THAI RELIGIOUS ARCHITECTURE: CONCEPTS, TEMPLES, SYMBOLS AND PARTS OF TEMPLES

THAI ARCHITECTURE AND RELIGION

In his “Study of Thai Traditional Architecture,” Wattana Boonjub wrote: “Obviously, Thai architecture is influenced by Buddhism. Artistic artefacts such as carved stones and paintings were created to depict Buddhist history and stories. Monks play a vital role in spreading Buddha’s teachings while craftsmen transformed the ideals of Buddhism into physical structures, buildings and artistic works. It is unfortunate that there are no written records of the knowledge about Thai traditional construction. The passage of knowledge was orally made from generations to generations. [Source: Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand, a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University]

Theravada Buddhism was embraced by ethnic Mons, one of the first settlers in central Thailand. They were known for their magnificent craftsmanship. The influence of Mon style art and architecture dates back to the 9th century and influenced architecture in the central plains, the Northeast and some parts of the North and the South of the Siamese kingdom. In the 8th century, Thai artists adopted Ceylon architectural style, which remained influential until the Rattanakosin period in the 14th century.

Some influences of Mahayana Buddhism were embraced before establishment of Sukhothai kingdom in the 12th century and remained even though Theravada Buddhism became dominant. There are some historical and religious artefacts that show the harmonious blend of the two Buddhist schools. Historical artefacts and structures influenced by the Mahayana school is spread in different parts of Thailand such as southern Thailand, the old Chiang Saen town in the North, pre-Ayutthaya sites in the central plains and the north eastern region.

See Wats, Stupas, Religion, Southeast Asia

Theravda Buddhist Concepts and Thai Architecture

In his “Study of Thai Traditional Architecture,” Wattana Boonjub wrote: “To understand Thai architecture, one needs to study various aspects of religious beliefs behind those architectural forms since it will help see the other side of beauty, which is no less important. When discussing Buddhist ideology in Thai architecture, it is inevitable to focus on the Theravada Buddhism, which arrived in the Thai Kingdom around the 12th century and remained the most prominent Buddhist school in Thailand until now. Its long continuity should ensure the influence of Theravada's script and preaching over Thai art and architecture. In fact, the main Theravada idea about getting rid of unwholesomeness, as a way to end all sufferings at the level of lokiya and lokutara, is related to the unique features of Thai architecture -- peace, lightness and floating. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

Artists and architects must be driven by passion to create artistic structures. To make such creations, they are required to have profound understanding of the Lord Buddha's teachings in order to transform the ideals into physical structures and that is not an easy task. Studying the works of ancient craftsmen has resulted in some important clues that may be linked to certain forms and features of Thai architecture as follows: 1. Mindfulness through meditation is a basic practice of Buddhist disciples. The practice is aimed at getting rid of unwholesomeness to achieve inner peace and finally end the reincarnation. The architects’ task is to find out what architectural features signify inner peace.

If the meditation helps free one's mind from unwholesomeness and also brings the feeling of lightness, what forms and features are required to signify such lightness. The feeling of lightness or floating is usually compared when one is free from all attachments. To abstain from unwholesome deeds and to commit only wholesome acts are believed to lead to nirvana. A sacred Buddhist text written by King Lithai of the Sukhothai Kingdom (12th century) describes the lightness (absence) of sins in each plane of heaven. What forms and features of architectural design can represent the different levels of lightness? The thorough study of the Thai architectural design will help ones appreciate the great craftsmanship of ancient architects who excellently transformed concepts into physical structures.

Buddhist Universe Concepts and Thai Architecture

Buddhism has a great influence on Thai craftsmen and builders. In particular, the Trai bhumi Praruang scripture is a great inspiration to those working in various fields of art. This holy text describes three different planes of existence: 1) the sensuous plane; 2) the non-sensuous plane; and 3) the universe. The universe is surrounded by rings of seven anad a vast ocean. The ocean is in turn is surrounded by a circular mountain wall, which marks the horizontal limit of the world. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

In this ocean, there are four continents inhabited by humans and human-like beings, including 1) the north of Mount Sumeru; 2) the east of Mount Sumera; 3) the south of Mount Sumeru; and 4) the west of Mount Sumera According to Trai bhumi Praruang, Chompoo Thaweep is the only place where human deeds committed in this and previous lives determine the type of reincarnation in the next life. There are six realms of rebirths within the system of traditional Buddhist cosmology. They include all the possibilities - advantageous and less advantageous - of lives. The six realms are divided into Deva Realm, Human Realm, Animal Realm, Asura Realm, Preta (a hungry ghost) Realm and Naraka (hell) Realm. All human beings live in the Human Realm, which is the result of Kusala (wholesome) acts in the past, while those who live in the Deva (blissful) Realm accumulate higher virtue than humans. On the other hand, anyone with Akusara (unwholesome) deeds will be reborn in one of the last four realms, which are together called Abaiyabhumi.

The topography of Mount Sumeru and its surroundings described in the Tri-bhumi scripture has a significant role in the design of many structures in Thailand, particularly temples. It becomes an architectural template of any building wishing to achieve the status of Mount Sumeru.

See Cambodia

Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism in Thai Architecture Mahayana

Buddhism and Hinduism have influenced Thai culture since the early period of the Siamese Kingdom. Originating in the 1st century in northern India, Mahayana followers respect Bodhisattva and certain gods in Hinduism. However, both Hinduism and Buddhism share similar belief about the centre of the universe. This idea significantly shaped the form of Thai art and architecture.

It should also be noted that some Mahayana-influenced structures were built when the Theravada school was popular in Thailand. This means these two schools of Buddhism can co-exist. There are two Mahayana Sutras (scriptures) that play an important role in Thai art and culture: one deals with non-religious art and culture and the other is concerned with religious art and architecture. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

The residence of Phra Amitabha Buddha is an elegant structure whose roof is decorated with wind chimes that give “blissful sounds when struck with the wind.” The structure is surrounded with “jeweled walls.” Such features are part and parcel of the ordination hall and the assembly hall and stupa in most temples in Thailand.

Ancient craftsmen put a lot of effort to imitate the abode of Phra Amitabha Buddha as described in the Sutra. For instance, the ceiling of the main Buddha hall , which is regarded as the residence of the Lord Buddha, is meticulously adorned with glittering objects like gild and coloured glasses to make it look like stars. Sometimes, the star-like ornaments are made in silver colour to imitate the full moon or in gold colour like that of the clouds at dawn or dusk. The reflection of gold and candle light in this building makes gilded Buddha statues look luminous like they have a aura. This exudes a serene, respectful atmosphere that easily draws people closer to the religion.

Another architectural feature that reflects the Mahayana belief is the concave curve of the base of the building, which resembles the bottom of the boat. This curving design was popular in the Ayutthaya and early Rattanakosin era. It is believed that the craftsmen use the shape of the vessel to symbolize Bodhisattva’s determination to help as many living creatures as possible to cross the cycle of life before he eventually achieved nirvana.

Transforming Buddhist Philosophy into Thai Architecture

In his “Study of Thai Traditional Architecture,” Wattana Boonjub wrote: “Various architectural features of the late Ayutthaya period indicate the craftsmen's attempt to imitate heaven to create the sense of peace, lightness and floating in accordance with the Buddhist philosophy. Peace is represented in the symmetry of the structures in the temples. This is visible in the square shape and the rectangular structure of some structures and the round shape of others. These features, with the stress at the structure centre that rises toward the top of the structure, give a sense of firmness and stability. One can have this kind of feelings when looking at the facade of Benchamabopit Temple and the famous stupa at the Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun). [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

Lightness is represented in the form of the curve. This curving design appears in several parts of the structures in the temples such as the arched roof and the base as well as the curve of the roof kernel' end. This design is aimed to create the feeling of lightness. Another way to create the sense of lightness is to break up a big rectangular form into tiers while maintaining the whole structure. This method is typically employed for the roof of large structures and multi-purpose buildings. Without the tiered roof, the structure would look stiff.

In addition to the curving design, craftsmen of the late Ayutthaya period make a lower layer at the front and back part of the roof. The lower layer from the main roof helps make the structure look light. Apart from knowing how to create the sense of lightness, late-Ayutthaya craftsmen were able to make an object or structure of different sizes look as if they were floating in the air, imitating the movement of angels. Some features such as the sweeping multi-tiered 54 roof and the upward curve at the roof are good examples in this case. Moreover each roof tier is imbued with religious meanings. For the construction of and 6 the craftsmen intentionally made the space between the tiers at the lower end closer to each other than the tiers at the upper part. As a result, the tiers at the lower end of the roof makes the structure look tense and heavy while the upper part of the roof looks more relaxing and liberating. The design is meant to represent the freedom from all attachments, which is the ultimate goal of Buddhist philosophy.

Such philosophy is even obvious in the design of a steep roof, which also feature dense multi tiered roof s. The top tier of the steep roof sweeping up into the sky represents the achievement of the supreme wisdom or nirvana. Basically, this is the symbol of peace, lightness, floating up high in Mahayana beliefs. Although the sweeping roof is designed to represents the concept in the Trai-bhumi scripture of the Theravada school, the Mahayana school’ s symbol of peace, lightness, and floating helps complement the structure beautifully.

The walls and pillars are also built to signify heaven. Thick at the base and thin at the top, walls and pillars lean toward the centre of the structure. It is a unique characteristic of Thai architectural design. In addition, the Maha Chompoobodi Sutra in Mahayana school refers to the story of the Lord Buddha when he used supernatural power to appear as King Jakkapat in order to teach the arrogant Tao Mahachompoo, who, after listening to the teaching, became a Buddhist saint (Arahat monk). The story inspired the creation of elaborately adorned Buddha statues such as Phra Athibuddh, Phra Wairojana Buddh, and Phra Sakkayanmuni Buddh. Such beliefs are linked to the making of both elaborately ornamented Buddha statues and Bodhisattva, especially the ones made of raw clay that is widely popular in the south. This idea was also popular in the Theravada influenced Ayutthaya Kingdom and continues to dominate the making of Buddha statues today.

Styles and Symbolism in Thai Architecture

The elements of buildings, especially architectural elements of religious buildings and palaces— roofs, doors and windows, bases and so on—have a greater importance in the Thai system of architecture than others. Temple and palace buildings are more readily perceived through their highly distinctive elements than as wholes. The elements call attention to themselves because they are stylized so far beyond their original functions. This stylization is partly for aesthetic purposes — to create a more complex, dynamic and visually harmonious architectural whole. It usually has a symbolic intent as well, with reference to Buddhism and the cosmology. It can serve magical purposes, as in the case of carved roof finials that embody guardian figures meant to ward off evil influence. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

The elements speak volumes about a building itself, revealing its vintage and regional identity. In contrast, the basic structures of religious architecture do not differ much no matter when and where they are built. For example, most temple halls have been built as rectangular boxes with gable roofs since the 11th century. Most present architectural elements have maintained the same characteristics since the Ayutthaya period, which became the foundation of the Rattanakosin architecture. Surviving examples of temple and palace elements typically date to the late 18th century and after. Earlier elements were lost to war, theft, decay and frequent renovations.

The style of recently built buildings throughout the central region and beyond was influenced by the architecture of royally sponsored temples in Bangkok. These royal temples feature styles and elements similar to buildings in the Grand Palace and its royal temple. Indeed, many were built by the same architects and artisans. Central-style temples started to appear in other regions in the 19th century as part of the Crown’s extension of political influence into places that had been under other countries’ sovereignty such as Isaan and the south. In this way, the royal architectural style from the central region becomes the prototype of important buildings in Thailand.

Almost all of the elements are rich in symbolism. Guardian figures are embodied in roof finials, eave brackets and courtyard statuary. Buddhist cosmology is expressed in the courtyard layout and the odd-numbered tiers of bases, roof spires and finials on courtyard wall columns. The most sacred elements, to be certain, are Buddha statues.

Roofs in Thai architecture

Roofs are the quintessential elements in Thai public architecture, shaping the character of the buildings with their elaborate structure and decoration. The ornamented multi-tier roofs are, however, reserved for temples and palaces as well as public buildings such as government offices, university halls and monuments. Commercial buildings that breach this tradition, as a few hotels have done, are frowned upon. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

This is because, in their decoration, the tiers with multiple layers and height above the ground symbolise the prestige of the buildings, which extends from the paramount status of royalty, Buddhism and the Thai nation. The more ornate the roof is, the higher the status of the building or of the person who commissions it demonstrate. Two or three tiers are most often used, but some royal temples have four.

Multiple roof tiers basically provide weather protection but their rationale is more aesthetic than functional. Because temple and palace halls are large, their roof areas are massive. To lighten up the roof’s appearance, the lowest tier is the largest, with a smaller middle layer and the smallest roof on top. Multiple breaks in each roof lighten it further — a double-tiered roof might have two, three or even four breaks in each tier. The slope increases with each tier, from a gentle 45 degrees gradient on the lowest, to over 50 degrees on the highest. In central Thai architecture, the lower tiers telescope a short distance beyond the top roof at the gable ends. On northern temple halls, the tiers project further, often over a redented floor plan that starts narrow at the entrance and grows wider towards the altar.

Further dividing each tier’s surface are coloured-ceramic tiles in concentric patterns, which help make a single tier look as if it has multiple sections. These configurations transform the roof’s seeming scale, enlivening the aesthetics of the entire building. Instead of building a massive roof that visually weighs the building down, Thai architects create a roof with a dynamic series of forms that appears to soar. In this way, aesthetics suit the intent of veneration. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

Spires and Other Roof Features on Temples and Palaces

Roof spires designate buildings of the highest status, especially royal palace halls. Indeed, the Thai term for a roof spire means ‘spire of a palace’. Since the mid- Ayutthaya period, the royal palace architecture has called for a cruciform floor plan topped by a roof spire. This shows Ayutthaya’s embrace of the Khmer-Hindu concept of the divine king, or devaraja. The roof spires of royal structures and prangs symbolise Mount Meru, which is the residence of gods and the divine centre of the universe. The cruciform structure signifies the intersec tion of axes at this centre. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

The main type of the spire is style which has multiple tiers of redented squares diminishing in size as they ris e towards a thin conical tip. Each tier is decorated with rows of miniature gables. In palace buildings, these feature tiny finials which represent nagas and garudas. Roof spires are featured on top of most spire halls in the Grand Palace. The Maha Prasat spires have seven-tiered bases over roof tiers decorated with garuda figures grasping nagas, an icon of Thai royalty. Other less prominent halls, prasat, have five-tiered spire bases.

Some spires, instead of having square tiers, have round rings like a crown, which is called ‘mongkut’ in Thai. These spires often grace the buildings constructed during the reign of King Rama IV, whose name was King Mongkut. Some prasat roofs may be topped by a spire of a bullet-shaped prang, as seen on Prasat Phra Thepbidorn or the Royal Pantheon at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and above the City Pillar Shrine in Bangkok. The prasat spires are also often built on temple halls, crematoriums, gates and spirit houses.

Roof Finials. Every roof edge apex has stylized attachments that essentially transform the structure into a huge piece of sculpture while hinting at mystical concepts. Most of them are decorations fixed at the bargeboard on the edge of the roof at the gable ends. While the bargeboard protects the roof covering from the wind, its decorative roof finials embodies guardian figures that protect against bad influences.

Usually covered in glass mosaic or gilding, roof finials are sculpted in an undulating, serpentine nag sadung shape evoking the naga. Its lower finial is called a ‘goose tail’, referring to hongsa, the Thai name for Hamsa. Although this name may suggest that the finial is shaped like a hamsa figure, it now usually takes the form of a naga’s head turning up and facing away from the roof. The finial of the naga head may be styled in flame-like kranok motifs and feature multiple naga heads. A roof with multiple breaks or tiers has identical finials at the bottom of each section. Some old temples in Lanna and Isaan have a Laotian-style metal finial in the form of a multi-tiered umbrella of state fixed at the centre of the roof ridge.

Another part of is the large curved finial is called a ‘sky tassel’. Perched at the peak of the roof and resembling the beak of a bird, it perhaps represents Garuda. This finial is often erected ceremonially to signify the structure’s status. The intriguingly indeterminate shape of one symbol, which resembles both bird and reptile, has led to several assumptions about its symbolism. One theory suggests that it may represent Garuda in his mythical struggle with Naga. Another theory indicates that it may represent the celestial goose Hamsa. For example, on some temples, especially in the north, they are explicitly carved as Hamsa. Other figures are a deva divinity or budding lotus. Whatever the mythical animals they represent, the , figures are all benevolent divinities, suggesting the protective powers of Buddhism and the temple’s role in guarding the faith.

Pediments on Thai Temples and Palaces

The large triangular section at the end of a gable roof, the pediment is the most prominent exterior element of a Thai public building. Standing high over the entrance, it inevitably becomes the most decorated part of palace and temple buildings. Its degree of embellishment corresponds closely to the building’s status in terms of sponsorship and royal affiliation. [Wattana Boonjub]

In the Ayutthaya and early Rattanakosin periods, pediments were usually decorated in carved wooden relief that were lacquered and gilded, and sometimes featured glass tiles set into the grooves or applied to the surface. Plaster relief later became popular, usually painted or inlaid with glass tiles, or left bare in the case of modest rural temples. During the reign of King Rama III, plaster relief was often adorned with crockery mosaics made of Chinese ceramics.

Pediment reliefs show figurative designs and abstracted floral motifs of Thai, Chinese, Khmer and, sometimes, Western origin. These motifs serve as a background for pediment guardian figures and as foreground designs on the pediments of secondary structures such as sala and gates. The pediments of temples under royal patronage often centre on the figure of the god Narai sitting astride his vehicle Garuda.

Sometimes the emblem of the king—who is regarded as the embodiment of King Rama of the Ramakian epic, who is a reincarnation of Narai— is used on the pediments.. Narrative scenes from the Ramakian epic are depicted on the pediments of some important temples in Bangkok. Other divinities selected for temple architecture include Indra on his mount, the three-headed elephant Erawan; Brahma on his goose, Hamsa; or Siva on his bull, Nandi. Guardian figures such as Rahu and Kala sometimes appear.

Eave Brackets on Thai Temples and Palaces

Eave brackets are among the most inventively carved wooden elements in Thai temple architecture, and their design is a good index of a building’s vintage and stylistic heritage. They did not seem to appear in the Sukhothai period when roof eaves were supported by peristyles.When these outer rows of columns began to be structural role of transferring the weight of the roof eaves to the columns or walls. Late Ayutthaya temple halls were sm aller than their predecessors. Thus their eaves did not need extra structural support. Nevertheless, brackets continued to be used, but as decorative and symbolic elements. They became slender and increasingly stylized. [Wattana Boonjub]

The figures on eave brackets usually embodied guardian figures such as naga, hamsa or deva intertwined with floral and cloud motifs. Preferably carved on one piece of wood, they were often gilded, and sometimes decked with glass mosaic. From the 19th century onwards, cement or plaster began to be used in the carving of eave brackets.

Brackets enhanced the roof’s appearance of soaring lightness. When massive outer pilasters and columns were eliminated, they were replaced by these slender limbs. They improve the temple hall’s proportions and composition - echoing in reverse the diagonal lines of the sloping roof and amplifying the rhythm of the columns, windows and bargeboard finials. Regional variations are especially interesting. Artisans in northern Thailand and parts of the northeast were probably pressed to be creative because each bracket was carved differently, unlike the identical set mandated in central region. Figures such as monkeys, demons and devas typically appear with arms and legs raised as if they are supporting the roof.

Doors and Windows in Thai Palaces and Temples

In palace and temple architecture, the heightened status of the interior space is suggested by the elaborate decoration of doors (pratoo), windows (naatang), air vents and eave brackets (khan thuai). These elements demonstrate some of the most beautiful ornaments in Thai architecture, including plaster or carved wood relief, painted designs, gold-and-lacquer work and glass mosaic. Doors and windows of temple and royal structures have a larger surface area for the embellishment, compared to that of houses. The embellishment also helps shed more light on the objects and the ceremonies that take place inside the buildings. [Wattana Boonjub]

Traditionally considered as the passage between differing realms, doors and windows, especially in palaces and temples, are decorated with special motifs in order to ward off the entry of evil spirits. Panels are carved or painted with images of guardian demons or other auspicious figures and designs. Statues of guardian demons, warriors or beasts are also placed outside the buildings for additional protection.

Bases and Columns of Thai Temples

While roofs get special treatments in Thai architecture, bases or too, receive an aesthetic attention. Important buildings such as ordination halls, prang, chedi memorial towers and palace halls are exalted by bases that raise them off the ground, usually in multiple layers that add height, structural complexity and decoration. [Wattana Boonjub]

Stylised mouldings make massive structures appear taller, lighter and more dynamic. The recesses at the corners create an impression of structural complexity without adding other structural elements or reducing structural strength. Using simple rectangular or square layers, bases take on a multi-faceted geometry. Instead of just four sides, bases can have as many as 32. Surface decoration -- glass mosaic, gold leaf, paint or patterned relief – also adds splendour. Guardian figures such as elephants, garudas or devas are often applied. Bases are typically made of laterite blocks, stone, brick or cement. Stylised bases can be seen at religious shrines, door frames and other structures.

The stylization of bases, plinths and pedestals proliferated during the Ayutthaya period, especially in the design of and prangs. Mouldings came in two special types, lotus and lion’s throne - each with many variations. Lotus mouldings can represent upturned or downturn blossoms, elongated petals and other forms. Lion’s throne mouldings - an influence from Persia, China or India - are a stylised representation of a lion’s legs and torso. Signifying dignity and nobility, this moulding is generally reserved for sacred or royal structures. Assembly and ordination halls built in the Ayutthaya period have a concave base that calls to mind a hull of a ship. Some experts explain that it is a metaphor in Buddhism for a vessel of enlightenment.

Columns. The massive, multi-tiered roofs of palace and temple buildings are supported by columns (sao) of timber or bricks. A large ordination or assembly hall can have as many as eight rows of columns supporting the roof: one or two double interior rows; rows of load-bearing pilasters within both lateral walls; and sometimes an external row of columns under the eaves of the roof on both lateral sides. Columns can be round, or, if square, can have single, double or curved redentings.

Decoration may come in a variety of lotus motifs -- upturned, downturn, elongated or clustered. (This Asian ornament parallels the classical Corinthian order, which use acanthus leaf designs instead of lotus.) Column bases may also have lotus or lion’s throne mouldings similar to the base of and shrines. Courtyards may also feature free-standing lantern columns ( sao khom duang prathip ) that are used to hold up torches to illuminate the buildings during the night.

Interior Spaces of Thai Temples

Entering a viharn or ubosot can be a dramatic transition. From the white-walled courtyard, broad and bright, one enters a dim, hushed enclosure. Tall, narrow windows receive enough light to illuminate ornaments such as gilded lacquer on columns, mother- of-pearl door panels and polychrome wall murals. At the front is the altar, with more gilded decoration, many candles or lamps, and sacred parasols, all under to gaze of the presiding Buddha image. Except for the lack of seating, its interior is quite similar to that of a Christian church: a long, narrow nave between columns, a soaring space under the roof. Chandeliers are hung from the high ceiling, which is painted red and decorated with the crystalline floral motifs that form a ‘starry ceiling’ or In all, it becomes a 43 kind of a palace building that enshrines the Buddha image — an architectural expression of reverence. It is also a sanctuary, encouraging a state of contemplative tranquility. [Wattana Boonjub]

The interior of a palace throne hall, too, is dramatic. The hall is dominated by a single, central element; an ornamented throne under a carved wooden canopy or royal parasols with an elevated seat up to 2 meters above the ground. Other elements of the hall are few but stately such as decorated walls, chandeliers, ornate doorways and marble floors. The floor plan comes in square or cruciform, a layout designating a cosmological axis, signifying the kind’s importance. Additionally, the traditional palace protocol heightened the sense of grandeur: the king entered and mounted the throne behind a curtain; the audience then entered and prostrated themselves as the veil was lifted to reveal the king seated above them in majesty.

Ceilings Since the Sukhothai period, the ceilings of the temples’ ordination halls and assembly halls have been decorated with lotus motifs. Done in paint, gold leaf or carved wood, and sometimes inlaid with glass mosaic, the lotus is usually rendered as a rather crystalline rosette. The motifs are arranged within rectangular or square ceiling panels that are defined by columns and beams. A typical pattern is a group of five, seven or nine flowers, the largest in the centre, with stylized ‘bat’ designs in the four corners, all against a red background. A chandelier may be hung from the central flower. Contrast to the twinkling designs of overhead, the flower pattern symbolises the cosmological order brought about by dhamma or Buddhist law.

Mural Painting in Thai Temples

In his “Study of Thai Traditional Architecture,” Wattana Boonjub wrote: “Mural paintings enliven the walls of assembly and ordination halls not as decorations but as visual texts designed for spiritual instruction. When the majority of Thai population was illiterate before the 20th century, only Buddhist monks were able to read the ancient scriptural language of Pali. As a result, murals were used to illustrate the teachings of Buddha because they were easy to understand and remember. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand , a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University]

The contents, set by convention but to stylistic innovation, range from iconic to narrative. The mural at the west end of the hall, behind the main Buddha statue, is the iconic depiction of the Thai Buddhist cosmology, the Traiphum: mountains and oceans symbolising different layers of the universe and time. Illustrated below is the Realm of Desire, with hellish imagery of errant souls being tortured by demons and beasts. Above, celestials inhabit the intermediate realms of earth.

Murals on the sides and entrance walls recount the life of the Lord Buddha. The entire east wall at the entrance end depicts the moment when the Lord Buddha, meditating under a Bodhi tree, is harassed by an army of demons led by Mara, lord of the Realm of Desires, who aims to interrupt his concentration. The Buddha touches the ground with his right hand to call the earth to witness the merits he has made. (The same gesture is portrayed by most Thai Buddha statuary.) Murals may also depict any of hundreds of stories in the jatakas, tales of the Buddha’s previous incarnations, peopled by Bodhhisatvas, kings, queens, ascetics, Hindu divinities and ordinary folk tales and the Ramakian epic, grandly rendered in 178 panels at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in the Grand Palace. Interior Statuary One of the important roles of any wat is to enshrine Buddha images for veneration.

Indeed, the ornate decoration of a viharn building is intended to create a palace-like setting appropriate for these statues. Thai Buddhists view them not as a work of art but as reminders of Buddhist doctrine or sacred objects for worship. The main statue stands on a pedestal or altar at the end flowers, often with many secondary Buddha figures. Cloisters, pavilions and shrines may also house these images.

While bronze Buddha images are prevalent, many were made of stone, terra cotta, wood and ivory. The monumental statuary of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya were made of bricks or laterite blocks covered with stucco. Enshrined at Wat Phra Kaew, Thailand’s Palladium of State, the Emerald Buddha is probably made of green jasper.

Buddha Images in Thai Temples

Buddha images first appeared in Thailand during the Mon Dvaravati period from the 6th to the 11th centuries, and the Khmer Lopburi period from the 7th to the 14th centuries. However, the making of the statues might have reached the artistic peak during the Sukhothai era (12th – 14th centuries). Later, Ayutthaya artisans sculpted crowned, jeweled Buddha images, among other styles. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

Most Buddha figures display gestures called mudra. The most prevalent in Thailand is the bhumisparsa mudra (earth-touching mudra), which shows the Buddha seated in meditation with one hand touching the ground. The mudra symbolises his enlightenment under the bodhi tree when he summoned the earth goddess to bear witness to his enlightenment. Another important mudra depicts the meditation posture, a figure seated cross-legged with hands on his lap. The ‘dispelling fear’ mudra demonstrates a standing figure with the right hand raised to shoulder height, the arm bent and the palm facing outward. Sukhothai sculptors created fluid statues of a walking Buddha.

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Courtyards in Thai Temple Compounds

Temple compounds are enclosed within walls that form layers of courtyards. These grounds assume a greater importance than do the grounds around Western churches. They are filled with a variety of key religious structures, statuary and ceremonial sites. [Wattana Boonjub]

The inner courtyard, formed by low walls surrounding the ubosot, is the centre. The courtyards may comprise prangs, the pavilions of scriptures, shrines, pavilions for meditation and funerals and auspicious trees such as Bodhi. A wall is used to separate the ceremonial courtyard from the courtyard of the monk’s quarters.

Circumambulation rites take place around the temple’s most sacred structure, which could be a or a prang that contains an important relic or a viharn that houses a revered Buddha image. Often this structure will be enclosed within cloisters. Worshippers gather before dusk and slowly walk around the structure three times clockwise, with lit candles, incense sticks and lotus buds in their hands. The three offerings and the triple circumambulation are reminders of the holy Three Gems of Buddhist doctrine: Lord Buddha, Dhamma (his teachings) and Sangha (the assembly of all beings possessing some high degree of realisation or nobility).

Courtyards of major monasteries are typically paved with bricks, terra cotta tiles, stones or terrazzo, which are often laid out in decorative patterns. The courtyards of ordinary temples are simply covered with earth, sand, pebbles or grass. Courtyards at the Grand Palace are broad and stately to suit the celebrations of the kings’ birthday and the receptions for dignitaries. Lending regal pomp are attractive ceremonial pavilions, elaborate gates and shrines housing royal insignia. Plazas and walkways are paved with decorative tiles.

Courtyard Walls and Gates in Thai Temples

Different layers of walls around the temple compounds designate the grounds as sacred. The design often follows a floor plan that complies with the Hindu-Buddhist cosmological concept, representing the centre of the compound. Gates, as thresholds between different spaces, are perceived to protect against the entry of evil spirits. When gates are built, rites are performed to invite guardian spirits to take abode and ward off bad influences. [Wattana Boonjub]

Built of bricks and covered in plaster, outer walls are usually between one meter and three meters high and 30 centimeters and 80 centimeters thick. They are typically whitewashed and decorated with ceramic balustrades, a multi-tiered column capital (hua med) and mouldings around the base. Elite temples may have walls of glazed ceramic tiles.

Inner walls that demarcate the ceremonial zone and surround key structures such as ubosot, or prang are called 3, meaning ‘jewelled walls’. This is another cosmological reference to the god Indra who resides in a heaven surrounded by walls embedded with seven precious gems. The term thus designates the ubosot as a symbol of heaven. The inner walls are low structures about 0.8 meters to 1.2 meters tall, and can take the form of balustrades, with square, rectangular of cross-shaped openings. Some walls feature balusters, which are shaped like pilasters of turned wood. Some use Chinese glazed stoneware blocks with decorative fretwork.

Outer wall gateways generally take one of three forms according to the styles of their tops: gabled, spired or Western-influenced designs such as semi-circular arches. In recent decades, temple builders have tended to install larger gateways to accommodate visitors, especially those who travel by car.

Walls and gates around buildings in the Grand Palace demarcate grounds of the highest status, from the fortified outer walls to the decorated walls around the Central Court and the Inner Court zones, where only the king and his children often have specific ceremonial designations in which many are individually named. What are now the outer walls were once the city walls of Bangkok. These plastered brick walls are 3.5 meters tall and 2.5 meters thick. In addition to fortifications and passageways for soldiers, the walls have cannon towers at junctions. The largest outer gates stand at 4.5 meters tall and 4 meters wide with ornate roofs.

Courtyard walls in the Central Court and Inner Court feature a variety of highly decorated gateways - many of them have spires. Walls around a primary palace building may have a triple-spired gateway featuring an elaborately ornate entrance for the king. Low walls around ceremonial halls and pavilions have special adaptations for royal protocol. For example, a protruding platform called k is used to mount a carriage of state, borne by elephant or horse, or a hand-carried palanquin. Another platform called is used by the king when presiding over ceremonies.

Courtyards Statues in a Thai Temple

Most of the statues in temple courtyards are guardian figures of Hindu or Chinese origin. Rattanakosin-period temples, especially royal wats in the capital, are abundantly supplied with carved stone statues imported from China during and after the reign of King Rama III - they served as ballast in Siam-bound ships. Some were carved in Siam by immigrant Chinese artisans. They are typically figures of warriors, mandarins and animals, especially lions, which are considered by some schools of Buddhism as the guardians of Buddhist law and temples. [Wattana Boonjub]

Another sculptural genre embodies a vast menagerie of creatures from the forest of Himaphan, a mythological Hindu-Buddhist paradise in the Himalayas. Many of these animals appear in the Ramakian epic, which can be seen in mural paintings as well. They include half-lion, half-human beasts; half-maiden, half-goose creatures; and dozens of others with eclectically mixed traits of elephants, deer, 47 monkeys, birds, fish, nagas and other animals.

Figures of Hindu ascetics at Wat Pho demonstrate Yoga poses. Statues of Thai kings sometimes appear in some temples. Buddha statues, however, are less often placed in courtyards without a roof or enclosure of some sort; they are usually enshrined inside mondops, pavilions, chapels or cloisters. On the other hand, a courtyard in an ordination hall may feature the free-standing dhammachakra or ‘Wheel of Law’. Usually carved from stone and mounted on a pedestal, the wheel is the symbol of the Buddhist doctrine set in motion when Buddha preached his first sermon.

Courtyard Gardens of a Thai Temple

Gardens Courtyard landscaping shows a distinctively Thai amalgam of influences from Europe, Japan and China. If Chinese and Japanese gardens are a stylized version of nature, Thai temple and palace gardens seem to be a stylized version of these predecessors -- not a lush continuum of replica of nature, but something more constructed. [Wattana Boonjub]

The gardening emphasizes the architecture, not the plants. The ground is paved with stones, ceramic tiles or gravel. Plantings are dew and formal, with hedges well trimmed, and trees pruned and trained. Most plants stand in ceramic or cement pots, and there are vat of lilies and lotus. The greenery stands free from the buildings and provides little shade. Coupled with their stone pavements and whitewashed walls, the courtyards are often hot and so bright during the day to the point that one has to squint.

The grounds are not a sweeping vista to be viewed all at once, but are a bit like a Chinese ink painting or the landscape in a Thai mural — a maze of little vignettes: a flowering tree here, a shrine ther e, clusters of statuary and the Siamese rendition of bonsai called) . Overt Chinese influence is seen in the rock gardens, or . The courtyard’s formality contrasts with the unplanned sprawl and clutter in the village or city beyond, heightening the sense that this space is sacred and governed by spiritual laws, rather than material ones or the accidents of nature.

Palace landscaping is even more formal than the temples, with more of the pomp and regality of the 18th and 19th century European style. Lawns with huge Thai bonsai enhance the grandeur of spired throne halls. Quite informal, however, are the gardens in suburban or rural temples, which tend to feature a big open space (laan), usually used for religious events such as temple fairs. The gardens are usually unpaved and have large trees around the perimeter, often including a sacred Bodhi tree.

Thai bonsai and stone mountains originated in China and perfected in Japan, the art of bonsai was reinvented in the Siamese kingdom. Arriving from China during the Sukhothai period and from Japan during the Ayutthaya era, bonsai was first taken up by monks for use in temple gardens. Whereas the Chinese and Japanese intent is to create a miniature replica of a mature tree, the Thais aimed for something pretty, rather like European topiary, emphasizing stylized, almost geometric shapes. Explicit artifice, rather than implicit nature, is the aim of Thai bonsai called) or ‘tree bending’. The trunk and branches are drawn into diagrammatic lines, while bunches of leaves are trimmed into small globes. The little pompoms always occur in auspicious numbers of three, five, seven, nine or eleven, and usually on three levels. Larger trees, which can reach 3 meters tall, are grown in the ground.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand, a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University; 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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