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Temple: Buddhist Temple Compounds in South Asia


During the life of the Buddha (sixth to fifth century bce), he and his disciples were sheltered by lay followers near various urban centers in North India. After his death, according to Buddhist tradition, his body was given royal cremation, and relics were distributed among eight city-states, which then established royal burial mounds (stupas) incorporating these relics in order to memorialize him. Two centuries later the Mauryan emperor Aśoka (r. c. 270230 bce) is said to have reopened these stupas to distribute the relics more widely in his attempt to spread the Buddha's teachings; Buddhist tradition relates that Aśoka established 84,000 stupas throughout the empire.

Compounds in South Asia

Though shelters for the monks and stupas as monuments to memorialize the Buddha and his teaching defined the physical requirements of Buddhist architecture for many centuries, symbolic and ritual requirements gradually transformed such elements into what properly can be called Buddhist temple compounds.

Stupas and stupa-shrines

A stupa originally was used to mark the relics of the Buddha or one of his principal disciples, as well as significant objects (such as the Buddha's begging bowl) or places related to his life or sanctified by his presence. At the same time, however, the structure of such a memorial stupa incorporated cosmogonic and cosmological references relating to a point or place of cosmic origination (the egg, aa ), to a vertical axis marking cosmic parturition, and to the cardinal orientation of the created universe. Rituals related to such cosmogonic and cosmological beliefs must have been carried out around large stupas such as those constructed at Sāñcī, Taxila, or Amarāvatī. Small stupas, set up by laity as well as by members of the Buddha's order (sagha ), were often used as votive markers of a follower's devotion. A major complex such as that at Sāñcī grew to include large stupas, monastic establishments, clusters of votive monuments, and eventually temples enshrining objects intended for devotional worship. Large free-standing stupas as ritual centers continue to mark major Buddhist sites in South Asia, as well as in Myanmar, Nepal, Tibet, and Sri Lanka.

Initially, the Buddha himself, as a great teacher who had transcended the cycle of birth and rebirth through his teachings, was not the focus of devotional practice. The stupa, however, standing both for his presence and for a Buddhist and Indian conception of universal order, took on its own devotional aspect; shelters were constructed for the stupa and its worshipers, as in the structural stupa-shrine at Bairat or the excavated (rock-carved) stupa-houses (caityagha ) at Guntupalli and Junnar.

From these early enclosed stupas evolved a major type of Buddhist structure, the caitya hall, housing an object used as a focus for worship (caitya ). These caitya halls are typically apsidal structures with a central nave and side aisles; a stupa is placed prominently (and mysteriously) within the apse. The structural examples are known only from their foundations, but a number of rock-carved caitya halls survive in the Western Ghat mountains.

The earliest of these, at Bhājā, Bedsa, and Kondane date from the second or first centuries bce; the largest, at Kārlī, from the first century ce; the latest, at Ellora, from perhaps the early seventh century ce. Located on trade routes and patronized by merchants and others from nearby urban centers, these large establishments also provided monastic cells for wandering monks and abbots, and sheltered pilgrims and travelers. At Bhājā, the abbot's cave has a veranda guarded by large images of the sun and rain gods, Sūrya and Indra; the individual monastic cells at Kaherī, scattered across a hillside outside of Mumbai, have stone beds and pillows, verandas, and grilled windows, each carefully located to take advantage of views through the neighboring hills to the harbor beyond. Both nuns and monks inhabited these cells, and helped to sponsor them, forming a community of followers who served the site and eventually might die and be memorialized there.

In the early centuries of the Common Era, much sectarian debate occurred within Buddhism over the role of the stupawhether its function was primarily votive, memorial, or cultic. The concept of the transcendent Buddha with emissaries (bodhisattvas ) to assist the devotee led to the introduction of images of the Buddha for worship; at the site of Nāgārjunikoa (third to fourth century ce) excavations have revealed a complex that combines a large, freestanding stupa, a monastic dormitory (vihāra ), and a pair of apsidal caitya halls facing each other, with a stupa in one apse and an image of the Buddha in the other. In fifth-century caitya halls excavated at the great Buddhist cave site of Ajantā, an image of the Buddha, placed against the apse-stupa as if emerging from it, is a standard part of the complex. In cave 29, a gigantic image of the Buddha, reclining at the moment of his death and transcendence, fills the left wall of the cave as well, his feet placed toward the apse and his head toward daylight at the entrance.

Ajantā has more than thirty-two rock-cut Buddhist caves placed along the face of a horseshoe-shaped gorge; several date between the first century bce and the first century ce. Two of these early caves and two dating from the fifth century ce are caitya halls; the remainder take a vihāra form. The concept of a cosmic Buddha, still accessible to his monastic aspirants, led to a significant change in the nature of such a Buddhist establishment, however.

The Buddha's body

That the Buddha in his cosmic body could both be visible to worshipers and live among the members of his sagha is the mystery of later Buddhism. Friar Bala, the high-status monk who set up the earliest images and inscribed images at both Sārnāth and Śrāvastī late in the first century ce, called them bodhisattvas the Buddha returned to the worshiper, his "body made of mind" (manomaya ). A third image, at Kauśāmbī, was dedicated by Buddhamitrā, a nun. Such images were set up under umbrellas marked with cosmological signs, on thrones at the base of trees, within railings as were other open-air caityas, in association with previously built stupas or those in caitya halls, and ultimately in temple-shelters of their own.

Monasteries and monastic shrines

For many centuries after the death of the Buddha, monastic retreats were provided principally for the assembly of monks during the rainy season, but such places took on other functions over time, becoming retreats for lay travelers and eventually centers for learning. Foundations at Taxila in the northwest and at the important Buddhist university of Nālandā in Bihar show monastic complexes in the shape of rectilinear compounds with cells enclosing a central shared court. Monks lived in these cells much as students live in a Banaras Hindu University dormitory today.

Early monastic caves, carved in conjunction with major caitya halls (as at Bhājā and Kārlī), show cells arranged along verandas set into the surface of the rock. Gradually such rock-carved sites began to mimic constructed monastic compounds, with cells surrounding an "open" court encased in the rock (the actual cave ceilings over these courts were painted to resemble cloth coverings hung as shelters from sun and rain).

At Ajantā, side-by-side with fifth-century ce apsidal caitya halls, members of the royal Vākāaka court had similar monastic caves excavated but added to them an enlarged hall on axis with the cave entrance, in which an image of the cosmic Buddha was enshrined. These vihāra caves thus served as votive "temples," donated by the Vākāaka kings and their ministers, as well as residences for high members of the sagha.

Buddhist Expansion

In the region of Gandhāra in the northwest, through which Buddhism spread toward Central Asia, large monastic compounds also had associated stupas, sometimes placed in the center of the court, as well as a gandhakuī (sweet-smelling chamber) among the monks' rooms assigned as the residence of the Buddha. Gandhāran sculptural reliefs also show thatch-domed structures with arched entrances, which shelter small stupas or relic containers as if for worship. These "vernacular" wooden or wattle-and-daub caitya shrines are sometimes depicted built on large platforms with a long central flight of steps and corner pillars marking the compound as if equivalent to the large ritual stupas built in this region, as that at Saidu Sharif. Clusters of votive stupas, as at Bhājā and Kaherī, sometimes have inscriptions assigning each to a particular deceased member of the monastic community.

Relic shrines and Buddhist retreats

As Buddhism spread to the northwest and south in the first centuries bce, relic shrines became a significant component of monastic and ritual compounds. In Gandhāra in the northwest, these could be simple shed-shelters placed in association with large ritual stupas, or they could take the form of relic stupas with enclosed chambers giving access to relic caskets. In South India, carved reliefs also sometimes depict circular thatch-domed shelters that frame reliquary urns. The cult of relicsof the Buddha and of his monastic followersgave a major impetus to the process of conversion and the spread of Buddhism in both regions.

One first-century bce relief from an early Buddhist stupa site in Karnataka, Kanganhalli, uniquely depicts a stepped embankment with pilgrims, much like the steps of the ghāt (tank) excavated at the important Buddhist center of Nāgārjunakoa. Four sacred structures shown lined up at the top consist of a solid stupa, a stupa set on a circular platform that has a visible reliquary shrine within, a sacred tree shrine, and what seems to be a large stepped altar.

Other fragmentary reliefs from Kanganhalli represent the model for all Buddhist compounds, the vihāra and "sweet-smelling" huts of the Jetavana garden into which the Buddha and his followers took retreat. More detailed than similar narrative depictions from Barhut, these reliefs from Kanganhalli show simple gates and compound walls, an oxcart bringing coins to be spread out in payment, simple ascetics' huts (presumably the gandhakuī and kosambakutī hut for monks from Kosambī), a tree shrine, an altar marked with footprints, a "walking path" for the Buddha, and a large tapering multistoried central assembly hall (vihāra ).

Landscape, statehood, and pilgrimage

The siting of Buddhist compounds was of utmost importance. Located along trade and pilgrimage routes from an early period, Buddhist establishments served merchants and coreligionists as way stations in the wilderness, retreats in proximity to urban centers, and markers at sites (tirthas ) sacred to other groups. If the Jetavana garden was one model, the miracle at Śrāvastī where the Buddha manifest himself in a multitude of forms provided a rationale. Stupas, monasteries, caitya halls, and relic shrines all formed part of a natural landscape mapped by pilgrims, merchants, monks, and nuns. The stupas on Sāñcī hill; caitya halls and monasteries in Ajantā's horseshoe gorge; retreats carved into the Western Ghat mountains; the manmade embankment (ghāt ), tanks, and shrines laid out along a river at Nāgārjunakoa; monasteries marching up the valleys through Swat; all intentionally partake of nature and integrate themselves within a landscape. That we are largely unable to reconstruct initial principles of Buddhist planning should not detract us from understanding that the result was intended to be what one scholar has described as a mesocosm a sacred landscape in the living world.

A pilgrimage and political complex such as that at Bamiyan, Afghanistanas famous for its frescoes as for the two giant Buddha statues destroyed in 2001 by the Talibancan well exemplify the extent to which a Buddhist compound could incorporate and model the world. Long before the explicit rendering of buildings as cosmic maps (maalas ), as in Tibet, was common, Buddhist sites in South Asia less formally "centered" nature to bring the universe alive. At Bamiyan, a long cliff with mountains looming behind is honeycombed with pilgrim's caves. Two gigantic standing Buddha statues were carved into the cliff some distance apart by the seventh century ce; a third reclining image of the Buddha's mahāparinirvāa was also recorded by pilgrim accounts. The cliff's facade was a single canvas, dwarfed by the landscape of the valley, but to visit these images in ritual order according to one scholar was to retrace the spiritual career of the historical Buddha Śākyamuni. Bamiyan's valley became the "compound" within which ambulation and pilgrimage occurred, as by extension did the kingdom of Bamiyan and the human-occupied Jambudvīpa continent cited so frequently in early Buddhist inscriptions and texts. Also in this valley in front of these images, according to the seventh-century ce Chinese visitor Xuanzang, the king performed a state ritual (the Pañcavārika) in which he gives up his wealth and "body" and then has them restored. By doing so each year he guaranteed the well-being of the assembled community.

Buddhist Temples

Bodh Gayā, the site in Eastern India at which the historical Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment, reflects successive changes in Buddhist belief and practice. Under the present bodhi tree rests a stone altar set up in the time of Aśoka Maurya to mark the place of the Buddha's enlightenment. The tree and altar are surrounded by a modern railing mimicking the form of an ancient tree shrine, but railing pieces from the Śunga period (second to first centuries bce) remain nearby. Such open enclosures set around objects of worship (trees, pillars, images of nature spirits, stupas) represent pre-Buddhist practices that were absorbed into the iconography of popular Buddhism. Set next to the tree shrine is a large and restored brick temple of the seventh century ce, pyramidal in shape, its surface ornamented to suggest a multi-terraced palatial structure not unlike the vihāra represented in the Kanganhalli relief. A large image of the Buddha is enshrined within the present structure for worship. A relief on a second- to third-century ce terra-cotta plaque from Kumrāhār demonstrates that an earlier shrine in much the same form was already there by that period. Though such a Buddhist temple structure was based exclusively on Indian palatial forms, its conceptualization already suggests a model for the later pagoda temples that range from Nepal through East Asia, although these draw on a different architectural language for their sheltering roofs. The distinctive importance of Bodh Gayā is attested by numerous votive miniature representations of this temple from along trade and pilgrimage routes into southeast Asia.

Terraced "temples" of a different sort were built across North India, most notably at Kumrāhār, Paharpur, and Lauīya Nandangah. These structures, suggesting temple-mountains, featured cruciform bases with reentrant angles, on which stood either stupas or temple structures. The temples, and sometimes the stupas, had shrines facing the cardinal directions. The great terraced temple at Paharpur was also set within an enormous monastic court.

The most extensive representation of such terraced temple structures is found among the monuments scattered across the vast plains of Burma, particularly at Pagan. The Ananda temple there has a cruciform plan, interior ambulatories, and a central temple-like superstructure dating originally from the early eleventh century.

Cosmological compounds

The grandest expression of such an architectural conception within the Buddhist tradition, and one that reflects an increasingly perceived relationship between a manifest cosmic order and the responsibilities of Buddhism to provide visible aids to the aspirant struggling toward release, was the monument at Borobudur in Java, begun in the eighth century, but undoubtedly with South Asian prototypes. Though we are told that the compound underwent four periods of construction, with changing, possibly even conflicting, conceptions of its final design, one overriding metaphysical interpretation seems ultimately to emerge. In the opinion of most scholars, its five square terraced galleries covered by sculpture and its three upper circular terraces set with seventy-two perforated stupas and crowned by a solid stupa (with two empty chambers) were meant to incorporate and represent a Buddhist metaphysics, both cosmological and ontological, through which aspirants could ultimately find their way to release. In Cambodia as well, where Khmer rulers patronized both Hindu and Buddhist structures, the association of the king with the bodhisattva Lokeśvara reflected the former's role as representative of such a cosmic order on earth.

From their simple beginnings as shelters for aspiring monks to memorialize a past teacher, Buddhist compounds became cosmogonic and cosmological monuments, accommodating both state structures and lay rituals, and eventually restoring the Buddha to his worshipers as a cosmic presence, accessible to monks and laity for devotion as well as instruction. Indeed, they became institutions to mold human aspiration as permanent in form as the urban society the Buddha once had renounced. This transformation reflected the strength, pragmatism, and flexibility of the Buddha's teachings and provides some explanation for the success of Buddhism's great missionary expansion from India into other parts of the Asian world.


Bareau, André. "La construction et le culte des stūpa d'apré le Vinayakapiaka." Bulletin de l'École Francaise d'Extreme-Orient 5 (1962): 229274. A presentation of textual evidence for interpreting the uses put to the stupa within Indian Buddhism.

Coomaraswamy, Anada K. Essays in Early Indian Architecture, edited by Michael W. Meister. New Delhi, 1992. Classic documentation and interpretive essays on the representation of early India architecture in Buddhist sculpture.

Dehejia, Vidya. Early Buddhist Rock Temples. Ithaca, N.Y., 1972. Concise, scholarly survey of the early Buddhist rock-cut tradition in India.

Dumarcay, Jacques. Borobudur. Oxford, 1978. A significant analysis by the architect responsible for the conservation of the Borobudur monument.

Dutt, Sukumar. Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India. London, 1962. A pioneering study connecting Buddhist compounds and their users.

Faccenna, Domenico. Saidu Sharif I (Swat, Pakistan); vol. 2: The Buddhist Sacred Area: The Stūpa Terrace. Rome, 1995. Preliminary excavations report on a type-setting stupa and monastery complex in Swat.

Gutschow, Niels. The Nepalese Caitya: 1500 Years of Buddhist Votive Architecture in the Kathmandu Valley. Stuttgart, Germany, and London, 1997. An environmentally and culturally sensitive study of stupa complexes in Nepal.

Klimburg-Salter, Deborah E. The Kingdom of Bāmiyān: Buddhist Art and Culture of the Hindu Kush. Naples, Italy, 1989. Interpretive exploration of the site and setting for the giant Buddha images and related caves at this important pilgrimage center in Afghanistan.

Levy, Robert I. Mesocosm: Hinduism and the Organization of a Traditional Newar City in Nepal. Berkeley, Calif., 1990. A significant anthropological investigation of the mental space of urban planning in traditional Nepal.

Meister, Michael W. "Notes Toward the Study of Representations of Early Indian Architecture, Kanganhalli." In Prasadam: Recent Researches on Archaeology, Art, Architecture and Culture, edited by S.S. Ramachandra Murty, D. Bhaskara Murti, and D. Kiran Kranth Choudary. New Delhi, 2004. Important excavated evidence for early Buddhist compounds.

Mitra, Debala. Buddhist Monuments. Calcutta, 1971. A general but detailed and well-informed survey of both Buddhist belief and monuments in India by a past director general of the Archaeological Survey of India.

Sarkar, H. Studies in Early Buddhist Architecture in India. Delhi, India, 1966. An important study bringing together research and the results of recent excavations.

Schopen, Gregory. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India. Honolulu, 1997. A significant repositioning of lay and monastic popular practice surrounding monuments away from Buddhist canonical texts.

Slusser, Mary Shepherd. Nepal Mandala: A Cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley. Princeton, N.J., 1982. A magisterial introduction to the cities, monuments, and history of this once closed Himalayan kingdom.

Stone, Elizabeth Rosen. The Buddhist Art of Nāgārjunakonda. Delhi, 1994. Definitive study of archaeological evidence from the most important region for early Buddhism in southern India.

Michael W. Meister (2005)

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