Most religions feature the concept of an underworld. Such nether realms have been depicted in spiritual artwork the world over – from renaissance frescoes, to the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt. Few faiths however, illustrate the kingdom of shades quite so literally as Thai Buddhism does through its numerous 'Hell Gardens': graphic sculpture parks scattered across Thailand, which depict hell and its many gruesome torments in surreal, painstaking detail.
The largest and most famous of Thailand's Hell Gardens can be found at Wang Saen Suk – a village locale, close to the beach resorts of Bang Saen and Chon Buri. Little more than an hour outside of Bangkok, this garden of torments lies adjacent to a small temple and is presided over by the resident Buddhist monks. While the site is largely unknown outside of Thailand (it certainly doesn't feature on the standard package holiday itinerary), it's a popular spot with the locals – many families bring their children to the park, for an educational day trip somewhere along the lines of a Buddhist 'Sunday School.'
The main difference is that rather than sing songs and take turns at Bible readings, this Sunday School teaches children morality using harrowing life-size sculptures of amputation and castration; tongues pulled out with pliers; genitalia mauled by wild dogs; men sawn in half; women crushed in giant vices. It's graphic, to say the least.
On a positive note though, the subjects of these various imaginative forms of torture are all confirmed sinners. The complex moral system of Thai Buddhism ascribes particular forms of punishment in the underworld, according to the nature of the sins committed in this life. It's reminiscent of Dante's Inferno, and his allocation of sinners to different circles of Hell... except in this case, the brutal torture scenes are recreated in detail – using figures that stand up to seven feet in height.
A team of stern men in orange loin clothes serve as guards, as they enact the due penalties on each sinner. So, adulterers are forced to climb naked up a thorny tree trunk, tearing their soft bits to shreds. A thief has his hands cut off. Alcoholics are forced to drink boiling oil. There's certainly a kind of logic at play here.
A similar balance – or karma, if you like – governs the physical forms that cursed souls take in the hell. A large portion of the Hell Garden is given over to a host of terrifying entities, withered human forms merged with the snarling, feral faces of wild animals. Between the feet of each hybrid, an engraved plaque explains the reason for its torment:
"Ones who are employed to put fire on the others properties are punished in the hell," reads one, "they are named as the spirits of the snakes."
Another: "Ones who steal the cooked rice are punished in the hell, they are named as the spirits of the birds."
Behind the rows of cursed beasts, presiding over the madness at Wang Saen Suk there stand two central figures – a male and a female form, so large that their heads rise above the tree line. These creatures, with their thin skeletal bodies, distended bellies, long necks and tortured human faces, fit closely to the description of the "preta" from Buddhist folklore.
Preta, or the “hungry ghosts," are born from the tormented souls of those who were greedy and jealous during their time on earth. Now passed over, they are unable to find peace. According to the mythology, preta can grow to an unnatural size, their skin mummifies and they develop appetites for the grotesque; eating rotten meat, cadavers and faeces. Their insatiable hunger is illustrated by a visual metaphor – a neck far too thin to feed their bloated bellies.
At the feet of the hungry ghosts, an inscribed tablet tells their story: their list of sins included, "the Connoisseur of Women, the Habitual Drinkers, the Habitual Gamblers the Fellowship with the knaves and behaving against the virtue or the moral principles." It names the male, “Nai Ngean,” his partner, “Nang Thong.”
A tour of the Hell Garden at Wang Saen Suk was clearly intended to shock... but also to educate. To that end, these cautionary tales are not offered without suggesting suitable penance. In the back corner of the park, a cluster of figures with the fear-marked faces of bulls, fish and fowl cower on their knees before the Buddha, praying for forgiveness. Meanwhile, each gruesome diorama is accompanied by a donation box – labelled with a recommended donation, according to the severity of the transgression.
Is the message here that a pure soul can be bought? Perhaps not exactly, but a donation to the monks of Saen Suk certainly seems to be a welcome way to start your penance.
It's interesting to note the range of different themes featured in the Hell Garden. Hindu gods are represented here amidst the more traditional Buddhist forms, while spirits of the Chinese zodiac also make an appearance. References are made to notions of a Christian-style devil – an archetype not traditionally in keeping with the Buddhist concept of hell.
A sign by the entrance reads: "If you meet the Devil in this life, don't postpone merit-making which will help you to defeat him in the next life."
The purpose of Wang Saen Suk is to teach, as well as deterring visitors from a range of dangerous and morally damaging acts. It achieves this by using anything it can; any symbology, any system of visual metaphors, regardless of their cultural or religious origin.
Does it work? Well, a visit to Wang Saen Suk might be just about enough to scar a child for life... but later in life, that same child would sure as hell think twice before disobeying the teachings of the Buddha.
All photographs by Darmon Richter, reproduced with permission via Buddhist Hell Garden on The Bohemian Blog.