When photographers dream, they have visions of flamboyant colors, fascinating subjects, and photogenic locations. They long to be transported to a land of no bad photographs … like the Grand Palace in Bangkok: Thailand’s most famous fairytale land of mythical creatures, golden statues, and whimsical temples.
When you’re an absolute monarch, as the king of Thailand was in the 18th Century, you’re surrounded by nothing but the crème de la crème: the grandest home, the best art, and the finest architecture in every direction.
Built in 1782, the Grand Palace was the residence for the king and his royal court, and until 1925 it was also the administrative seat of government. And even though it’s no longer the official royal residence, it’s the most famous landmark in Bangkok, and remains the spiritual heart of the Thai Kingdom.
Beliefs vary from country to country, but Buddhism as practiced in Thailand has borrowed elements from Hinduism, Animism, as well as other folk religions. Spirits of nature, both good and evil, are a common belief hence the need for mythical creatures standing guard for protection as well as requiring recognition and appeasement.
The Grand Palace is a pilgrimage site for Thai Buddhists who understand what all these colorful, gold-clad creatures represent. But for most tourists, they’re rarely more than exquisite local art at its finest.
These fierce-looking, fanged giants are yaksas. They certainly look menacing, but usually they’re friendly and stand guard to protect precious things
These multi-headed serpents are called nagas, and one of their roles is as protector of the Buddha, which explains their position on stairways leading to the temple. They’re also common around windows and doors to ward off evil spirits.
Standing in a position of importance next to the nagas, is a elegant hybrid creature called kinnari. This golden beauty is part human, part celestial swan which symbolizes femininity, grace, and high accomplishment in singing and dancing.
Close by is a kinnara, the male form of the hybrid. I believe the swan part, but honestly this guy looks more half-chicken, and given his corner location I wonder where he fits in the pecking order.
Like most belief systems, Buddhist symbolism is complex and hard for most westerners – me included – to grasp. So the eye-catching sentinels scattered around the Grand Palace become an entertaining diversion. But with a bit of the backstory, they can also be appreciated for their social and religious significance to help visitors understand a bit more of the culture, which after all, is why we came.
James & Terri