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Origins

Buddha Mind - get one, be one.

ORIGINS | CAVES | INDIA | STH. EAST ASIA | CHINA - JAPAN


basic plan

Buddhist Architecture has its roots deeply planted in Indian 'soil' - both physically, in relation to existing construction styles, and philosophically, in relation to various cosmic theories that influenced the layout of sacred sites. The following is a brief consideration of those influences.
This history of India opens about 2500 BCE with an advanced civilisation centered in several settlements along the Indus valley. The tradition of this native agrarian people focused on fertility and included the worship of the Mother Goddess and devotion to water or tree spirits. About 1500 BCE they were overwhelmed by 'Indo-Aryans', nomadic herdsmen from Central Asia whose tradition centered on sacrifice at a fire altar. The result was that Varuna, through whose navel grew the Tree of Life, was 'overlaid' (replaced?) by the storm god Indra who separated ocean, earth and heaven and released the sun to generate the Cosmic Cycle. [c.f. the stupa 'origin story']
The merging of the Aryan and native traditions was of prime importance in the evolution of India's religious architecture and much of the embellishment of Indian buildings involves fertility symbolism relating to Varuna's tree and the creative and regenerative power of water. The Aryans identified the Essence of Existence as the Purusha (later to be identified as Brahman). In defining the structure or embodiment of the Purusha, their literature (the Vedas) provides the substance of Indian architectural theory based on the macrocosm centred around the Palace (abode of the king) and Mount Meru (abode of the Gods). Post-Vedic commentary provided geometrical formulae to bind Brahma to a specific place for the purpose of worship, supplying the details for any architectural structure intended to accommodate that worship.
There has been been a tradition of religious architecture since Vedic times (1500 700 BCE) but construction was on a small and localised scale using perishable materials like timber, mud and clay and there is scant archaeological evidence available. Suggestions are that construction centered around the sacrificial arena with the evolving form becoming a simple square cell with a conical or pyramid roof. This became the most characteristic temple structure gaining increasing detail and refinement during the Gupta period (4th-6th century AD) heavily decorated with architectural and figural ornament. This form was brought to its stylistic height during the 7th to 11th centuries AD.
And so the basic plan of the Buddhist temple is established: an entrance area with a square or rectangular central covered hall or open courtyard. The outward structure is modelled on the key concept of Mt Meru. The basic floor plan is seen in the early cave monasteries [§] (with meditation cells added) and the structural form in the Mahabodhi temple [§] and Borobudur stupa [§].


Sanchi


Ajanta

The development of various symbols representing aspects of the Buddha's life (563 - 483 BCE) was the beginning of a specifically Buddhist architecture. Traditional building styles would have been used but it was the mode of decoration which began to set these buildings apart. As support for the new religion increased so too did the need for buildings to accommodate the requirements of the expanding monastic order. Although stonework was quite common wood was still the main medium and the skill to erect stone structures enclosing appreciable space had yet to be developed.
The earliest Buddhist construction of significance was the stupa [see: STUPAS], but these were sculpture not structure. Probably the most significant site is at Sanchi where as well as having one of the best preserved Indian stupas, the full range of Buddhist art and architecture from the third century BC to the twelfth AD can be studied here.
The other form of specifically Buddhist construction that evolved quite early was the rock-cut monastery. For about six centuries, beginning around 100 BCE, several monasteries were hewn from the cliffs and rock walls of valleys. Probably the most famous of these is at Ajanta. Their development is looked at under CAVES.

P.S.

Line drawings giving a good overview of different types of construction from various Buddhist countries [§].
I considered having an item looking at modern (Western?) temple construction but it became too complex. There are two items in this respect that you could look at: a booklet of the development and construction of Amaravati Monastery in England [§] and a virtual tour of Amaravati - as at 1999 [§]
A slightly esoteric aspect of monastery construction is the creation of a sima (boundary). In the early years the Sangha were principally wanderers. As the order grew and more monasteries were established so came the need to define certain areas for various functions. These boundaries can be quite general or very clearly defined for specific monastic business - the most regular being the fortnightly recitation of the rules and ordinations. Here is some material on the Amaravati sima [§].
ORIGINS | CAVES | INDIA | STH. EAST ASIA | CHINA - JAPAN