Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Wat Mae Kaet Noi—the Temple of Hell

                                   by Jim Goodman

sinners boiled in oil at Wat Mae Kaet Noi's Hell Garden
       Generally speaking, to visit a Buddhist temple compound in Thailand is to enter a zone of peace and piety.  Serenity reigns, from the expressions on the faces of the statues to the reverential attitude of the devotees.  Fierce warriors and lions stand at the compound gates and fanged, serpent-like nagas and lizard-like moms line the stairways to the temple buildings, but they are there to scare away evil spirits, not the worshipers.  Elsewhere the imagery, whether in sculptures or paintings, is all religious, designed to enhance an atmosphere of contemplation on Buddhist precepts and how to live a good life.
the Hell Garden at Wat Mae It, Chiang Dao
       The statues of Buddha, other deities, and revered monks serve to remind the people of exemplars of the holy life.  Paintings on the wall may depict famous scenes from the life of the Buddha, portraits of Heaven and its denizens, religious activities on Earth, festivals, seasonal work, handicraft production, daily chores and other village vignettes of olden times.  Together they reinforce the concept that the Buddhist religion is closely intertwined with ordinary human affairs.  In such surroundings the good Buddhist will renew vows to follow the Buddhist ethical code, exhibit compassion for all beings and make merit.
       What is usually missing from temple imagery is any representation of the consequences of not following the Buddhist ethical code.  This is the or else! side of  Buddhist teachings.  In this case it is Naraka, an underworld Hell where sinners undergo eons of gruesome punishments.  The Buddha himself gave sermons to his followers describing Naraka in detail.  Occasionally a temple wall mural will contain a scene of such suffering, but in general, the tortures of the damned is not a theme emphasized in the upbringing of children in Thai Buddhist families.
the punishment of liars, Wat Mae It
Phaya Yom, the God of Death
       Some monks think it should, though.  Among them was Phra Kru Vishanjalikon (the name means Clean Teacher Monk), abbot at Wat Mae Kaet Noi, three km east of Mae Jo, a half hour drive from the center of Chiang Mai.  About 28 years ago he had a troubling lucid dream of being in a desolate, scorching hot, pitch-black city.  A big red demon approached him and told him to go back to Earth and create a city like this for the edification of the people.
the classroom hall at Wat Mae Kaet Noi
       For the next twenty years the monk spent much of his time designing the city of his nightmares, raising funds (not very easy), hiring and directing sculptors and conceiving the horrific imagery that fills the area.  It opened as a separate park in the compound about eight years ago.  From then on Wat Mae Kaet Noi had a new nickname—Temple of Hell.
       It is not the only such temple compound in Thailand, for there are about twenty others scattered throughout the country.  It’s not the only one in the area, either, for another is Wat Mae It in Chiang Dao, on the edge of the town beside the road from the central market to the cave.  Instead of a Buddha, the big image in the courtyard, of a monk wearing a floppy hat and dipping his hand into a boil, is a rendition of Upakhu, the Thai name for Upagupta.  He was religious tutor to Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, the ruler who patronized the spread of the Dharma (as Buddhism was called then) through most of the Indian sub-continent.
painting of a World War II bombing raid
       Wat Mae It’s Hell Garden is a long narrow area in front of the Upakhu statue, as if implying that the monk’s sermon is about Naraka.  Four stick figures, towering higher than the temple roofs behind them, stand in a line.  Below them demons work their punishments on the condemned sinners.  Adulterers are forced to climb a tree full of piercing thorns .  Demons skewer others on poles and pull the tongues out of liars.
       While it’s not very big, Wat Mae It’s Hell Garden is right inside the entrance to the compound.  The one at Wat Mae Kaet Noi is not so obvious, for it is off to the side.  Upon entry, the compound looks rather ordinary.  The viharn is in typical Thai style.  To its right is a long hall that serves as a classroom for children’s religious instruction.  Paintings decorate the walls, with scenes of life in pre-electricity years:  village parties, planting and harvesting, celebrating Loy Kratong, etc.  All the figures in the pictures wear traditional clothing and the settings and houses are all pre-modern.
demon raping a sinning woman
       On the back wall, though, are two paintings dealing with more recent times; namely, World War II.  They depict American B-24 Liberator planes dropping bombs on the northern Thailand countryside.  In 1942 Japanese forces were stationed in various places in northern Thailand, particularly Lampang and Chiang Mai, preparing their invasion of British Burma.  The painting scenes are not very accurate historically, for the bombing raids were closer to the cities, aiming at the railway stations and Japanese military camps in Haiya, south of Chiang Mai’s old city.  They did manage to disable the railway station, but also destroyed the viharn of Wat Srisuphan, which was next to the Japanese camp.    
cleaving a sinner's peis
       A little to the left of the viharn is the compound’s main feature—the Hell Garden.  Visitors insert a ten baht coin at the entry gate and proceed down a pathway.  On the left is the Heaven section and to the right lies the much larger Hell section.  Just inside the latter sits a sculpture of Phaya Yom (a.k.a. Yama), the God of Death and Lord of Naraka.  According to Buddhist belief, souls of the deceased must appear before Phaya Yom to be interrogated.  He already has a book recording the deeds on Earth of the interviewee.  He asks then whether they have broken any of the five main injunctions, if they are guilty of murder, stealing, sexual crimes, intoxication or lying.
intoxication punishment
demonic face in the Hell Garden
       For those who are guilty, Yama assigns the appropriate punishment.  In some cases it fits the crime.  Liars have their tongues ripped out.  Thieves get their hands amputated.  Sexual miscreants suffer mutilation of their genitals.  But there are obviously more sins punished than the five major transgressions Yama inquires about, for the Hell Garden exhibits include a host of victims skewered, crushed, ripped apart, boiled in a cauldron, shot or sawed in half. 
part of the abortion exhibit
       Those tortured don’t die, for souls are immortal.  They just feel continuous excruciating pain.  It won’t be forever, as in the Hell of Western religions, but not a whole lot less.  Depending on the sins, the ordeal can last from hundreds of thousands of years to hundreds of millions of years. 
       Besides the torture scenes, the Hell Garden also has a variety of ghouls and demons, male and female, some extremely tall, all extremely ugly and horrific.  Severed heads with their guts dangling below them hang from trees.  Sinners buried in the earth up to their waists scream through distorted faces and raise their arms in horror.  They often have weird cartoons painted on their chests.  Perhaps they have been cast into the hot Naraka, as opposed to the cold Naraka, and are screaming because of the heat.  Or they could be grotesque figures from Phra Kru Vishanjalikon’s lucid nightmare.
sinner trapped in the ground
the punishment for abortion
       The old Buddhist books describing Naraka reflect the ancient Indian propensity to exhaustive, minute classification of the various sections of both the hot Naraka and the cold Naraka on what punishments are inflicted at each section, for what sins and for what length of time.  Some of this information went into creating the exhibits, but other displays reflect the imagination of the garden’s creator, influenced by modern times.  Hence, we see giant demons in the robo-cop, wire-frame style and demons driving motorbikes with spiked wheels over the bodies of their victims.
students at their lesson
       One large section of the Hell Garden is devoted to abortion, considered a violation of the Buddhist concept of the sanctity of all life.  In addition to scenes of an abortion in progress, there are also sculptures of the distorted bodies of offending mothers and of transgressors skewered on a sharp pole.  Outside this section is a giant boiling cauldron with demons forcing sinners into it.  An enormous female demon with a grotesquely distorted body stands nearby, next to a display of demons sawing victims in half.  Visitors can drop a ten baht coin into one of the machines here and listen to the screaming of the victims or the ranting of the big female demon    
the punishment of wicked students
       Punishment for sexual crimes is a frequent theme.  As at Wat Mae It, adulterers are forced to climb up trees with big thorns that pierce t heir bodies.  Elsewhere, a group of smiling, seductive ladies rips apart a man’s genitals.  A demon thrusts a gigantic phallus into a terrified woman’s vagina.  A horrid, misshapen woman uses a knife to cleave a man’s outsized penis.  And another man agonizes as he drags around his preposterously sized penis and scrotum.
   The sin of intoxication is represented by a statue of a man with two heads.  One head is raised to drink from a bottle of spirits, while a syringe is plunged into his stomach.  The other head is vomiting.   Near it stands a statue of a grossly fat and ugly woman with a horrid, gaping mouth and protruding eyeballs.  Sin of vanity perhaps?   
Children Tree in the Heaven Garden
   Another unusual display is of a group of uniformed students listening to the lectures of a male and female in police uniforms.  Statues of benevolent gods stand in the vicinity.  Behind them, as if to remind the students of what happens if they don’t follow the rules they’re being taught, are several bloodied students hanging from meat hooks.
   Just past this classroom is the section of the Heaven Garden, dominated by statues of the Buddha, enlightened monks, other saints and deities and pious devotees.  After a walk through the much larger Hell Garden, it is almost anti-climactic.  There’s nothing horrific here.  A kneeling skeleton has its hands folded in prayer and the multi-headed figures with fierce faces are obviously guardians on the side of Heaven. 
   The one truly exotic exhibit in this garden is what might be called a Children Tree.  It rises several meters high, with big, serrated leaves resembling those of a banana tree.  Long, green, tendril-like vines hang down from various points on the trunk, with young boys and girls attached to the end, as if they were sprouting from the vines.  And inside one opening leaf is a newborn baby.  At the base of the tree are figures of fully dressed couples in traditional outfits, one pair dancing, one pair seated and exchanging food.
devotees in the Heaven Garden
   Clean Teacher Monk’s objective in constructing this elaborate Hell was to scare people, to instill in them a sense of shame regarding sinful deeds and a fear of their consequences.  It certainly makes an indelible impression on Thai visitors, who are already familiar with some of the dark themes of the place.  It may be just an imaginative version, but according to their religion, the garden is based on a Hell that is very real.
   It has already had one measurable effect.  Inspired by the abortion exhibit, some aborting women have left their dead fetuses beside one of the grosser statues in this section.  Rather than get rid of it on their own, as an act of repentance they deposit the fetus at Wat Mae Kaet Noi for a proper burial. 
preening in the Earth Garden
old-fashioned farmer types
   Although it is not high on the list of the Chiang Mai area’s tourist attractions, Wat Mae Kaet Noi has had a trickle of foreign visitors.  They do not particularly view the Hell Garden as a site for moral and religious instruction.  They are ore likely to see it as an excursion into Oriental creepiness.  But for Thai Buddhists, Hell Garden notwithstanding, Wat Mae Kaet Noi is still a Buddhist temple, and therefore a proper venue for celebrating birthdays, weddings and funerals.
couple smoking cheroots and a lounging, long-haired lady
   As if catering to this aspect of temple use, this year the wat opened a new exhibit on the opposite side of the compound from the Hell Garden.  This area features statues of ordinary rural Thai people, dressed in the same early 19th century attire as in the paintings on the interior walls of the adjacent classroom building.  A few are naked from the waist up—bare-breasted women and heavily tattooed men.  Others are engaged in daily chores.  There are statues of kick-boxers, dancers, a reclining woman with ankle-length hair, couples smoking Burmese cheroots, women preening with mirrors and monks meditating. 
    Surrounded by imagery of an idyllic earthly existence of a not-so-long-ago past, the Earth Garden here is probably a more appropriate spot for happy events like birthdays and weddings.   But perhaps a newlywed couple might take a stroll through the Hell Garden and see the adulterers impaled on the thorn tree and the tortures undergone for sexual crimes, intoxication or lying.  Or maybe parents will take their children on a walk through Hell for their birthday lesson on morality.  For the true believers, in terms of ethical influence, fear also works.

sleeping princess in the Heaven Garden
                                                                      * * *                  


1 comment:

  1. This is excellent work. The visuals are so fascinating. I've always wanted to understand more about Naraka Buddhism , and this article is great for that. Thanks