Memories of My Father
His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej who was looked up to as a father figure for Thais and “father of the land” throughout his seven-decade reign, is widely remembered for, among other things, his genuine love for art and architecture. This was clearly evident in his royal projects.
One of the most memorable projects was the building of the Royal Barge Narai Song Suban HM Rama IX. This and other royal barges form part of the Royal Barge Procession Ceremony that is held to celebrate special state and royal occasions. This ceremony will always have a special place in my heart since it is this memory that my father and I share together.
When my family first moved to Bangkok many years ago, my father took me on a day trip to the National Museum of Royal Barges where the Royal Barge Narai Song Suban HM Rama IX was on display. He told me the stories behind this particular royal barge and the Royal Barge Procession. The latter is a ceremony that I should try to witness as it is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.
The ceremony – a wonderful visual spectacle that has been held for nearly 700 years only on important occasions – involves a procession of stunningly decorated royal barges making their way along the Chao Phraya river (aka the River of Kings). The procession gleaming with both religious and royal significance moves slowly from the Wasukri Royal Landing Place in the Dusit area past the Grand Palace on its way to the famous Temple of Dawn or Wat Arun.
Inspired by the mythical Hindu god Narayana, the name Narai Song Suban means Narayana, an epithet for Vishnu, riding on his vehicle Garuda (a large bird-like creature in Hindu mythology). The fascinating name and myth inspired me to do more research into this exotic royal barge.
This barge was originally built during the reign of King Nangklao (Rama III). During World War II, a bomb explosion badly damaged the barge, with only its prow, or the front end of the barge, remaining intact. Almost five decades later, the Royal Thai Navy in collaboration with the Fine Arts Department and the Bureau of the Royal Household embarked on a mission to rebuild the royal barge to celebrate the 50th anniversary of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s accession to the throne in 1996, restoring the battered Narai Song Suban to its former glory.
The project began with the reconstruction of the keel in 1994, combining modern technology with traditional techniques from the early Rattanakosin (Bangkok) era. The barge – measuring 44.30 meters long by 3.20 meters wide in size – can carry 50 oarsmen, two steersmen, two officers fore and aft, a signalman, seven royal umbrella bearers and a chanter.
Its figurehead is a teak carving of a red Garuda holding Nagas in both hands with the dark blue Narayana, also carved from teak wood, riding on its back. Narayana is a Hindu god described in the Vedas as having four arms and holding a mace, a discus, a conch and a lotus. The final touches of the prow include magnificent clear-glass mirror and gilded lacquer decorations.
The red hull is adorned with highly elaborate Thai motifs designed by Nikom Ponyium, an artisan from the Fine Arts Department. Well aware of the King’s expectation of the barge’s new design, not the old one, the artisan came up with the patterns comprised of authentic Thai flowers in vogue during the Third Reign and a combination of Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin-style motifs to give the barge’s design a unique, contemporary character. In the middle of the barge is a pavilion called Ratcha Banlang Kanya that houses a throne for the King and that ensconces members of his royal family. The interior of the pavilion features Garuda-themed patterns with the roof and drapery fabricated with gold-tone decorations.
The Royal Barge Narai Song Suban HM Rama IX was completed and launched on April 5, 1996. On May 6, 1996, it was used as the main royal barge during the Royal Barge Procession Ceremony to celebrate the King’s Golden Jubilee on the throne. On this special occasion, it took over the role of the main royal barge from the Royal Barge Suphannahong (which means “golden swan”) normally used as the main royal barge reserved for the monarch.
The royal barges are on display at the Royal Barges National Museum. It’s well worth a visit to experience the beauty of authentic Thai art. For me, this royal barge not only represents our national heritage, but it also shows King Bhumibol’s love of fine arts. It also reminds us that the King has never really left us as his greatest legacy lives on through all his royal projects and all the wonderful stories and memories we have of him that we will pass down to the next generation.
The National Museum of Royal Barges
80/1, Arun Amarin Road, Bangkok Noi
Opening hours: From Monday to Sunday, 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Tel.: 02 424 0004