How did the Garuda become Thailand’s national and royal emblem?

The national emblem of Thailand is referred to in Thai as “ตราแผ่นดินของไทย” (trā p̣hæ̀n din k̄ĥxng thai) and “พระครุฑพ่าห์” (Phra Khrut Pha), which translates to “Garuda as the vehicle” of Vishnu. The emblem features the Garuda, a mythical bird-like creature that serves as the mount (vahana) of the Hindu god Vishnu.

This symbol is deeply significant in Thai culture and history, representing authority and the Thai monarchy’s divine right to rule. But how did this powerful mythical creature get to be adopted as the national emblem of Thailand.

In the article below, World History Edu details the history and major facts about the national emblem of Thailand.

The Garuda has been used as a royal symbol by Thai kings for centuries and is a key figure in both Hindu and Buddhist mythologies, symbolizing the king’s power and the protection of the nation. Image: The national emblem of Thailand.

Introduction as a Symbol

Thai royalty has long intertwined with Hindu traditions, historically recruiting Brahmins from India and integrating Hindu rituals into court practices. A key element of this cultural fusion is the Garuda, a mythical bird and mount of the Hindu god Vishnu.

The Garuda was formally adopted as a royal and national emblem by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) during his reign from 1910 to 1925. Vajiravudh aimed to strengthen the sense of national identity and royal authority in the face of modern challenges and Western influences. By choosing the Garuda, a powerful and sacred symbol familiar to the Thai people through religious and cultural contexts, he reinforced the monarchy’s historical and spiritual legitimacy.

The Garuda was officially adopted as a royal emblem by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) in the early 20th century. However, the use of Garuda in association with the monarchy dates back several centuries, evolving through different dynasties. Image: A portrait of Vajiravudh during his coronation.

Royal Significance

The emblem underscores the sacred nature of the Thai monarchy, linking the king with divine powers. The Garuda’s depiction in the emblem is that of a powerful figure, with wings spread and a commanding presence, reflecting the authority of the king.

Thai Kings as incarnations of Narayana

Ancient Thai kings viewed themselves as incarnations of the god Narayana, embodying divine kingship. This belief made the Garuda, Narayana’s mythical vehicle, a symbol of the king’s divine power and authority, reinforcing the monarchy’s sacred status in Thai culture.

Legal and State Functions

The Garuda emblem is extensively used in official documents, state seals, and government buildings, symbolizing official endorsements by the monarchy.

Artistic Depictions

The Garuda has been a popular figure in Thai art, appearing in various forms in temples, palaces, and other significant cultural sites across Thailand.

Religious Significance

Although primarily associated with Hinduism, the Garuda also holds significance in Buddhism, which is the predominant religion in Thailand. It represents protection, making it a common protective symbol in Thai culture.

The Garuda, a mythical bird-like creature from Hindu and Buddhist mythology, is known as the vehicle of Lord Vishnu. Image: A depiction of  Vishnu (center), with his various avatars around him. 

Did you know…?

  • Initially, there was no standardized posture for the Garuda; however, King Rama VI chose the ‘dancing Garuda’ posture, known as Khrut Ram, which features prominently displayed and elevated wings. Despite this, no specific design has been legally mandated, resulting in a variety of representations across different government departments.
  • The Garuda is not only Thailand’s national symbol but also features in Indonesia’s national emblem and the emblem of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, symbolizing power and national identity in these regions.

Modern Usage

The emblem is a key component of Thailand’s national identity, instilling pride and unity among the Thai people.

It also appears on the passports of Thai citizens, emphasizing its role in the international representation of Thailand.

FAQs

How is the Garuda known in Thailand?

Known locally as Phra Khrut Pha (“Garuda, the vehicle of Vishnu”).

What does the Garuda represent in Thailand?

This symbol represents royal authority and is prominently featured on Thai banknotes and government seals.

The national emblem of Thailand, known as Phra Khrut Pha (“Garuda as the vehicle” of Vishnu), was adopted in 1911 by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI).  It is a symbol of Thai royal authority and a longstanding icon of the Thai people. Image: Thai royal barge, featuring the Garuda on its masthead.

Which Thai monarch began using the Garuda?

Initially, royal seals were used until 1873 when King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) introduced a European-inspired coat of arms. However, this did not completely replace the traditional seals, and by 1890, it was decreed that older seals, like the Khrut Pha, would remain in use.

In 1893, dissatisfaction with the European style led to a redesign by Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs, briefly featuring the god Narayana (i.e. Vishnu) on Garuda. Still dissatisfied, the King soon mandated a new design depicting only the Garuda, reaffirming its symbolic significance in Thai heritage.

What was King Rama VI’s role in making the Garuda a national symbol?

In 1910, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) made a significant change in the royal symbols of Thailand by discarding the previously used coat of arms in favor of adopting the Garuda, a mythological bird, as the primary royal emblem.

Rama VI commissioned Phra Dhevabhinimit, a renowned artist of that time, to design a new seal. This design was based on an existing drawing by Prince Naris, but included an important modification: the addition of an encircling band featuring the King’s ceremonial name on the outer edge of the seal. This was a move to embed the monarchy’s identity more personally and prominently into the state emblem.

When did the Garuda become the official seal of Thailand?

A year after King Rama VI’s modifications, in 1911, the Act on the Seals of State was enacted, which formally established this Garuda seal, named Phra Khrut Pha, as the principal state seal. This act stipulated that the seal was to be used to authenticate the King’s signature on all significant deeds and documents, cementing its status as the country’s official emblem.

How did the Garuda seal fare after Rama VI?

The tradition of using the Garuda seal continued under subsequent monarchs. For example, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) adapted the seal by replacing King Vajiravudh’s name with his own on the encircling band.

King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII), who was never crowned and thus did not have a regnal name, did not have a personal seal carved and instead used the seals from his grandfather, King Rama V’s reign.

The seal for King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) was created in 1946, shortly after his coronation, demonstrating the ongoing importance and continuity of this emblem in Thailand’s royal and national identity.

In 1996, Thailand launched the royal barge Narai Song Suban, which features a depiction of Narayana, a Hindu god, riding on the back of the Garuda at its bow, symbolizing divine protection and royalty.

It must be noted that the Garuda is deeply ingrained in Thai symbolism as the official emblem of the Royal Thai Government. It is prominently displayed on almost all government documents.

This emblem not only marks government paperwork but also symbolizes the king’s role as the earthly representation of the Hindu god Narayana, with the government serving as his instrumental vehicle.

Furthermore, the Garuda emblem extends beyond paperwork, symbolizing state authority and property. It is prominently featured on government buildings, title deeds, and boundary markers, as well as in the uniforms of the Royal Thai Police and Royal Thai Armed Forces, thereby reinforcing its role as a symbol of national sovereignty and the protective presence of the monarchy across various facets of public life.

The Garuda appears on seals used by the King and the Thai government to authenticate official documents and symbolizes the nation. One of several versions of the Thai Government’s official seals.

What is the penalty for misrepresenting the Garuda in Thailand?

In 1911, King Rama VI first legislated the use of the Garuda emblem by the Thai government, formalizing its role as a symbol of national authority. This regulation was further reinforced in 1991 with the Act on the Garuda Emblem, which included penalties for misuse or misrepresentation, potentially leading to a year in prison, a fine between three to six thousand Baht, or both.

In 2001, the Office of the Prime Minister issued guidelines emphasizing that the Garuda should be treated with reverence due to its sacred status.

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