Terrifying temple murals and ghoulish ghost shrines are all part of Thailand’s unique views on spirituality and life after death
Ghosts, and the idea of hell, have been part of Asia’s daily spiritual life for centuries, with folktales of this sort being very popular in countries such as Japan, China, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand. In France, a major exhibition entitled Ghosts and Hells: The Underworld in Asian Art, is on display until July 15th, 2018 at the Paris Museum of non-European Arts (Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac) and Thailand is particularly well represented in this show. A large part of the exhibition centres on the superstitions and beliefs of Thais who are both fascinated and frightened by supernatural phenomena. The Theravada form of Buddhism that is practiced in Thailand incorporates the concept of the “Three Worlds” (traiphum), which, in turn, highlights the intimate link between hell, earth, and paradise. The world of “desire” forms the hell and earth, while paradise is composed of various stages—each level freeing one from contact with the strife of the lower world. Anyone on earth is always close to hell, but also to the first stage of paradise. The direction one goes in depends on one’s actions and behaviour.
But if you can’t make it to Paris, you can still see underworld art right here in Bangkok. In many Thai temples spectacular murals illustrate the life of the Buddha, and/or scenes from the Ramayana—an epic poem about the divine prince Rama—and some even depict daily life in Siam hundreds of years ago. However, there are also murals that show what eternal damnation can be like. Hell is always close at hand, as humans living in the intermediate world (hell and earth) are prone to desire and suffering.
In Bangkok, two temples have standing statues of Buddha which are surrounded by hellish images; just a gentle reminder to believers that it is necessary to always behave well, in order to one day reach paradise and, ultimately, Nirvana.
In Phra Nakhon, Bangkok’s historical Old Town, there are two temples offering spectacular frescoes depicting hell. Start your tour at Wat Suthat Thepphawararam (often simply called Wat Suthat). It’s easy to find as it faces both the Bangkok City Hall and the Giant Swing. This sanctuary is one of the most important in Bangkok, and is considered a First Class Royal Temple. Construction was started in 1807, but not completed until 1843. Inside the Viharn (prayer hall), the eye is caught by a giant statue of Buddha, which has been transferred here from the ancient capital of Sukhothai and dates back to the 14th century. This giant Buddha image is, in turn, surrounded by some of Bangkok finest murals—covering the columns, walls, and doors of the structure.
The murals mostly show classical Buddhist and Ramayana motifs, as well as scenes of Siamese history, but if you go behind the Buddha statue (to the left) the artwork on the back of one column is all about what hell could be—explicit scenes of torture with crucifixions and burnings, and assaults by demons, easily identified by their animal heads and human bodies!
A five to ten-minute walk from Wat Suthat leads you to Wat Saket, better known among visitors with guidebooks as the ‘Temple of the Golden Mount’. If you climb to the top you’ll get a lovely panoramic view of Bangkok’s Old Town, but take time to visit the Consecrated Convocation Hall as well. From the Golden Mountain temple entrance, it is the second structure inside the compound, as well as being the first temple accessible from Worachak Road, making it easy to find.
The admirable murals here depict large images of Buddha, as well as various deities and traditional demons. In the middle of the consecration hall, a sitting Buddha in Bronze—which has also been transferred to Bangkok from Sukhothai—sits majestically with a subdued smile, surrounded by murals showing paradise. But pass behind the statue and look more closely at the frescoes. Mostly hidden by Buddha’s body are scenes of hell spread all over the wall, reminiscent of the works of Dutch medieval painter Hieronymus Bosch. The paintings are gruesome, showing people being tortured and burned, and terrorized by demons with animal heads. The details are just amazing, and show what Thais would call these days, the “garden of hell”.
Spirituality in Thailand takes many turns, but the spirits of the deceased are always present and generally benevolent to the living if taken care of (this is the purpose of the ever present “spirit houses” one finds here). However, people who die a violent death, or in an abnormal way, roam the earth as Phi (wild hungry ghosts). One of the most popular folktales about a ghost of this kind is Nang Nak (also know as Mae Nak). In the 19th century, a man going to war left his young (and pregnant) wife alone, and both the woman and the child died during his absence. When he returned, the man did not realize that his wife and child were now ghosts and so continued to live with them. The villagers, knowing his young bride had died months earlier, soon realize the man is spellbound by her ghost—but those who attempt to tell him the truth are killed by her as she is desperate to stay with her husband.
Many movies about Nang Nak have been made over the years and a temple, located in Bangkok’s Phra Khanong district, where she died, is now consecrated to her ghost. The temple, known as Wat Mahabut, is close to Habito Mall and the condominium complex along Pridi Banyomong Road, Soi 2 (close to the canal). Inside the temple compound, which looks like a traditional village, there is a hall where people worship a golden statue representing the story’s heroine. This gilded statue is dressed and adorned, and locals leave her offerings. Nang Nak benevolence is requested by many a young woman hoping to conceive, but kathoey (ladyboys) also ask her to intervene on their behalf so they can avoid having to go into the Thai army (where conscription is handled via a ‘lucky draw’ lottery system). Worshipping a ghost, taking care of the ancestors, and implore spirits for good luck—at Wat Mahabut you are plunged into the true soul of Thailand’s superstitious netherworld.
Visitor Information: Wat Suthat is open every day until 6 pm, and is free of charge. Wat Saket (the Golden Mount) is open every day until 6 pm, but only the Consecrated Convocation Hall is free of charge. Both temples are easily accessible from Khlong Saen Saep Express Boat, Station Phan Fa Lilat Bridge. Wat Mahabut is equidistant from BTS stations Phra Khanong and On Nut (plus a taxi ride to Pridi Banyomong Soi 2). It’s open until late afternoon and is free of charge.
Words and photos by Luc Citrinot