Theres nothing subtle about the Wang Saen Suk Monastery garden, 90 minutes drive south of Bangkok, apart from its location, hidden down a quiet lane not far from the coastal resort of Bang Saen. At the entrance, a brightly coloured sign proclaims Welcome To Hell, while beyond lies a garish, in-your-face morality tale of sawn torsos, boiling vats and devilish figures tormenting worldly sinners.
The Wat (temple) Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden is a sort of unsavoury Buddhist theme park with a message. Judgement is black and white; punishments are swift, painful and gory.
The centerpiece of the garden is a pair of giant Earthly sinners; an emaciated male with protruding ribs and long drooping tongue, and a frightful looking female with ugly sagging breasts and a swollen belly.
Its not clear what their sins were, but an adjacent sign suggests: if you meet the Devil in this life dont postpone merit-making which will help you to defeat him in the next life. Donate a little each day and youll have a happy life. I only hoped my 20 baht would do the trick.
Around the giant sinners stand a further 21 life-size sinners, whose heads have been turned into various animals according to their misdeeds. Thieves are transformed into monkeys; the dishonest into toads; the corrupt into pigs.
Many ideas are familiar enough to visitors with non-Buddhist backgrounds, although there are some specifically Asian references. Those who steal others cooked rice, for instance, are transformed into cartoon-like birds. Some transformations, however, are simply a mystery to me. Why should arsonists be turned into snakes? Or hooligans into crocodiles?
Thailand is the travel hub of Southeast Asia. Most people coming into the region fly into Bangkok and make that their base for doing the circuit around the region. With its lush jungles, famed beaches, world-class diving, amazing food, and cheap prices.
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Ecology or environmentalism figure high on the monks list of priorities. Those who destroy plants or herbs useful to humans are turned into goats which, unfortunately, probably makes them even more efficient at destroying vegetation. Those who steal aquatic animals become fishes. While, for some unspecified reason, ones who destroy the wilderness appear twice, once being transformed into elephants, later on into deer.
The young Thai brothers were having a good laugh at the comical transformations, some of which looked like second-rate sci-fi movie characters beamed down to help save the Earth from the Devil himself. Their laughter, however, turned to cries of horror as they moved on to the first of a series of lurid scenes representing the five Buddhist precepts supposed to be followed by lay people, an equivalent of Christianitys Ten Commandments.
Humans who violate the first principle thou shall not kill are shown having their innards ripped out by birds, being speared to death by devilish-looking rogues, and as humans with pig faces being hacked to death with machetes. And the horror continues, with warnings of just what awaits those who cheat, steal, commit adultery, or get hooked on gambling, drugs or alcohol.
The sculptures, a form of popular folk art, are comparable to mediæval morality paintings in the Western tradition: a larger than life, three-dimensional equivalent, perhaps, of Hieronymous Boschs terrifying visions of hell. Bosch was preoccupied with sin and eternal damnation, notably in paintings such as The Seven Deadly Sins or The Garden of Earthly Delights, the latter painted around 150510 and depicting a nightmare vision of the origin and punishment of sin.
In a similar vein, the Wat Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden represents a Buddhist iconography of hell and the underworld. Its apparently no place for liberalism: while one image depicts a specific penalty for a woman who kills her husband, there is no equivalent for a man who kills his wife. Another particularly gruesome sculpture shows a woman being squeezed in a giant vice for practising birth control or having had an abortion.
Most images, however, are more typical portrayals of sin, salvation and judgement. In one scene, a surprisingly young couple, held in chains by one of Buddhas disciples, kneel before the death king, Phya Yom. Their hands are held together in prayer, or pleading, while Phya Yom decides their fate.
These colossal figures were named as ghosts. The male was ‘Nai Ngean-Nai Ngean’, guilty in life of vice and disorderly conduct. The female ghost – ‘Nang Thong-Nang Thong’ – had made mistakes of “sexual intercourse, misconduct, mind without morality”.
Dark Tourism: Wang Saen Suk Buddhist Hell Garden, Chon Buri, Thailand
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There are many ghosts described in Thai folklore; often inhabiting forests or coastal areas, they range in personality from the highly aggressive to lost and lonely souls. Nai Ngean and Nang Thong seemed to fit the description of Preta; or, ‘the hungry ghosts’. The concept of preta is common to Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu and Jain texts. These are spirits who have been greedy or jealous people in life, and by punishment are afflicted with insatiable hungers in the afterlife. In many traditions the object of their hunger is something repulsive, such as human faeces or cadavers.
Preta are highly sensitive to heat and cold, and unlike the tormented souls of hell they are free to wander the earth – forever searching for nourishment. Some traditions say that the ghost’s food will burst into flames as it tries to consume it; other sources describe preta as being invisible, or visible only to humans in abnormal mental states.
To Phya Yoms left, a clerk holds a golden ledger in which he enters the humans good Earthly deeds. A clerk on his right inscribes their sins on a ledger made of dog skin. After careful investigation, the death king decides the humans fate, sending them to heaven or to hell which in Buddhism comprises 136 different fiery pits. One special pit, icy cold and pitch dark, is reserved for those who have hurt monks or their parents.
The Wat Wang Saen Suk is by far the largest hell garden in Thailand. However, near the ancient city of Sukhothai, in northern Thailand, a more modest hell garden predates Wat Wang Saen Suk by more than a decade. Here, in 1973, a monk with a taste for folk art, Phra Sumroeng, created an eccentric monastic centre at Wat Thawet.
As at Wat Wang Saen Suk, Wat Thawets sinners are depicted with animal heads and alcoholics have burning liquids poured down their throats. A woman who has had an abortion, rather than being grotesquely tortured, is here shown carrying a giant devouring worm. In the Hell Gardens, anthropomorphic demons everywhere, stirring giant bowls of human soup, pulling a person’s tongue out or another’s eyes, squashing the bodies of grimacing penitents. The campy Wang Saen Suk panorama built in 1986 is a fascinating theater of cruelty. But one should not forget than the visual atrocities of Wang Saen Suk hold a very moral purpose. Hell is not a fun place to be, even for a limited time, and every drop of blood serves as a vivid reminder.
A carefully positioned sign at Wat Wang Saen Suk both tugs at your conscience and plays on your fear of the unknown. The person who has bad luck, it says, should get rid of it by donating. The donation should be equal to the number of the year that you were born plus your age at one baht for each year.
Like Christianity, Buddhism also has an infernal destination you could visit if youve not been virtuous enough, although slightly different. Called Naraka, it is composed like an underground maze with various realms and antechambers, each more violently excessive than the other. But contrary to Christian eternal damnation and because of the belief in reincarnation, the Buddhist netherworld is transitional passage, a sort of purgatory where guilty souls pay their dues and prepare for a new life transfer.
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