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In my recent article The Buddha's Subjugation of Nalagiri at Preah Palilay, I described how the Buddha's cousin Devadatta attempted to murder the Buddha, and mentioned that he was later condemned to the Avici hell for his sins.

In this entry, I'd like to follow that up by taking a peek into the Avici hell, and exploring the Khmer conception of hell as described at Angkor Wat Temple.

The Heavens and Hells panel, in the eastern wing of the southern gallery of the third enclosure of Angkor Wat, stretches for a little over 66 meters (216 feet).

The panel shows us the path of the dead leading to judgement, and illustrates quite graphically the hells that await the condemned, with inscriptions explaining each of the hells' punishments.  Most of the inscriptions were lost or damaged when the gallery collapsed in 1947, but some still remain, written in an ungrammatical Sanskrit, and can be seen engraved on the narrow line at the top of the lower register where the hells are shown.

Cast Into Hell, Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia

Figure 1.  Sinners Cast Into Hell, Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia

In Figure 1 we see sinners being cast down into the hells following judgement.  In the Avici hell below them, a sinner on a table being flayed alive with a scraper!

The depiction of human suffering shown here is both varied and creative, human imagination seems without limit when it comes to the representation of the dark and miserable!

There are dedicated hells for a vast array of sinners, including for murderers, vandals, those who urinate or defecate in temples, liars, and there is even a special hell for those who steal shoes or sandals!

Avici Hell, Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia

Figure 2.  Avici Hell, Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia

In Figure 2 we see more of the first hell depicted in the panel, the Avici hell.  It is described in the inscription in the top left as for “those who live in abundance and still live only in sin”.  The damned of this hell, the 'hell without rest', are crushed under a mountain.

The number of hells in the Heavens and Hells panel, 32, suggests that the Khmer conception of hell was based on Mahayana Buddhist cosmology (Buddhists count the hells by 4, 8, 16 or 32, compared with the Hindus' 7, 21 and 28).  References to Buddhist texts in this Vaishnava temple are not surprising, because Buddhism has always been practised by the Khmers, having been introduced together with Hinduism, if not earlier, since the first centuries of the first millennium CE.

The hells illustrated, however, have a typically Brahmanic character; no punishments are reserved for the offenders of Buddhist doctrine, but there are several punishments for crimes against the Shaivaite religion, the brahmins and their rituals.  This reflects the extent to which Khmer belief was rooted in Shaivism, as well as the syncretism between Vaishnava and Shaivaite doctrines at the time.

In Hindu belief, the concept of hell is essentially based on that of deprivation and loss.  Punishment, however, is not everlasting; it is temporary and is succeeded by rebirth.  Hell is not the condemnation of the soul, but of its sins.  Suffering in hell is thus a necessary process of purification, after which the sinner can be reborn, unstained.  The punishments of the hells have the function of the Christian Purgatory, where the length of terrible expiation is counted in thousands of years.

The punishments in hell vary according to the punishment in society, it seems the whole concept of hell rests ultimately on the laws of social behaviour, and the elaborate list of sins here certainly paints a colourful picture of Angkorean society.  Perhaps the punishments described are not purely imaginary, but were based on actual Khmer practices.  We will never know, Khmer beliefs on heavens and hells would have been described in sacred scrolls stored in the temple 'libraries', but none of those texts survive today.  The closest thing we have are the texts used at a much later date (mid XIV century CE) by Sukhothai's king Luthai to compile the Trai Phum (The Three Worlds).  As here at Angkor Wat, 32 hells are described in the Trai Phum, each with their own name.


You can enjoy more of my images from Angkor Wat Temple by clicking here:  My Work at Angkor Wat Temple.


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