Theravada Art and Architecture

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The focus of TheravĀda Buddhist art and architecture is Buddha Gautama, as revered teacher, exemplar of virtue and ethical conduct, role model for the saṄgha, and source of supernatural power. Thus the Theravāda monastery serves as a center for the dissemination of the Buddha's teachings, a gathering place for the practice and continuity of the religion, a dwelling place for monks, and a repository of sacred objects, including Buddha images and relics. Similarly, the majority of Theravāda art consists of sculptures and paintings depicting narratives about the historical Buddha's life and previous lives as lessons for the faithful.

In premodern times, Theravāda Buddhist monasteries were the focal point in the social and educational life of the community. Every village had at least one monastery and each town and city had several. While sociological, economic, and in some cases political changes—particularly in Cambodia and to a lesser degree in Laos—have disrupted many traditional patterns, the local monastery continues to occupy a significant place in the lives of individuals and communities.

A monastery compound typically includes an image hall for the monastery's principal Buddha image, an ordination hall, an assembly hall where laypeople gather to listen to sermons and recitations of sacred texts by the monks, a solid, dome-shaped reliquary, and residence buildings for the monks. Regional variations on this model exist, however; for example, in certain places the image hall and assembly hall are combined into one building. In other places the assembly hall and ordination hall are combined and the place reserved for ordinations is off-limits to women. Moreover, some monasteries have residences for nuns and lay meditators and some have a separate building for storing sacred scriptures. The latter, often referred to as a Tripiṭaka hall or library is usually raised on stilts to protect the books from water, insects, and rodents.

While the proportions and architectural features of monastery buildings vary from one region to another, certain features can be found throughout the Theravāda Buddhist world. Most obvious are the roofs, which are multitiered (especially for ordination halls and image halls) with an odd number of tiers, three being the most common. In addition, eaves brackets, gables, pillars, and doors are often decorated with carvings and paintings of mythical beings from Buddhist cosmology, such as ascetics, heavenly musicians, nāga serpents, lions, geese and other mythical birds, as well as plant motifs, particularly lotuses and vines. These motifs were among the repertoire of elements that both Buddhism and Hinduism inherited from the indigenous mythological landscape of India. Similarly, as Buddhism spread from India to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, it adapted to local preexisting spiritual beliefs by incorporating them into its narratives, rituals, and iconography. As examples, many Burmese monasteries contain statues of the thirty-seven nats (the indigenous deities representing natural phenomena and the spirits of ancestors who have met a violent death) and throughout the Theravāda world people place offerings at the foot of large banyan trees—both within monastery compounds and outside—to revere the spirits that dwell within.

Similarly, Hindu deities, such as Brahmā and Indra, are frequently depicted as guardians of the Buddha to indicate the ascendancy of Buddhism over Hinduism, as are demonic figures that represent local spirits tamed by the Buddha's teachings. All of these elements contribute toward creating an elaborate, otherworldly atmosphere that calls to mind both local royal dwellings and higher realms of the Buddhist cosmos.

A generally more austere, but no less important, building in the monastery compound is the stŪpa or cetiya, a solid structure roughly resembling an inverted cone. The stūpa also varies greatly in shape, from broad bulbous bowl-shaped monuments in Sri Lanka to obelisk-shaped towers found at some sites in northeast Thailand (such as Phra Thāt Phanom), to elegant, attenuated lotus-bud chedis of the Sukhothai kingdom in Thailand. While some stūpas contain relics of monks or monastery patrons, others are believed to hold bone fragments of the Buddha and are highly revered for their sacredness.

Laypeople's activities

Laypeople visit the monasteries for numerous reasons: to observe the lunar holy days (every full moon, waning moon, new moon, and waxing moon), to make merit for deceased relatives or for family member who are sick or in need, to consult with the monks about problems or about astrological considerations, to make merit for themselves in the hopes of fulfilling wishes, to seek advice or blessings, to be ordained, and to meditate.

Numerous monasteries are popular pilgrimage sites because they are believed to contain sacred objects, such as an authentic bone fragment of the Buddha, a footprint left by the Buddha as delineated in a local chronicle, or historically significant images of the Buddha or of deceased monks famous for their supernatural powers. Devout Buddhists often make a special effort to pay reverence at these sites—sometimes in the hopes of obtaining a boon—with traditional offerings of flowers, incense, and candles. They usually return home with an amulet resembling the principal Buddha image commemorating the significance of the site.

At many monasteries pilgrims can purchase a small bird in a bamboo cage, circumambulate the monastery holding the birdcage, praying at various Buddha images along the way. Finally, they release the bird, appealing to the three jewels (Buddha, dharma, and saṅgha) to witness this act as sufficient merit.

Jataka stories

Until modern times, the monastery's functions included the teachings of moral and religious teachings as well as basic literacy skills. With a largely illiterate population, monks relied on oral storytelling and the visual lessons of murals to teach Buddhist principles of ethics and morality through stories about the Buddha Gautama's life and previous lives. While key events from the Buddha's biography are frequently depicted in mural painting as well as in the miniature paintings of paper manuscripts, stories from his previous lives (jĀtakas, or birth stories, found in varied collections and totaling 500 to 547 stories) are equally, if not more, prevalent.

In Myanmar (Burma) terra-cotta plaques representing each of the jātakas can be found on the outside walls of some of the great monasteries of the ancient city of Pagan. In the mural painting of Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, the last ten birth stories are found more frequently than the entire set. Each story represents one of the ten great virtues (renunciation, perseverance, loving kindness, resolution, wisdom, moral practice, forbearance, equanimity, truthfulness, and generosity) that the future Buddha perfected in order to attain enlightenment, and each has a predictable iconographic set of elements to identify it. For example, in the story demonstrating perseverance, the future Buddha, a prince who is separated from his kingdom at birth, survives a shipwreck to claim his throne. He is usually depicted swimming, surrounded by stylized waves and sea monsters, and rescued by a sea goddess.

The last of the ten, the Great Birth Story or Vessantara Jātaka, which exists in countless versions, or "tellings," is the most frequently depicted and recounted narrative of all, including the biography of the Buddha Gautama. Depending on the region, it is recited at the close of the Buddhist rains-retreat (around the time of the full moon in November) or during the months that follow. In parts of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma, the recitation of this story is one of the most significant ceremonies of the year, lasting an entire day and a night. Painted banners depicting events in the story are hung around the inside of the monastery. Laypeople sponsor the reading of sections of the story and bring offerings of food and flowers. The motivation behind these activities is the widespread belief that a person who listens to the Great Birth Story recited in this context will be reborn during the time of the future Buddha Maitreya. Those who hear Maitreya preach, according to this belief, will accomplish the very difficult goal of attaining nirvĀṆa. While this doctrine may be technically outside the realm of what some would consider orthodox Theravāda teachings, it is an important aspect of practice and iconography in Theravāda regions.

Apart from these themes, other narratives depicted in murals, reliefs, and carvings are local histories describing the coming of Buddhism to the area, local folktales that are retold as birth stories of the Buddha, and the great Rāmāyana epic. While the latter is technically a Hindu story, it has long been popular in the Buddhist world and particularly in royally sponsored monasteries because of its association with kingship. Rāma, the story's hero, is a model of royal and familial righteousness. Monastery murals frequently depict his battles with the demonic forces to rescue his wife Sītā and restore order in his kingdom. They were commissioned by monarchs as a way of bringing to the earthly realm the power and symbolism of the heaven or macrocosm.

Murals and manuscripts depict the same themes and share similar stylistic features: abstract rather than realistic portrayal of figures, architecture, and landscape; and grouping of similar figures (such as warriors, attendants, dancers) in clusters that form one among several patterns within a space, with one figure echoing the others. Moreover, within these paintings

one can also see a strong reflection of local dress, textile designs, indigenous physical characteristics, architecture, and customs.


Sculptures representing the historical Buddha made of stone, bronze, terra-cotta, or wood can be found throughout the Theravāda world. They range in size from colossal images especially popular in Sri Lanka and Burma to miniature amulets encased in gold and worn on a necklace. The image serves as a reminder of the Buddha, his teachings, and his spiritual descendants—the monks, known collectively as the saṅgha. Images of the Buddha are always treated with utmost reverence and placed on a dais or altar above the heads of the people. It would be inappropriate to keep a Buddha image in a place other than a monastery, museum, or private home altar.

Images are believed to be repositories of potency and are often draped with orange robes resembling those worn by monks and worshiped with offerings of flowers, incense, and candles. Moreover, certain images are revered for miracles associated with them or legends surrounding their discovery. At many monasteries worshipers can purchase small squares of gold leaf to attach to images as acts of merit, and certain images, such as the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, regularly receive offerings of special food thought to be their favorite from devotees requesting favors, such as a relative's good health.

Throughout Southeast Asia during the festivities revolving around the solar New Year in mid-April, images are carried in procession on elaborately decorated carts or trucks and bathed with fragrant water. Thus, even in a Theravāda context, Buddha images are treated in ways similar to those of statues of Hindu deities in India.

The most frequently seen postures and hand positions (mudrĀ) in the Theravāda tradition are those depicting key events in the Buddha's life: meditating—seated cross-legged with hands folded in the lap; the enlightenment—a similar seated posture, but with the right hand at the right knee, fingers pointing downward toward the earth; teaching—standing with hands extended; and in nirvāṇa or death—lying on the right side, head supported by the right hand.

In Southeast Asia, the most popular posture by far is that of enlightenment, the posture known either as "touching the earth" or "victory over MĀra" (the personification of darkness and delusion). In many monasteries, murals depicting this event cover the wall behind the main Buddha image. A central meditating figure of the Buddha is surrounded by Māra's army—a variety of demonic characters, some human, some animal, some hybrid—flinging arrows and other weapons. Below the Buddha is a standing female figure of the Earth Goddess, whom the Buddha has called to witness his enlightenment. She wrings out her long hair and from it flows the water that has collected from the acts of generosity that Gautama performed in his past lives, each time consecrating his donation by pouring water from an urn onto the ground. Theravāda Buddhists sometimes replicate this practice when they present offerings to the monks.

See also:Amulets and Talismans; Buddha, Life of the, in Art; Merit and Merit-Making; Southeast Asia, Buddhist Art in; Sri Lanka, Buddhist Art in


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Bonnie Brereton

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Theravada Art and Architecture

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