Temple: Buddhist Temple Compounds in Tibet

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The area covered by Tibetan Buddhist culturewhich extends from the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China into neighboring Chinese provinces and into adjacent parts of India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Burma (Myanmar)shares a common architectural tradition. The basic units are the temple and the stupa. Temples may stand alone either in open countryside or in a village or town, or more commonly they may, singly or in a group, form the core of a monastic community, or sometimes of a fortified palace complex. Stupas, usually modest in size, are ubiquitous features of the landscape. Occasionally a stupa of massive proportions will dominate a monastery or temple site.

The architectural style of Tibetan Buddhism is distinctive and as such has been exported to Mongolia and parts of China, and to Tibetan refugee communities around the world. The style has been created over some fourteen centuries as an eclectic mix from a variety of sources. Basic design concepts of plan and elevationvihāra, maala, multistoried constructionderive largely from India, often via Nepal. The main inspiration for building materials and techniques, as well as some of the decoration, has been the domestic farmhouse architecture of Tibet itself, with its many regional variations. Economic conditions dictate the use of native laboressentially drawn from the local peasant farming populationfor erecting and maintaining the main structure of religious buildings, which follow the local farmhouses in their reliance on heavy load-bearing outer walls of layered mud, mud brick, or rough stone. Internally the ceilings and flat roofs are supported by wooden columns, beams, and joists, the timbers for which may have to be imported from a distance. These factors in turn determine the form, finish, and size of walls, room spaces, and other architectural elements of temples, which from the constructional point of view can be regarded as oversized farmhouses. Temples are however distinguished from farmhouses by decorative embellishments that have originated in India, Nepal, Kashmir, China, and Mongolia and have often been executed by craftspeople imported from those countries.

The First Spreading of Buddhism: Jo khang (Jokhang) and Bsam yas (Samye)

Buddhism is traditionally held to have been introduced into Tibet in the early seventh century. A major landmark in the process was the foundation of the still extant Jo khang temple in Lhasa by the Nepalese wife of King Srong btsan sgam po (Songtsen gampo, r. c. 618641). While the story is heavily obscured by legend its essentials are plausible. The Jo khang, built on a level site and facing in the direction of Nepal, follows the vihāra layout so common in the architecture of the Kathmandu Valley. A three-storied range of chambers faces inward toward a rectangular inner courtyard, which, unlike its Nepalese prototypes, is covered with a flat roof. Light is admitted through a skylight onto the main image of the Buddha, which occupies a chamber in one of the shorter sides opposite the entrance porch.

While the outer walls and much of the present woodwork are entirely of the farmhouse-derived Tibetan type, the older columns, brackets, and door frames are compatible with the seventh-century Nepalese style, suggesting the participation of craft workers from Nepal. The four small-pitched roofs perched on the flat top of the building, with their complex wooden bracketing and gilded metal covering are instantly recognizable as of Chinese inspiration, almost certainly executed by Chinese artisans. At least one of them is known to have been added in the fourteenth century.

The inward-looking chambers of the Jo khang are occupied by chapels containing images of Buddhist divinities and a variety of mural paintings, both iconic and narrative in subject matter. An additional circumambulation corridor was later added round the whole building, and further concentric circumambulation routes lead round the streets outside and toward the outskirts of the city of Lhasa, reinforcing the supreme position of the Jo khang at the center of Tibetan religious life.

The other major religious complex founded in Tibet during the first spreading of Buddhism is Bsam yas, some 120 kilometers southeast of Lhasa, built by King Khri Srong lde btsan (Trisong detsen, ruled c. 755797) in about 770 as the home of the country's first monastic community. Its layout, based on the maala with explicit cosmic symbolism, is strikingly different from that of the Jo khang. A central building of three superimposed temple chambers containing images of buddhas and divinities (the stories were originally built or decorated in Tibetan, Indian, and Chinese style respectively) represents Mount Meru at the center of the universe in Indian cosmology, looking outwards across a low surrounding wall representing concentric rings of mountains and lakes. Outside this, symmetrically placed at the quarters and intermediate directions, are four directional stupas and variously shaped small temples representing the sun and moon and the four earthly continents. The whole is surrounded by a quasi-circular wall. Living quarters for monks and other ancillary buildings are not part of the symbolic plan, as is normally the case in later buildings. The foundation of Bsam yas marks the inauguration of Buddhism as the state religion of Tibet under the King as a kind of cosmocrator. Its plan was allegedly inspired by the monastery of Odantapuri in Bihar, India, and may also owe something to the example of a temple at Wutaishan in China; there are also interesting parallels with the roughly contemporary palace-city of Baghdad. While the main structures of the present buildings at Bsam yas are original, the complex, like the Jo khang, has suffered periods of damage and neglect, most recently in the Cultural Revolution (19661976), and much of the woodwork and decoration dates from later periods.

The Second Spreading of Buddhism: Tabo and Alchi

After the collapse of the early Tibetan empire in the years after 842 ce, Buddhism was on the defensive in a politically fragmented country and little is known of architectural activity except for the mention of a few temples which, if genuine, must have been very small. Datable building programs begin again in 996 with the Western Tibetan complexes of Tabo and Mtho lding (Tholing, the latter largely destroyed in the Cultural Revolution). Generally, individual temples of this period are much smaller than the Jo khang or Bsam yas, and are built in small groups within walled compounds. While the details of a number of temple compounds from this period are known, by far the best preserved are those at Tabo and Alchi, both now in India.

The main temple at Tabo (Himachal Pradesh, India) is externally an unprepossessing single-story mud-brick chamber with no windows or external decoration. Internally however it displays a sophisticated arrangement of the deities of the Vajradhātu Maala, crafted in stucco and fixed part way up the internal walls of the single chamber. The image of the central buddha, Vairocana, is moved along the axis from the entrance porch toward the rear of the chamber, and in a small space behind it is the image of Amitābha, of whom Vairocana is an emanation. Thus the use of height to convey symbolically a progression to more supramundane levels at Bsam yas is replaced by movement along an axis. Height is however used to differentiate the mural paintings of the internal walls, which cover historical and narrative themes lower down and iconic subjects higher up. The flat roof of the chamber is supported in the usual fashion by wooden columns to leave a central space suitable for the communal rituals of the monks. This practical requirement henceforth very commonly dictates the form of the Tibetan temple chamber. Conceptually it can be seen as both a maala, housing a conventional set of divine images, and as a vihāra, with the images represented as statues or paintings looking into a central space from the sides, and the main image at the far end opposite the entrance. Both types of plan are sanctioned in the Tibetan Buddhist scriptures: the vihāra mainly in the Vinaya texts of monastic discipline, and the maala in the Tantras. Details of the carpentry recall styles from lower down the Himalayan valleys, from whence most of the timber probably came.

While the assembly hall at Alchi in present-day Ladakh (India) resembles the main temple of Tabo, the Sumtsek or temple of three diminishing stories there reworks some of the themes touched upon above. Of uncertain date, perhaps eleventh to twelfth century, it is of maala -like plan with four projections, one of them occupied by the entrance porch and the other three- by four-meter high stucco images of bodhisattvas whose heads project above the ceiling into the gallery of the next story. The small central space is occupied by a stupa: too small for communal worship it was used like a few others of its type for individual Tantric initiations. Just as remarkable as the plan and elevation of the temple are its paintings, which cover the entire inner surface in luxuriant profusion. As at Bsam yas and Tabo, symbolic use is made of height, with more mundane scenes and subjects below, more transcendental ones above. Carpentry details at Alchi strongly resemble those in the architecture of the Kashmir Valley (now surviving only in stone), whence some of the craftsmen are known to have traveled.

Transition: Shalu

The temple compound of Shalu near Shigatse in south-central Tibet illustrates the transition from the style of the second spreading of Buddhism to the mature style, sometimes called the Dge lugs (Geluk) pa style, which had evolved by the fifteenth to sixteenth century and continues to this day.

The original temples at Shalu, from the early eleventh century, comprised a pair of single windowless chambers sharing a party wall and known as the "twin chapels," whose ceilings are each supported by four wooden columns remarkable in this period for their height, about six meters. They faced across what was presumably an open space toward a two-story temple, nowadays made up of a chamber traversed by the main entrance passage, with a chapel devoted to the goddess of wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā). The capitals and bracketing between the columns and ceilings of all these early temples show interesting experiments that bring together elements of both Chinese- and Indian-derived carpentry.

In the late thirteenth century, additional single-story temples were constructed along the sides of the compound to create an enclosed central courtyard. This paved the way for a complete transformation of the complex in the early fourteenth century, made possible by the connections of the local princes with the hierarchs of the nearby principality of Sa skya (Sakya), who had been appointed viceroys of Tibet by the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty of China. Lavish patronage was available in the form of financing and the services of mural painters, carpenters, and tile-makers sent from China. The painters were from an imperial atelier set up some decades earlier by the famous Nepalese artist and sculptor Aniko. Thus the construction of this phase of Shalu was a true international effort, as has frequently been the case in Tibetan architecture. Raw materials for tile glazing and painting must have been imported from China, while timber was transported from across the Himalayas.

The central courtyard was roofed over to create a columned assembly hall lit by a central skylight. Over the chapels on each of the four sides was erected a Chinese pavilion of traditional wooden construction with a pitched roof of green glazed tiles, looking onto the central roof terrace in the fashion of the Jo khang. The whole was surrounded by a two-story circumambulation corridor. Internal surfaces not already painted were covered with mural paintings, where some of the earliest Chinese influence within Indo/Nepalese-derived Tibetan art can be seen.

By this time the distinctive Tibetan wooden entablature of column, bracket, beam, and joist had evolved and was used in the lower parts of the building. In the upper Chinese pavilions, however, Chinese bracketing and other carpentry details are exactly those found in contemporary Chinese architecture.

The Dge Lugs Pa Style

The basic temple layout exemplified at Shalu was much utilized after the government was taken over by the Dalai Lamas of the Dge lugs pa or Yellow Hat order of Tibetan Buddhism in the mid-seventeenth century. There was however a strong tendency to move the sites of temples and monasteries away from the river plains of earlier times to defensive hilltop positions. From there they could dominate the surrounding landscape not only visually and symbolically, but in some cases also militarily, in times when armed conflict between Buddhist monastic orders and their backers was not unknown. In some cases the temple and monastery merged with the fortified palace, so strong was the interconnection between religion and politics. The most outstanding examples of this process are the Potala palace of Lhasa and the dzongs of Bhutan, though there have been many others.

The Potala was begun by King Srong btsan sgam po in 637. In a development of the basic vihāra layout, a rectangular ground-floor assembly hall is surrounded by inward-looking cells over which are superimposed stories of further cells to leave a galleried and open central inner terrace over the hall. The internal spaces are mostly dedicated as chapels, monastic rooms, and Dalai Lama's living apartments or funerary stupas. The adjoining Red Palace to the east was erected by the last regent of the fifth Dalai Lama from 1690 to 1694 to incorporate the latter's mausoleum. Courtyards, monastic living quarters, access ramps, and defensive end bastions completed the complex. While it is defensible and has indeed been besieged a number of times, it is doubtful whether its main purpose was defense so much as a visual symbol of the religio-political center of the Tibetan polity.

The dzongs of Bhutan (the main ones located at Ha, Thimphu, Punakha, and Tongsa, and dating from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries), while built around a monastic core, had defense as a principal purpose. Each was intended as a center of civil, military, and religious administration for its surrounding valley complex. Within a mighty enclosing and elongated rampart are typically two courtyards: a public courtyard near the single entrance, separated by a towering central temple of three to five stories from an inner monastic courtyard.

The external appearance of religious buildings has been largely standardized, with outer walls tapering inward toward the top, and whitewashed to contrast with black-framed windows. The style closely resembles that of the local farmhouses, even to the extent of incorporating the roof parapets of stacked brushwood or other fuel and animal fodder as a fossilized element in religious buildings usually painted red. There are local variationsfor instance in Bhutan the window frames are more elaborate and brightly painted and the temples are provided with overhanging pitched wooden roofs, but even here the red horizontal band is present in painted form. Stylized banners and standards of textile or, more commonly, gilded metal, of Indian, Nepalese, or Mongolian derivation adorn the roofs of temples, the more important of which may still be marked with small Chinese-style gilded pavilions. Internally the tapering wooden columns that support beams via elongated voluted brackets, all brightly painted, have also been largely standardized.

The Stupa: Rgyal rtse (Gyantse)

Tibetans conventionally recognize eight designs of stupa, relating them to episodes in the life of the Buddha. In practice all but the type commemorating the enlightenment are rare. However there are a few examples of the "stupa of many doors," the most remarkable being that in the town of Rgyal rtse, the so-called Kumbum, which dominates its temple complex. Built from 1427 to 1439 by the local princes, it is unusual in that all five stories of the stepped base, the dome, and the spire are hollowed out into chapels containing a rich variety of images and wall paintings. Thus the form of the stupa is fused with that of an elaborate Tantric maala.


Chayet, Anne. Art et archéologie du Tibet. Paris, 1994. General account of Tibetan architecture in its cultural and artistic setting.

Denwood, Philip. "Architectural Style at Shalu." In Tibetan Art: Towards a Definition of Style, edited by Jane Casey Singer and Philip Denwood, pp. 220229. London, 1997. Analysis of the successive building phases of Shalu Monastery.

Goepper, Roger. Alchi, Ladakh's Hidden Buddhist Sanctuary: The Sumtsek. London, 1996. Lavish documentation of the temple and its mural paintings.

Guise, A., ed. The Potala Palace of Tibet. London, 1988.

Khosla, Romi. Buddhist Monasteries in the Western Himalaya. Kathmandu, Nepal, 1979. Study by an architect of a well-defined region (Ladakh and northern Himachal Pradesh) with unusually accurate plans.

Klimburg-Salter, Deborah E. Tabo: A Lamp for the Kingdom. Milan, Italy, 1997. Thorough historical account and well-illustrated documentation of the contents of this temple.

Ricca, Franco, and Erberto Lo Bue. The Great Stupa of Gyantse: A Complete Tibetan Pantheon of the Fifteenth Century. London, 1993. Thorough textual and visual documentation.

Richardson, Hugh Edward. "The Jo-khang: 'Cathedral' of Lhasa." In Essais sur l'art du Tibet, edited by Ariane Macdonald, pp. 157188. Paris, 1977.

Philip Denwood (2005)

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