An exhibition hosted in Paris Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac (Museum of Non-European Arts) is looking at the fascination that exert ghosts on Asian people. Titled “Hells and Ghosts of Asia, the Underworld in Asian Art”, focuses its attention on the influence of ghost stories in all forms of arts from painting to cinema, from theatre to comic books. Beside Japan and China which have a very long tradition of ghosts and horror tales in Northeast Asia, Thailand is leading in Southeast Asia…
Thailand to be seen from its spooky side. The exhibition in Paris highlights how folk tales in Thailand are populated with ghosts and ghouls. These stories are as old as Buddhism. Murals at Wat Suthat (across the Giant Swing) or Wat Saket (Golden Mountain temple) show how hell has always been close to paradise in buddhism with vivid haunting frescoes showing torture and demons.
The exhibition explains the concept of the cosmology of the three worlds in Southeast Asian Buddhism where hell, earth and paradise represent different levels in life and death cycle. Hell and earth are part of the world of desire, the first stage of paradise represents the intermediate world and nirvana is the ultimate one which conducts to rebirth. The intermediate world is where suffering and desire do exist and will conduct either to hell of to the upper levels of paradise.
Scrolls, manuscripts and murals remind Thai people of the right path to take. In the seventies, the trend was also to create “gardens of hell”, carving and sculptures representing fairy-tale ghouls and tortures to remind Buddhists to behave properly.
Popular “Gardens of hells” have been set at Wang Saen Suk Monastery Garden along the highway driving from Bangkok to Pattaya; at Wat Puet Udom in Rangsit district in Northern Bangkok or at Wat Mae Kaet Noi, known as the Hell Temple of Chiang Mai.The place is filled with grotesque statues and installations depicting torture and suffering in the underworld and is a popular place among locals before a wedding, a birth or a funeral.
Popular movies from the seventies until today also remind people of the various spirits (phi) populating Thai folk tales. Hungry ghosts (phi pret or walking deads) look to feed themselves haunting living humans. They are represented in the shadow theatre. More gruesome are Phi Krasue, a lady transforming at night into a head over her entrails while Phi Pop is a spirit of the forest looking to eat human livers and entrails. Films were being shown at the exhibition showing how strong is the Thai horror movie industry until today.
Spirits are then very much alive in Thai people’s mind and even worshipped. In Phra Khanong district, Wat Mahabut is the resting home to Phi Nang Nak, a story of woman and her child dying while her husband was fighting in war. The soul of the deceased woman and child is now revered in the temple where people comes everyday bringing clothing to dress up the statue and giving food to bring the spirits at peace.
In Northern Thailand, in the district of Dan Sai in the province of Loei, farmers dress in July to celebrate the start of the rainy season and good fertility. They then perform rites with masks and costumes during three days. Called Phi Ta Kon, they dress with scary masks adorned with grins, long teeth and hell figures, mostly inspired by recent horror movies.
Many are artists in the village and have turned into fame. The festival has turned now into a more commercial tourist activity as the Tourism Authority of Thailand has been promoting the event in both domestic and international markets.
Meanwhile in Thailand capital, they are surprisingly few tours organised to discover a “ghoulish” Bangkok. Tour operator “Bizarre Bangkok Tours” has one or two circuits with a guide looking at some of the hellish temples. Go Beyond Asia organizes also a one day circuit to discover “Creepy Bangkok”. But more could definitely be done as Thai horror movies and ghost stories remain very popular and are also a good way to plunge into Thai soul…
The exhibition “Ghosts and Hells, the underworld of Asian Art” is to be seen at Musée du Quai Branly until July 15, 2018 in Paris. The museum is located next to the Eiffel Tower. Information under www.quaibranly.fr