11 July 2024

Recently discovered under the ground, several ancient sculptures are now adding to the attractions of the already splendid Grand Palace. They have drawn public attention not just for their looks but also for their charming and interesting historical background.

Upon hearing about the new decorations around the Grand Palace last week, tourists flocked to see the centuries-old stone sculptures. Since then, those visitors have been flooding social media feeds with photos of the fascinating sculptures.

“I went to Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha inside the Grand Palace) and saw about a hundred new ‘stone dolls’ set up all around the temple. I asked the staff and learned that they have been restored by the Fine Arts Department. They are not replicas but they had been buried for hundreds of years,” said academic Arnond Sakworawich on his Facebook page where he posted the photos.

In July 2021, the Royal Household Bureau found more than 130 stone sculptures while road maintenance to improve the traffic route inside the Grand Palace between the Manee Nopparat Gate and the Swasdi Sopha Gate was being undertaken. During the renovation work, many stone sculptures were unearthed.

Following the discovery, His Majesty the King tasked the Fine Arts Department with excavating and restoring the statues to their original state. The restored statues have been recently displayed for domestic and international tourists to admire in the courtyard of the temple.

More than 100 years old, the ancient sculptures depict people of various nationalities as well as mythical creatures. The inscriptions found on some of the carved stone sculptures specify in Chinese that they were made in Guangdong Province, according to the Royal Household Bureau.

“The display of the dolls is however odd in some areas,” mused one observer on Facebook. But Chulapassorn Panomvan na Ayudhya, an expert in Thai culture, said that the Fine Arts Department had done their best to place the sculptures as close to historical evidence as possible. “They looked at available dated photos but it was very challenging to put them back exactly as they were in the past.”

With no official records of the sculptures, theories abound. Some historians believe they may have been imported when the Kingdom of Siam was trading with China in the early Rattanakosin era. Merchants would purchase Chinese stone sculptures to balance the weight on the ships on their return trips. These statues were believed to have been placed in the temple as part of the celebration of Bangkok’s 100th anniversary in 1882.

However, another theory has it that the sculptures were always destined to be decorations. Krairoek Nana, historian, and writer, cited the record in the French newspaper “Illustration” dated October 31, 1891, which published a photo of a number of marble stone sculptures on the ground around the temple of Emerald Buddha. It said that the decoration was put in place to mark Prince Maha Vajirunhis (later King Rama VI) being appointed as the first Crown Prince of the Chakri dynasty during the reign of King Rama V.

There were also records of expenditure for moving of “marble dolls” during the reign of King Rama VII though no one is able to explain why the sculptures were buried underground. The theories are also stirring up public interest in the new attraction as well as in the history of that period. One certainty found in historical photo records is that the number of sculptures decreased through time.

By Veena Thoopkrajae