Other Temples in Southeast Asia

In Thailand, more traditionally known as Siam, Theravada Buddhism is widely practiced and the sacred texts are in Pali, a language derived from Sanskrit (see ยง9.1.1 for a brief description of the main branches of Buddhism). This is one of the older and more basic forms of Buddhism. As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Thailand has many wats, or temple complexes, aligned on east-west axes. The Wat Phra Si Sanphet in Ayutthaya is a fine example (Figure 9.11). It is located on the site of the first palace of the founder of the

Figure 9.11. Temples of the Wat Phra Si Sanphet in Ayutthaya, central Thailand: At one time, this complex housed the largest sculpture of the Buddha in the world. Photo by E.F. Milone.

Ayutthaya kingdom, Ramathibodi I. His Son, Ramathibodi II, constructed these temples in 1491 with Chedis (memorials) for his father and elder brother, and eventually for himself.

The well-known temple complex, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, is on a hilltop with a commanding view of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand (see Figure 9.12). The central towers or prangs of these temples typically have 33 levels in the forms of rings or other divisions to symbolize the 33 heavens of Mt. Meru. The Temple of Dawn at the Wat Arun near Bangkok contains a great porcelain inlaid prang. In Vietnam, surviving Hindu temples date from the 10th century, and the Mongol invasion in the 13th century marked the decline of Hinduism in the area.

To the south, across the South China and Java Seas, temple building succeeded grandly. The Javanese are a Malayan group who successively adopted Brahmanism, Buddhism, and Islam. The Brahmanic practices were traditionally adopted as early as the 1st century a.d. In Java,

Figure 9.12. A chedi in the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, one of the better-known Thai temple complexes. Photo by E.F. Milone.

Indian temples were built as early as the 8th century, during the Shailendra dynasty. The most famous is that at Borobo-dur, dating from around 800, and in use until ~1000 a.d. It is one of the most impressive Buddhist temples, built onto and above a mountain, crowned with a massive central stupa (mound) representing the axis of the world. Arising from the base, there are seven walled terraces, of square shape with three doglegs per side. The exterior faces of the walls are lined with relief sculpture depicting Buddhist doctrine. The pilgrim is expected to view the reliefs by traveling clockwise around each terrace, and thus move in a clockwise spiral, with continual ascent from one symbolic stage of enlightenment to the next. Each stage contains niches with images of the Buddha that become less human and more transcendant with ascent. Near the top are three unwalled circular platforms containing 32, 24, and 16 stupas, respectively, each containing a stone Buddha figure that is barely visible. At the very top is an unfinished, invisible, and therefore entirely spiritual Buddha.

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