On location: Heaven and Hell

Yesterday, I went to Hell, specifically, the Wang Saen Suk Hell and Heaven Gardens in Thailand’s Chonburi province, a trip inspired by an excellent post on Darmon Richter’s The Bohemian Blog.

Buddhist Hell, or Naraka, is series of pits where Hell guards mete out punishments, customised to the nature of the sin. Presiding over Naraka is Phra Yom, the ‘Death King’, who weighs your good deeds (engraved on a gold plate) up against the bad (written on a scrap of dog’s skin) and decides your fate. In the Hell Garden at Wang Saen Suk, these punishments are depicted in gory detail in brightly painted, larger-than-life-sized concrete statues. They serve the same purpose as mosaics or murals in churches, providing spiritual education that can be universally understood.

Some of the punishments have a certain, albeit gruesome logic to them. Liars have their tongues ripped out. Thieves have their hands cut off. Alcoholics are force fed boiling oil. Adulterers have their genitals mutilated. A screw vice through the torso awaits those who have an abortion. Live a life of wanton debauchery and expect to find yourself in Naraka climbing a thorn tree, naked, while dogs snap at your heels and crows peck at your eyes.

Other punishments are more esoteric. Different offences will land you the head of an animal. Exploit other people and acquire the head of a dog. Sex with ‘the unpermitted persons’ earns you the head of a chicken. Vandals acquire the heads of rats and drug dealers the heads of cows. The jealous become rabbits, rice thieves become crows and (my personal favourite) hooligans, crocodiles. If you start brawls in this life, expect to end up with the head of a duck. If you make a habit of pulling others’ legs, a snake head awaits you.

Unlike Christian Hell, Buddhist sinners are not condemned to eternal damnation, but only until they have worked off their karmic debt and can be reborn. Admittedly, this can take thousands of years, longer in the case of the most venal of sins (patricide or killing a monk). But still, there’s light at the end of the tunnel — or as the Thais say, ‘Bad seven times, good seven times’.

I visited Wang Saen Suk with a view to setting a scene in my novel there or somewhere like it. But thanks to my friend Ying, the visit also turned out to be a great opportunity to learn more about a subject that fascinates me: Thai idioms and proverbs.

Running alongside Hell, on the road that leads to Heaven, are tableaux depicting the literal meaning of Thai proverbs and idioms with the symbolic meanings explained on the accompanying signs. One or two I recognised from my research, but most were new to me and I strongly doubt I would’ve guessed at the meanings without Ying to explain things. For instance, there’s a statue of a man feeding his entrails to a couple of crows (shown in the photo, top left below, with children swarming all over him). The meaning of the proverb, ‘Don’t feed your entrails to crows’ is to keep things private that should not be made public, especially when it comes to the family — the equivalent of ‘Don’t air your dirty linen in public’. Here are some others:

Chi prohng hai garok – ‘Pointing out the hole to the squirrel’; the Learn Thai Proverbs website translates this as ‘Give the game away’. As an example, Ying, who works in sexual health education, said this is a criticism that gets levelled against advocates for sex education in schools: they are showing the squirrel the hole, i.e. encouraging young people to have sex.

Chaang dtaai tang dtua ao bai bua bpit mai – ‘You can’t hide a dead elephant with a lotus leaf’. This is an expression I was familiar with; in fact, I used it in my first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar. It equates to ‘truth will out’ or ‘a guilty conscience needs no accuser’.

Jap pae chon gae – ‘Grab a goat to match a sheep’. Learn Thai Proverbs translates this one as ‘haste makes waste’, though Ying made it sound more like the equivalent of ‘Shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic’.

‘Feathers make the rooster beautiful. Grooming makes a girl beautiful’. Fairly self-explanatory!

‘An iguana with a necklace of gold.’ Ying and I talked about this one at length. She said it comes from a story in which a king rewards the iguana for always bowing its head in homage by giving it a gold necklace; however, the gold necklace prevents the iguana from bowing his head any more. She suggested an iguana with a gold necklace refers to someone who gets above their station, forgets their place in the order of things. The equivalent of ‘flash as a sewer rat with a gold tooth’, perhaps?

Other ‘expressions’ I didn’t manage to photograph included ‘Pouring water on a dead tree stump’ (‘Falling on deaf ears’), ‘When the water rises, fill the scoop’ (‘Make hay while the sun shines’), and ‘You can’t throw a snake from your neck’ (‘Mud sticks’?).

I loved the vividness of the above tableau, warning of the person who pays respect to your face but disses you behind your back!

The Hell Garden was crowded with Thai families when we visited. Ying expressed frustration that the spiritual lessons of the place were being lost on the children, who only laughed and posed for photos with the statues, offered no explanation for what they were viewing. She was less impressed with the ‘Heaven Garden’, where saints from Thai and Chinese Buddhism joined Hindu gods, though I was rather taken with the temple offerings: in addition to sparrows that can be freed into the air, devotees can release fish, eels, toads and turtles into the temple’s great pond.

I don’t consider myself religious, though I am superstitious enough to have donated one baht for every year of my age in the box corresponding to my Chinese horoscope animal (Horse) ‘to drive away evil spirits’. When we first entered the temple grounds, Ying and I both made offerings to the Buddha who corresponded to our birth day of the week. Twenty baht bought as three incense sticks, a small yellow candle, a stem of chrysanthemums and, much to my delight, a square of gold leaf to apply to the Buddha statue.

My hands sparkled with gold dust for the rest of the day.

About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Her latest novel, Mother of Pearl, is published by Transit Lounge. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing and currently works as CEO of Writers Victoria.
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4 Responses to On location: Heaven and Hell

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    This is really interesting, Angela! I always like learning about how other people see life and afterlife. And I’m especially interested in the way the art reflects that culture and serves as a conduit for it. You were lucky to be able to go there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Hell Garden is something else, Margot. My expat Buddhist friends find the whole thing baffling – it doesn’t appear to reflect the teachings of the Buddha. On the other hand, there is a parallel universe in Thailand occupied by spirits; it wouldn’t surprise me if this manifestation of Hell was linked to the older animist traditions. Fascinating stuff and, as you say, I was very fortunate to make the trip with my friend.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is so interesting to read, Angela. I’m delighted to have inspired your trip – and it really paid off for me too, seeing as you’ve come back with full explanations for so many of the little details I missed. These idioms are great, and it’s fascinating that they’d exhibit them alongside religious pieces. Almost like folk wisdom exalted to pseudo-religious mantra; along with the mash-up of various religious systems that’s already on display, it makes for a curiously inclusive collection!

    Glad to hear the place was busy when you visited, too… it seemed pretty dead to me, though that may have been my own fault for visiting during a thunderstorm. And I’ll be intrigued to hear more about a novel set there – I’ll follow your blog for updates on that, I guess!

    Thanks again for letting me know you’d posted this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the feedback Darmon. I really thought yours was such a great post, I was delighted to find something new to add to our appreciation of the Heaven and Hell Garden. “Curiously inclusive” is a most apt description!


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