The world clearly cannot get enough of the ‘game of thrones’. For those interested in such pastimes, the first weekend of May was a revelation. Be it the scores of loyalists who speculated about who the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms would be, or an entire country that joined in the celebrations accompanying the coronation of King Vajiralongkorn of Thailand, it was apparent for many that the ‘throne’ was back as the centrepiece of a good part of the world.
Landing in Thailand, it was easy to believe that the throne had always been the centre of that universe. “Two weeks! You are here exactly two weeks after the King’s coronation,” the taxi driver said, by way of welcome. He pointed out to the banners, posters, shrines lined with white and yellow ribbons and flowers, centred around the picture of a youngish King Vajiralongkorn in full military regalia (he’s the head of the Thai Armed Forces) and a stern visage.
In a coronation ceremony between May 4 and 6, the King transformed into ‘Devaraja’, an embodiment of the gods, the driver explained as he burnt rubber on the highway on a hot summer day. “He is the protector of Buddhism too, you know?” he added in practised tones.
On the King’s sudden marriage to Queen Suthida a few days before the coronation though, he foxed us by responding with just shy laughter.
While Thailand as a constitutional monarchy ensures that the King’s powers are not absolute, and endows him with largely symbolic and ceremonial stature, he does have considerable influence. The reverence of the people of Thailand and their reluctance to engage in a well-rounded conversation about their royalty makes sense when we figure out that the lèse-majesté law is in force in the country, making it a crime for citizens to criticise the King or the royal family.
“Oh, we all love our King,” deflected our tour guide in Bangkok. Oi, as she preferred to be called, had just given us an elaborate account of the royal family’s history, ending with: “We are a parliamentary democracy now.” She was dressed in a yellow tee and explained how yellow, a colour associated with the royalty, was fixed as Thailand’s colour for Monday — the country has a colour for every day of the week — because the present King and his predecessor were both born on Mondays. There was an extraordinary amount of yellow on the streets — ribbons adorning government buildings, schools, even malls; hoardings congratulating King Rama X (the title); and a lot of people dressed in yellow.
Even a fortnight after the coronation, people on the streets were still wearing yellow ‘Long live the King’ tees. Magazines devoted pages to the King, his life, and the coronation, all in the Thai language but easily distinguishable by the abiding image for us during this visit — that of the King standing tall — to a country full of beaches, Buddhist temples, and beautiful trans-women.
Ms. Oi said people watched the royal procession as it solemnly marched the streets, waving cheerily at the lines. Clearly, the Thais’ connect with their royalty is organic.
So it is across the oceans. Among European nations that have some form of monarchy left, it is Britain where a coronation is still considered huge. Of course, it hasn’t seen a coronation since the ascension of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne of seven countries in 1952, but England, circa 2002, was agog celebrating the golden jubilee of this event.
Britain’s royal present
Yes, television shows debated about the relevance of the monarchy; newspapers devoted reams to wondering if money spent on the royalty was justified and yet you had to jostle with reverent, and not-so-reverent people to get into classical music and rock concerts, flower shows, special exhibitions, and to get your hands on shiny, new souvenirs that were minted to celebrate this triumph of Elizabeth Regina II.
Another event of import happened during the same weekend as the Thai King’s coronation — England went into a tizzy about the birth of a royal baby, the seventh in the line of succession to the throne. No one can deny that Archie, first born of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, got a hero’s welcome.
In these modern times, who would have thought that the ‘game of thrones’ would continue to have us thus transfixed.
(Ramya Kannan works for The Hindu and was in Thailand.)