The usual Thai name for a temple is 'Wat', and this word occurs as the prefix to the name of a temple: e.g. Wat Phra Kaeo - the temple of the Emerald Buddha. In this guide the words Wat and Temple are used interchangeably.
A Thai Buddhist temple is a group of religious buildings and other features (such as trees and lakes), surrounded by a wall, and with at least one gate. The main buildings are the Ubosot or Bot, (Ordination Hall), the Chedi or Stupa (Reliquary Tower) and the Viharn (teaching Hall). Of equal importance may be a Bhodi Tree or a Buddha Footprint.
Most of the best known temples are in Bangkok, and these reflect the highly ornate "Rattanakosin" style of the Chakri dynasty (late 18th century to the present day). Anyone who has visited Chiang Mai, however, or Sukhothai, Lopburi or futher afield to Phanom Rueng, will have seen a much greater variety of styles of temple building and decoration. The illustrations in this article are mainly from Bangkok and the central plains of Thailand, but I have also included a few from Chiang Mai and Lamphun in Northern Thailand.
I remember when I first began to visit Thai temples, I had no idea of the significance of the different parts of the temple complex: I gleaned a little information from the guide books popular at the time, and from any inscriptions kindly provided by the Tourist Authority of Thailand; but generally I admired without comprehending.
I hope that this brief guide will be of some use to others as unfamiliar with the subject as I was then.
Most of the terms used in Thai Temple architecture (and in many Thai place names) derive from Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist Scriptures. Pali developed in Northern India in the centuries after the death of the Buddha (believed by Thai Buddhists to be 543 B.C.E.) as a religious and literary dialect rather than as a popular language.
The Buddhist scriptures (the 'Pali Canon') were collected into three baskets (the 'Tipitaka') in Sri Lanka in the first century B.C.E. and form the core teaching of Theravada Buddhism, the prevalent form of Buddhism in Thailand, South East Asia and Sri Lanka.
English spelling of Pali terms often reflects popular Thai pronunciation: so for the Pali term 'Vihara' we often find 'Viharn', for 'Uposatha' we get 'Ubosot', both of which reflect popular Thai pronunciation. The Thais are correct both ways, however, in that the Thai spelling of these terms can be pronounced in Thai or Pali fashion. For this reason I have include variant spellings as appropriate.
Ubosot, Wat Benchamabophit
The Ubosot (Pali 'Uposatha') or Bot, is one of the larger buildings in the monastery complex, and one of the most important. Similar to a Viharn in style, it is the Ordination Hall of the temple, used not just for ordinations, but also for many other rituals of the monastic life such as the twice monthly recitation of the Patimoka or monks' rule of conduct. 'Bot' is also the word that Thais use for a Christian church.
The Ubosot usually contains the principal Buddha image and many decorative features such as Murals, stained glass, and richly decorated gables, door and window panels. The stained glass to the right is from the aesthetically superb Wat Benchamabophit, Bangkok.
The walls of the Ubosot and the Viharn are often covered with murals depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha, the Jakatas, and the Ramakien, but you also find scenes from ordinary life: children swim and play, men fight and gamble, pigs sprawl underneath the old style wooden houses. The scene below is a detail from one of the magnificent sequence of Ramakien Murals at Wat Phra Kaeo and depicts Rama setting out from Ayodhya in his war chariot.
Scene from The Ramakien
Because it is the most sacred part of the temple after the Chedi the Ubosot of some temples is only open to the public on Buddha days, which occur about 4 times a month, and on Buddhist festivals. Some temples in northern Thailand do not allow the entry of women within the space demarcated by the Sema Stones, or the inner precinct of the Chedi.
Sima Stones (Bai Sema)
The Ubosot is demarcated by Sema Stones placed at the four corners of the building and the center of each wall, a total of 8 with a ninth buried under the site of the principal Buddha image inside the Ubosot. The Sima Stones delimit the sacred inner area of the temple. They are usually of simple design, but often, especially in Bangkok, semi-enclosed in an elaborate housing known as a Mondop.
The Sima Stone upper left is from Wat Amarin, Thonburi district, Bangkok. In the example on the right (from Wat Rakang, Thonburi district) the Sima is the gold-laquered object, just visible within the white Mondop.
Rarely seen, because they are buried beneath the Sima Stones, Luk Nimit are stones of spherical shape. When a new Ubosot is to be constructed, the temples often put up huge posters on the approach roads offering the faithful the opportunity to 'make merit' by contributing money and precious objects, including Buddha images and amulets (Phra Pim), to bury with the Luk Nimit.
The Luk Nimit above was displayed at Wat Mahabut, Onnuj Rd., Bangkok. It was intended for a new ubosot at Wat Kok, Sukhumwit 93. The public were invited to make merit by donation to the new ubosot, or by simply sticking gold leaf to the Nimit.
Phra Pathom Chedi
The Chedi (Pali: Cetiya) or Stupa is a reliquary tower, sometimes referred to in the west as a Pagoda. Inside it are enshrined relics, sometimes of the Buddha (bones, teeth etc.) sometimes of kings or other important people, sometimes with images of the Buddha. A temple with the attribute 'Mahathat' or 'Phrathat', for example Wat Phrathat Haripunchai in Lamphun, or Wat Mahathat in Bangkok, is believed to contain relics of the Buddha himself.
The shape of the Chedi probably originated in the shape of an ancient Indian burial mound (stupa) and is multi-symbolic: of the Buddha himself, seated cross-legged on a pedestal or lotus throne, of the different levels of the Buddhist Cosmology from under the earth through to the heavens, and of Mount Meru itself, the mountain at the center of the Hindu and Buddhist cosmos.
There are many varieties of Chedi in Thailand, based on a few distinct types: the bell-shaped style being perhaps the most popular. The example above right is Phra Pathom Chedi at Nakhon Pathom, west of Bangkok. With a base diameter of around 233 meters and a height of more than 120 meters, this is the tallest Chedi in Thailand.
A type of Chedi popular in Northern Thailand balances a smaller dome on a high square Base: each side of the base has a niche carved with Buddha images. The example lower left is from Wat Jed Yod, Chiang Mai.
From the Khmers, the Thais borrowed the Prang style of reliquary, found all over central Thailand. This type is shaped like a corn cob standing on top of a square or cruciform building, with an entrance on one side. Shown below center is one side of Phra Prang Sam Yod, Lopburi.
A third type of Chedi has a small dome balanced on a square base with indented corners. The example, below right, is from Wat Arun, Thonburi, Bangkok.
An unusual style of Chedi found in Northern Thailand is the stepped Chedi, most famously the Suwanna Chedi at Wat Chamathevi, Lamphun
, with similar structures at Wat Phrathat Haripunchai (Lamphun) and Wat Chedi Liem, Chiang Mai.
This type of Chedi has a square stepped base, with 5 tiers above, each of the four faces containing 3 Buddha images.
The Suwanna Chedi, pictured right, lost the top of its spire in an earthquake centuries ago, giving the temple its old name of Wat Ku Kut (broken spire)
The Viharn (Pali: Vihara) is a hall similar to the Ubosot, but with no Sema stones. It houses various Buddha images and is used as a preaching hall and as a place for prayer and meditation. There may be more than one Viharn in a temple complex.
Wiharn, Wat Suwannaram
Above is the Viharn at Wat Suwannaram an Ayutthaya period temple, extensively rebuilt in the time of King Rama III (1824 - 1851). The temple is located at Thonburi, West Bangkok. Wat Suwannaram is famous for its murals which include scenes from 19th century Bangkok life; unfortunately the Ubosot and Viharn are not always open for visitors.
Some of the displays of Buddhist images in temple Viharns can be quite magnificent, both in scale and profusion. In the Ubosot of Wat Suthat, for instance, the great Buddha image is faced by an army of life-size disciples.
The image below is Phra Buddha Trai Rattananayok from the time of King Rama III, situated in the Viharn of Wat Kalayanamit, Thonburi, West Bangkok.
Phra Buddha Trai Rattananayok
It is difficult in a small web photograph to convey a sense of the sheer size and majesty of this statue. Suffice it to say that it stands 15.45 meters tall (nearly 51ft), and 11.75 meters wide (just under 39ft).
The Hor Rakang is the bell tower of the monastery, a sometimes quite tall structure, housing the bell which summons the monks to their devotions.
Most of the bells seen in Thai monasteries are of fairly modest proportions, but the one at Wat Kalayanamit, shown to the right is huge, with a mouth diameter of nealy two meters and a weight of 13 tonnes, reputedly the biggest bronze bell in Thailand.
Bells are quite popular features of Thai Monasteries, where you often find a line of free standing bells (as at Wat Rakang, Thonburi and the Golden Mount, Wat Saket), which visitors ring in sequence for good luck.
Hor Trai, Wat Dusittaram The Hor Trai is the Scripture Repositary of the temple. It was traditionally a wooden stucture standing in a pond to protect it from insect damage and accessible only by ladder. Below is a Hor Trai from Wat Dusittaram, Thonburi, West Bangkok.
Hor Trai (Library)
In Northern Thailand the Hor Trai is often a high brick-built building with steep stairs or a removable ladder leading to the document store. A good example can be seen at Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai.
The Scriptures were inscribed with a metal stylus onto long thin sections of dried palm leaf, each leaf taking perhaps 5 lines of Pali text; soot was then rubbed over the leaf, filling the indentations and making the text readable. A number of leaves were bound together with string to make a complete text.
The example below is from the museum at Wat Paramai Yikawat, Koh Kret, Nonthaburi, Thailand.
Fragile Palm Leaves
Bhodi Tree (also known as Bo Tree)
In Buddhist tradition the Buddha achieved illumination (bhodi) while sitting in meditation under a variety of fig tree, since known as the 'Bhodi Tree' or ficus religiosa. The original Bhodi tree was located at Bodh Gaya in Northern India. Seedlings from this tree and its descendants have been planted at Buddhist temples ever since.
Usually raised up on a base surrounded by a brick wall, Bodhi trees can be seen at many Buddhist temples in Bangkok and elsewhere. At Royal temples such as Wat Pho, Wat Benchamabophit, and Wat Phra Kaeo the trees come from seedlings sent from Bodh Gaya as a present for king Rama IV (1851-1868).
Bhodi Tree, Wat Pho
In her book 'The Buddha in the Jungle' Kamala Tiyavanich
tells a story from the life of Somdet To, abbot of Wat Rakang in Bangkok's Thonburi district. Somdet To (1788-1872) was a contemporary and friend of King Rama IV. He took a special care of the Bodhi tree in the temple grounds, one of the Bodh Gaya Seedlings and still very small.
A muslim named Sitaram used to graze his goats in the temple grounds and had been warned to keep his animals away from the young Bodhi tree. Unfortunately one day he fell asleep and his goats jumped up onto the mound surrounding the tree and nearly stripped it of leaves. The terrified goatherd was led before the abbot and, prostrating himself as was the custom, begged for mercy, fearing a severe punishment. The abbot asked him if he realised the importance of the Bodhi tree in the Buddhist religion, and that this tree came from the original tree under which the Bhuddha achieved illumination.
The Muslim reaffirmed his regret at what had happened, but pleaded that this was Bangkok not Bodh Gaya, and that the tree was a different tree, not the tree of the Buddha's illumination. The abbot laughed at this, admitting that this indeed was not Bodh Gaya, and that the tree was not the same tree. He dismissed the man without punishment, urging him to keep his goats under control in future.
The Bodhi tree survived the attack of the goats and still flourishes in front of Wat Rakang. In the days of Somdet To, Muslims and Buddhists in Thailand generally lived together in mutual tolerance and respect.
The Dharma Chakkra (Pali Dhammacakka) or 'Wheel of the Law' is one of the earliest Buddhist symbols, and appeared in India long before Buddha statues. It is generally an eight-spoked wheel (symbolising the eight-fold path of the Buddha's teaching) and is sometimes supported by two deer.
It commemorates the occasion of the Buddha's first sermon after his illumination, when he set in motion the 'wheel of the law' at the deer park in Sarnath.
Dharma Chakkras are found all over Thailand, but especially in Northern Thailand, where they can be found engraved on Sema Stones and painted on Gable Ends as in the above example from Wat Chetawan, Chiang Mai.
But I have often seen ordinary cart-wheels placed both inside and outside the monastery grounds, presumably as a reminder of the Dharma Chakkra. The example below was seen outside the boundary wall of Wat Duang Di, Chiang Mai.
Wagon Wheel as Dharma Chakkra
A Mondop (Pali Mandapa) is an open-sided housing , with an ornate, spired roof, used to house sacred objects, such as relics, Sema stones, Buddha images, Buddha Footprints etc.
The Mondop Group below is from the Royal Cemetary at Wat Rachabophit, Bangkok. This area of the temple was set up by order of King Rama V to keep relics of members of the royal family.
There are some 34 discrete memorials in this garden, of a great many architectural styles, from Thai style bell-shaped stupas, to Khmer Prangs.
A Sala is an open pavilion used for many different purposes including merit making (Sala Kan Parien), a place for monks to receive arms (Sala Batr) and a place for travellers to rest over night (Sala Rai) - traditionally Buddhist Monasteries have offered a refuge to all who needed it, including unwanted or sick animals.
The Sala to the right is a typical general purpose Sala from Wat Saeng Siri Tam, Nonthaburi, near Bangkok.
The term is not restricted to monastic buildings, so, for instance, an open-sided shelter by a river pier may also be described as a Sala.
Kuti, Nakhon Pathom
A kuti is a monk's dwelling. Where space is available these are individual huts, as in the photograph on the right, which is from Phra Pathom Chedi, Nakhon Pathom, west of Bangkok. Here a single monk sleeps, but also studies and mediatates.
In city temples the monks usually have individual cells within a larger building. The most spectacular example of this is Loh Prasat (left) at Wat Rachanada, Bangkok, where each individual cell is topped by a spire.
Crematorium (Phra Men/Phra Meru)
Phra Mehru (Phra Men)
Many Thai Buddhist temples have a crematorium, instantly recognisable by its high chimney, as, for most Thai Buddhists, cremation is preferred to burial. The one pictured on the right is from Wat Charakham, Samut Prakhan province, west of Bangkok.
Some up-country temples still use wood, charcoal and oil to consume the body, but most of the Bangkok temples in which I have attended a funeral, have used a gas or electric oven.
When a Buddhist dies in Thailand, the custom is for the relatives to convey the body to the temple in a coffin, and leave it there for up to seven days, a period during which friends, relatives and colleagues can pay respect, to the accompaniment of Buddhist chant. On the afternoon or early evening of the final day, the body is burned.
Some Chinese Thai prefer burial to cremation; for those who choose cremation, the burning is often preceded by a ceremonial burning of paper money, paper mansions and paper Mercedes Benz. Apparently these are tokens of good things to come in a future life. Some of the "mansions" are fully equipped with miniature chairs, tables, beds two maids. A sizeable residence might cost well over $1000.
List of Sources and further Reading
Monuments of the Buddha in Siam, Prince Damromg Rajahnubhab 1926
translated by Sulak Sivaraksa and A.B. Griswold, The Siam Society, Bangkok
Kamala Tiyavanich: The Buddha in the Jungle, 2003
Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, Thailand
The Arts of Thailand, Alexander B. Griswold, 1960
Indiana University Press
The Arts of Thailand, Steve Van Beek and Luca Invernizzi Tettoni, 1999
Periplus Publishing Group
Buddhist Arts of Thailand, Charuwan Chareonla, 1981
Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc.
Available by free download from: www.buddhanet.net
Thai - Cambodian Culture Relationship through Arts, Charuwan Chareonla, 2000
Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc.
Available by free download from: www.buddhanet.net
Nine Temples of Bangkok, Helen Bruce 1960
Rung Ruang Ratana Press, 47 Phuang Nakorn Rd., Bangkok
The Journal of the Siam Society (JSS)
The Siam Society, Bangkok