By The Nation
A recent walking tour took in the architectural wonders that once formed part of the Front Palace
AFTER introducing the magnificent architecture and historical significance of the forgotten Wang Na (The Front Palace) through the digital exhibition “The Architectural Ensemble of Wang Na” at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, Khun Sirikitiya “Mai” Jensen, the youngest daughter of Princess Ubolratana, has opened a new chapter in her project by tracking the real sites that formerly were part of the Front Palace.
Co-organised by lifestyle website the Cloud, the recent walking tour provided broader insights into the palace that was constructed in 1782, about the same time the Grand Palace was built, and which was one of the very first structures to be erected at the start of the Rattanakosin Era. The site encompasses the land now occupied by Thammasat University, the National Museum Bangkok, the National Theatre, the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute and the northern part of Sanam Luang.
The Front Palace served as residences for five viceroys and one second King from 1782 to 1885 (the reigns of Kings Rama I to V). The title “the Front Palace” was replaced by that of Crown Prince following the death of viceroy Vichaichan in 1885. Since then, the palace area has been used in part as the Royal Museum (1893-1926) and the Royal Guards’ Camp (1893-1926) while its outer court was demolished to give more space to Sanam Luang.
“Wang Na is not a dead site like the historic cities of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya but integrates the layers of historical context between the old and the modern. Many buildings have been renovated and changed their functions from time to time. The history of Wang Na was also complicated because after the death of a viceroy, the King might not bestow the new occupant immediately. In some cases, this title was vacant for 10 to 20 years,” said Sirikitiya who is an official at the Office of Architecture, Fine Arts Department.
To recall the past and recreate old feelings but without force-feeding the information, Sirikitiya assimilated and reinterpreted the historical and textual collection based on the Office of Architecture’s project “The Study of the Front Palace (Wang Na): A Digital Revitalisation of the Palace’s Past”. The interactive exhibition, which wrapped last month, used Google maps, 3D models, maps and moving images on double screens to attract the attention of the young generation.
Sirikitiya also partnered with the website The Standard (thestandrad.co) to run a series on different aspects of the Front Palace as a digital handbook for interested persons. The information, rare pictures and old maps gathered for the project will be uploaded to the project’s website (WangNaProject.space) and will be open for consultation next month. The complete, full-scale version of the project will also be displayed at Issaravinitchai Throne Hall of the National Museum Bangkok in December.
For the walking tour, Sirikitiya was joined by noted art historian Santi Leksukhum, Fine Arts Department’s landscape architect Pornthum Thumwimol and Chulalongkorn University’s architecture lecturer Pirasri Povatong to provide different dimensions of the palace to the 70 participants. The pilot route covering Thammasat University, the National Museum Bangkok and the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute is easy to follow and should become popular with history buffs.
The trip started at Thammasat University’s Tha Phra Chan campus, once part of the palace’s inner zone. At the riverside canteen of the Economics Faculty, visitors can still see the ruins of the base of the city walls built in the reign of King Rama I and which were unearthed in 1997.
“The city walls were made of bricks transported from the dismantled Ayutthaya Kingdom. They measured 5.40-metres wide and 2.5-metres high and stretched along the Chao Phrya River. As suggested by its title, Wang Na was situated at the north of the Grand Palace, opposite the mouth of Bangkok Noi Canal and near the city moat. Due to the strategic location, it served as a protector because Burmese invaders usually came from the north,” Pornthum explained. “Wang Na and the Grand Palace were almost equal in size.”
The university’s iconic building the Dome was constructed by connecting two military buildings built in the reign of King Rama VI when this area of the Front Palace was turned into the Royal Guards’ Camp. The wall of the university along Phra Chan Road is the only remaining section of the Front Palace’s wall.
The northern part of Sanam Luang, opposite the university’s auditorium, was formerly part of the Front Palace and it used to house the Phlup Phla Soong (High Pavilion), which King Rama IV ordered to be built in honour of his younger brother King Pinklao, who was dubbed the second King of Siam, so he could observe and inspect military training.
A rare photo of the Phlup Phla Soong was found a few years ago and the Fine Arts Department’s architects translated its structure to a digital format to reveal all its aspects.
National Museum Bangkok
The surviving structures of the Front Palace that can still be seen today are mainly located within the site of the National Museum Bangkok, next to Thammasat University. The Buddhaisawan Throne Hall built in 1787 is the most significant building, as it enshrined the scared Phra Buddha Sihing brought from Chiang Mai by Krom Phra Rajawang Bovorn Maha Surasinghanat, the first viceroy of Siam.
“The mural in the Buddhaisawan Throne Hall was also a rare gem, evoking the exquisite skills of the artisans in the reigns of Kings Rama I and III,” noted art historian Santi. “The upper parts of the murals depict the gathering of deities while the bottom features the Lord Buddha’s life. The murals painted by artists of King Rama I were created in light hues while the parts created by the artisans of King Rama III were truly delicate in dark palettes of green and reddish-orange.”
In front of the Buddhaisawan Throne Hall was the former Kotchakam Pawet Pavilion, which was similar in style to Aphorn Phimok Prasat in the Grand Palace. The prasat-style (tier-spire roof) buildings and the exquisite decoration with gold and glass mosaic were traditionally reserved only for the monarchy and the Kotchakam Pawet Pavilion was the only building in the Front Palace to be built with a prasat-style roof.
King Rama IV constructed this building for his brother King Pinklao as a symbol of equal honour to himself. The wooden pavilion fell into disrepair over the years and all that remains today is the concrete platform once used to climb on elephant back.
The museum’s compound also houses the two-storey, Western-style Issaresrajanusorn Throne Hall – the residence of King Pinklao. The building has a gable decorated with King Pinklao’s royal emblem – a hairpin surrounded by leaf motifs. The ground floor served as the dwelling place of his servants while the upper floor was sectioned into five rooms for his living quarters –dining, reception, dressing, bedroom and library.
Like Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Budha) in the Grand Palace, Wat Bovornsatharnsuthavart – also known as Wat Phra Kaew of Wang Na – has no resident monks nor living quarters. There is only an ubosot-style building (ordination hall) that was built by Krom Phra Rajawang Bovorn Maha Sakdipolsep, the viceroy of King Rama III, but he died in 1832 before its completion. Nearly 20 years later in the reign of King Rama IV, the second monarch King Pinklao had the temple restored.
“This hall was built on the higher land of Wang Na – a strategic location overlooking the Chao Phraya River. The structural plan was done in a cross pattern that I have never seen in any ubosot built during the reigns of King Rama I to Rama IV. While most Thai temples mark out sacred ground for the boundary of the ubosot with eight small sema stones, Wat Phra Kaew of Wang Na has none. I can only assume that this building was not built as an ubosot,” Santi told participants.
Oral history would indicate that Krom Phra Rajawang Bovorn Maha Sakdipolsep intended to construct this building with a prasat-style roof but was warned against it by King Rama III, who said it would be inappropriate.
“Take a look at the roof structure, you can see that it was designed to support the prasat-style roof,” Santi continued.
“In the reign of King Rama V, this building was used as Phra Meru Bhimarn (the Royal Crematorium) for Prince Maha Vajirunhis, Siam’s first Crown Prince, rather than building a temporary crematorium that would later be taken apart,” added Pirasri.
The hall’s main standing Buddha image was built by the viceroy of King Rama III. The murals depicting the legend of Phra Buddha Sihing are still in fine condition and show off the characteristic styles of artisans in the fourth reign. King Pinklao wished to relocate Phra Buddha Sihing from the Buddhaisawan Throne Hall to here but passed away before he could do this.
“The painting style was inspired by the Western technique of perspective to create an illusion of space and distance on a two-dimensional surface by playing with the dark and light palettes. To depict the legend of Phra Buddha Sihing that was assumed to have been built in Sri Lanka, the artisans used landscape images of foreign countries as the basis for the painting of the Western-style buildings.”