Thai Temple Art and Architecture

A typical Wat Thai (loosely translated as monastery or temple) has two enclosing walls that divide it from the secular world. The monks’ or nuns’ quarters or dormitories are situated between the outer and inner walls. This area may also contain a bell tower or hor rakang. In larger temples, the inner wall may be lined with Buddha images and serve as cloisters or galleries for meditation. This part of the temple is called buddhavasa or phutthawat (for the Buddha).

Inside the inner walls is the bot or ubosoth (ordination hall), surrounded by eight stone tablets and set on consecrated ground. This is the most sacred part of the temple and only monks can enter it. The bot contains a Buddha image, but it is the viharn (assembly hall) that contains the principal Buddha images. Also, in the inner courtyard are the bell-shaped chedi (relic chambers), which contain the relics of pious or distinguished people. Salas (rest pavilions) can be found all around the temple; the largest of these area is the sala kan parian (study hall), used for saying afternoon prayers.

During the 10th century, the Theravada Buddhism and Hindu cultures merged, and Hindu elements were introduced into Thai iconography. Popular figures include the four-armed figure of Vishnu; the garuda (half man, half bird); the eight-armed Shiva; elephant-headed Ganesh; the naga, which appears as a snake, dragon or cobra; and the ghost-banishing giant Yak.

Bangkok’s Wat Benchamabophit (the Marble Temple) is renowned as the most impressive example of modern Thai Buddhist architecture. Built in 1899 by King Chulalongkorn, the temple is constructed of white Italian marble and surmounted by multitiered orange tiled roofs.

In addition to religious structures, a distinctive Thai style of domestic architecture also evolved, employing prefabricated panels hung on a framework of stout pillars and using wooden pegs instead of nails for joining. Various forms developed in different regions of the country, perhaps the best known being the central plains style with is steep roofs, decoratively carved bargeboards, and slightly inward-leaning walls that give it a memorable sense of elegant grace.

Traditional Thai architecture declined around 1900 when buildings were increasingly in European styles. Old-style craftsmen and builders who worked on temples, palaces, and traditional homes found that prevailing tastes required them to master Western techniques and construction of classic buildings almost ceased, especially in the capital. From the late 1940’s European influence grew rapidly and local architects enthusiastically embraced the concepts of such Western pioneers as Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies Van Der Rohe.

Like other forms of art in the early 1990’s, Thai architecture has been revolutionized by new industrial materials and by the example of the pure functionalism of machines. Modern Thai architects seem to be guided by Western principles of structure, plan, and functionalism, so that their works resemble those to be seen in any large city of the world, reflecting not only individual taste but also such matters as zoning regulations, ecology, and energy consumption.