With arms raised to hold up the building’s roof, torso taut with muscles and feet planted solidly on a ledge, the form seemed human in every way. As my gaze travelled further up the statue’s frame, it came to rest on a bird’s head with a cruelly prominent beak. It was a sunlit afternoon in Bangkok and I was absorbed in the details of the exotic creature perched on top of a building at the Grand Palace. The pristine white building was punctuated with large windows around which elaborate carvings ran riot in an exuberant combination of emerald and scarlet. Sloping down on either side was the roof, tiled in a rich green, trimmed with flaming red. From its highest point, a golden spire soared up all the way to pierce the azure sky. Just below the spire was the figure. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
“Do you see it?” asked a feminine voice beside me. “Can you recognize it now? That’s Garuda.”
Startled out of my reverie, I turned to Kulap, my tour guide. Her petite frame was topped with a round, cheerful face and silky black hair was styled in a bob. Smiling at her, I replied, “You’re right. It is Garuda.” We both stared at the image of this winged mythical creature that was supposed to be the Hindu god Indra’s mount. Kulap had already told me about the popularity this legendary mythical creature enjoyed in Thai culture and architecture.
In fact, I had recognized the unmistakable flavours of India as soon as I stepped into the palace complex. Huge murals spanned the length and breadth of the walls inside, their intricate details picked out in gold against a dramatic backdrop of dark blue and black. As I gazed at one of those murals featuring a sword-wielding individual with an impressive assortment of ten heads, Kulap crept up to me and murmured, “You do understand, don’t you, that this is a scene from the Ramayana?” I nodded in reply. I was surprised to see tales from the Hindu epic adorning the entrance to the Grand Palace.
As I stepped out of the dark hallways, I was still lost in thought over Kulap’s earlier reference to the “many close links between Indian and Thai culture”. I recalled her telling me about the local festival which so resembled Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. In Bangkok, people celebrated it by lighting small earthen lamps in memory of their ancestors and setting them afloat on the river flowing through the city. It was a magical sight as they bobbed away and moved downstream like an endless stream of light.
My thoughts scattered at the sight of a pair of menacing creatures standing nearby. Nearly twenty feet tall, their square painted faces—one a screaming red, the other a violent blue—were as terrifying as their bared fangs. Their limbs and garments sported a multitude of hues: red, blue, green and yellow. I took some comfort from Kulap’s explanation that the images, representing guardian demons, were scattered around the complex to ward off evil spirits that might have strayed into the area. Meandering through the crowded courtyard, I stepped through a small doorway and entered what looked like a different world altogether.
“This is the Grand Palace,” announced Kulap. “But it is no longer a royal residence. It’s only used for ceremonial functions.” An immaculate green lawn in the center served as a balm for the eyes. A pair of white buildings stood out within the palace complex. The smaller one, atop which I had spotted the Garuda figure, was normally used for coronation-related functions, I learnt. Occupying a central position within the complex was the larger building, reserved for holding receptions for state guests and other important dignitaries.
Distinguished by wide arched balconies and a roof tiled in red, with green trimmings, it had a pair of winding staircases leading to the main entrance from either side. Flanking the stairs on either side and on a raised wooden platform stood a royal guard. He was dressed in pristine white, with circular white headgear and a rifle adding the finishing touch to his appearance. Camera-toting tourists had lined up, each patiently awaiting his or her turn to stand next to the guard for that special photograph.
A sudden commotion at the other end of the lawn caught my eye. A formation of twelve royal guards, their white uniforms standing out, marched in pairs towards the two guards posted at the main building complex. A change of guard was about to take place. Visitors jostled for a vantage point to click photographs. The formation of marching guards came to a halt before one of the stationary guards. A few words were exchanged. A new guard marched up to the one on duty. The latter pulled his rifle closer with a sharp jerk, clicked his heels and marched away. The new guard took his place and began his watch.
We strolled into the adjoining courtyard. It was not as crowded. Gracing it were three smaller white buildings, each with the typical colorful sloped roof. Bright orange clashed happily with rich emerald to offer a striking contrast to the white. My eyes moved among the spires in their quest for another statue of Garuda. Meanwhile, Kulap filled me in on the details about the Grand Palace. Suddenly, her voice trailed off into silence. I could see that she was looking beyond me at something. Then she quickly doffed her cap and bowed in a gesture of reverence. Piqued by curiosity, I turned to look. Entering through the white doorway of the complex was a group of four Buddhist monks, their saffron robes fluttering gently in the breeze.
The man leading the way was in his late twenties. He was no more than five and a half feet tall and his tonsured head threw the handsome contours of his face into sharp relief, lending him a striking appearance. His robes left his toned arms bare. The other three in the group appeared to be in their late teens. The leader was quite chatty and the younger ones hung on every word of his. Passing tourists paused to watch as each monk struck a pose against the backdrop of the palace, while the older monk took his photo with a small silver digital camera.
Much later, having completed my tour, I found myself in the outer courtyard of the palace complex. Flanking the cobbled 100-metre path to the gate on one side sprawled an expansive green lawn. Beyond it was a part of the palace wall. From behind it, the golden spires of the palace temple complex reached for the sky.
The handsome monk I had seen earlier stood at the edge of the green lawn. Hands hanging by his sides, a warm smile on his face, he struck a gentle pose for a photograph with a young girl clad in blue jeans and red t-shirt. A little further away was a group of giggling young girls, their backpacks sporting the Australian flag. Each was patiently waiting for her turn to have her photograph taken with the good-looking monk. In the background of this contemporary tableau was something ancient and quintessentially Bangkok: the golden spires of the temples surrounding the Grand Palace. The scene captured in its entirety represented the very essence of Bangkok. It is a land of fascinating contradictions—modern and ancient, progressive and traditional, cosmopolitan and intrinsically Thai.
The Grand Palace is located along Na Phra Road in the Old City. It is open from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm. The complex also includes the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Tickets are priced at 500 Baht; www.royalgrandpalace.th
This ticket allows free entry to two other places, the Vimanmek Museum complex and Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall. However, these are not very close and will need a taxi ride. The Palace is across the street from the Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha and is close to the Museum of Siam.
Most sight-seeing tour companies have Grand Palace and Wat Pho included in one tour which starts in the morning and ends early afternoon and includes pick up from the hotel and return. If you wish to avoid large crowds, you should choose the morning tour.
Images courtesy: Biswa Pratim Bhowmick