to read the letter was so great I just suspended all my thoughts and opened the letter only to discover my request was not possible to honor. The closure to my journey to see the Royal chariot of Princess Galyani go to heaven had arrived, and I would not be a quest to one of the most spiritual events I could ever imagine. Now it was time to pay my respects silently and watch with millions of others around the world on how the Royal Court in Thailand honors one of their own.



Other Thailand Short Stories
Willard Van De Bogart

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