Within the Buddhist cosmic scheme, birth in the realm of hell is the lowest level possible and undeniably the most horrific outcome of negative karma. Illustrations of these gory dwellings – lit by the reddish glow of blazing fires and echoing with spine-tingling screams of tortured denizens – can be found in Phra Malai manuscripts at the British Library.
The story of Phra Malai tells of the arahant – one who attained enlightenment – Malai who, through accumulated merit and meditation, manifested the ability to travel to different realms of existence, and witnessed the horrors of the hells.
Inspired partly by this imagery are sculptural depictions of these scenes which can be found in Thai cosmological parks. Housed within Buddhist temple precincts, these parks are spaces in which different cosmic realms, local scenes, historical figures and events, and anecdotes from the Buddha’s life story come to life via three-dimensional imagery. Most popular amongst park visitors are the hell sections, some depictions of which will be explored here in relation to the Phra Malai manuscripts.
Before delving into the imagery of the monk’s hellish visions, it is vital to distinguish between two life forms that appear in the hells: hells’ denizens and hungry ghosts (Pāli: peta).
The first, the hell dwellers, are…