168th Meeting – April 1998


Buddhist Architecture: From India to Pagan to Thailand

A talk by Pierre Pichard

Your Convenor writes: There was no summary of this talk made at the time and Pierre informs me that the notes he had made have long since disappeared. What follows are three chapters taken from the book ‘The Buddhist Monastery: A Cross Cultural Survey’ edited by Pierre Pichard and F. Lagirard, published in 2003, École Française d'Extrême-Orient ISBN 10: 2855396263, which, I am informed by Pierre, contain much the same material as he used in his talk.

India: Indian Buddhist Monasteries

Except in the Himalayas (most notably in Ladakh and Sikkim) where Buddhist communities following the Tibetan tradition are still active, Buddhist monasteries in India are now deserted and survive only as archaeological sites. In addition, many Buddhist sites were deliberately destroyed during the 12th and 13th centuries, possibly during Brahmanical retaliations and certainly after Muslim conquests. Only their foundations remain today, or at best the lowest parts of the walls.

Main Historical Events of Indian Buddhism

ca. 400 BC*    generally accepted date of Gautama Buddha’s Parinirvana

ca. 400 BC*    First Council at Rajagriha

ca. 300 BC*    Second Council at Vaisali

ca. 260 - 224 BC         Reign of King Asoka, spread of Buddhism in India to Sri Lanka

ca. 242 BC      Third Council at Pataliputra

1st-2nd C AD    Reign of Kaniska, spread of Buddhism in Gandhara and Kashmir

1st-2nd C           First production of Buddha sculptures in Mathura and Gandhara

1st-2nd C           Life of Nagarjuna and development of Mahayana doctrines

2nd-3rd C          Construction of Buddhist centres at Amaravati and Nagjunakonda

ca. 350 on        Development of Tantric Buddhism

460 AD            Destruction of Taxila by the White Huns

5th C                Life of Buddhaghosa and Buddhadatta

5th C                Foundation of Nalanda Mahavihara

ca. 790             Foundation of Somapura Mahavihara (Paharpur)

1197 AD          Destruction of Nalanda Mahavihara by Muslim invaders

 *543 is the base of the Buddhist Era in Theravada countries, as the date of the Buddha’s Parinirvana at the age of 80, which would situate his birth in 623 BC. For some time scholars agreed on the revised Parinirvana date of 486 BC, until recent research concluded that the available evidence does not allow us to fix it more accurately then 400 BC plus or minus 20 years.

 General Location of Monasteries

Sites of former Buddhist monasteries, either rock-cut in cliffs or built on the surface, have been identified all over India, from Kashmir to the south and from Sindh to Bengal. New sites continue to be uncovered through excavations or chance discoveries. They are relatively scarce in the centre of the country and more dense on the periphery, where the main concentrations are historically linked with the patronage of rulers or dynasties, particularly the Mauryas in the Gangetic plain, the area associated with the Buddha’s life, the Kushans and the Sakas in Gandhara, the Guptas in northern India, the Satavahanas and Vakatakas in Maharashtra, the Ikshvakus in Andhra, the Palas and Chandras in Bengal and Orissa.     

Monasteries were often built near the capital cities of these dynasties, located at some distance to ensure enough seclusion and to favor peace and meditation, but also not too distant, as the monks needed to rely on the townspeople for support. The topography of the Taxila region exemplifies how these criteria are applied, distances between monasteries and villages allowing a round trip during the morning hours.

By exposing the plan of monasteries, archaeological excavations provide the basis for an overall survey of their relative importance and the number of residents, but fail to allow an accurate computation of the Sangha at any time, because many monasteries were active during several centuries and were constantly rebuilt or modified, and also because even the foundations of an unknown number of others have been totally erased by subsequent constructions or re-use of their materials.

A partial account of the Sangha in the 7th century can tentatively be inferred from the travel narrative of Xuanzang, the Chinese pilgrim who described the local condition of Buddhism along his itinerary all over India between 627 and 645, though the number of monasteries and monks he gives for each place are obviously no more than rough estimates provided by chance informants, and cannot be exhaustive or consistent. For too many sites he seems to base his statistics on the assumption that one monastery housed 100 monks, far too many for the number of individual cells usually found in excavated monasteries. The geographical extent concerned is also very uncertain, as the same name may refer to a city, a region or a whole kingdom as well as for the mere surroundings of the capital. Whatever the case, Xuanzang is still our best available source.

Early Monasteries  

It appears from the ancient literature that two different forms of monastic establishment co-existed in the formative period of the Sangha: the avasa, a cluster of huts built by the monks themselves, and the arama, an enclosed site with more permanent buildings, offered to the congregation and maintained by the donor. In both cases, however, the sites were fully inhabited only during vassa, the rainy season, as monks were supposed to wander from place to place during the rest of the year. 

The description of the necessary facilities given by the Cullavagga reflects on the basic needs of the monks and nuns: dwelling rooms and cells, service halls, well, bath and latrines, and a simple hall for ceremonies – particularly the periodic recitation of the Patimokkha. There is neither mention of anything like a temple, nor of course of Buddha images. Archaeological excavations were conducted at three of the earlier aramas said to have been founded during the life of the Buddha, the Jivakarama at Rajagriha in Bihar, the Jetavanarama at Sravasti in Uttar Pradesh, and the Ghoshitarama at Kausambi in Madhya Pradesh. As the sites were active during more than 1,000 years, the unearthed architectural evidence relates mostly to later structures, from the 5th and 6th centuries, though bases of stone walls at Jivakarama reveal a complex of four oblong, double-apsed halls attributed to Buddha’s time, but no traces of dwellings: these long buildings may have been used as dormitories or as assembly halls, in which case the monks quarters may have been wooden huts or houses scattered around.

Some three centuries after the Buddha’s time, a type of plan was developed which became the common monastic pattern all over India. It consisted of a quadrangle of cells around a square, open space which could either be a pillared hall or a courtyard, a configuration which was adopted for cave monasteries, excavated from the face of a cliff, as well as for stone or brick structural monasteries built on the ground. The cave monasteries by their very nature have been better preserved from ruin and destruction than the structural ones.

Layout of the Monastery

On most sites, monasteries are closely related to a dominant monument, generally a great stupa. At Taxila several monasteries were erected at various dates between the 1st and 6th centuries around the great Dharmarajika stupa, and in the hills around the city the satellite monastic sites consist similarly of a stupa and one or several quadrangles for monks’ cells. Though located close to each other, the monastery and the stupa are spatially separated, each in its own enclosure: the stupa in the centre of a courtyard, the monks’ cells around another. The monks’ quadrangle usually faces the stupa, with its main or single entrance opening towards it.

The cave-monasteries were generally excavated in dense clusters, side by side along the length of a cliff. While some of these caves consist of a single, individual cell entered from a door in the cliff, others have multiple cells around a hall. Alternating with these dwelling caves are rock-cut shrines containing a stupa, caitya-grha: a long apsidal hall perpendicular to the face of the cliff, with a small circular stupa marking the centre of the apse. The most extended of such rock-cut complexes are found in the western part of the Dekkan, particularly at Junnag, Kanheri, or Nasik, while Ajanta is particularly famous for the exceptional quality of the sculptures and mural paintings, and Ellora for sheltering side by side contemporary Buddhist, Hindu and Jain caves.

At the earlier sites, the stupa, either isolated in a courtyard or at the focal point of a shrine, is not included in the dwelling unit. In the latter the central space of the quadrangle is surrounded by aligned cells, on four sides in built quadrangles, on three sides in caves, the fourth one being the entrance from the face of the cliff as illustrated by cave 2 at Kondone, caves 4, 6, 7, 9 at Pitalkhora and caves 12 and 13 at Karle. In the first half of the second century, however, a stupa is carved in bas-relief between the doors of the two median cells, facing the entrance of caves 3 and 10 at Nasik. This develops into a small shrine at the same place, in the median cell of the side opposed to the entrance, which progressively becomes larger than the others and is entered through a small vestibule. As in the caitya-grha, this shrine can shelter a small stupa as in Shelarwadi or Bargh, but more regularly after the 5th century it contains a Buddha image, for instance at Ajanta and Ellora. In some cases the shrine is a late addition to the monastery: cave 20 at Nasik was first hollowed out in 179 AD according to an engraved inscription, but a 6th century inscription refers to the modification of its back part and the addition of its shrine.

A similar and contemporaneous development can be discerned in the structural monasteries. Already noticed at both ends of the Jivakarama halls, the apsidal end which is common to the caitya-grha rock-cut shrines is also present in many free-standing temples associated to monasteries.

Nagarjunakonda, in Andhra Pradesh, is an exceptional site where Buddhist and Hindu foundations were simultaneously patronized by the Ikshvaku dynasty during the 3rd and 4th centuries. From 1954 to 1960, prior to construction of a dam that flooded the site, archaeological excavations revealed some 30 Buddhist establishments on the right bank of the Khrishna River. These monastic complexes were affiliated to various schools belonging to Hinayana as well as to Mahayana, and in the relatively short period of one century, their architectural configuration reflects an evolution of the cult object, from stupa to more anthropomorphic representations like the Buddha’s footprint and statue, particularly in the monasteries of the Aparamahavinaseliya sect.

The layout of monastic complexes in Nagarjunakonda connects monasteries, shrines and stupas in various configurations. The simplest, 12 establishments, associate a stupa with a simple quadrangular monastery, and two of them are linked to the Theravada school by an inscription. As at Taxila, the main entrance of the quadrangle opens towards the stupa. In sixteen complexes, one, or more frequently two, shrines facing each other are built between the stupa and the monastery, and in several cases the shrine was built as an addition to a complex initially planned with only a stupa and a monastery. In four examples the shrines are included inside the boundary wall of the quadrangle, flanking the entrance, but there is no case yet of a shrine inserted in the back row of cells, a feature which becomes regular after the 5th century.    

The apsidal shape is then abandoned for a rectangular shrine, axially located in the front entrance and housing images of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, as in 11 monasteries built side by side in the great Buddhist university of Nalanda, facing a row of rectangular shrines, or in the two monasteries of Ratnagiri, built and several times rebuilt on the same plan between the 7th and 11th centuries. Both are in brick masonry, stone being used for the delicate carvings at the entrances to monastery 1 and to its shrine, for sculptures of Buddha images and for special elements like the pillars in the gallery or the window bars in the cells.

In a span of some six centuries, the monastic establishment bears witness to the gradual integration of the shrine, as a place of worship sheltering firstly the stupa and eventually the Buddha image, inside the dwelling quarters. Sarkar and Mitra explain this evolution by the increasing inclination towards devotion, possibly under the influence of the bhakti movement in Hinduism, starting with the worship of the stupa with its circumambulatory path and the small shrines and votive stupas installed around it, but spatially separated from the monastic quadrangle. Together with the adoption of the Buddha image and its multiplication under the Mahayanist schools, this movement induced the monks to locate the shrine inside their quarters, with stupas and Buddha images of various sizes and in various combinations, complementing each other in different ways. Architecturally, this evolution culminates with the setting of the stupa or the shrine at the very centre of the quadrangle, as was attempted as soon as the third century at Sankaram. The location of a stupa at the centre of monastery 38 at Nagarjunakondo proceeds from the same trend, which is ultimately illustrated on an exceptionally large scale under the Pala dynasty at Paharpur, end of the 8th century, where the impressive cruciform temple occupies the centre of a wide courtyard surrounded by a quadrangle of cells measuring 280 m externally.

Elements of the Monastery

Religious functions


The stupa is in most cases the main architectural landmark of the monastery. It must be remembered however that because of their very nature; solid monuments of the most stable shape, the great stupas were more able to sustain the ravages of time and vandalism than ordinary buildings with walls, ceilings, roofs or vaults: the present appearance of archaeological sites could have been quite different during their lifetime.

From the simple funerary tumulus of its origin, the stupa has become a sophisticated monument and the repository of elaborate sculptures. On later examples, the major innovation was the placing of Buddha’s image in niches, as in Ratnagiri. On a much smaller scale, the stupa figures as the focal point inside a shrine, caitya-grha.  


Independent shrines of apsidal shape, either excavated from a cliff or built on the ground, are of varying but comparable size: rock-cut caitya-grha, from 5.36 x 2.54 m to 37.87 x 13.87 m, structural ones from 4.27 x 2.54 m to 25.14 x 11.83 m. the cult object, either a stupa or a Buddha image, is located at the far end, in front of the entrance. In some complexes at Nagarjunakonda where two identical apsidal shrines face each other at the entrance of the quadrangle, one shelters a stupa and the other an image. From the 5th century onwards, the rectangular shrine housing Buddha images becomes common, particularly when included into the monastic dwelling quadrangle. Usually larger than the dwelling cells, it is often entered through a more or less developed vestibule in which other images can be installed, especially in Mahayanist centres.


According to the most ancient canonical texts, the periodic recitation of the patimokha was to be held by the assembly of all monks belonging to the monastery. In cave monasteries as well as in built ones, the central space inside the quadrangle was probably used as an assembly hall for this purpose. When this space was an open courtyard, as in most Taxila monasteries, special rooms much larger than the cells could accommodate the recitation.

No evidence has been found of specific halls for ordination ceremonies, nor of boundary stones used as markers for a particular building as in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

Commemorative or funerary functions

In Taxila and other sites, a small stupa was occasionally found in some of the cells, which were not otherwise distinct from other ones in the quadrangle. It has been supposed that these stupas were erected to commemorate the virtues of greatly venerated monks who spent their last years in these cells.

Educational functions

It is well known that several sites generally referred to as Mahaviharas were devoted to advanced studies and learning to the point of being often described as Buddhist universities, attracting scholars and students from all over India and farther. The famous 7th century Chinese pilgrims, Xuznzang and Yijing, spent several months at Nalanda, together with Tibetan and Korean monks, and an inscription from c. 860 commemorates the building by a Sumatra king of a monastery for visiting monks from his kingdom. As no building has so far been identified in India as specifically devoted to education, teaching could possibly have been carried out in the same halls as assembly and recitations: cave 5 at Ellora, a long pillared hall were parallel rows of benches suggest study desks, could represent a classroom directly surrounded by scholars quarters. 

Monks' quarters

In practically every case, the basic cell, generally intended for a single monk, is a small room, nearly square in plan, its sides measuring between 2.4 m to 3 m, with a single door and sometimes a small window. Many cells have a built-in bench in stone or brick along one side to be used as a bed, and a small niche in one wall for the monk’s belongings or for his cult articles.

Single independent cells, directly entered from the face of the cliff, occur in rock-cut complexes. Independent rows of two to five cells, aligned behind a gallery shading their entrance, occur in surface monasteries, but the general pattern is the quadrangle of sometimes three and more often four rows, arranged on two storeys around a central square either covered or open to the sky, the doors of all the cells open under a gallery surrounding this square. In the quadrangles fully planned with four rows, the number of cells varies greatly; from 12 to 177, 25 to 40 being the average in quadrangles with an external side of 30 to 60 m.

Ancillary rooms built adjacent to the cell quadrangle and with the same material as present at Taxila, including kitchen and dinning room, store room, bath and toilets, while these facilities do not appear in later examples, for instance at Nalanda or Ratnagiri, where they could have been extensions less solidly built, possibly in wood, and did not survive.

In rock-cut complexes, caves with benches for up to 40 or 50 monks and provided with water cisterns seem to have been dining halls used by monks living in the excavated quadrangles nearby.   

Pagan: Ancient Burmese Monasteries

The earliest monastic building in Burma appears to be a brick structure attributed to the 4th century AD, excavated in 1959 in the Pyu city of Beikthano and known as KKG2. The Pyu, whose language has only been partially deciphered, had established several cities in Burma before the arrival of the Burmese and could have adopted Buddhism since the 2nd or 3rd century. By its plan, KKG2 seems very akin to the simplest Indian monastery: a single row of eight cells of 3.05 x 2.90 m, entered from a common corridor connected with a small entrance hall on the east side. The building is associated with a ruined stupa located some 30 metres away in front of it, and with a square structure, possibly a shrine. In the absence of any epigraphic or iconographic confirmation, however, the Buddhist dedication of these three buildings has been inferred only from their similarity with Indian Buddhist monasteries and stupas. It is only in the other Pyu city of Sriksetra, 130 km south of Beikthano, that Buddhism can be unquestionably ascertained through sculptures, stupas and inscriptions dated from the 6th to 9th centuries, but no monastery has so far been identified there. 

Buddhism was introduced around the same time to the Mon country of lower Burma, around Thaton and Pegu, but there again no ancient monastic remains have been discovered, with the possible exception of sculptured slabs which could have been used as sima boundary stones.

It is thus in Pagan, the capital of the first Burmese kingdom from 1044 to 1287 that important monastic architecture has survived. There, among some 2,600 Buddhist edifices built during those three centuries, almost 1,000 temples, more than 500 monasteries and as many stupas, together with some 60 various other structures survive, while 400 brick mounds represent collapsed buildings. Monasteries therefore, easily distinguished from the other monuments by their specific features, amount to approximately a quarter of all of the buildings on the site. Just like other structures, only a few of them; usually the largest ones founded by the crown, can be securely dated by dedicatory stone inscriptions.

Together with some of the earliest monuments of Pagan, in the area along the Irrawaddy River bank and around the village of Myinkaba, two of these monasteries show a strong similarity with the Indian monastic quadrangle, and especially with the monasteries of Ratnagiri, except that they are entered from the east instead of the south. Their cells are slightly larger and less numerous, 10 for one monastery and 13 for the other, and seem to have opened directly onto the central courtyard (or was there a wooden gallery?). At present, walls remain at ground floor only, but a staircase in the southeast corner suggests an upper storey. In the middle of the east side is a square entrance hall, as in Beikthano but much larger. While the hall and cells of KKG2 were approximately of the same size, the halls in Pagan reach 7.09 x 7.62 m and 9.95 x 10.12 m. Such large rooms, which would have been difficult to cover without the support of interior wooden pillars, could have been used as meeting places for monastic ceremonies, and probably also, given their location directly at the entrance, for sermon readings and other gatherings between monks and lay people. Besides this large meeting hall replacing the simple porch, two passages open on each lateral side of the quadrangle offering direct access to the courtyard, another feature not seen in India. It appears that both monasteries were less closed to the outside world than their Indian counterparts.        

Conversely, the shrine facing the main entrance is directly related to the Indian model. But here an addition appears, a corridor open from the courtyard by two doors and allowing one to circumambulate the shrine and its image.

Besides these two examples and a few multi-cell monasteries also derived from the Indian prototype, particularly in the Thamathi group, the architects of Pagan devised an original model and built it by the hundreds in the 13th and 14th centuries. In its simplest form, it consisted of a single-room brick building, nearly cubical, with an axial niche between two doors on its main face and one more door on each lateral side. To this main face, most often the eastern one, was attached a large open hall consisting of a tiled roof supported by wooden pillars. This hall has today disappeared but can be precisely reconstructed on several instances by the trace of it’s the end of the roof on the masonry wall, the stone plinth around its floor and the stone sockets in which the pillars rested.      

A Buddha image, probably of wood, was installed in the axial niche, at the precise centre of the wall separating the timber hall from the monastic brick building. The monks would circumambulate it through the two doors of the front wall, reminiscent of the ones which framed the shrine entrance in monasteries 1147 and 1371. The sharp contrast of the two adjacent structures is a clear expression of their relative functions: a closed brick cube for the monks, an open pavilion where the local lay community could assemble and be preached, under the Buddha image presiding in its niche. The whole design appears as a simple and sensible solution to shape the relationship between monks and laity while preserving the formers privacy.  

Based on this common pattern, the numerous monasteries built in Pagan vary in size, complexity and decoration. The single vaulted room of the simplest monasteries usually measures a little more than 5 x 4 m. When more developed, partition walls create two or more interior rooms. Some monasteries had two full storeys and others a single mezzanine under their vault, some had a small central cell, (possibly used to keep their manuscripts, a copy of Tripitaka being one of the most costly gifts mentioned in inscriptions) surrounded by a wide corridor, occasionally with a projection in the middle of the lateral and back walls. While most monasteries have a flat roof supported by a brick vault and accessible through an interior staircase, the most elaborate have an additional shrine on the upper floor, crowned by a tiered tower, the brick version of the square wooden spire (pyathat).

Several underground monasteries were also excavated in a few sectors of Pagan, sometimes reflecting the quadrangle plan of the Indian model: from a central courtyard, dug down in the soil and open to the sky, tunnels give access to several small cells. The only feature above ground is the entrance gate, from which a staircase goes down to the courtyard.

On a very compact size, the typical brick building of the Pagan period and its attached wooden hall combined all the basic elements of a monastery: the dwelling place for monks, the space for assemblies and the Buddha image at their junction. At Pagan, effectively, several such monasteries are located quite away from other monuments and seem to represent a whole, single monastic foundation (at least today, but they could have been originally surrounded by ancillary buildings built in wood or bamboo). More numerous, however, are monasteries of exactly the same type, but spatially linked with a main centre of devotion: they surround the great stupas and temples of Pagan, either inside their enclosure but on a side or in a corner, or outside the boundary wall and close to it.

In three large monastic complexes founded in Pagan during the 13th century, the same structure becomes a mere element of a regularly planned layout, consisting of a double rectangular enclosure on a total area of more than six hectares each. In the inner courtyard were located the major buildings: either a temple or a stupa, a large monastery with its pavilion, which was probably the residence of the abbot, an ordination hall built as an open pavilion surrounded by sima boundary stones, and in two cases a school building. The two axies of the rectangular compound, clearly marked by the alignment of the gates in the boundary walls, divide this inner enclosure into four quadrants, amongst which the buildings are distributed. There is no structure at the very centre, a specific characteristic shared with the Sri Lankan monasteries known as Pabbata Vihara built during the 8th and 9th centuries in Anuradhpura.    

In the outer enclosure around this central courtyard, several monasteries of the common type were aligned in rows, each with its attached wooden pavilion. The number of monks is not mentioned in the inscriptions, which concentrate on recording donations and dedications (including land, rice fields and servants). Each building, clearly larger than an individual cell, could have been intended for 4 or 5 occupants such as a senior monk and his followers; either younger monks or disciples. It has been proposed that each of these three monastic complexes could have been occupied by some 40 to 50 titular monks and 80 to 100 novices, disciples and lay servants.

Still in Pagan but in the early 15th century (that is, after the fall of the city), a development of the typical monastery can be followed in the Tain-hsaung kyaung, built in 1408 (and now in a ruined condition). The usual two-storey brick building was surrounded by a first boundary wall, on the east side of which the axial niche and its image were replicated, and the roof of the wooden pavilion covered also the passage now created between the building and the new front wall. A second, lower boundary wall enclosed the whole complex in a rectangle of 80 x 38 m. It can be supposed that this arrangement, creating an intermediate space between the monastic quarters and the public hall, was designed to allow lay people to circumambulate the image in the front niche without entering the monks’ quarters.

The linear composition, from East to West, will become more systemic in the large wooden monasteries built during the Konbaung period (18th and 19th centuries) in the last capital cities of Burma, Amarapura and Mandalay, as well as on several provincial sites. Several survive in various conditions and some are still occupied by the Sangha. In addition, a few monasteries in brick masonry reproduce the general configuration of their wooden model, like the Ananda Ok-kyaung built in Pagan in 1756 and famous for its mural paintings, or the Aung-mye-bon-zan Ok-kyaung in Ava, built in 1818.

They consist of three or four structures, each with its own roofing configuration, aligned on a common platform supported by rows of pillars and accessed by several masonry stairways. The whole structure, including the floor, walls and partitions are in wood, which was also used for roofing where it is now commonly replaced by corrugated iron sheets. Finely decorated wood carvings adorn window frames, doors and roof eaves, and depict lively scenes on the balustrades, featuring human beings, animals and mythical creatures on intricate floral patterns, illustrating the Jataka and other Buddhist legends.

By the eastern end of the platform is a small square pavilion, the pyathat saung, crowned by a tiered spire (pyathat) and sheltering Buddha images or in some cases a collection of sacred manuscripts. Next is the sanu saung, a transitional space sometimes used by the abbot as reception rooms or his residence. The core of the monastery is the next and central building, a rectangular hall under a high tiered roof supported by the tallest teak pillars, divided into two rooms by a transverse partition called marabin. At the Western end of the line, the last structure is used as a storeroom or  kitchen.               

Another image in the central hall, generally a seated Buddha facing east with its back against the partition, dominates the eastern parts of the marabin where sermons and teachings are delivered, while the monks’ quarters occupy the western part. In the partition, important enough to give its name to the whole central structure (marabin saung), two doors, one on each side of the statue, connect the two halves of the building. This symmetrical pattern at right angles to the main axis, identified by a statue on a pedestal (or in a niche) between the doors, appears as a notable invariant throughout the evolution of the Burmese monastery. In Thailand similarly, from the 14th century onwards, the entrance to monastic halls is more often through two stairways or two doors than by a single axial one, a feature that seems to have been closely associated with the monastic context, in sharp contrast with the Indian and Khmer model of the shrine always entered by a single, axial door, directly located in front of the image.

From the quadrangular plan of monasteries 1147 and 1371 in Pagan to the linear configuration of the 18th and 19th century royal monasteries, architectural elements have slid frontward or backwards along the main axis: the cells originally located between the entrance and the shrine, became a single monastic space behind the main image, who moved frontward and was duplicated to allow circumambulation by the lay devotees. The main hall, used by monks and lay people for rituals, ceremonies and sermons as well as by individuals paying respect to the Buddha, has moved from the entrance to a central position in front of the image. Through this development, the brick of the earlier monasteries was replaced by wood as the main construction material. In a country like Burma, where everybody lives in wooden or bamboo houses raised on posts above the ground, it appears that using the ground floor of masonry buildings during the Pyu and Pagan periods was a deliberate appropriation of the Indian model, which was progressively superseded by the indigenous dwelling practice. (The traces of a former timber upper floor, partial or complete, in many brick monasteries of Pagan, probably attest to a first step under the same process.)  

Throughout its evolution, the layout of the Burmese monastery tends to form a single but complex building. Its elements can have different shapes or materials, but are either contiguous, as in Pagan, or linked by the long platform on which they rest, as in the Konbaung period. On a smaller scale and with a less regular layout, the village monastery is still a single building sheltering a lecture hall, a shrine and the monks’ quarters. Besides some ancillary facilities like zayats (shelters for pilgrims) or toilets, the main separated element is the ordination hall (thein), present in few monasteries only and then shared by others in the vicinity. It is commonly a small structure, built away from the main building and even outside the enclosure in many cases.       

Thailand: The Thai Monastery

Buddhism was certainly present among the Mon population of central Thailand in the 6th to 8th centuries AD, as proven by Buddhist inscriptions in Pali pertaining to the Theravadin tradition, and by the architecture and iconography of the Dvaravati Culture. Up to the 13th century, this Mon culture spread to the north and northeast regions of Thailand, concurrently with the Mahayanist influences from Burma and Yunnan, as well as from Sri Vijaya (centered in Sumatra), and of the Angkor Empire, where Buddhism and Brahmanism co-existed.   

Thai kingdoms appear in Sukhothai around 1250, Chiang Mai around 1295 and Ayutthaya around 1350, ruling over variable confederations of small principalities. Official sources, mainly chronicles and inscriptions, state that they professed the Theravada Buddhism of the Mahavihara obedience from Sri Lanka, though other Buddhist traditions were most probably present at the same time, of which records have not survived or have been suppressed. The southern town of Nakon Si Thammarat, with its Wat Mahathat (a large monastery centred on a huge stupa) seems to have been the focal point in the relationship between the Sri Lankan Mahavihara school and the Siamese Sangha.    

In the Ayutthaya Kingdom, and still more after the foundation of Bangkok in 1782, the progressive construction of a modern, centralized state has induced several reforms of the Sangha, promoting a unified Buddhist orthodoxy in the Kingdom and tending to suppress regional variants. This policy did not however deter the recurrent rise of various Buddhist reformers and promoters of new schools.

 Main Historical Events of Buddhism in Thailand  

5-6th C             Earliest archaeological evidences of Buddhism in Southern Thailand

6-13th C           Mon Dvaravati culture in south and central Thailand

8-13th C           Theravada Buddhism in the Mon Kingdom of Haripunjaya

c.1240-1438    Thai Kingdom of Sukhothai

1369                The venerable Sumana, from Sukhothai, reforms the ordination ritual in Lamphun and Chiang Mai on the line of the Sri Lankan Mahavihara 

1351-1767       Kingdom of Ayutthaya

1420                Monks from Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai, return from Sri Lanka, where their ordination was not accepted as valid at the Anuradhapura Thuparama. Dhammagambhira then goes to Sri Lanka, 1423, where he receives a new ordination. Back in Sukhothai and Chiang Mai he teaches the new ordination but meets with strong opposition, particularly in Ayutthaya.

1452                A council in Chiang Mai fails to settle the differences.

1475                Council in Chiang Mai for revising the Pali scriptures.

1750                Monks from Ayutthaya establish the Syamanikaya (Siamese Sect) in Sri Lanka.

1788                “Ninth Council” in Bangkok for revising the Buddhist Cannon.

1829                Foundation of the Thammayut Sect, relying on Mon tradition, by the future King Mongkut, Rama IV.

1898                Involvement of the Sangha in the Thai primary education program.

1902                First Sangha Act (administrative organisation of the Sangha)

1941                Second Sangha Act (ecclesiastical assembly, cabinet and courts)

1962                Third Sangha Act (direct administration under the Supreme Patriarch and a Council of Elders. 

 General location and density of monasteries in the country

Ancient Monasteries

Stupas are known in Dvaravati-period archaeological sites, but no monastery has been identified with certainty. In northeastern Thailand (Chi Valley) few rectangular brick platforms surrounded by boundary stones, found at Muang Fa Daed and other archaeological sites of northeastern Thailand and dated from the 7th to 9th century, are supposed to mark the former location of ordination ceremonies.

Two early monasteries, though their precise foundation date is uncertain, are still now very active, attracting numerous pilgrims: Wat Phra Mahathat in Nakhon Sri Thammarat (South Thailand) and Phra Pathom Chedi in Nakhon Pathom (Central Thailand). Both centered on high stupa sheltering sacred relics, they have seen several restorations and additions through the centuries.

From the 13th century onwards, there is reliable archaeological evidence of numerous Buddhist monasteries in the three sister-cities of Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet. Several large monasteries were located inside these cities, and others, usually smaller, a few kilometres outside: they are considered as “forest monasteries” where “monks residing in the forest” (arannavasin) used to live. At present, they are deserted and are maintained as archaeological sites.

As the city of Ayutthaya was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767, most of the numerous monasteries which were inside and outside the city are also deserted and preserved as archaeological ruins, though a few still function. In the countryside, several monasteries founded during the Ayutthaya period are still active: some of their ancient buildings are present in various states of preservation, while more recent ones have been reconstructed or added in the compound for the needs of the monks and villagers. Such examples can be seen in Wat Lai (Lopburi Province), Phetchaburi (Wat Yai Suwannaram, Wat Ko Kaeo Suttaram, Wat Mahathat) and in Bangkok (Wat Mai Thep Nimit, Wat Bhumarin).

Ancient structures also survive in numerous monasteries of Lan Na (north Thailand), particularly in Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Lampang, Chiang Rai and Nan provinces.

Monasteries were generally built in the main cities (or these cities grew around those monasteries), located on or near the major rivers of the country. In the central plain in particular, monasteries were mainly established along rivers and canals, which were the most important communication routes before the modern road system. Local materials were preferred: for walls, timber in the north, laterite and brick around Sukhothai, mostly brick in Ayutthaya and Bangkok. The large tiled roofs with wood-carved gables on a timber frame were supported by walls and pillars, either in wood or brick. Plastering was made with lime mortar or stucco, elaborately moulded outside since the Sukhothai period, while inside, mural paintings or lacquer adorned walls, pillars and ceilings.

 Present situation

At present there are (1997 statistics) 30,377 monasteries in Thailand, housing 270,540 monks during the rainy season (phansa) and 164,661 for the rest of the year since many men become monks only temporarily during the Buddhist Lent. For the whole country there is an average of 6 monasteries for every 100 square kilometres, which means that the theoretical mean distance between two monasteries is no more than 4.4 km; a one-hour walk. There are, however, wide regional variations, for instance the number of monasteries per 100 square km decreases from 28 to 30 in and around Bangkok to only one in the mountainous province of Mae Hong Song and also in the southern part of Thailand, which is predominantly Muslim. Similarly, while the average number of monks per 100,000 people during phansa is 44 the variations across the country range from 100 in two provinces (Suphanburi and Kanchanaburi) to 10 or less in the South and 25 in Bangkok. It should also be noted that this number had decreased steadily during the 20th century. The total number of monks did increase but not in proportion to the extremely high population growth; from 8,266,000 in 1911 to more than 60 million today:




Number of monks

(during phansa)

Number of monks

for 100,000 people

(during phansa)

Number of


























































From this table we may observe that about half of the monasteries existing today in Thailand were founded and constructed in the 20th century, at an annual rate of nearly 200 during the last 70 years. In 1997 for instance, the Office of Religious Affairs recorded that 95 monasteries were constructed, (out of which 55 were in the Northeast) 81 founded, 107 newly registered and that 367 had the sima of their ordination hall consecrated.

In every Thai city there are several monasteries, some of a large size, and, except in sparsely populated regions or in the Muslim south, a dense network of monasteries is scattered amongst the rural villages all over the country.

The Bangkok region, where 13% of the country’s population is now concentrated, is clearly a particular case: it has at the same time the largest number of monasteries per square kilometre, the greatest number of monks per monastery, and the smallest number of monasteries relative to the population (less than 1 monastery for 10,000 people compared to 9 in the Northeast and 5 as an average for the whole country). The recent expansion of the urban area has drastically changed the surroundings of most monasteries, previously located along rivers and canals and depending on rural settlements, now immersed in populous suburbs. Many of these monasteries have seen their access inverted, as they were initially entered from waterways and now have their main entrance on the opposite side, from the new motor roads.

The number of monks in a monastery is another important feature. The great and famous monasteries in Bangkok can accommodate more than 100 monks (even out of phansa), many coming from provincial monasteries, particularly from the Northeast, to achieve more advanced studies. In 1997, the average number of monks per monastery in the country was 8 during phansa and 5 for the rest of the year, but again this number varied considerably: for nine months of the year there was an average of 2 monks per monastery in northern regions, against 21 in Bangkok.

 Classes of Monasteries

Since the 19th century, two Buddhist orders have existed in Thailand, the Mahanikaya and the Thammayutnikaya. In addition the Chinese and Vietnamese affiliations are also recognized but account countrywide to only 8 monasteries for the Chinese and 11 for the Vietnamese. Quantitatively, the Mahanikaya is largely predominant with 92% of monks and 95% of monasteries. However, because of its royal origin, its elitist reputation and its relative importance in the capital, the Thammayutnikaya has a greater influence in the Sangha than its size would suggest.

The Thai official classification refers to the foundation process and divides the monasteries (wats) into two main classes: royal and common.

1 – Royal monasteries (phra aram luang), founded or renovated by a King, Queen, Viceroy or Crown Prince, or founded or renovated by other people to be presented to the King. There are presently 251 royal monasteries in the country, of which 85 are in Bangkok.

They are further categorized in three grades:

-              1st grade: very important monastery, where ashes of royal family may be kept, and which may receive highest honours (only 4 wats in this category, all in Bangkok: Wat Mahathat, Wat Po, Wat Suthat, and Wat Arun).

-              2nd grade: important monastery which may receive high honours

-              3rd grade: locally important monastery

In each grade are 4 sub-categories:

-              Rachaworamahawihan, great monastery with large buildings, founded by a King, Queen, Viceroy or Crown Prince to be dedicated to themselves.

-              Rachaworawihan, monastery founded by a King, Queen, Viceroy or Crown Prince to be dedicated to themselves.

-              Woramahawihan, great monastery with large buildings, founded by a King, Queen, Viceroy or Crown Prince to be dedicated to someone else.

-              Worawihan, monastery founded by a King, Queen, Viceroy or Crown Prince to be dedicated to someone else.

2 – Common Monasteries (aram rat), numbering 30,107 for the whole country.

- Wat ratsadon: founded or renovated by a commoner and possessing an ordination hall.  

Two other categories are:

3 – Monastic residences (samnak song) without ordination hall and depending upon another

      monastery for ordinations.

4 – Deserted monasteries (wat rang): no longer used by monks, usually maintained as

      archaeological sites.

 The monastery layout

The Thai monastery groups several distinct buildings, answering to specific functions, in a large compound enclosed by a boundary wall or a fence. Its evolution can be summarized according to the conventional periods of Thai history, identified by names of successive royal capitals.  

Sukhothai period (1238-1438)

The most ancient monasteries of which the layout can be studied are in the three sister-cities of the Sukhothai kingdom – Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet. Only the hard masonry, either in brick or laterite, has survived. This means that only the bases of the main buildings can be assessed today, without their roofs but often with parts of their walls and of their support pillars, while we cannot know the location, size, and shape of the certainly numerous wooden buildings which completed the complexes, for instance the pavilions, monks’ quarters or refectories.

The three cities are some 50 km apart. In Sukhothai, 109 religious complexes were recorded, most of them monasteries, 30 located inside the city and 79 outside, including 9 ‘forest monasteries’ on the slope of the hill 3 km west of the city. Together with the monasteries of Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet, also located both inside and outside the city walls, they constitute a wide corpus from the 13th to the 15th century AD.

The compound sizes vary from 5.7 hectares (260 x 220 m) for Wat Mahathat in Sukhothai to less than one hectare. The rectangular boundary wall is usually a laterite wall, or in some cases a water moat. In the later monasteries, like Wat Phra Non in Kamphaeng Phet, the enclosure is double: an inner wall around the main buildings (stupa and halls) and an outer enclosure wall around the whole complex, leaving a surrounding courtyard where the monks’ quarters and ancillary buildings were located.

In the large monasteries, a high stupa (chedi) commonly occupies the centre of the compound, and large, rectangular pillared halls housing a Buddha image are strictly aligned on a major axis, most often from east to west in Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet, while in Si Satchanalai the axis of the major foundations in the centre of the city is south-east to north-west, parallel to the river. This is in contrast with monasteries of later times, for instance in Bangkok where main buildings are generally facing the river at right angles. The ordination hall, another pillared hall but a smaller one, is located on one side of the compound in earliest monasteries, but tends to become larger at the end of the period and to occupy a more conspicuous place, though not the central one.

Smaller monasteries, particularly the other ones built on the hills, have a much less organised plan, but the various buildings and structures generally keep a common orientation.

Ayutthaya period (1350-1767)

Most of the large monastic compounds in the royal capital city retained the linear or centred plans of the Sukhothai period, but developed into a wider, monumental composition. In the most important foundations, the central buildings (usually of the stupa type, chedi or prang) were surrounded by a roofed gallery (rabiang), possibly inspired by the Angkorian temples. The pillared halls (wihan) have a common orientation and are either attached to the gallery or isolated in the compound, and the ordination hall can be on the main axis, but at the other end (usually western) of the line. 

As in all periods, however, the layouts vary widely from monastery to monastery, and though it is possible to define typological trends, there is not a single, common pattern. In Wat Phra Si Samphet, one of the most important of the city and attached to the Royal Palace, the centre is occupied by a row of six buildings of alternate shapes, three chedis and three mondops (image houses), surrounded first by a gallery, at each end of which a great hall is attached, and again by smaller halls and stupas inside and outside the enclosure. The ordination hall is located in the southeast corner.

Out of the capital city, the layout was again less regular, with stupas and halls more freely scattered in a wide compound.

Bangkok period (since 1782)

Numerous large monasteries were built in the new capital during the 19th and 20th centuries, either as new, royal foundations or through a more or less complete rebuilding of previously founded ones.

The division into two main parts becomes more systematic: an inner enclosure, which can be either a wall or a roofed gallery, surrounds the cult area, called the Buddhavasa with the ordination and congregation halls and occasionally one or several stupas, while in the Sanghavasa, an outer area added on one or several sides, are located the monks’ quarters, the library and other buildings for sermon reading and teaching activities. An outer boundary wall encloses the whole compound, with landing pavilions (ta nam) when on the bank of a canal or a river and gateways on the other sides. The main buildings are generally at right angles to the nearest waterway.

In many modern or recently renovated monasteries, the highest and largest building, and the most elaborately decorated, tends to be the ordination hall, which can also occupy the central point of the complex, sometimes alone inside a cloistered courtyard (and because of this primary importance given to the ordination hall and its Buddha image, these monasteries are often referred to as temples). The ordination hall (ubosot) and the assembly hall (wihan) can also be very similar, their only differences then being the boundary stones which distinguish the ordination hall. In some cases (examples Wat Krua Wan or Wat Mahannapharam in Bangkok), these two buildings are even located side by side and are identical in size, shape and distribution of doors and windows; they differ only in ornamental details and interior layout.  

A few foundations still have their centre marked by an important stupa, for instance Wat Bowornivet and Wat Ratchabopit with a chedi, Wat Arun with a very high prang, or Wat Kreua Wan with a row of three chedis. Still, when asked “What is the most sacred place in your wat?” monks in 35 Bangkok monasteries answered “The Buddha image.” and only in 2 monasteries “The stupa.”

There is however no formal uniformity and different configurations are attested, such as centred, linear, parallel or scattered, in compounds of various sizes from more than 7 hectares at Wat Pho to less than 0.5 hectares at Wat Ratchapradit.

Country monasteries

Away from royal capitals, monasteries were and still are much less systematically planned. They were often built by villagers according to the availability of funds, usually starting as sannak song with a simple wooden building to house one or two monks, around which a sala and wihan were added when possible. Only after the formal permission is granted (in the name of the King) can the ubosot be erected, which will give the monastery its full statute by allowing ordinations to be performed. In small monasteries, particularly in villages, the inner enclosure separating the Buddhavasa and the Sanghavasa is seldom materialized, though always symbolically present. 

There were important regional variations throughout the country, for instance, in the north (Lan Na) the ordination hall is usually smaller than the assembly hall, while in the northeast (Isan) the ubosot was only present in a few monasteries, the others consisting of kuti (monks’ quarters) and a sala (preaching hall: a roof on pillars with no walls). In recent times, the Bangkok tendency to shift the major accent on the ordination hall has spread nationwide: new ubosots, high and richly decorated through popular donations, are built all over the country in village monasteries, either as new additions or alongside old ones which then become disused. National models are promoted countrywide, with a central office in Bangkok providing standardized drawings for ordination hall, crematorium or meeting hall to the villagers when enough funds have been collected to undertake the building of a new monastery or the renovation of an old one. 

The Elements of the Monastery

In the Buddhavasa (cult area)

The assembly hall and shrine (wihan)

-              A rectangular building with entrance(s) at one or both ends (often through 2 doors, also 1 or 3).

-              The Buddha image faces the main entrance (usually east)

-              In Northern Thailand, several ancient pillared wihans are open on three sides and walled at one end, around the main Buddha image.

-              Used for morning and evening ceremonies by monks, lay people admitted (when there is no wihan these functions can take place in the ubosot).

The ordination hall and shrine (ubosot, bosot, bot; sim in Northeast Thailand)   

-              a rectangular building with entrance on one or both ends (often 2 doors, also 1 or 3)

-              Buddha image facing main entrance (usually east), may be accompanied by statues of disciples (8 or more – 80 in Wat Suthat), a raised platform for monks and a seat for the Abbot.

-              Surrounded by bai sima boundary stones, usually 8 stones at the cardinal and intermediate points and a ninth one buried under the centre of the hall.

-              The area delineated by the sima stones was officially and irrevocably devoted to the Sangha by the King; today royal permission is necessary to build a new ubosot.  

-              Traditionally, the ubosot can also be surrounded by water, in which there is no need for sima stones. One of these bot nam still exists at Wat Puttha En in Mae Chaem, Chiang Mai Province. Ordination can also take place in a temporary floating ubosot, for instance the re-ordination of Prince Mongkut (the future King Rama IV) was performed on a raft.  

-              Uses  - Ordinations (should be large enough to accommodate 25 monks);

- Patimokkha recitations (lay people not admitted) twice per lunar month;

- When no wihan, morning and evening ceremonies by monks (lay people


- In North Thailand, entrance into the ubosot may be forbidden to lay people,

  particularly women. 

Wihan and ubosot are commonly built on the same model: from the outside the most conspicuous feature is the large roof divided into several superposed tiers, with high gables at both ends, and crowned by a curvilinear finial. On the two longer side of the rectangle, masonry walls (occasionally wooden pillars or wooden walls in North Thailand) have windows for light and ventilation. Ancient buildings usually have a single porch at one end of the rectangle, and the number and shape of roof tiers emphasize the location of the inner main Buddha image at the other end. Since the early 19th century, this pattern tends to be replaced by non-directional buildings with a porch on both ends and a symmetrical roofing configuration.

Inside, the main Buddha image on a pedestal faces the entrance, from the other end of a single hall. Depending on the size of the building, the roof may span the whole space between the lateral walls or be supported by two (exceptionally four) lines of internal pillars. Mural paintings on the walls illustrate the Buddha cosmology (Mount Meru and the many levels of the universe), the main scenes in the Buddha’s life, or his most famous previous lives (Jataka).

The stupa (chedi or prang)

-              Occasionally, one or several large chedi (a bell shaped stupa) built over relics or a prang (a square tower on the model of the Khmer sanctuary) sometimes with a small shrine inside, may be in the very centre of the monastery.

-              Numerous small chedis or prangs containing ashes of abbots, monks or lay persons may be added along the boundary walls either in the Buddhavasa or the Sanghavasa.

-              As in Laos, stupas are called that in north eastern Thailand.

The image house (mondop – infrequent)  

-              A square building housing an image or a footprint.

The gallery (rabiang)

-              A surrounding portico around a rectangular or square courtyard, with a tiled roof supported by a wall outside and on one or two files of pillars inside. A gateway is generally located in the middle of each side. A major building occupies the centre of the courtyard, most often the main prang during the Ayutthaya period, and usually the ubosot during the Bangkok period.

In the Sanghavasa (monks’ area) 

The meeting and preaching hall (sala kanparian)

-              Can be located in the Buddhasava as well as in the Sanghavasa.

-              Rectangular pillared hall with or without walls, can be in wood and very large or in masonry and similar to a wihan.  

-              Inside, seat for the preacher and a lateral platform for the monks.

-              Used for sermon readings, large meetings between monks and lay people.

The pavilion (sala)

-              An open building in wood or masonry, used as a meeting place, shelter, etc.

The library (ho trai)

-              A small building to shelter manuscript chests.

-              Generally in wood, sometimes on posts in the middle of a pond to protect its manuscripts from insects and rodents or built above a masonry base.

The monks’ quarters (kuti)

-              Sometimes (especially in Bangkok) in a special enclosure adjacent to the main one, often on the south side (theoretically, on the right side of the Buddha’s main image).

-              Either built in wood, on posts or in masonry.

-              In large monasteries, may be grouped in units of 5-7 monks’ cells (khana) under a senior monk (chao khana).

-              May come with an open dinning room (ho chan) and a kitchen.

-              In central Thailand, the monks’ cells are frequently grouped in two parallel lines on both sides of a long narrow platform, sometimes roofed and used as a dining place.

-              Khana theo: a building with several cells for monks

-              Khana kuti: an individual house or cell.

-              In a village, kutis are often the first building of a new monastery.  

The abbot’s residence

-              Either grouped with the kutis, or a separate, larger house.

The bell tower (ho rakhang)

-              A small construction on high posts.

-              Used to announce morning recitation.

The drum tower (ho klonk)

-              A small construction on high posts.

-              Used to announce lunchtime at 11 a.m.

The crematorium (men)

-              A building with a high chimney surrounded by pavilions where the deceased is kept in a coffin and rites are performed.

-              Traditionally, cremations were not performed in the monasteries in Northern Thailand, and not inside the city walls of Bangkok.

-              Today, the crematorium can be in the outer courtyard of a monastery or in a separate compound nearby.

-              Used for funerals.

School buildings

-              Up to the 19th century, education of village boys provided by the Sangha in the monasteries did not seem to have required specific buildings. Teaching took place in salas or on the veranda around the kutis.

-              Today, many state primary schools are located in a separate part of the monastery compound (primarily because it was there that space was available).

-              In addition, pariyattitham schools have been set up in monasteries to teach Pali to young monks. They are located inside the compound, usually in modern buildings with classrooms, library and auditorium, at least in the most developed.