Published in The Big Chilli
It sounded such a tranquil place. A Thai temple, at the end of a quiet, sleepy lane, portraying the beauty of Nirvana. It all started so well, too. Plaster-cast statues show the Buddha meditating, teaching his disciples and then finally attaining enlightenment. A perfect example of what can happen if you lead a righteous life.
Immediately after this stands a pair of horrific 30-ft figures, eyes bulging, ribs protruding and tongues stretched impossibly down to their waists. Down by their feet, people are being dipped into a pot of boiling water. A perfect example of what can happen if you screw up. The wonderfully-named ‘Palace of Happiness’ (Wang Saen Suk) in the seaside resort of Bangsaen is a graphic collection of images that depicts heaven and hell.
Demons prod and poke at sinners with spears. Crimson blood oozes from gaping wounds. Human faces grotesquely distorted and distended look mournfully towards you. The concept of hell isn’t a common one in Buddhism, but it seems every culture has its own version. In 1324 Dante wrote his Divine Comedy, featuring souls frozen for eternity, bodies being rent apart by demons and deserts of burning sand. Compared to this Thai version, Dante’s Inferno looks like a picnic.
Dante hyped up hell with the famous warning ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’. In Bangsaen things are deceptively cheery; ‘Welcome to hell!’ a sign says at the entrance. Beyond the empty, dusty courtyard stand a few figures that represent the life of the Buddha. Usually these are painted on the walls of the main temple, but here they are life-size statues showing him discovering the Four Noble Truths, delivering his first sermon and finally attaining Enlightenment.
This is all quite tranquil, reflective stuff. But for every Yin there is a Yang, and the alternative vision of the underworld begins at the seat of the Death King Phya Yom. It is said that once you die hell’s keepers will judge your actions. All your virtues are written down on gold plate while your sins are noted on dog skin. If the good outweighs the bad you’re in luck and you’re off to heaven. If you’ve sinned, then it’s a one-way trip down to hell.
At the Palace of Happiness, as in Dante’s vision, the punishment broadly fits the crime. Women guilty of abortion are eternally stabbed in the womb. Those who drank to excess are forced to dine on a foul-looking concoction. Surrounding a pot filled with burning souls are human figures with snake, bird and monkey heads, depending on what sins they committed. Nearer the pot, a man is being sawn in half while crows peck at a woman’s entrails. If Buddhism has a fire and brimstone aspect, then this is it.
Farther down the path, a man and woman are chased up a tree by a snapping pack of Hades’ hounds – the consequences of not doing enough good deeds. It may sound similar to the Christian concept of hell, but the Thai version, called narok, has some differences. Firstly, you aren’t sent there after you die; you’re born there due to sins in a former life. Secondly, residents of narok aren’t there for eternity, but they won’t be going anywhere for several millennia. There is no need to abandon all hope though, as even if you end up in the deepest pit there is still a chance to be reborn.
The temple was opened in 1986 and is one of Thailand’s more macabre sites. There are also more traditional scenes from Nirvana, as well as an interesting section that brings Thai idioms to life, but when it comes to grabbing your attention, both come some way behind the lines of tortured souls.