Thais farewell beloved king in ceremony fit for a demigod

Bangkok: Most Thais have never seen anything like it.

Pageantry that has barely changed since the 14th century marked the end of 12 months mourning the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the beloved "father of all Thais", who was considered by many to be a demigod.

A spectacular 50.28-metre tall pyre representing Mount Meru, which in Thai-Hindu cosmology is thought be the centre of the universe and the connection between the human realm and the divine, is at the centre of five days of rituals surrounding the king's cremation on Thursday night.

Royal artists took 10 months to meticulously design every carving, flick of paint brush and wooden strut, passing on the artisanship Thais regard as their most elaborate.

The crematorium is flanked by legions of sculptures of mythical creatures and the king's two dogs.

Millions of Thais united in their bereavement on Thursday as hundreds of courtiers pulled a 200-year-old 42-tonne "Great Victory Chariot" carrying Bhumibol's remains.

More than 250,000 people in a sea of black, were allowed to cram into Bangkok's historic quarter to witness the royal procession, while another 7500 guests, including many of the world's royals were invited into the grounds of the Grand Palace..

Australia is being represented by the Governor-General Sir Peter Gosgrove.

Mourners were allowed to prostrate as the procession passed but were not allowed to shout "Long Live the King" or hold up mobile telephones to take selfies.

"This is the most important event in my lifetime," said mourner Banterng Saeuong.

Millions of Thais watched the ceremony on television while others paid their respects at 85 replicas of the cremation site erected across the country. The event is being broadcast live on Facebook.

Many businesses closed on Thursday, declared a public holiday, and many government buildings were draped in garlands made of yellow marigolds.

Bhumibol's death at age 88 on October 13 last year sparked a national outpouring of grief for a monarch who Thais credit with transforming their country into a modern nation and unifying it at times of political turmoil.

Supported by decades of work by palace officials Bhumibol rebuilt the prestige of the monarchy, which lost its mystique and power after a 1932 coup ended centuries of absolute rule by Thai kings.

He ascended the throne in 1946 after death of his elder brother King Ananda Mahidol and was the world's longest serving monarch when he died after long illness.

More than 12 million people - almost a fifth of Thailand's population - visited the Throne Hall at Dusit palace over the past 12 months where Bhumibol lay with a Golden Death Mask placed over his face.

Bhumibol's son King Maha Vajiralongkorn is presiding over the rituals, accompanied by other members of the royal family.

His own coronation is due within months.

Thailand's military, which toppled a democratically-elected government to seize power in a 2014 coup, will come under pressure to lift restrictions on political freedoms when the official mourning period ends in November.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army general who led the coup, has repeatedly delayed announcing a date for promised elections.

Analysts say that with the country's democratic institutions weak and divided, the evolving relationship between the new king and the military will be critical to how Thailand's new politics will unfold.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak???, a leading commentator on Thai politics from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said that "as the royal cremation completes the most glorious reign the Thai people have ever known, we are saying goodbye to a great king whose final departure will take with it a collective part of us, the Thai people".

- with agencies

This story Thais farewell beloved king in ceremony fit for a demigod first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.