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The holy monk Phra Malai visiting hell
approx. 1850–1900
Lacquered and gilded copper alloy with pigment
Gift of Dr. Sarah Bekker, 2008.80

Phra Malai is usually identified in artworks by his monk’s belongings: a monastic fan and an alms bowl, which may be held in a sling over his shoulder.

The Phra Malai story focuses on two themes: the rewards of pious donations and the punishments in hell of those who have committed sins.

Sculptures seem to emphasize Phra Malai’s visit to hell more than his visit to heaven. Hell is portrayed by grotesque figures on the base of statues. On the base of no. 94 four human beings are paying respect to Phra Malai from hell. On no. 95 frightening animal-headed underworld creatures alternate with skeletal sinners appealing to Phra Malai for assistance so they can be saved and reborn in a heaven, while other sinners stew in vats. On the upper surface of the base a corpse is attacked by a huge worm.

all text & images © Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

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