Buddhist Architecture

Buddhism is a religion and philosophy surrounding a variety of traditions, beliefs  and practices largely based on teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as “Buddha”, meaning the awaked one. Buddhism, one of the major world religions, began in India around the sixth century, B.C.E. The teachings of Buddhism spread throughout Central and Southeast Asia, through China, Korea, and Japan. Today, there are Buddhists all over the world.

The perfect proportions of the Buddha’s body corresponds to the design of religious monuments. Its architecture developed from the pre-Buddhist Indian grave-mound. Under these mounds the saintly ascetic were buried; their bodies were seated on the ground and covered with earth. These dome-shaped graves, or tumuli, of the saints were regarded as holy places. And were destinations for pilgrimage for the devotional and places of practice for meditators. The Buddhist architecture has its root deeply implanted in the Indian soil — the birthplace of the Buddha's teachings. The Buddhist architecture began with the development of various symbols, representing aspects of the Buddha's life (563 BCE - 483 BCE). For the first time, it was the Indian Emperor Ashoka, who not only established Buddhism as the state religion of his large Magadh empire, but also opted for the architectural monuments to spread Buddhism in different places. Distinctive Buddhist architectural structures and sculptures such as Stupas, Pagodas, monasteries and Caves, which have been mere spectators of different eras quietly speaks about the phases of the Buddhist stages.

The Stupas hold the most important place among all the earliest Buddhist sculptures. A Stupa is a dome-shaped monument, used to house Buddhists' relics or to commemorate significant facts of Buddhism. Though the Stupas are the most prominent sculptures throughout the world, but Myanmar or Burma is credited to have more Stupas than anywhere else. In India, the most important and well preserved site is at Sanchi, where one can find the full range of Buddhist art and architecture from the 3rd century BCE to the 12th century CE. An architectural descendant of the burial mound, the stupa is a brick and plaster hemisphere with a pointed superstructure (seen as an image of the cosmos). Enshrining a relic of the Buddha, it serves as the sacred centre around which ritual occurs in an open-air setting. Hinduism and Buddhism are closely interconnected at this stage. The stupa provides the architectural model for Hindu temples in India, for Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia and for pagodas in China and Japan. Within India the simple shape of the early stupa evolves into the complex superstructure of later Hindu temples — rich in architectural ornament and often encrusted with teeming sculptures of deities and devils. Sometimes they are brightly painted to add to the sense of tumult. Unlike the solid stupa, these structures rise above interior spaces which are used for worship. They are like steeples above churches, whereas the stupa is a massive inert reliquary at the centre of a temple complex. Buddhism and Hinduism spread together into SoutheastAsia, often to the same places at the same time. Both the solid stupa and the open temple can be found throughout the region. There are four gateways known as ‘Toranas’ at the cardinal points to the compass and are slightly staggered from the railing enclosing stupa. Toranas, the entrance to the ambulatory were accepted as the traditional type of ceremonial potals and excel the array of architectural embellishment. The first Torana gateway to be built is the one at the principal entrance on the South. Each gateway has two square pillars. Crowning each pillar on all four sides are four elephants, four lions and four dwarfs. The four dwarfs support a superstructure of three architraves or carved panels one above the other. Between these are intricately carved elephants and riders on horseback. The lowest architrave is supported on exquisitely carved bracket figures. The panels are decorated with finely carved figures of men, women, yakshas, lions and elephants. The entire panel of the gateways is covered with sculptured scenes from the life of Buddha, the Jataka Tales, events of the Buddhist times and rows of floral or lotus motifs. The scenes from Buddha's life show Buddha represented by symbols - the lotus, wheel, a riderless caparisoned horse[this part of your sentence does not make sense, rewrite it] , an umbrella held above a throne, foot prints and the triratnas which are symbolic of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The top panel has a Dharma chakra with two Yakshas on either side holding chamaras. South of the Scenes depicted from Buddha's life are the Enlightenment of Buddha (a throne beneath a peepul tree); the First Sermon (a Dharma chakra placed on a throne); The Great Departure ( a riderless horse and an empty chariot with an umbrella above ); Sujata's offering and the temptation and assault by Mara.

India is the country with the greatest tradition of rock-cut temples, and all the region's three indigenous religions are involved. Caves or grottoes are the oldest form of the Buddhist architecture. They are also known as the rock-cut monasteries, which were hewn from the cliffs and rock walls of the valleys. The Buddhist caves trace back their beginning around 100 BCE. In India, the most significant cave is Ajanta caves, near modern Aurangabad, Maharashtra. The Indian Buddhist monks carried this art of cave hewing to China, where the earliest cave temples were built in the 4th century in Dunhuang or Tun-Huang, which were further decorated with relief carvings, paintings and stone images of the Buddha or the Bodhisattvas. The earliest site is Ajanta, where elaborate pillared halls are carved into the rock - from an almost vertical cliff face - from about the 1st century BC to the 8th century AD. The Ajanta caves are chiefly famous for their Buddhist murals, surviving from at least the 5th century AD. But the chaityas or meeting places are equally impressive, with their rows of carved columns and vaulted ceilings. Chaityas or ‘sacred spots’ are the temples as well as assembly halls created out of the particular demands of buddhist religion.  These became necessary to accommodate those who congregated to pay their homage. These have a small rectangular door-way which opens to a vaulted hall, with apsidal end and divided longitudinally by two colonnades forming a broad nave in the centre and two side aisles.  Apart from the lack of any normal light (arriving, as it does, only from one end), the effect is that of a normal building. Ajanta is entirely Buddhist. The great columned cave temple of Elephanta, on an island near Bombay and dating from the 5th to 8th century AD, is exclusively Hindu - devoted to Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. But the many cave temples of Ellora, spanning a longer period (from the 4th to 13th century), include shrines sacred to Buddhists, to Hindus and to Jains. Ellora is a sloping site, which offers the opportunity for another architectural element. Open forecourts are carved here from the rock, with gateways and stone elephants and freestanding temples of two or three storeys in addition to the enclosed inner shrines. 

Pagodas are the principle form of Buddhist architecture, which are used as religious multistory Buddhist towers, erected as a memorial or shrine. They are symbols of five elements of the universe - earth, water, fire, air and ether, and along with them, the most important factor - Consciousness, which is the ultimate reality. The early Buddhists had started using the royal symbol of 'Pagoda', by applying an umbrella-like structure to symbolize the Buddha, which soon took over the functions of the Stupas. In the 3rd century BCE, an Indian emperor Ashoka, who had converted to Buddhism, promoted the pagoda by building 84,000 of them throughout India, and since then, Pagodas have been an inseparable parts of all those countries, which practice Buddhism: China, Japan, Korea, India and Southeast Asia. Myanmar houses the Mahamuni Pagoda, one of the most important pagodas in Mandalay, which has an ancient statue of the Buddha, brought there by king Bodawpaya in 1784 CE. The Indian Pagodas, full of carvings and sculptures, are mainly pyramidical in shape and taper to apex, whereas those of China and other Asian regions are stereotypical pagodas with tiled and upward curving roofs.

The Buddhist temples and monasteries, found in every Buddhist country, form another distinctive example of the Buddhist architecture. The Buddhist temples in India are superb examples of the temple architecture with the most prominent one at Bodh Gaya (Mahabodhi temple), the place of the Buddha's enlightenment. Other major Buddhist temples in India, which are fine examples of the golden Indian architecture, are at Sanchi(450 CE), Taxila and Sarnath. Similarly, other temples such as those at Cambodia (the famous Angkor Wat temple), Sri Lanka, Thailand, China and Japan present an excellent example of the Buddhist architecture. Japan boasts of being the greatest surviving concentration of the Buddhist art and architecture in its 80,000 temples, most of which retain original features from as early as the Nara period(710 CE - 794 CE). Secondly, monasteries, a dwelling place for community of monks, present fine example of the Buddhist architecture and charismatic Buddhist spirituality. In India, the ruins of the Nalanda monastic university and the ancient monasteries at Sarnath, whose ruins are still present along with some of the latest ones, still depicts the golden past of Buddhism and developed architectural style in India. The Tibetan, Japanese and Chinese monasteries along with others present a very distinctive style of architecture with splendid use of color and ornamentation. The use of images, paintings, thangkas and mandalas in these monasteries produces rich iconography not only architecturally, but artistically as well. 

Buddhist architecture as it stands today is a pluralistic body of production that cannot in all justice be exemplified by the approaches, buildings and architects cited above. It has evolved over the centuries and has been affected by numerous invaders who have brought different styles from their motherland. But it is an unavoidable fact that certain expressions tend to get magnified and others reduced when set against the vast canvas of the world. In that sense, there is a distillation to an essence that does not have all the ingredients. A more representative selection can occur only at a deeper level of study.


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