Sensational Sentinels of Bangkok’s Grand Palace

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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. 

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These fierce-looking, fanged giants are yaksas. They certainly look menacing, but usually they’re friendly and stand guard to protect precious things

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

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Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

37 thoughts

    1. I agree Jo, and to your observation I would add devotion to the art. There’s obviously a community of artists in Thailand that have practiced their craft for decades. ~James

    1. Thanks Darlene. When I visit places like the Grand Palace I’m happy to be taking digital photos instead of the outdated film format. Given the colors, fantastic detail, and limitless compositions all I have to worry about is room on the camera’s memory card. It really is a fun place to take photos. ~James

  1. Be-dazzling. Glorious. Eye-catching. I can never get enough of these statues when I pass through Bangkok. Reminds me also of the vast pantheon of Balinese Hindu deities – even if the latter are carved from stone. Glad to learn more details about these sentinels!

    1. Amit, like you I’m a big fan of Hindu art as well. But the complex art on Hindu temples is another place where knowing a bit of the backstory helps to appreciate the details. I love the old stone carvings in Bali, but the modern temples with their vivid colors and dramatic themes are also fun and a feast for the eyes. I remember one in Singapore that is particularly wonderful. ~James

  2. I’ve developed a special interest in kinnara and kinnari since the first time I noticed the relief panels depicting them at Prambanan temple in Java many years ago. So when I went to Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok’s Grand Palace complex, I was pleasantly surprised to see the same celestial beings from the Hindu/Buddhist mythology but in a different style.

    1. Bama, I’m envious of your having seen enough kinnari to be able to make comparisons in style. I guess there’s the mythology which sets the guidelines, and then the artists have a certain latitude to interpret for their own artistic preferences. I’m certainly no expert but in Christianity, Renaissance artists painted lots of different versions of angels that were all basically the same idea, which may be similar to the kinnari/kinnara. ~James

  3. The Grand Palace is quite an amazing place. My favourite was the Yaksas. I didn’t realize the kinnara was part swan, I think I thought chicken like you 🙂 Maggie

    1. Maggie, as you may have seen in Bama’s comment above, there are all sorts of variations in style, so I guess the proportions/animal content can change based on the artists preferences. At least that’s how I interpret it. As for the Yaksas, their intricate detail, amazing variety of color, and size made them one of my favorites as well. ~James

    1. Leslie, we’ve spent a fair amount of time in SE Asia, and we never take our time there for granted. Some of the larger cities are frantic and “in your face,” but the cultural diversity and exposure to new ideas and lifestyles makes the hassles worth the effort. And I can say that even after contracting dengue fever there. 🙂 ~James

    1. Rebecca, when you fly to SE Asia there’s a good chance you’ll fly into Bangkok. When you do, I encourage you to take a few days to explore the city. It’s jam-packed with people, but there’s nowhere like it. And in addition to all the cultural reasons, it has some of the best street food in the world. ~James

  4. The details & colours are absolutely exquisite! What an incredible experience to have seen them & understand their meanings.

    1. Lynn, the art and architecture at the Grand Palace was fantastic, but because it’s a sacred religious site watching and experiencing the local family visitors as well as pilgrims make it a full-on Thai and Buddhist immersion. ~James

    1. Carol, Thai Buddhists believe in color which makes for incredibly photogenic buildings and art. These photos are just a drop in the bucket for the Grand Palace. ~James

    1. Anabel, I’m sure that the Grand Palace is about the same, and it certainly isn’t necessary to know about the symbolism, but it does add a bit of interest. ~James

      1. I’m pretty sure that looking fierce was an important aspect of it. I’ve always found Kali with her neckless of skulls a bit more worrisome. 🙂

  5. So glad you wrote about these Thai guys — and put the real names beside them for people like me who admired the workmanship but really didn’t know why they were there. Our guide told us, but you made it more real. What I loved about them were those faces and all those jewels. Who wouldn’t want fancy guards like these?

    1. Rusha, as you know, there really isn’t anyplace like the Grand Palace. We saw temples and sculptures around SE Asia, but nowhere did we see the concentration like the GP.

      When we visit a site like the Palace we do a bit of reading in advance so we have an appreciation for what we’re seeing, and then after the visit we focus on researching the things that interested us. All the Buddhas, and temples were wonderful, but the sculptures and statues are what really grabbed our attention. ~James

  6. I appreciate the close ups and explanations James. I admit I found the place quite overwhelming. Beautiful and yet without understanding the significance of it all, perhaps a bit too much to appreciate?

    1. Sue, there’s so much to see there that it would be impossible to know what it all means. I remember seeing a queue of Thai visitors lined up to put tiny sheets of gold leaf on a 3 ft tall statue of Buddha. I couldn’t imagine what it was about, and the Buddha was quite a sight with all those layers of gold. And what could that have been? I’ll never know, but it was cool to see. ~James

    1. Alison, in our travels in SE Asia we didn’t see anything even approaching the Grand Palace for the number of temples and sculptures. It truly is a one of a kind, and every visitor to Thailand should see it. ~James

    1. Laura, a talented photographer like you would go crazy at the Grand Palace. It addition to the statues, the temples are brilliantly colorful and very photogenic. We saw nothing like it in SE Asia, or anywhere else for that matter. ~James

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