Art of Asia
The Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand
By Dr. Melody Rod-ari
Grand Palace illuminated at night, Bangkok, Thailand (photo: Preecha.MJ, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Thailand is a country that is famous for many things, including its sophisticated cuisine and serene beaches, but it is also known for its gilded architecture. Perhaps the most widely photographed of these monuments is the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand. The palace, along with Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), once served as private spaces of the nation's kings and for their families. However, today, both are accessible to Thai citizens and foreign tourists who travel to the royal complex to admire its architecture, painted murals, and arguably the most important Buddhist icon in the country, the Emerald Buddha.
Map of Thailand with Bangkok and Ayutthaya (underlying map © Google)
The fall of Ayutthaya, and the rise of Bangkok
From 1350–1767, the capital of Thailand (then ) was in Ayutthaya, located roughly 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Bangkok. In its time, Ayutthaya was an important center for trade and diplomacy, and later periods remembered it as a golden age. Its royal court exchanged ambassadors with those in India, China, Japan, as well as France, England and Italy. The wealth and prestige of the royal court made Ayutthaya a target among those who sought to establish themselves as supreme in the region. The Burmese, in particular, were steadfast in their attacks on Ayutthaya. After two wars with Burma (from 1759–60, and from 1765–67) the Burmese were victorious, and burned down the royal palace and other important monuments at Ayutthaya.
Ayutthaya was abandoned by many political elites who were kidnapped and taken to Burma, or by individuals who sought to establish a new center of power in Siam. One such figure was a military general turned king named , who unified Thailand after the war and built a new capital city, Thonburi (on the opposite side of the Chaopraya River from present-day Bangkok. He was later replaced by who established Bangkok as the capital of Thailand.
Map showing Thonburi Palace and the Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand (underlying map © Google)
After the fall of the Ayutthaya Kingdom (and the capital city of Ayutthaya) to Burmese forces in 1767, and the reunification under Taksin, King Rama I wanted to construct a palace that would recall the splendor of the past, specifically one associated with Ayutthaya, but also to reestablish Thailand as a political and religious power in the region—with himself at the helm. The king established his new capital city in Bangkok, which was largely occupied by the Chinese diaspora who were moved to a section of the city that is now home to the capital’s thriving Chinatown (Yaowarat). The location was chosen because it was undeveloped (according to historical chronicles), but also because it was located along the east bank of Chaophraya River, across from the Thonburi Palace built by his predecessor, King Taksin. This was seen as advantageous for many reasons, including availability of land as well as the added protection of the river, which forced invading troops to cross the Chaophraya before reaching the palace.
Throne Hall of the former Thonburi Palace, now occupied by the Royal Thai Navy, Bangkok, Thailand (photo: Supanut Arunoprayote, CC BY 4.0)
Today, the Thonburi Palace grounds are home to the Royal Thai Navy, but one can see from the former buildings that it was a rather modest royal residence. This was due, in part, to continued political instability that prevented King Taksin from devoting his time to constructing a grand residence (as well as the narrow plot of land on which it sat).  Once King Rama I came to power, he wanted his royal residence to mirror that of the former Grand Palace in Ayutthaya.
Phra Thinang Dusit Maha Prasat, 19th century, Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand (photo: Supanut Arunoprayote, CC BY 4.0)
Construction of the Grand Palace began on May 6, 1782. While many of the current buildings and structures of the royal complex were added later, several original buildings commissioned by King Rama I remain. For example, the Phra Thinang Dusit Maha Prasat, which was used by the king to welcome foreign audiences and preside over important ceremonies. After King Rama I’s death, the structure was used to house the remains of deceased kings or high-ranking members of the royal family during lying-in-state periods. 
It was modeled after the Phra Thinang Suriyamarin in Ayutthaya, which is no longer extant . It is cruciform in design, and the overall structure is topped with a seven-tiered spire called a prasat. The mountain-like form of the prasat is symbolic of Mt. Meru, the mythological home to Buddhist and Hindu deities.
Dusit Maha Prasat roof detail (photo: 2008guangzhou, CC BY-SA 3.0)
The roof is articulated by its three-tiered design, pointing to its royal patronage (non-royal structures have single or double tiered roof lines). Similarly, an image of Phra Narai (Vishnu) seated on Garuda (below) on the pediment points to the structure’s royal patronage. Vishnu has long been associated with ideal kingship in Southeast Asia. The adoption of his image by Thai kings was a mechanism to associate themselves with the characteristics that Vishnu represented such as protection, duty and justice.
Garuda, on the Dusit Maha Prasat (photo: Vvan Smmt)
The structure itself is raised on a high base with convex and concave moldings, which is intended to resemble the foot of a lion and also references the Sakya or lion clan from which the Buddha Shakyamuni is descended.  While there is no state sanctioned religion in Thailand, the king is required by law to be a .
These structures are important to architectural historians because they reflect the designs and motifs used during the Ayutthaya period. Many of the royal buildings of Ayutthaya and their contents were destroyed or damaged during the Second Burmese-Siamese War. What remained was repurposed during the rebuilding of Ayutthaya, but also for the construction of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The decision to reuse building materials from Ayutthaya was both practical and symbolic, as it directly linked Bangkok to the former capital and memories of Thailand’s once glorious past. 
Plan of the Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand
In an effort to recall the golden age of Ayutthaya, not only were the buildings modeled after those of the former capital, but so too was the layout and acreage of the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok. Like the royal palace in Ayutthaya, the Grand Palace in Bangkok sits on fifty-three acres and is divided into four sections with an Outer Court, Central Court, Inner Court, and a royal chapel.  The Outer Court, located in the north section of the complex, was used for administrative offices while the Central Court served as the personal residence of the king.
Temple complex with Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok, Thailand (photo: Preecha.MJ, CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Inner Court located behind the king’s residence served as the private quarters for his wives, consorts and children. Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is located in the eastern section of the complex. Like many other Southeast Asian kingdoms, the royal residence of the king was not only its political center, but also its religious center. For this reason, a royally sponsored religious monument is often found within the precincts of the royal city or palace complex. This can be seen in the ancient city of Angkor Thom in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Like the royal city of Angkor Thom, the Grand Palace is enclosed by walls that delineate the royal space, while protecting its inhabitants.
A palace for the Chakri Kings
The Grand Palace had been the primary residence of the Chakri Kings from the reigns of . After the death of King Rama I, changes to the Grand Palace complex were made by his successors. These changes reflect the needs of each king, his family, and administration, but also evolving aesthetic tastes and technological innovations. For example, under King Rama II the Inner Court was expanded by eight acres to accommodate the growing number of people living in the palace. According to custom, all the kings’ wives and consorts were expected to live their entire lives at court, even after the death of their husbands as they were considered property of the court. This tradition ended in 1932 with the end of the absolute monarchy. Other changes reflect external influences, both political and aesthetic.
Chakri Maha Prasat Hall, 19th century, Bangkok, Thailand (photo: Supanut Arunoprayote, CC BY 4.0)
By the time came to power, all of Thailand’s neighbors had been colonized by various European empires, and to a lesser extent the United States. To appear as “civilized” as these foreign powers, but also in keeping with current fashion and tastes, the king chose to build a new residence in a European style. Construction of the Chakri Maha Prasat Hall began in 1876 and was intended to serve as his residence and assembly space for state functions. It was designed by the Singapore-based British architect John Clunich. The building reflects a hybrid style. On the bottom, the structure is European in its aesthetic. It is decorated with columns topped with Corinthian capitals and utilizes stone, an uncommon material used in traditional Thai residential architecture. Before the 19th century, most homes were built of as this material is abundantly found, but also because it expands and contracts in the humid climate of Southeast Asia allowing for a more pleasant interior environment. When European colonists settled in the region, they preferred their homes to be made of materials they were familiar with such as stone and brick even though it resulted in stuffy, hot interiors. Even so, their homes were seen as sophisticated and worldly, and this trend and preference was adopted by wealthy people of the region.
Boromphiman Palace, 19th century, Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand (photo: Sodacan, CC BY-SA 3.0)
In keeping with a European aesthetic, King Rama V had originally wanted the Chakri Maha Prasat Hall to be topped with a mansard roof like the one found on Boromphiman Throne Hall, which was built for his son and used to house royal visitors. However, members of the court pressed him to utilize the traditional Thai-style tiled peaked roof with gilded spires (prasat). Their reasoning was that as the reception hall of the sovereign, the building should represent Thai architectural design. It can also be argued that having the Thai style roof on top, and the European influenced design on the bottom, the building symbolized the superiority of traditional Thai art and culture over that of the West.
Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, part of the Dusit Palace, Bangkok, Thailand (photo: deror_avi, CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Grand Palace continued to serve as the ceremonial and religious center of the kingdom; however, it lost favor with King Rama V and his successors as their primary residence. This was due, in part, to the overcrowding of buildings and people within the complex, and because the aesthetics and existing structures no longer fit with their contemporary lives. After visiting numerous cities in Europe, including London, Paris, and Madrid, King Rama V was inspired to build a new residential palace, Dusit Palace (not connected to the Grand Palace), set within a garden similar to those he had seen on his trips abroad. Towards the end of his reign, Dusit Palace became the primary residence of the king.
The Grand Palace as tourist destination
By the reign of King Rama VI, the kings of Thailand had moved out of the Grand Palace. This, along with the end of the absolute monarchy, allowed for the Grand Palace complex to be opened to the public as it no longer served as the place of government. Today, the complex has become one of the top tourist destinations in Bangkok. This is because the entire complex commemorates and preserves some of the most important Thai art and architecture since the 18th century. While the Grand Palace does not reflect the lived experience or material culture of commoners, visitors can gain insight into how members of the court lived and their palatial surroundings.
 Kalus Wenk, The Restoration of Thailand Under King Rama I (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1968), p. 17.
 Naengnoi Suksri, The Grand Palace (Bangkok: River Books , 1998), p. 115.
 Suksri, The Grand Palace, p. 116.
 Melody Rod-ari, “Beyond the Ashes: the Birth of Bangkok as a Modern Capital City,” in Political Landscapes of Capitals, eds. J. Christie and J. Bogonovic (University of Colorado Press, 2016), pp. 155–180.
 Naengnoi Suksri, Palaces of Bangkok: Royal Residences of the Chakri Dynasty (Bangkok: Asia books, 1996), p. 37.
Essay by Dr. Melody Rod-ari