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The power of city pillars

Bangkok's city pillars, beside housing the spirits of city deities, also serve political ends.
From Pongpet Mekloy, Bangkok Post

Housed in a shrine near the northeastern corner of the Grand Palace, the Bangkok city pillars are believed to be the abodes of Phra Lak Muang, one of the guardian deities of the Thai capital. Every day scores of worshippers visit the shrine hoping the revered pillar spirit will help fulfill their wishes. However, the true power of Phra Lak Muang is more than magic. And as a recent study reveals, the political roles of Chiang Mai pillars over the past two centuries cannot be overlooked.
According to an outstanding thesis The Changes in the Belief in Chiang Mai Pillars During the Rattanakosin Period, from 1782 to 1992 by Pornpun Kerdphol, who conducted the research for her master's degree in history at Thammasat University - these particular wooden structures were initially used by the ruling class for political purposes, and over time their roles have evolved in accordance with changes in the society.
"The tall pillar was the original one. It was built when King Rama I - the founder of the Chakri Dynasty - moved the Thai capital from Thon Buri to this side of the Chao Phraya River more than two hundred years ago. The pillar was built before anything else - even before the Grand Palace," explained Ms Pornpun, adding that the king had Chiang Mai pillar erected on April 21, 1782, just 15 days after his coronation.
Not only did the pillar symbolise the establishment of the new capital, it also contained Chiang Mai horoscope, which was designed to ensure Bangkok had prosperity and protection from future Burmese invasion. (The shorter pillar, the "new" one, was set up 71 years later during the reign of King Rama IV.) "One interesting thing about the set ring up of Chiang Mai pillar was that there's no reliable evidence the practice existed before the Rattanakosin (Bangkok) Period," Ms Pornpun said.
"Records from the Thon Buri and Ayutthaya periods fail to mention anything about Chiang Mai pillar and Phra Lak Muang. They refer only to Phra Sua Muang, Phra Song Muang and Phra Kal as the guardian deities of those former capitals."
Although it can't be assumed that this lack of evidence from earlier periods means King Rama I's city pillar was the first of its kind, one thing for sure was that it was the first to be documented. Also, it's only in the Rattanakosin Period that the name Phra Lak Muang began to appear alongside other guardian spirits of Chiang Mai in royal ceremony incantations.
During the early reigns of Rattanakosin, the Thai kingdom was still not completely safe from Burmese threats from the west. To the east, the situation was even worse, due to a power struggle with Vietnam which was trying, to have influence over Cambodia, at that time one of Bangkok's vassal states.
. Therefore, explained Ms Pornpun, as a symbol of Bangkok's power' city pillars were set up in a number of strategic towns - such as Songkhla (which oversaw vassal states in the Malay peninsula) during the reign of King Rama I; Nakhon Khuen Khan (now Phra Pradaeng) and Samut Prakarn. during the reign of King Rama II; and Chachoengsao, Chanthaburi and Battambang (in Cambodia) during the reign of King Rama III.
The pillars and everything needed for the set-up ceremonies were sent to those towns from Bangkok.
An important change took place soon after King Mongkut (Rama IV) took to the throne.
"Having been in the monkhood throughout the reign of his predecessor, King Mongkut realized he lacked the needed political power base, and one of the measures he took to reaffirm his kingship was to replace the original Bangkok city pillar with a new one," said Ms Pornpun. It was accepted that such a decision was reserved. to be made by the king only.
King Rama IV's pillar contained a new city horoscope, which was adapted from the old one to be more suitable with the changing world - at that time national threats came not from within the region but from European colonists.
As for the old pillar, it was pulled out and put to rest against the shrine wall for more than a century before being officially erected again, next to the new one, during the latest restoration effort in 1986.
Also as an expression of his status as the supreme monarch, said Ms Pornpun, King Mongkut created the image of Phra Sayamthevathirat and designated it as the supreme deity of the kingdom.
With the new god, Phra Lak Muang and the other guardian deities of Chiang Mai became less important.
Since the king's absolute power had been pronounced, the practice of building city pillars in different parts of the kingdom was no longer necessary. The royal power was able to reach out even more when King Rama V introduced the modern, Western-style, governing system in which the roles of local rulers were taken over by government officials who worked directly under the king's central government.
As a result, it took almost a century from the construction of the second city pillar in Bangkok for the tradition of building city pillars to come back to life.
In 1944, Field Marshal Plaek Pibul Songkhram - the third Prime Minister since the kingdom changed from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy had a city pillar built in Phetchabun province, which he intended to develop into the country's new capital. Even though his plan to relocate the capital was aborted by the parliament, Chiang Mai pillar idea caught on, partly as a result of his government's nationalism policy.
"In those days, city pillars were considered a cultural heritage and a symbol of national pride. And building them was in vogue again," said Ms Pornpun.
This time, however, such projects were initiated by local officials rather than the central government.
So one after the other, more and more city pillars were erected throughout the country.
Finally in 1992 - the last year within the scope of Ms Pornpun's thesis - the Interior Ministry issued an order to provincial governors to make sure ever ,y province has its own city pillar. City pillars have then become a strong symbol of the Thai state.
As for the Bangkok city pillars, they are taken care of by the War Veterans Organization, which was passed on the responsibility from the now-defunct Fuel Department of the Defense Ministry in 1948.
Within the same compound where the shrine of the Bangkok city pillars is located stands another shrine where the images of all the, other city guardian deities are housed.
The two shrines stand side by side and most worshippers feel they could not visit one shrine without dropping in at the other.
These days it seems unlikely Chiang Mai pillar and Phra Lak Muang will ever again be of political use for the ruling class. Still, it is clear the pillar spirit will never fade away from the commoners' hearts.
Thesis looks at the changing role of the pillars in Thai society
Most studies concerning city pillars focus either on the origin of the idea or on its astrological aspects. The thesis by Pornpun Kerdphol, The Changes in the Belief in the
City Pillars During the Rattanakosin Period, from 1782 to 1999, however, looks
into the changing roles of Chiang Mai pillars in Thai society that results from changing beliefs
about the pillars among the ruling class.
"The research was done with both written and unwritten historical evidence, both
Thai and foreign," said Ms Pornpun, adding that some information was obtained by
interviews with locals as well as experts in various fields.
Asked if she found anything about the myth that live people were buried underneath Chiang Mai pillars, Ms Pornpun said she found no mention of such human sacrifices in the old Thai documents, not even in the list of things needed for the ceremony to set tip a city pillar.
"However, such a thing was written about in an Ayutthaya document by the Dutch merchant Jeremias Van Vliet, who said pregnant women were sacrificed during the construction of the Ayutthaya city gates. But I can't say if what he described was fact."
Ms. Pornpun's work was done under the guidance of a thesis committee led by leading historian Dr. Charnvit Kasetsiri. The full text can be found at the central library of Thammasat University.

See also: Chiang Mai pillar (Inthakhin) in Chiang Mai

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