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Depictions of Naraka at Wat Gai

Wat Gai – Hell Temple

Wat Gai is not what you’d expect from a temple. It more closely resembles a house of horrors than a house of worship.

Ever been to a Hell Temple?

I know. Your image of Buddhism is that of peace and serenity. Lotus Flowers and incense. All of that is correct. But on occasion, Buddhism can embrace the fire and brimstone approach and depict what a life of sin will lead to. In Thailand, outside of Ayutthaya, there is a Buddhist temple that has a sculpture garden filled with tortured souls in the grotesque afterlife of hell.

Crack That Whip! A scene from Wat Gai in Ayutthaya, Thailand
Crack That Whip!

Wat Gai (the Thai word for Chicken) is not what you’d expect from a temple. It more closely resembles a haunted house than a house of worship. The main attraction is the painted sculpture yard. It is filled with humanoid figures in all types of agony and distress. This is supposed to depict the result of a sinful life.

A scene from the sculpture yard at Wat Gai, a Hell Temple
A scene from the sculpture yard at Wat Gai

Wat Gai (or Chicken Temple) was apparently named after chickens in the area died from a plague. The temple grounds, like many in and around Ayutthaya, are ancient. However, there are no ruins to be seen here. The extant buildings are from the early 1990’s. The temple is fairly standard but visitors come to see the sculptures, not the architecture.

Depictions of Naraka at Wat Gai, near Ayutthaya, Thailand.
Depictions of Naraka at Wat Gai

Welcome To Hell

In Buddhist cosmology, Hell is a realm called Nakara. This concept differs from the Christian equivalent in 2 distinct ways. First, in Buddhism, people are not sent to Nakara by a Supreme Being. Instead, people are destined to Hell as a result of their actions (karma). Karma has a natural law of its own. The other distinction is that, for Buddhists, hell is not eternal. Eventually, the punishment for one’s misdeeds is completed and the tortured soul can be reincarnated to a more favorable realm.

Tortured Souls at Wat Gai, a Hell Temple
Tortured Souls at Wat Gai

Hell Temples are not entirely unheard of in Southeast Asia, just uncommon. There are, for example, hell temples at Wat Long Khun (the White Temple) in Chiang Rai or Hell Cave at Marble Mountain in Da Nang, Vietnam. These are all unique temples worthy of a visit.

A depiction of Hell at Wat Gai
A depiction of Hell at Wat Gai

What makes Wat Gai so special is the aesthetic quality of the sculptures themselves. There is a decidedly folksy quality to the art. Unlike the hyperreal depiction of Buddha and Quan Am (the Bodhisattva of Compassion) found in most temples, these sculptures have a cartoonish aspect to them that makes the subject matter a little less dramatic.

Scenes from Hell at Wat Gai
Scenes from Hell at Wat Gai

On the day we visited, there was no one there aside from a monk or two. In fact, there were far more monkeys than people. Having recently survived our own monkey attack, this had us a little unnerved. We wandered around the temple for an hour or so, taking pictures, marveling at the sculptures, keeping an eye on those darn monkeys.

A tortured soul's mute cry at Wat Gai near Ayutthaya, Thailand
A tortured soul’s mute cry at Wat Gai

Go To Hell

Getting there was also an adventure. Wat Kai is located at Tambol Hunsang, Amphur Bangpahan. From Ayutthaya, its a 30 km scooter ride. We enjoyed riding through the countryside — the appeal of the farms and the landscape. We visited the Royal Elephant Kraal (an elephant training center) along the way. Driving on the highway is far less charming. Fortunately, GPS lead us right to the temple gates without incident. There is no admission but, of course, donations are always welcome.

Author: Britt

Britt is a photographer/music producer & proud member of #teamtraynham

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