There’s a 70,000 square foot creationism museum somewhere in Kentucky that I have no plans to visit. As a sometimes-Buddhist who lives in the South, I would never be of the opinion that all religious Southerners are backward. Still, that creationism museum gives me the willies, even just as an idea—it somehow contains all that irks me about Americans. If it was located in New Jersey instead of Kentucky, I’d feel the same way. I confess that a lot of distinctly American religious ideology gives me an icky feeling; my spiritual moments tend to veer eastward rather than westward.
Lest we forget, however, that Eastern traditions also have their grand monuments to the absurd, Benedict Anderson is here to remind us with The Fate of Rural Hell. Through this wonderfully detailed essay, complete with dozens of color photographs, readers get to indulge in a field trip to Thailand to visit a temple, Wat Phai Rong Wua, that is at least as weird as that museum in Kentucky.
Anderson reflects that his “first reaction was simply astonishment at the sheer scale of the wat, and its spic-and-span look. The second was the strange feeling that I had wandered into a sort of religious Disneyland” (4).
When it comes to religious symbols, we learn that size really does matter. This place boasts the world’s largest Buddha statue. In fact, in the middle of constructing it, the abbot realized there was one in Japan that stood about 12 inches taller. He immediately altered his own plans, stretching out the head a little bit, to ensure that his own temple’s icon would be a few inches more monumental than the Japanese monument. Photos of the giant black silhouette outlined against the bright blue sky are indeed a marvel to behold.
But the temple’s greatest amusement is its depiction of hell in a series of statues all over the grounds. Call the Narokphum, it showcases a wide variety of minor and major sinning by displaying the consequences for the sinners—that according to Buddhism, they become praed, or “hungry ghosts”. Anderson and his researchers took an inventory of all the sins committed by the praed in the Narokphum: 19 of wives or husbands, 13 of parents or children, 12 offenses against monks, nine offenses against animals, 51 of miscellaneous bad behavior. A lot of the sins are familiar to western religious traditions, such as adultery or thieving.
The descriptions of their crimes are interesting, but the photographs of the statues are really the focal point for fascination with this place. The statues are shoddily constructed from concrete, whitewashed and then painted with red and black in a crude manner. The work of the sculptors and painters is crude in the sense of unskillful, but more importantly, the symbolism is itself crude—in the sense of grotesque, shocking and haunting. The obscene, poorly formed people are all completely naked and covered in bloody, dripping wounds all over their bodies. The only part of the statues’ anatomy that the demons of this rural hell have not stabbed at appears consistently to be their genitals. The private parts of both male and female statues remain untouched—untouched by the demons, that is, since Anderson reports that young boys are sometimes caught sneaking into the temple grounds at night to masturbate over the statues. “The effect of Luang Phor Khom’s innovation is a kind of anarchic, semi-sadistic eroticism” (60).
Anderson is equally interested in what isn’t depicted amongst the crimes of the praed. “The people we do not see being tortured are a curious lot: no rapists, no prostitutes (female or male), no political criminals, no committers or lese majeste, no homosexuals or krathoey (transvestites), no police abusing state power, no communists, no professional hitmen, no capitalists and, naturally, no bad monks” (28). There are no bad monks, yet Luang Phor Khom saw fit to include a dozen offenses against monks in his version of hell. There were several phases of construction, beginning in 1957, through 1986. The Narokphum began in 1971, and one has the impression that the abbot concocted sculpture assignments to target particular people and events surrounding his life on the temple grounds.
Not very much is known about Luang Phor Khom, who died in 1990. His main sculptor, once a simple dek wat (temple boy), Suchart, is still alive and telling tales. For example, Anderson notes that “none of the written sources give the reader a clear picture of how Luang Phor Khom raised money” (42). Apparently, he sold truckloads of amulets over the decades of the temple’s construction, even though this would have been against basic tenets of his Buddhism. There’s also some speculation about his sexual orientation, due to an unharmed, glorious copy of Michelangelo’s David in the abbot’s “personal museum”. This copy—hilariously clad in modern red underwear—was displayed right next to a human skeleton, as if to console the abbot that mortality would fade his own temptations of the flesh.
The essay tops out around 100 pages, even with all the terrific and terrifying pictures. Anderson sometimes displays a sense of humor but rarely tips over from mystery into judgement, giving just enough about the history of Thailand and the perspective of Buddhism to let a reader’s imagination take flight. “One could use the museum to show the sudden opportunities for ‘ordinary people’ after the fall of the absolutist monarchy, the rise of nationalism, the beginnings of an internationalism that inevitably accompanies nationalism, the ghostly survival in new clothes of the ‘temple slaves’, the mediatic pictorialization of Buddhist teachings, the commercialization of wat as secular and animist tourism develop, the deterioration of discipline and vocation, the impact of electoral politics and so on” (93).
There are so very many avenues of interest in a bizarre institution such as this one. The Fate of Rural Hell is a serious look at an important cultural artifact, but beyond the merit of its sociopolitical and economic implications, Anderson’s study is definitely worth it for the weirdness. It is an unsurprising fact that is nevertheless worth checking in on from time to time: awkward religious iconography is everywhere, from Thailand to Kentucky.
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