In light of the coronation of His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun on May 4, the rare historical footage of King Rama VII’s coronation was recently screened by the Thai Film Archive whose experts did a marvellous job preserving the film shot almost 100 years ago. The oldest surviving motion picture of the age-old royal ceremony, the footage is of great historical significance not just among historians but also all Thai citizens.
“The footage of King Rama VII’s coronation is an extremely valuable historical asset especially when it comes to the study of the history of the Rattanakosin period as it is the unprecedented detailed filming of coronation rites and rituals. The ceremonies of King Rama I up to King Rama V were recorded but only in written chronicles and archives and only in summary,” said historian Asst Prof Dinar Boontharm from the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University. Dinar specialises in royal coronation ceremonies and sacred rituals in the royal court.
According to Dinar, filming coronation rites was first done during the reign of King Rama VII or around 1925. Prior to that, the ceremony was first photographed during the reign of King Rama V. Even so, only the post-ceremony coronation portrait was captured – rather than the entire process – with the new king dressed in full. Such a coronation portrait was to be distributed to newspapers as well as heads of state in foreign countries.
The footage of King Rama VII’s coronation recently screened at the Thai Film Archive was shot by the Film Department of the State Railway of Thailand on 35mm nitrate film, an antique format that still preserves the detail and quality of the images even after nearly a century. After being digitalised by the Film Archive, it was made accessible to the public so that they could see those rare historical moments ahead of His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun’s coronation, which will be held, according to Dinar, based on the ceremony of the late King Bhumibol.
Former director of the Thai Film Archive and film historian Dome Sukhawong recalled his discovery of the coronation footage in an old building in Bangkok’s Rong Muang Road in 1981. Back then, Dome was in search of footage of Nang Sao Suwan (Miss Suwanna Of Siam), thought to be the first Thai feature film, made with support from the State Railway of Thailand.
During his quest, he ended up at a residence previously owned by a railway staffer. There he found over 500 rolls of old films, most in decayed condition. All the films were later found to be events during King Rama VII’s period, along with deleted and edited scenes from the full version of the coronation footage.
“That [King Rama VII period] was the first time all detailed processes of the coronation ceremony were allowed to be filmed from inside the palace,” explained Dome. “Although filming could be practised too during the time of King Rama VI, the King did not give royal permission for the coronation to be shot from inside the palace. Private filming crew or locals who then owned 16mm cameras could film the coronation events but only from outside.”
King Rama VII, on the contrary, allowed the Film Department under the State Railway to shoot the entire coronation.
“The then Film Department functioned just like the Government Public Relations Department of today,” Dome added. “In the past, movies were the only means mostly accessible by the general public regardless of gender, age and social status. Newspapers were available only in big cities and were read only by the upper- and middle-class. Broadcast radio wasn’t available. So when there were important events, people saw them through public cinemas, which served as a television for the neighbourhood.”
As with other momentous events, King Rama VII’s coronation was filmed and screened before the public. This outdoor theatre screened the 35mm full-version of the coronation footage, which was over an hour long. The audience had to pay a fee to see the film.
An abridged version was later created by the Film Department to sell to any Thais who wished to purchase the footage as a meaningful memorabilia. The 500 film rolls Dome discovered were neither of these two versions, but outtakes out of the full, final version. The official hour-long footage was lost to time. Even though they are just segments edited out of the final version, the footage provides significant, in-depth knowledge of the royal ancient rite.
The footage was also an inspiration for the late British archaeologist Horace Geoffrey Quaritch Wales, a state officer in the reign of King Rama VII, to complete his thesis – with much of the material obtained while serving his post in Siam. In 1931, Wales – a professor in archaeology and Southeast Asia history at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) – published a book titled Siamese State Ceremonies, which was later translated into Thai and is now available for purchase at leading bookstores.
At the beginning of the Chakri Dynasty, King Rama I ordered that all details and knowledge about the coronation be revised and recorded in a coronation reference book, which compiled all the coronation rites and processes as practised during the Ayutthaya period. Information in the book was obtained from conversations with royal family members and state officers that lived during the Ayutthaya period.
Several elements and practices adopted from the West were added to the coronation of King Rama IV. The United Kingdom was the country that most influenced the coronation given that the coronation of Queen Victoria was held only 13 years before King Rama IV.
Thailand and Western countries have different coronation concepts. As influenced by Indian civilisation together with Brahmin and Buddhist beliefs, coronation in Thailand puts more emphasis on a water-related process such as purification and anointment. In the West, the crowning ceremony is the highlight.
Before the reign of King Rama IV, the Phra Maha Phichai Mongkut or the Great Crown of Victory – one of the royal regalia – wasn’t worn by the King at the coronation. Adopting coronation concepts from the West, King Rama IV was the first to change this and had the King actually wear the crown at the coronation. He also sent a court officer to purchase the diamond from Calcutta, India, and put the crown jewel at the top of the Phra Maha Phichai Mongkut, just like Queen Victoria’s crown.
The coronation of the late King Bhumibol in 1950 followed the practice of King Rama VII after the country survived World War II and the Siamese revolution of 1932. However, certain steps of the ceremony were removed.
To see the footage of King Rama VII’s coronation, visit https://www.bangkokpost.com/vdo/thailand/1662792/king-rama-7-coronation-ceremony
– Arusa Pisuthipan