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.
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 traces 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 Stupas holds 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
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 symbolise 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 Pagodas 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.
Temples And Monasteries
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 presents 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, presents
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 presents a very distinctive style of
architecture with splendid use of colour and ornamentation. The use of
images, paintings, thangkas and mandalas in these monasteries produces rich
iconography not only architecturally, but artistically as well.