Temple: Buddhist Temple Compounds in Southeast Asia

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Buddhists in Southeast Asia have established temple compounds of importance since ancient times. In Java, significant complexes were built in the eighth and ninth centuries (in Central Java) and in the eleventh to fifteenth centuries (in East Java), prior to the spread of Islam. In mainland Southeast Asia, where Theravāda Buddhism is practiced today, the development of Buddhist temples can be traced from early historical times through the present.

Because so many temple compounds have included dwelling places for monks, it is sometimes held that it is preferable to speak of monasteries, rather than temples. Since, however, monastic establishments are in general places of public worship, either term is acceptable. Temple compounds can include the same elements found in India: the stupa, which need not contain an actual relic of the Buddha; a sanctuary or a hall holding a principal Buddha image; and housing for monks. In the living traditions of Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand (together with Laos and Cambodia), special importance is attached to halls that can accommodate public worship and to those that provide for monastic ceremonies a space that is necessarily demarcated by ritual boundary stones. Sometimes these halls are distinct, sometimes one in the same.

In this entry, a survey of developments in Southeast Asia follows descriptions of three complexes of particular distinction and ambition: Borobudur in Central Java (eighth to ninth centuries); the Nagayon in Pagan, Burma (eleventh century); and Wat Phra Chettuphon in Bangkok, Thailand (eighteenth to nineteenth centuries).


Borobudur, or Chandi Borobudur, is a unique monument, the profundity of which has been widely acknowledged, even in the absence of general agreement about its interpretation. It may be regarded as a stupa elevated upon a sequence of terraces, as in such later structures as the twelfth-century Dhammayazika at Pagan (where the terraces bear reliefs depicting Buddhist birth stories) and the Kumbum in Gyantse, Tibet (where niches on the terraces hold images of deities in the Vajrayāna pantheon). Its Indian antecedents are obscure. In complexity, quality of workmanship, and expressiveness, Borobudur surpasses these later buildings and perhaps all other Buddhist monuments.

The original 160 relief panels encircling the lowest quadrangular story were covered with stone blocks, apparently before the monument reached its ultimate shape, as a result of a need to prevent subsidence. These reliefs depict scenes of cause and effect, such as appropriate punishments for evil deeds. Above are four stories generally referred to as galleries. Each of these can be circumambulated by a visitor entering from one of the four axial stairs, and each contains a major series of narrative reliefs on the inner wall, with reliefs of lesser importance on the outer wall. The height of the outer wall prevents views out to the landscape. In the first gallery, the primary 120 panels depict the life of the Buddha through his enlightenment; directly below, the reliefs depict Buddhist tales, both jātakas and avadānas. On the second and third galleries, the primary reliefs depict the Gaavyūha Sūtra, specifically the visits of the pilgrim Sudhana to "good friends," who provide instruction in Mahāyāna Buddhist doctrine according to Avatasaka tenets, and Sudhana's arrival at the Tower of Maitreya, characterized in the text as a fantastic architectural structure that provides a visualization of the nature of the dharmadhātu, the "truth realm" or phenomenal world as perceived by buddhas. The reliefs of the fourth and topmost gallery are devoted to the Samantabhadra vows, a text describing miraculous visions and committing the pilgrim to the bodhisattva path, and to the vow to remain in the world, aiding suffering creatures until all beings can enter nirvāa together. Overlooking each of these four galleries are life-sized buddha images in niches (in all, 368 images); these are differentiated according to direction on the first three galleries; over the fourth gallery, all the buddhas execute a teaching gesture.

After the fourth gallery, the visitor enters a "plateau," above which rise three concentric terraces, which hold a total of seventy-two (thirty-two, twenty-four, and sixteen) perforated stupas with diamond-shaped and square openings, through which is visible a life-sized sculpture of the Buddha performing the teaching gesture known as dharmacakra mudrā. Crowning the monument is a much larger central stupa, which is solid. From these terraces the visitor has a view over the landscape.

The reliefs of the covered base and the four galleries present a straightforward pilgrimage along the bodhisattva path of Mahāyāna Buddhism. The significance of the upper terraces, on the other hand, is less clear. Older interpretations draw conclusions from points of connection with Buddhist cosmology, seeing in the half-hidden buddhas of the perforated stupas a move toward the invisibility of the topmost "formless realm" of the Buddhist cosmos. One recent interpretation argues that the upper terraces represent an ideal world, contrasting with and paralleling the real world of the galleries, and that the perforated stupas convey higher meditational experience in two ways. The openings in the stupas are actually the shapes of the breaths of the meditator, who is paying visits on the terraces to the planets and stars, the moon, and the sun. Secondly, if the stupas were gilded and reflected each other and the visitor, they would have conveyed the nature of the dharmadhātu, in which enlightened ones perceive phenomena as resembling a hall of mirrors. It may be that originally Borobudur was to be crowned with a sanctuary that would have stood for the Tower of Maitreya as illustrated in the third-gallery reliefs. A change of plan resulted in the terraces with perforated stupas, unique in the Buddhist world, but paralleling chakras ("circles," psychic centers within the human trunk) of lotuses with thirty-two, twenty-four, and sixteen petals, like those found in the Tantric texts that were soon to dominate Indian monastic centers.

The Nagayon

The Nagayon, a relatively small temple constructed in the late eleventh century, is one of the oldest buildings in the ancient capital of Pagan, Burma. Constructed of brick and stucco, it reflects older traditions of northern India and Bangladesh, and its spire takes the form of the śikhara of the northern Indian Hindu shrine. There are three interior spaces: a hall, an ambulatory, and a sanctuary. Ten niches in the hall hold sculptures depicting important events in the life of the Buddha. On the inner and outer walls of the ambulatory, which encircles the sanctuary, beside murals (originally) illustrating the Buddha's life and birth stories, are sixty niches with sculptures. Twenty-eight of these niches hold a sequence of images of buddhas, representing the historical Buddha Gautama and his twenty-seven predecessors in the distant past. In a panel below each buddha of the past appears a small-scale figure who represents the contemporary incarnation of Gautama hearing a prediction regarding future buddhahood. For instance, the Buddha Dipankara informed the hermit Sumedha that he would become a buddha after innumerable eons. From the darkened ambulatory, the visitor enters the sanctuary, in height nearly double that of the ambulatory; it has small clerestory windows through which, under the right conditions, light falls upon the head of the tall standing central Buddha image, with magical effect.

A passage found in Sanskrit avadāna texts describes a miracle of the Buddha: the Buddha smiles, rays of light emerge from his eyeteeth, ascend to the higher heavens and descend to the earth, and then return to the Buddha's mouth. This passage is found also in an inscription of the reigning Burmese king, Kyanzittha (10841111). The Buddha smiled because he was about to predict to his disciple Ānanda the reign of Kyanzittha himself. Therefore the visitor to the Nagayon, having pondered the giving of predictions in the sculptures of the ambulatory, enters the sanctuary to find dramatically re-created the Buddha's smile, the miracle of the light rays, and, it is implied, a prediction.

Wat Phra Chettuphon

The Holy Chettuphon Monastery, which occupies an extensive compound adjacent to the royal palace in Bangkok, does not aspire to present the sort of ultimate experiences a pilgrim can find at both Borobudur and the Nagayon. It is, on the other hand, an encyclopedic monastery, constructed in such a way as to encompass all Buddhist thought, as well as history and the learned sciences. Chettuphon is the Thai pronunciation of Jetavana, a compound presented to the Buddha by one of his patrons, where the Buddha spent nineteen rainy seasons. The monastery is commonly known as Wat Pho, a memory of its pre-1791 name, the Bodh-ārāma, "Enlightenment Park." The monastery is divided into two main walled sections, one consisting of dwelling places for the abbot and for hundreds of monks, the other, which will be briefly described here, of dozens of buildings, some commemorative in nature, some for public worship, and some for instruction, all either aligned or hierarchically arranged. Nearly all the structures in the monastery were constructed in the course of building campaigns by two monarchs, Rama I (r. 17821809) and Rama III (r. 18241851).

The primary structure is the uposatha (sabbath) hall (in Thai, the bōt ), a massive rectangular building (the exterior measures 51 by 29 meters; the interior, 31 by 19 meters) entered from the east, and housing a large image of the Buddha at the western end. A bōt is a structure necessarily surrounded by a set of eight ritual boundary stones (sīmā) that permanently set aside a sacred space. Only in the bōt may the monks recite the 227 rules of the discipline, which they must do twice a month, and only in the bōt may ordinations be held.

Second in importance to the bōt is a group of four stupas to the west, uncharacteristically set slightly askew from the bōt axis but still positioned in such a way that the worshiper in the bōt who pays homage to the main image is also honoring the stupas that lie beyond. The main stupa holds the remains of a Buddha image dedicated in 1503 at the principal royal monastery in the former capital of Ayutthaya (abandoned in 1767 following a war with Burma); the three other stupas commemorate kings Rama II, III, and IV. Further west stands the library.

Themes of royal commemoration and of the heritage of the former capital of Ayutthaya (13511767) number among the many layers of meaning at Wat Phra Chettuphon. Rama I's ashes were installed by Rama IV under the pedestal of the main image in the bōt. Encircling the outer wall of the bōt are 152 marble narrative relief panels depicting the Indian epic the Rāmāyana, beginning with the abduction of Prince Rāma's beloved Sītā by the demon king and ending with some of the victory battles by Rāma's forces in Lanka. These reliefs spread the message that righteous kings make Buddhist monasticism possible, and they may also have had an esoteric content, alluding to stages of meditation. (They also reinforced the monastery's position as a center of learning and literary culture in the reign of Rama III.) The image placed inside the main stupa is not the only old image at Wat Phra Chettuphon; in fact, in the primary and secondary galleries that surround the bōt there are rows of hundreds of bronze seated buddha images brought from Ayutthaya and cities further north by Rama I.

Other layers of meaning involve specifically Buddhist messages. Easily explicable systematic intent is found in at least some of the four vihāra (Thai, wihān; image hall) that surround the bōt and are connected by the primary and secondary galleries. The main image in the northern wihān, for instance, shows the Buddha seated in a forest as an elephant and a monkey bring him offerings, while the original murals and inscriptions were devoted to the thirteen ascetic practices, solitary forest pursuits that contrast with the communal activities of the urban monastery, which are apparently connoted in the southern wihān. The western wihān, lying between the bōt and the stupas, originally held murals depicting the stories of the Buddha's hair relic and of his footprintsthat is, of the tangible legacies he bequeathed. The subject matter of these murals is out of the ordinary; in the most common schemes, as found in image halls, the Buddha's defeat of the army of the devil is depicted on the eastern (or entrance) wall, Buddhist cosmology on the western wall (behind the principal image), and the life of the Buddha or the stories of the last ten of his previous existences on the side walls.

Wat Phra Chettuphon, unlike Borobudur or the Nagayon, provides no single climactic experience. It has been argued, however (by Chot Kanlayanamit, a twentieth-century traditional Thai architect), that the ornamental elements of Thai image halls and stupas are characterized by quietude, lightness, and levitation, three qualities that themselves convey the character of Buddhist meditation and spiritual ascent.

Historical Overview

The history of Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia can to some degree be reduced to the history of elements mentioned so far: the stupa, the sanctuary, and the image hall, which may or may not also be an uposatha hall. Additional elements include the library and dwelling places for monks. The history is greatly complicated, however, by variations and changes in the relative importance of these elements and by the fact that for the earlier periods no evidence survives of wooden structures, either free-standing or erected upon brick platforms.

In Java, aside from the exceptional Borobudur, stone sanctuaries dominate surviving temple sites. In Central Java, sanctuaries, including single-chambered, triple-chambered, and cruciform types, held various configurations of buddhas and bodhisattvas. During the East Javanese period, stone sanctuaries accommodated deities seen as participating in a Buddhist-Hindu syncretism, and they frequently bore narrative relief sculptures on the exterior, illustrating Javanese texts. The situation in classical Cambodia was somewhat similar; in form, Buddhist sanctuaries were indistinguishable from Hindu ones until the construction at Angkor of the Bayon (c. 1200), which has giant faces on its towers. Scholars still debate the original meaning of these faces, but traditional Cambodian thought connects them with the Brahmā gods of the higher levels of the Buddhist cosmos.

In Pagan, Burma (eleventh to thirteenth centuries and later), many of the temples have configurations similar to the one seen at the Nagayon. The much larger Ananda (c. 1100) takes the form of four Nagayon-like temples back-to-back, emanating from a solid brick core. Sculptures depicting the life of the Buddha are placed in niches in interior corridors, where the play of light has a role somewhat like that found at the Nagayon. The exterior is encircled by glazed terra-cotta panels at ground level depicting the army of the devil and worshiping gods in a giant reenactment of the events of the night of the Buddha's enlightenment; on the tiered roof, hundreds of panels illustrate the Buddha's previous lives. At Pagan subsequently, the interest in interior light disappeared, and the massive two-storied temple developed. There were also brick monastic dwellings in the city, arranged as cells around a court (as in northern India), as well as giant stupas functioning as focal points for worship. The most important great stupa surviving today in Burma is the Shwedagon in Rangoon, which houses the Buddha's hair relic.

The brick-and-stucco temple traditions of Pagan did not last into modern times. Instead, the characteristic Burmese monastic building, a long rectangular structure raised on stilts, has its roots in the indigenous wooden architecture of Southeast Asia. It has an exterior platform and three main sections, each surmounted with pyramidal roofs: the sanctuary, which is a room beneath a tiered spire (pyathat ; Skt., prāsāda ); a multipurpose room, or reception hall; and a storeroom. The east-west orientation is the opposite of older (and elsewhere, standard) practice; the sanctuary is at the eastern end, and the Buddha image faces west. In the multipurpose room (20 by 15 meters in some cases), which has a dais of its own for Buddha images, monks gather for chanting in the morning, instruction is given to novices, the public may attend twice-monthly holy day services, and monks and novices sleep on bedrolls stored away during the day. The uposatha hall, which generally has a masonry foundation, is called a thein (sīmā). Since most monasteries lack a thein, monks attend a neighboring establishment for services twice a month.

As a rectilinear masonry image hall spacious enough for congregational worship, the bōt (uposatha hall) at Wat Phra Chettuphon has many antecedents, not only in Thailand but also in Cambodia and Vietnam. What was new at the time of construction was the designation of the principal hall as the bōt. In earlier practice, the bōt was a secondary structure of more modest dimensions, primarily for the use of monks (and traditionally, in northern Thailand, access was denied to women). Over the past two hundred years, the Wat Phra Chettuphon pattern has become standard. In the older pattern, the main hall (wihān ) is the place where the twice monthly holy day services are held; at these, monks chant, lay people may take a vow to follow the behavioral precepts, and a sermon is given. (Ordinarily, older women form the major portion of the audience at these services.) Public services can also be held, however, in a sālā, sometimes a wooden building on stilts, sometimes an open-air pavilion.

An early rectilinear hall from the seventh to ninth century was excavated in central Thailand at U Thong. A simple brick platform, 28 by 5 meters, it evidently had a wooden superstructure. A much more elaborate prototype for the independent but aligned structures of later times can be seen at the Buddhist temple site of Dong-duong in Vietnam (c. 900), where an image hall (37 by 15 meters) lies directly in front of other buildings further west, including a sanctuary. The early Sukhothai wihān (north-central Thailand) had dimensions more square; the wihān at Wat Saphan Hin (late thirteenth century) measures 25 by 20 meters, was hardly raised off the ground, and housed a giant stucco standing Buddha. By the early fifteenth century this type of wihān had been replaced by a more longitudinal one with high plinth. In central and north-central Thailand, the principal wihān tended to be aligned with a stupa or, frequently, with a tower called a prāng, an adaptation of the Cambodian sanctuary tower (but having no enterable sanctuary).


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Hiram Woodward (2005)

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