Phra Malai is a legendary Buddhist monk whose stories are popular in the canon of Thai Theravada Buddhism. He is the subject of numerous manuscripts, folding books (samut khoi), and artworks. His story, which includes concepts such as reincarnation, merit, and Buddhist cosmology, was a popular part of Thai funeral practices in the nineteenth century.
Phra Malai, according to the various versions of the story, was a Buddhist monk who accumulated so much merit that he acquired great supernatural abilities. Using his powers, he traveled to the various Buddhist hells, where he meets the suffering denizens and is implored to have their living relatives make merit on their behalf. He later traveled to the heavenly realm of the devas, where he meets Indra and Maitreya, who instruct him further in merit-making. Beyond the basic elements of the legend, further embellishments and flourishes were often added during recitations of the tale, to better entertain the audience.
The earliest known Phra Malai manuscripts date from the late-18th century, but most are from the 19th. It is possible that the story originated in Sri Lanka, but it was only recorded in Southeast Asia, with its greatest popularity being in Thailand. The Phra Malai story was often read at funerals as part of the entertainment during the wake, with many monks adding dramatic twists to entertain the audience. Starting during the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV), these performances were seen as inappropriate, and monks were banned from reciting Phra Malai during funerals, but the ban was circumvented by using former monks dressed in monastic robes to perform the recitations.
Phra Malai was an extremely popular subject of illuminated manuscripts in 19th-century Thailand. The story was often written in folding samut khoi books, using Khmer script to write the Thai language, often in highly colloquial and risque style. Most Phra Malai manuscripts include seven subjects, normally in pairs: devas or gods; monks attended by laymen; scenes of hell; scenes of picking lotus flowers; Phra Malai with Indra at a heavenly stupa; devas floating in the air; and contrasting scenes of quarreling evil people and meditating good people. These books were used as chanting manuals for monks and novices; as it was considered very meritorious to produce or sponsor them, they were often produced as a presentation volume for the recently deceased.