WATS AND THERAVADA BUDDHIST RELIGIOUS BUILDINGS IN THAILAND

THERAVADA BUDDHIST RELIGIOUS BUILDINGS IN THAILAND

There are essentially three kinds of Buddhist structures: 1) stupas, bell-shaped structures that contain a holy relic or scripture; 2) temples, place of worship somewhat similar to a church; and 3).monasteries, which contain living quarters and meditation cells for monks.

The most important buildings in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are wats (Buddhist temples) and stupas (structures that hold religious objects). In Laos wats are called “vats”. In Myanmar, in Western guidebooks anyway, they are usually simply called “temples.”

Stupas are solid structures that typically cannot be entered and were constructed to contain sacred Buddhist relics that are hidden from view (and vandals) in containers buried at their core or in the walls. Temples have an open interior that may be entered and in which are displayed one or more cult images as a focus for worship. Although this simple distinction between Stupa and temple is useful, the distinction is not always clear. There are stupas that have the external form of a stupa but are like a temple with an inner corridor and multiple shrines.

Local temples are essentially self sufficient and rely on their own lands and support from the local lay community to keep going. Property belongs to the community. There is not a hierarchy of priest, bishops and archbishops like there is Christianity.

The word pagoda is sometimes used to collectively describe stupas and temples but generally refers to Japanese- and Chinese style towers inspired by South Asian stupa. The word pagoda is derived from dagada , the word used for relic chamber in Sri Lanka. Classic Japanese- and Chinese-style pagodas usually have multiple stories, each with a graceful, tiled Chinese-style roof, and a top roof capped by a spire. The base represents the earth, the spire symbolizes heaven, and the connecting piece symbolizing the cosmic axis, to the Way.

Stupas

Stupas are generally solid, bell-shaped structures that contain a holy relic such as a hair or tooth from Buddha, relics or remains of eminent Buddhist figure, or a sacred Buddhist scripture. They are modeled on ancient Indian burial mounds. The base of the stupa is often sealed with a copper plate incised with a vishva-vajra crossed thunderbolt design that is regarded as protection from evil. Stupas themselves were venerated as symbols of the Buddha.

Buddhist stupas symbolize the Buddhist concept of the universe. The solid dome that rises up from the square or circular base is a representation of the dome-shaped sky enclosing the world-mountain, which pierce the dome to form a small balcony at the summit. At the center of the dome is a mast that represents that axis of the earth which rise from the waters that surround the world up to the cosmos. Square bases often also symbolize the earth. The shape of stupas may have been inspired by the staff and begging bowl of the wandering Buddha.

After Buddha’s death his relics were divided and a number of stupas were built to house them. Although no ancient stupas remain the relics they housed are believed to have been saved and placed in other stupas. Many of the oldest stupas date back to the period of Buddhist expansions during the rule of King Ashoka (268-239 B.C.)

The objects inside stupas are often unknown. A gold reliquary excavated from a 2nd century B.C. stupa in Bimaran Afghanistan was decorated with images of Buddha and Hindu gods. The reliquary is believed to have contained the ashes of a revered saint or some object he touched.

Over the centuries many old stupas became pilgrimage sites. Famous ones became the center of complex ceremonial areas. They were often surrounded by a railing with gateways, through which pilgrims entered the ceremonial ground. Stone lions guarded the entrances. Outside vendors sold food and offerings to pilgrims.

Buddhist Temples

A temple is a place of worship as opposed to a shrine, which is a sacred place for praying. It generally contains an image of Buddha and has a place where Buddhists practice devotional activities. Temples attract large crowds during festivals or if they are famous but otherwise a fairly quiet. They are often sought as places for quiet meditation, with most acts of worship and devotion being done in front of an altar at home.

Buddhist temples are generally a cluster of buildings---whose number and size depends on the size of the temple---situated in an enclosed area. Large temples have several halls, where people can pray, and living quarters for monks. Smaller ones have a single hall, a house fore a resident monk and a bell. Some have cemeteries.

Temples can be several stories high and often have steeply sloped roofs are often supported by elaborately-decorated and colorfully-painted eaves and brackets. The main shrines often contain a Buddha statue, boxes of sacred scriptures, alters with lit candles, burning incense and other offerings as well as images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and devas. The central images depends on the sect.

Many temples are tourist attractions and outing destinations for local people. Souvenir amulets and other offerings are sold in little shops or booths; the names of large contributors are placed in special boxes; and priests are available to perform special rites.

The main hall is usually found at the center of the temple grounds. Inside are images of the Buddha, other Buddhist images, altars and space for monks and worshipers. The main hall is sometimes connected to a lecture hall, where monks gather to study and chant sutras.. Other buildings include a the sutra depositor, a library or place where Buddhist scripture are kept; living, sleeping, and eating areas for monks, and offices. Large temples often have special halls, where treasures are kept and displayed.

See Angkor Wat Cambodia

The chedi of temples produced during the Srivijaya period resemble Hindu-Buddhist stupas of central Java which have a “stacked” appearance.

Features of Buddhist Temples

Buddhist temples usually contain numerous Buddha statues. The central Buddha images are often surrounded by burning incense sticks and offerings of fruit and flowers. Some contain the ashes or bone reliquaries of popular holy man. Many Buddhist temples face south and sometimes to the east, but never to the north and west which are regarded as unlucky directions according to Chinese feng shui. Many temples are entered through the left door and exited through the right.

Some temples have shrines for making prayers to the dead filled with funerary plaques with photographs of dead relatives. The photographs are often of deceased people whose funeral ceremony was performed at the temple. Some temple feature sets of wooden plaques with the names of large contributors and other sets with afterlife names of deceased people. In the old days the afterlife names were only given only to Buddhist priests but now they are given to lay people who paid the right price and now in some places have become a kind of ranking system in the after life based in how much one has contributed..

Many Buddhist temples contain large bells, which are rung during the New Year and to mark other occasions, and cemeteries. The pathway to the temples is often lined with stone or paper lanterns donated by worshipers, or strung with prayer flags. Many temples are filled with small shops selling religious items.

Wats (Temples)

A wat is a monastery temple in Thailand, Cambodia, or Laos set up as a place where men and women can be ordained as monks and nuns. “Wat” is a Thai word of Pali-Sanskrit derivation that means "school" or more accurately “dwelling” for students and monks. Almost every town, village precinct has at least one. Without an ordination area, which is designated by special markers, a building is technically not a wat but rather a residence for monks and nuns.

Strictly speaking a wat is a Buddhist sacred precinct with monks' quarters, the temple proper, an edifice housing a large image of Buddha, and a structure for lessons. A Buddhist site without a minimum of three resident monks cannot correctly be described as a wat, although the term is frequently used more loosely, even for ruins of ancient temples. (As a transitive or intransitive verb, wat means to measure, to take measurements; compare templum, from which temple derives, having the same root as template.) [Source: Wikipedia; Culture Shock! Thailand ]

In everyday language in Thailand, a wat is any place of worship except a mosque (su-rao; or - Thai rendering of masjid; a mosque may also be described as - bot khong Is-a-lam). Thus wat cheen is a Chinese temple (either Buddhist or Taoist), wat khaek is a Hindu temple, and wat kris or wat krit or wat farang is a Christian church. There is a separate term without wat for a mosque. In Cambodia, a wat is used to refer to all kinds of places of worship. Technically, wat generally refers to a Buddhist place of worship, but the technical term is (wat pootasasna). A Christian church can be referred as (vihear yeasu). Angkor Wat means city of temples.

According to Thai law, the Thai Buddhist temples are categorized into two types: Temples and monasteries. Temples (RTGS: Wat) are the temples having been endorsed by the State and having been granted the Wisungkhamasima , or land for establishment of central hall, by the King. These temples are divided into: 1) Royal temples (Phra Aram Luang), established or patronized by the King or his family members. 2)Private temples (Wat Rat), established by the private citizens. Despite the term "private", the private temples are opened to the public and are the sites of public religious activities also. Monasteries (RTGS: Samnak Song) are the temples without state endorsement and the Wisungkhamasima.

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand: “In rural Thailand the wat serves as a combination religious center, grammar school, health clinic, herbal sauna house, community center, astrology house, transient guesthouse, funeral home and geriatric ward with monks and nuns serving as staff for one or more of these functions. The typical wat is also a focus for much festival activity and is thus an important social center for Thais. Especially lively are the ngaan wat or temple fairs: these take place regularly on certain auspicious dates and usually feature music, feasting, outdoor cinema and occasional fireworks. Another common type of celebration is the ngaan sop or funeral ceremony. A typical ngaan sop includes a lively procession (with musical accompaniment) from the deceased’s home to the wat. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand]

Of the 32,000 temples in Thailand, 5,000 are unused or deserted. There is such a glut of temples, the government changed regulations to curb construction of new temples.

Wat Buildings

A typical Buddhist wat consists of the following buildings: 1) chaidei or chedi (from Sanskrit: chaitya, temple), usually conical or bell-shaped buildings, often containing relics of Buddha or important monks or rich men who donated a large chunk of the estate to the wat; 2) vihear or wihan (from Sanskrit: vihara), a meeting and prayer room; 3) mondop(from Sanskrit: Mandapa), a usually open, square building with four arches and a pyramidal roof, used to worship religious texts or objects; 4) sala (from Sanskrit: Shala - School, from an earlier meaning of shelter), a pavilion for relaxation or miscellaneous activities. The sala is where laymen gather for social activities and ceremonies such as the sukhwan nak (a lay ritual preceding the ordination of a monk) and funerals. In Thailand sometimes voting for elections takes place here.

5) The bot or ubosoth (from Pali uposatha) is the holiest prayer room in the wat. Also called the "ordination hall," it is where new monks take their vows and usually contains the main Buddha image in the wat. Architecturally it is similar to the vihara; the main differences are the eight cornerstones placed around the bot to ward off evil. The bot is usually more decorated than the viharn.

Other parts of the wat include: 6) the bibiloteca, Tripitaka library where Buddhist scriptures are kept; 7) drum tower; 8) bell tower; and 9)multipurpose hall or study hall, a building in a wat. In the past this hall was only for monks to study in. Parian is a Pali word meaning 'educated monk' or 'monk student'. The living quarters of the monks, including the kuti or kut (monk cells),are separated from the sacred buildings. The roofs of Thai temples are often adorned with chofahs.

Somewhere on the temple grounds is a bo (bodhi tree). It is often very large and has a saffron robe wrapped around the trunk. Ancillary buildings include schools, clinics, spirit houses and places where fortunetelling is done. To the west is a crematorium. Some wats are so large they resemble little cities. They have their own roads, shops and refreshment stands. Hundreds of monks and nuns live there. The wat grounds are separated from the outside by a wall.

Wat Architecture

Wats are characterized by steep tiled roofs, with frescoes and mosaic decorations in the walls depicting the events of Buddha’s life. Wats are often clusters of buildings with the ordination hall being the most important structure. These have traditionally been built on a multilevel platform and are made of brick covered by stucco.

High peaked wat roofs are layered in odd numbers to correspond with certain Buddhist doctrines such as the three characteristics of existence and the seven factors of enlightenment. The edge of roofs often feature a repeated flame motif with long finger-like hooks in the corners that are said to catch evil spirits that fall on the building from above. The umbrella-like spires in the central roof ridge often have small nagas (serpents that protected Buddha) arranged in a double-step fashion said to represent Mt. Meru.

Thai Styles of Religious Architecture

The Thai style of religious architecture features whitewashed stucco walls, small windows, two or three-tiered roofs, curved pediments and naga lintels over the doors and steps. Thai Lu stupas are typically gilded and octagonal in shape and are covered with Thai Lu fabrics

Sukhothai architecture is dominated by Lotus-bud-shaped stupas, which feature a conical spire topping a square-structure resting on a three-tiered base. Bell-shaped Sri Lankan style stupas and double-tiered Srivijaya stupas are also featured prominently. Many of the buildings were constructed by artisans using mortared bricks covered in stucco. Five centuries of neglect have caused virtually all the stucco—and the bas reliefs that were carved into it—to wash and decay away. In some places you will see Buddha statues backed by chedis. What has happened at these places is the building that once housed the statue have crumbled away.

A typical Sukhothai chedi (from top to bottom) features: 1) a lotus bulb finial symbolizing nirvana at the top; 2) a conical spire and circular tiers signifying the heavens; 3) a shaft; 4) the hamika; 5) the relic chamber (the top of the dome portion of the chedi, which sits under the spire part); 6) the platform, usually built in three levels, representing the “Three Worlds”; and 7) the base.

The central prang at Wat Chai Wattanaram illustrates the basic features of Ayutthaya-style architecture. At the top of the dome-like prang are pediments, antefix decorations and circular tiers symbolizing the lower heavens. The base is topped by platforms representing the celestial regions of the Traphum. In the middle are niches with sculpted guardians or Buddha images.

The Lan Na style of northern Thailand features a roof that is very pointed and steep at the top and gradually flares and is almost horizontal at the bottom and often almost touches the ground. Locals sometimes say these roofs resemble to the wings of a hen protecting her chicks. Many wats have gold-leaf-covered doors and outer walls. Another identifying feature of the North is the ancient Lan Na architectural motif known as ruean kalae, the horn-like woodcarving crossed over the gable of the house, showing the aesthetic sense of the Northerners, as well as the skill in woodcarving inherited by modern-day craftsmen.

Peter Jon Lindberg wrote in Travel and Leisure magazine: “Temples in northern Thailand are more modest than those in Bangkok, though many boast intricately carved fretwork, mirror-glass mosaics, and gold leaf. Wood is the dominant material; gold is less common here than in the wealthier south. A hallmark of Lanna construction is the cho fa, the V-shaped finial that crowns the apex of a temple's pitched roof. Builders often left ceiling beams exposed to highlight the temple's "honest architecture." Many of the buildings at Dhara Dheviare representative of Lanna style, as are incidental details such as the terra-cotta pots of "drinking water."

Wats as a Center of Rural Life

Social and religious life is often focused around wats (temples), which are found in practically every city neighborhood, town district and village in Thailand. Wats are not only centers of faith, they have traditionally served as places of accommodation, local schools, hospitals, community centers and places where festivals were held. Buddhism shapes the Thai character and serves as the source of inspiration for Thai art and culture. Buddhist elements are evident in literature, painting, sculpture, and the architecture of temples, pagodas, and stupas. Moreover, the numerous archeological sites and artifacts found in all parts of Thailand stand witness to the predominant role of Buddhism in Thai society. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

In many places the wat remains the center of the rural community life, although some of its functions, e.g., as an educational center, have been lost, and it is increasingly difficult to retain monks. Most rural communities build and maintain a wat because, as Potter states, the Thai consider it "necessary for a civilized social existence." The wat includes the special quarters and facilities reserved for monks, a building for public worship and religious ceremony, and a community meeting place. Typically, the wat is run by a temple committee that consisted of prominent laymen as well as monks who have left the sangha without prejudice. Abbots and senior monks often enjoy considerable prestige. In times of personal crisis, people often seek their advice. [Source: Library of Congress, 1987]

The wat is first of all a center for religious ceremony, much of which is regularly carried out according to a ritual calendar. These scheduled rites involve the community as a whole, even if their ultimate purpose is the acquisition of merit by individuals. Other irregularly held rites also take place in the wat and almost always includes the community or a significant segment of it. The temple is also the locus for astrological and other quasi-magical activities. Although such rites are outside the canon of Buddhism, they are important to the community and are often carried out by monks. Thus, a person would go to a monk versed in these matters to learn the propitious day for certain undertakings (for example, a wedding) or to be cured of certain illnesses by the application of holy water. A large wat usually has a crematorium; almost all dead are cremated.

The temple committee often administers a loan fund from which the poor of the community might borrow in emergencies. The wat is also the repository of mats, dishes, and other housewares that can be borrowed by members of the community. If an aged person has nowhere else to go, the wat is a refuge. The wat is not reserved solely for serious matters; entertainment and dances open to the community are also held there.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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