By ANTHONY HOWELL.
WAT PHRA KAEW is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Wat Phra Kaew’s importance as a Buddhist temple in Thailand owes to its association with the kings of Thailand, but also because it houses the Emerald Buddha statue. This statue was brought from Ayutthaya to Bangkok after the old capital city was sacked by the Burmese:
It’s now too late to hit the road and travel to Ayutthaya.
What’s left are just some blackened prang, from what I understand.
Tall reliquary spires desolate now, the living gone
Except for an elephant, willing to show visitors around.
The city thrived for centuries before being burnt to the ground,
Razed to its foundations; its citizens, or what was left
Of them, after the Burmese sacked it in seventeen-sixty-seven,
Refugees. Their capital abandoned to the vine.
I guess you could appreciate Hiroshima or Nagasaki
As the tour-guide showed you what was left of them
From a distance. Yes, but after all, Ayutthaya is lovelier.
Ruins always improve, the further you go back in time,
But now I’m off to London, making sure my belt’s secure
As shells of toxic ammo get loaded onto military
Transports destined for a war not so far from home.
Will there be a London, given our provoking of the bear?
Ayutthaya, Hiroshima, Sodom and Gomorrah, Rome…
(The stress in Ayutthaya is on the U.)
What intrigues me is that Rama I, the first king of the Rama dynasty which is still the (constitutional) monarchy in Thailand today (we’re onto Rama 10) also commissioned a famous set of mural paintings that depict a Hindu narrative.
The Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayana was written by King Rama I (1737-1809) and his court poets. The reigns of Rama the First and his son Rama the Second are a golden age in Thai literature and art – with the completion of the epic Kung Chang Kung Phaen – and it’s also the time when Sunthorn Pho – the great Thai ‘Chaucer’ – was writing. It is a period when the influence of Western art and literature was merging with the South East Asian tradition: a merger epitomised by Sunthorn’s writing. In the murals one can also sense this awareness of European landscape painting as well as the influence of Chinese art.
The Ramakien centres on Prince Rama, an avatar of Vishnu, who is banished from his father’s kingdom at the request of his stepmother. To avoid creating discord in the kingdom and in his father’s household, Rama leaves Ayodhya and lives in exile with his wife Sita and devoted brother Lakshmana. In focusing on Rama as an ideal king rather than a Hindu god, the placement of the Ramakien murals in the cloisters surrounding the temple seems appropriate. The kings of the Chakri Dynasty, who adopt the title of Rama for themselves, want to be seen as ideal kings. The placement of the murals outside of the main precinct of the temple rather than at its centre ensures that they do not detract from the Buddhist nature of Wat Phra Kaew – which houses the sacred effigy of the Buddha. However it shows how important it was for the King to incorporate Hinduism into the Royal grounds. I learnt that there were also a variety of Muslim myths that get woven into Hindu myths, into which Buddhist stories also get woven. Thus the King is seen as a champion of the three principle faiths in his realm.
The innovative Rama 9 – who researched cloud seeding and built magnificent dams which ensure that there is never a shortage of water in Thailand – also altered the constitution so that a woman could succeed to the throne. Rama I0’s brilliant athletic daughter seemed destined to become the first Queen, but now lies in an irreversible coma, having succumbed to some after-effect of the Covid vaccine.
Sometimes symmetrical elephants support a throne or dais
Supporting a display of vases that make their own contribution
To a busy triangle of ornament. This triangle divides
The sides that make up a roof which supports another roof
And another over that, sheltering a shrine to the daughter
Of a king. Was it an inoculation? Was it an assassination?
Don’t imagine that the Department of Special Investigation
Will uncover anything under the gold or that there will
Ever be a reckoning. Architraves in ancient wooden houses
Widen at their bases. One steps into them. It stops babies
Wandering off, the wall raised at the foot of each door,
And stops them falling into canals, stops demons entering as well
Since they can only move in straight lines. Traditional
Demons, that is. And don’t suppose the sportive pursuit
Of teasing an elephant in rut from horseback is not as extreme
As it gets – except for an elephant with three heads – whereas
The Department is as corrupt as two dogs with one head.
This is both a tragedy and a scandal obviously. But in these debased and confused times, I think it is interesting to consider a constitutional monarch as a figure-head that can unite people of different faiths.
I never much cared for the opinions of the Prince of Wales. A self-declared authority on agricultural matters, he irritated my mother, who was a veterinary scientist specialising in cattle, when he advocated inoculation for Foot and Mouth Disease, rather than the immediate extermination of an infected herd. This vaccination strategy never worked properly in France – where they tried it, and our own extermination strategy effectively kept the disease very much in check – which was not the case in France. Ever since her scathing dismissal of his views, it has always worried me that Charles has any views at all.
But I do like the pomp of a coronation. It is nice to get the carriages out and give them a roll, and being just back from Thailand, I must say that the way the monarchy there has managed to support and be supported by Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and indeed Christian groups makes a very powerful argument for a constitutional monarchy, and from what I hear (I haven’t watched yet) the blessing of all religions and denominations has been expressly emphasised, which is a good idea. I like the idea of the monarch improving on Henry VIII’s title and rebranding himself as the ‘Protector of the Faiths’.
This may turn out to be a key role in future monarchies. After all, you can’t easily be elected to do it, as then whoever votes you in will in all likelihood be representative of whatever sectarian majority holds sway in your country. In this regard it is interesting to consider the Alawite position in Syria which is in some ways a ‘constitutional’ role. While there are more Sunni Muslims than anyone else in Syria, the Alawite minority is large enough that when it combines with Christian, Shia and other minorities it holds the balance of power – it is thus that the Alawite leader Bashir Assad manages to unify most of the country, and only the violent US-supported proxies backing Daesh while pretending not to as well as the US troops installed to steal Syrian oil and the Kurdish independence terrorists seeking a Kurdistan made up of parts of Syria, Turkey and Iran (something which is never going to happen) prevent Syria from being completely unified.
A constitutional role for a protector of the faiths was one of Charles’s better ideas, first mooted around 1996, I believe; and from what I hear of the coronation this idea that has been incorporated into the blessings of the ceremonial, even if in a somewhat half-hearted way. Actually I think Charles was influenced by the Rama dynasty when he first brought the notion forward, apparently to the C of E’s disgust – just as the Rama dynasty was impressed by the UK’s constitutional monarchy back in the day of Rama I.
ANTHONY HOWELL, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. In 2019, his exploration of psychic chaos, Multilation (with Consciouness), was published by the Fortnightly’s imprint, Odd Volumes. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).