PALACES AND ROYAL AND ARISTOCRATIC RESIDENCES IN THAILAND

RUEN KRUENG POOK: THE BASIC ROYAL AND ARISTOCRATIC STRUCTURE

A Ruen Krueng Pook is a basic traditional residence for a Thai aristocrat or royal family member. They are the basic building block from which other types of traditional residence for Thai aristocrats and royal family members begin. There are two types of Ruen Krueng Pook: Rong Na and Krathom .

In his “Study of Thai Traditional Architecture,” Wattana Boonjub wrote: “A Rong Na is built from bamboo sheets and poles with thatch roof. There is no floor or platform as the structure rises from the ground. Builders only level the ground before the construction. It has no furniture but one or two bamboo benches. Simple and cheap, this kind of house is a temporary place for farmers, labourers and slaves who look after the farm. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand , a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University]

Krathom is built on an elevated platform made of bamboo. The wall is made either of on or bamboo sheet. With palm thatch roof, it has a veranda and an open deck. This structure is stronger and more comfortable than Rong Na, implying a better economic position of the owners.This kind of house was also a home of high-ranking officials, including members of the royal family, who were stripped of their titles.

Historical record mentioned an incident, which happened in the reign of King Prasartthong of Ayutthaya: “The king, accompanied by his consort and court ladies, went to Wat Sanphet to make merit before Phra Buddhapatimakorn during the Buddhist Lent. When proceeding to the temple's main Vihara, he saw Phra Atitayawong, son of the previous king, who sat on the jewelled wall with his feet hanging down and did not come down to pay respect. The king was angry at Phra Atitayawong's arrogance, stripping him of his royal rank and sending him to a two-room hut near Wat Tha Sai temple. The prince was allowed to have two helpers to do cooking and house chores. After giving his command, the king then returned to the palace.'' Such punishment also occurred in ‘Sang Thong’, a well-known Thai literature composed by King Rama II in the early Rattanakosin period. The story depicts a king, who was angry with his daughter Rojana for choosing an unattractive man ‘Chao Ngoh’ as her suitor. She was then expelled from the palace and sent to live in a Krathom with him.

Ruen Krueng Sap: Aristocrat’s House

Ruen Krueng Sap or timber house is an upgraded form of a house. Only wealthy people can afford to live in this kind of house. However, the design of the house is subject to the owners' ranks and status. In general, a house of a well-to-do family has three rooms in length, and a veranda and an open platform at the side. Next to the platform is a kitchen suit while stairs are on the opposite. The house can be extended without limit when the number of family members increases. For commoners the house must consist of a living unit and a kitchen. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

Basically, there is little difference in the design of of aristocrats and commoners. This is shown in the house’s positioning and certain rooms that are used to reflect the owner' status. Normally, the ar istocrat’s house has twin units, with a " in between. The back end of the C " is a kitchen while the front end is stairs. Another room in Ruen Kreung Sap is a middle-sized hall called or . This hall is used for receiving guests and leisure activities as well as religious ceremonies. House owners tend to beautify this hall.

For senior aristocrats, their houses are bigger than ordinary Ruen Kreung Sap. These houses consist of more units, including an additional main unit next to on the middle ". The "E back end features another unit for the house owner's grown-up children and their families. On the opposite ", there is a partition, which is the house owner’s bathroom.

Roofs in Thai architecture

Roofs are the quintessential elements in Thai public architecture, shaping the character of the buildings with their elaborate structure and decoration. The ornamented multi-tier roofs are, however, reserved for temples and palaces as well as public buildings such as government offices, university halls and monuments. Commercial buildings that breach this tradition, as a few hotels have done, are frowned upon. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

This is because, in their decoration, the tiers with multiple layers and height above the ground symbolise the prestige of the buildings, which extends from the paramount status of royalty, Buddhism and the Thai nation. The more ornate the roof is, the higher the status of the building or of the person who commissions it demonstrate. Two or three tiers are most often used, but some royal temples have four.

Multiple roof tiers basically provide weather protection but their rationale is more aesthetic than functional. Because temple and palace halls are large, their roof areas are massive. To lighten up the roof’s appearance, the lowest tier is the largest, with a smaller middle layer and the smallest roof on top. Multiple breaks in each roof lighten it further — a double-tiered roof might have two, three or even four breaks in each tier. The slope increases with each tier, from a gentle 45 degrees gradient on the lowest, to over 50 degrees on the highest. In central Thai architecture, the lower tiers telescope a short distance beyond the top roof at the gable ends. On northern temple halls, the tiers project further, often over a redented floor plan that starts narrow at the entrance and grows wider towards the altar.

Further dividing each tier’s surface are coloured-ceramic tiles in concentric patterns, which help make a single tier look as if it has multiple sections. These configurations transform the roof’s seeming scale, enlivening the aesthetics of the entire building. Instead of building a massive roof that visually weighs the building down, Thai architects create a roof with a dynamic series of forms that appears to soar. In this way, aesthetics suit the intent of veneration. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

Spires and Other Roof Features on Temples and Palaces

Roof spires designate buildings of the highest status, especially royal palace halls. Indeed, the Thai term for a roof spire means ‘spire of a palace’. Since the mid- Ayutthaya period, the royal palace architecture has called for a cruciform floor plan topped by a roof spire. This shows Ayutthaya’s embrace of the Khmer-Hindu concept of the divine king, or devaraja. The roof spires of royal structures and prangs symbolise Mount Meru, which is the residence of gods and the divine centre of the universe. The cruciform structure signifies the intersec tion of axes at this centre. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

The main type of the spire is style which has multiple tiers of redented squares diminishing in size as they ris e towards a thin conical tip. Each tier is decorated with rows of miniature gables. In palace buildings, these feature tiny finials which represent nagas and garudas. Roof spires are featured on top of most spire halls in the Grand Palace. The Maha Prasat spires have seven-tiered bases over roof tiers decorated with garuda figures grasping nagas, an icon of Thai royalty. Other less prominent halls, prasat, have five-tiered spire bases.

Some spires, instead of having square tiers, have round rings like a crown, which is called ‘mongkut’ in Thai. These spires often grace the buildings constructed during the reign of King Rama IV, whose name was King Mongkut. Some prasat roofs may be topped by a spire of a bullet-shaped prang, as seen on Prasat Phra Thepbidorn or the Royal Pantheon at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and above the City Pillar Shrine in Bangkok. The prasat spires are also often built on temple halls, crematoriums, gates and spirit houses.

Roof Finials. Every roof edge apex has stylized attachments that essentially transform the structure into a huge piece of sculpture while hinting at mystical concepts. Most of them are decorations fixed at the bargeboard on the edge of the roof at the gable ends. While the bargeboard protects the roof covering from the wind, its decorative roof finials embodies guardian figures that protect against bad influences.

Usually covered in glass mosaic or gilding, roof finials are sculpted in an undulating, serpentine nag sadung shape evoking the naga. Its lower finial is called a ‘goose tail’, referring to hongsa, the Thai name for Hamsa. Although this name may suggest that the finial is shaped like a hamsa figure, it now usually takes the form of a naga’s head turning up and facing away from the roof. The finial of the naga head may be styled in flame-like kranok motifs and feature multiple naga heads. A roof with multiple breaks or tiers has identical finials at the bottom of each section. Some old temples in Lanna and Isaan have a Laotian-style metal finial in the form of a multi-tiered umbrella of state fixed at the centre of the roof ridge.

Another part of is the large curved finial is called a ‘sky tassel’. Perched at the peak of the roof and resembling the beak of a bird, it perhaps represents Garuda. This finial is often erected ceremonially to signify the structure’s status. The intriguingly indeterminate shape of one symbol, which resembles both bird and reptile, has led to several assumptions about its symbolism. One theory suggests that it may represent Garuda in his mythical struggle with Naga. Another theory indicates that it may represent the celestial goose Hamsa. For example, on some temples, especially in the north, they are explicitly carved as Hamsa. Other figures are a deva divinity or budding lotus. Whatever the mythical animals they represent, the , figures are all benevolent divinities, suggesting the protective powers of Buddhism and the temple’s role in guarding the faith.

Pediments on Thai Temples and Palaces

The large triangular section at the end of a gable roof, the pediment is the most prominent exterior element of a Thai public building. Standing high over the entrance, it inevitably becomes the most decorated part of palace and temple buildings. Its degree of embellishment corresponds closely to the building’s status in terms of sponsorship and royal affiliation. [Wattana Boonjub]

In the Ayutthaya and early Rattanakosin periods, pediments were usually decorated in carved wooden relief that were lacquered and gilded, and sometimes featured glass tiles set into the grooves or applied to the surface. Plaster relief later became popular, usually painted or inlaid with glass tiles, or left bare in the case of modest rural temples. During the reign of King Rama III, plaster relief was often adorned with crockery mosaics made of Chinese ceramics.

Pediment reliefs show figurative designs and abstracted floral motifs of Thai, Chinese, Khmer and, sometimes, Western origin. These motifs serve as a background for pediment guardian figures and as foreground designs on the pediments of secondary structures such as sala and gates. The pediments of temples under royal patronage often centre on the figure of the god Narai sitting astride his vehicle Garuda.

Sometimes the emblem of the king—who is regarded as the embodiment of King Rama of the Ramakian epic, who is a reincarnation of Narai— is used on the pediments.. Narrative scenes from the Ramakian epic are depicted on the pediments of some important temples in Bangkok. Other divinities selected for temple architecture include Indra on his mount, the three-headed elephant Erawan; Brahma on his goose, Hamsa; or Siva on his bull, Nandi. Guardian figures such as Rahu and Kala sometimes appear.

Eave Brackets on Thai Temples and Palaces

Eave brackets are among the most inventively carved wooden elements in Thai temple architecture, and their design is a good index of a building’s vintage and stylistic heritage. They did not seem to appear in the Sukhothai period when roof eaves were supported by peristyles.When these outer rows of columns began to be structural role of transferring the weight of the roof eaves to the columns or walls. Late Ayutthaya temple halls were sm aller than their predecessors. Thus their eaves did not need extra structural support. Nevertheless, brackets continued to be used, but as decorative and symbolic elements. They became slender and increasingly stylized. [Wattana Boonjub]

The figures on eave brackets usually embodied guardian figures such as naga, hamsa or deva intertwined with floral and cloud motifs. Preferably carved on one piece of wood, they were often gilded, and sometimes decked with glass mosaic. From the 19th century onwards, cement or plaster began to be used in the carving of eave brackets.

Brackets enhanced the roof’s appearance of soaring lightness. When massive outer pilasters and columns were eliminated, they were replaced by these slender limbs. They improve the temple hall’s proportions and composition - echoing in reverse the diagonal lines of the sloping roof and amplifying the rhythm of the columns, windows and bargeboard finials. Regional variations are especially interesting. Artisans in northern Thailand and parts of the northeast were probably pressed to be creative because each bracket was carved differently, unlike the identical set mandated in central region. Figures such as monkeys, demons and devas typically appear with arms and legs raised as if they are supporting the roof.

Doors and Windows in Thai Palaces and Temples

In palace and temple architecture, the heightened status of the interior space is suggested by the elaborate decoration of doors (pratoo), windows (naatang), air vents and eave brackets (khan thuai). These elements demonstrate some of the most beautiful ornaments in Thai architecture, including plaster or carved wood relief, painted designs, gold-and-lacquer work and glass mosaic. Doors and windows of temple and royal structures have a larger surface area for the embellishment, compared to that of houses. The embellishment also helps shed more light on the objects and the ceremonies that take place inside the buildings. [Wattana Boonjub]

Traditionally considered as the passage between differing realms, doors and windows, especially in palaces and temples, are decorated with special motifs in order to ward off the entry of evil spirits. Panels are carved or painted with images of guardian demons or other auspicious figures and designs. Statues of guardian demons, warriors or beasts are also placed outside the buildings for additional protection.

Hall in a Thai Royal or Aristocrat’s House

It is a tradition for senior aristocrats to have a hall, or at the front of the main unit. The name is derived from its positioning, which cuts across the main unit. The hall, used as a reception chamber, is a distinctive part of the main unit and can sometimes have three-sided walls, while keeping open the side facing the middle. Some houses feature a wall panel with square-shaped, grill-like holes in the middle. The holes are for ventilation and better lighting. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

The hall is sometime used as a command office and, in some cases, a court. It is common that these high-ranking officials convert some rooms in the residences as the office because there were no office buildings in those days. Needless to say, the hall was the place that reflected the owners’ social status.

In fact, functions as a throne hall or in the king’s palace (The term throne hall was reserved only for the structure in the king’s palace). Besides, owners of percent were required to modestly decorate the pediments with bargeboards, or and and the house remained unpainted.

Residences of Thai Royal Family Members

The residence of lower ranked royals was called Ruen Krueng Sap, like that of aristocrats and court officials. The size of the residence demonstrated the ranks of the owners. This ancient tradition lasted until the early Rattanakosin period. The historical evidence in the early Rattanakosin period showed that the residence of royal family members of lower ranks had brick walls. The gate had no arch top. The residence was made of wood with the wall decorated with red-earth The roof was made of earthenware tiles. The frame of the pediment was painted red. The positioning of the residence of these lower-rank princes was similar to that of high- ranking aristocrats, except that the whole royal structure was painted red -- the colour that indicated the royal status. [Wattana Boonjub]

The residence of senior royal family members or those at the rank of Phra Ong Chao was comprised of walls made of brick and decorated with red earth. The corner of wall had a design. The gate was made of hard wood and painted in red. The reception hall was made of wood, with one-tiered roof of earthenware tiles, while the pediment was painted red and adorned in Mon style. The pediment could not be gilded or decorated with coloured glass, again, for the reason of hierarchy. The rooms were made of hard wood and had three similar connected units, all painted in red. They were built with one end joined to an open platform behind . The roof was made of earthenware tiles.

The residence of royal family members at the level of Chao Fa had walls that signified their rank. These wall were made of brick and cement and topped with leaf-form sheets. However, they were not allowed to build a barbican. This was to ensure that the owners would not be too strong to commit treason. Prince Damrong explained the tradition of leaf-form sheets, which were used to differentiate this type of residence from those of royal family members of the lower ranks as follows: ``According to the old tradition, the king would pick grown-up, smart princes to govern outer cities to alleviate his burden. Normally they were the frontier cities where these princes had to protect against invaders. Each frontier city had a strong citadel, similar to that of the capital. This tradition was later annulled as the king preferred to have their sons with him in the capital, giving them important assignments. However, the king allowed the sons to build their residence much like that of Chao Fa with leaf-form sheets on the wall. The gate used the same materials like that of the wall. The arch attached to the so-called elephant-ear gate was painted in red. The main residence building was made of wood. It was connected to the stairs. The building had enclosed walls while the main hall's roof, made of earthenware tiles, was was multi- tiered and low at both ends. The pediment was decorated with brahma-faces without motifs. The structure could not be gilded or decorated with coloured glass.'' The multi-tiered roof was used to demonstrate the status of the structure's owners.

A French priest, who resided in Ayutthaya during the reign of King Narai recorded that the higher the number of tiers, the higher the rank of the owners. He wrote: ``In Siam, the nobility of people could be decided from the number of roof's tiers. The roof of the temple's ordination hall or had five tiers, while the roof of the royal palace had seven tiers.'' The appearance of hall and in Chao Fah's palace was much similar to that of Phra Ong Chao, except that the latter’s hall was bigger. The hall's long side faced the palace's front with at the same length. Next to it were three identical buildings, with the middle one serving as the main hall. The other two were the palace owner's bedroom and a living area. These three structures were connected. The palace owner' s wife and daughters resided in a separate unit at the end. This was the basic plan for chao fah's palace. Some palaces may have smaller units for court officials depending on the rank of each palace owners.

Residences of the Thai King’s Brothers and Sons

Phra Boworn Ratchawang was a type of palace used by the king's younger brothers or sons who served as heirs. Their palace had a brick wall and leaf-shaped Sema sheets and without. The gate and decorations came in two styles; one was a lintel with and the other had a shaped top with a royal crown (called ‘phra kiew’) and was made of red-painted wood. [Wattana Boonjub]

Main architectural structure in the Rattanakosin-era palace, comprising of the reception hall or a throne hall and the back hall, which followed that of the Ayutthaya peroid. The status of the owner of Boworn Ratchawang is demonstrated in the palace plan and decoration. Each building had a two-tiered roof made of earthenware tiles. The pediment could be crafted in various patterns but all must be painted in red without the use of gild or coloured glass. Roof decorations were also made of red-painted wood. Only the palace's worshipping hall could be gilded or decorated with coloured glasses.

The tradition, which prohibited the decoration of gild and coloured glasses, was mentioned by King Rama V in his letter to Prince Naris concerning the construction of a pavilion in the Dusit Palace as follows: ``That the whole structure was entirely gilded... because it was gilded and kept it in close-door area ..... the crafted item that was abandoned .... like in the royal throne hall......'' The tradition of using red-painted wood for the decoration of the structure in Phra Boworn Ratchawang was strictly observed in the early period of the Rattanakosin era. The prohibition also covered the decoration of the frames of doors and windows, which were not allowed to have an ornamental arch like that of the royal palace.

It should also be noted that there was no royal pavilion in Phra Boworn Ratchawang because such tradition did not exist in the Ayutthaya period. This was mentioned in the Rama I chronicle as follows: ``When Krom Phra Ratchawang Boworn Maha Surasinghanat built his palace in the year of the tiger, 1144 Minor Era (2325 Buddhist Era), he originally wished to have built on an islet in a pond like the Banyong Rattanat Throne Hall in the Ayutthaya palace and had all the construction materials prepared. However, there was an incident in the fifth month of the Year of the Rabbit when two invaders broke into his palace to attack the prince who happened to be in the royal palace at the time. Court officials spotted the invaders and, during a fight, killed them at the site designated for the construction. The prince regarded the incident as a bad sign, believing that the structure was not for a prince. He finally dropped the construction plan.”

Royal Palace of the Thai King

The book, Art in the Reign of King Rama I describes the construction of palace and royal structures in the King's honour: ``When establishing Bangkok as the capital, King Rama I aimed to create a city as prosperous, beautiful and elegant as that of the Ayutthaya kingdom. This was to demonstrate that the nation was united and independent. The news of the reconstruction and the nation’s unity should scare would-be invaders. Besides, since the art could imply the nation's prosperity, the king had a strong intention to build a grand royal structure in his honour.'' Architectural features and decoration were used to demonstrate the king's status. [Wattana Boonjub]

The palace’s brick wall was decorated with sheets. The inside wall featured barbicans where palace guards were deployed to look after the structure. The gate, which was made of wood, had a decorative arch on top in the same style found in the royal structures in the Ayutthaya period. The architecture in this style was regarded as a residence for highly respected persons, including the Lord Buddha, monks, kings and deities.

Therefore, building a structure as a royal palace for a king is compared to building a residence for deities.This was mainly because Thais had the highest regard for their kings who were worshipped in three ways. Firstly, kings were regarded as; 1) a bodhisattva (a reincarnation of Lord Buddha); 2) the kings were considered the reincarnation of God Vishnu who came down to ease sufferings, according to the Hinduism; and 3) the kings were the protectors who took good care of their subjects and practised the 10 royal virtues. The god-like status of the Thai king is often compared to fatherly love. For this, the kings were called Phrachao Yoohua. Since Thais held their kings in such high regard, a building is reserved for the kings only.

As a royal tradition structures had a spire on the roof. Each side of the building sometimes had extended symmetric and asymmetric parts. Among the architectural structures that represented the king's status was the jewelled wall in ordination hall. It represented the dharma council and had seven jeweled layers. The wall was built on of the belief that the king was Sommut Budhdawong or Bodhisattva (a reincarnation of Lord Buddha) who came down to complete his mission on earth. Since he was considered a dharma sapha (council), the wall was built to signify his status.

God Narai on Garuda, a typical decorative image on some of the pediment’s, symbolised the structure as the residence of God Narai or Vishnu who is reincarnated as the king. The image is similar to the Chinese tradition in which a written announcement was put in front of the palace gate and the shrine. However, an image is perhaps more aesthetic and easy to understand. The decorative frames of the buildings include gilded or decorated walls with yellow-coloured glasses. The craftsmanship was more delicate than other royal residences. Some structures were specially designed with the head of naga turning to the front, facing onlookers.

The roof of the building normally has a minimum of three lower tiers at the back and on the sides. The roofing material was originally tin tiles but later changed to coloured enamel tiles during the Rattanakosin period. The pyramid-shaped roof can be divided into three tiers. The lowest tier has the largest base and the upper tiers are smaller. Each layer had a replica pediment installed at every angle of each layer. The middle part of the roof has a bell-shaped design with a square cover. The top of the roof had banana flower design, which is similar to a popular decorative pattern found on the top of a prang (stupa). The building is topped with a spire.

There are reasons behind the design of the roof structure. For example, the multi-tiered roof is developed from the original design of a palace which had different floor levels. When Thai architects built these they were not comfortable with building different levels of the floors because this would make people look like they were standing over each other's head, a respectful part of the body in Thai culture. Therefore, they built a single floor and compensated it with a multi-tiered roof.

The bell-shaped designs represented stupas—symbolic containers of Lord Buddha's relics. The idea is related to a throne that epitomises the Lord Buddha when he was not represented in human form. Craftsmen tended to incorporate a throne-shaped form on the stupa in order “to let it be known that the stupa houses the Lord Buddha's relics.” The idea of building a building that resembles a stupa is to demonstrate that kings are the Bodhisattva, an incarnation of the Lord Buddha according to the Mahayana belief.

Finally, the spire, with layers of petal-like decoration, is an attempt of Thai architects to harmoniously blend, a wood structure, with the stone-made Prang. This architectural combination helps accentuate the king as the head of the kingdom. It can be said that the custom and beliefs about the hierarchical status had a significant role in teaching people about social hierarchy and maintaining social order.

Western-Style Palaces and Mansions in Thailand

Bangkok features a surprisingly broad collection of authentic 19th century European architecture. This is apparent in many of royal palaces, princely residences and other mansions built from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries. When these structures first appeared in Thailand during the reign of King Rama IV, Thai architects relied on prints and photographs of European structures. Later, King Rama V and his sons hired many European architects to work for the government, a tradition continued in the Sixth Reign. Members of the royal family who were architects also built Western-style structures. Beyond the buildings constructed or renovated within the Grand Palace compound, each king built secondary palaces around Bangkok and in the provinces, mostly in Western styles. Even more extensive is the collection of royal residences built for the king’s sons who attained the title of prince. Large with impressive designs, these structures serve as a place for the princes to live and perform their assigned duties as government officials. [Wattana Boonjub]

After the end of absolute monarchy during the Seventh Reign, the tradition of building princely residences was discontinued, although new royal palaces have been established. In addition to houses of the aristocrats, many other Western-style mansions were built for wealthy local merchants and foreigners living in Siam.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand, a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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