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29 September 2013

A Thai book of merit: Phra Malai’s journeys to heaven and hell

 The legend of Phra Malai, a Buddhist monk of the Theravada tradition said to have attained supernatural powers through his accumulated merit and meditation, is the main text in a nineteenth-century Thai folding book (samut khoi) held in the Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections (Or. 16101). Phra Malai figures prominently in Thai art, religious treatises, and rituals associated with the afterlife, and the story is one of the most popular subjects of nineteenth-century illustrated Thai manuscripts. The earliest  surviving examples of Phra Malai manuscripts date back to the late eighteenth century, although it is assumed that the story is much older, being based on a Pali text. The legend also has some parallels with the Ksitigarbha Sutra.

The Thai text in this manuscript is combined with extracts in Pali from the Abhidhammapitaka, Vinayapitaka, Suttantapitaka, Sahassanaya, and illustrations from the Last Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha (Thai thotsachat). Altogether, the manuscript has 95 folios with illustrations on 17 folios. It was very common to combine these or similar texts in one manuscript, with Phra Malai forming the main part. These texts are written in Khom script, a variant of Khmer script often used in Central Thai religious manuscripts. Although Khom script, which was regarded as sacred, was normally used for texts in Pali, in the Thai manuscript tradition, the story of Phra Malai is always presented in Thai. Because Khmer script was not designed for a tonal language like Thai, tone markers and certain vowels that do not exist in Khmer script have been adopted in Khom script to support the proper Thai pronunciation and intonation.

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Vidura and Vessantara Jatakas (Or 16101, folio 6)

Most of the text is in black ink on paper made from the bark of the khoi tree (streblus asper). However, the text accompanying the illustrations of the Last Ten Birth Tales is written in gold ink on blackened khoi paper, emphasizing the importance of these Jatakas symbolising the ten virtues of the Buddha. Gold ink, as well lavish gilt and lacquered covers, added value and prestige to the manuscript, which was commissioned on occasion of a funeral service. The commission and production of funeral presentation volumes was regarded as a way of earning merit on behalf of the deceased. 

Other miniature paintings depict the Buddha in meditation, scenes from the life of Phra Malai, as well as genre scenes of lay people. According to a colophon in Thai script on the first folio, the manuscript is dated 2437 BE (AD 1894).

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Phra Malai visiting hell (Or 16101, folio 8)

During his visits to hell (naraka), Phra Malai is said to bestow mercy on the creatures suffering there. They implore him to warn their relatives on earth of the horrors of hell and how they can escape it through making merit on behalf of the deceased, meditation and by following Buddhist precepts.

Although the subject of hell is mentioned in the Pali canon (for example, in the Nimi Jataka, the Lohakumbhi Jataka, the Samkicca Jataka, the Devaduta Sutta, the Balapanditta Sutta, the Peta-vatthu etc.) the legend of Phra Malai is thought to have contributed significantly to the idea of hell in Thai society.

Back in the human realm, the monk receives an offering of eight lotus flowers from a poor woodcutter, which he eventually offers at the Chulamani Chedi, a heavenly stupa believed to contain a relic of the Buddha. In Tavatimsa heaven, Phra Malai converses with the god Indra and the Buddha-to-come, Metteyya, who reveals to the monk insights about the future of mankind.

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Lotus offering scene, Or 16101, folio 28

Through recitations of Phra Malai the karmic effects of human actions were taught to the faithful at funerals and other merit-making occasions. Following Buddhist precepts, obtaining merit, and attending performances of the Vessantara Jataka all counted as virtues that increased the chances of a favourable rebirth, or Nirvana in the end.

Illustrated folding books were produced for a range of different purposes in Thai Buddhist monasteries and at royal and local courts. They served as handbooks and chanting manuals for Buddhist monks and novices. Producing folding books or sponsoring them was regarded as especially meritorious. They often, therefore, functioned as presentation volumes in honor of the deceased. It comes as no surprise that this manuscript contains an illustration of a lavishly decorated coffin attended by two Buddhist monks who are trying to fend off two ‘fake’ monks.

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Funeral scene (Or 16101, folio 92)

Traditionally, Thai monks reciting the legend of Phra Malai would embellish and dramatise their performances, contrary to their strict behavioural rules. By the end of the nineteenth century, monks were officially banned from such performances. As a result, retired or ‘fake’ monks often delivered the popular performances, unconstrained by the rules of the Sangha.

A full text digital copy of Or 16101 can be viewed online at British Library Digitised Manuscripts.

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Lacquered front cover with gilt flower ornaments (Or 16101)

Further reading

There is an excellent translation from Thai into English of the entire legend of Phra Malai by Bonnie Pacala Brereton, which is included in her book Thai Tellings of Phra Malai – texts and rituals concerning a Buddhist Saint. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona State University, 1995

Chawalit, Maenmas (ed.): Samut khoi. Bangkok: Khrongkan suepsan moradok watthanatham Thai, 1999
Ginsburg, Henry: Thai art and culture: historic manuscripts from Western Collections. London: British Library, 2000
Ginsburg, Henry: Thai manuscript painting. London: British Library, 1989
Igunma, Jana: ʻAksoon Khoom - Khmer heritage in Thai and Lao manuscript cultures.ʼ In: Tai Culture Vol. 23. Berlin : SEACOM, 2013
Igunma, Jana: ʻPhra Malai - A Buddhist Saint’s Journeys to Heaven and Hell.ʼ 
Peltier, Anatole: ʻIconographie de la légende de Braḥ Mālay.ʼ BEFEO, Tome LXXI (1982), pp. 63-76
Wenk, Klaus: Thailändische Miniaturmalererien nach einer Handschrift der Indischen Kunstabteilung der Staatlichen Museen Berlin. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1965
Zwalf, W. (ed.): Buddhism: art and faith. London: British Museum Publications, 1985

Jana Igunma, Asian and African Studies


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