To a western visitor the most impressive witnesses to Thai artistic culture are undoubtedly the magnificent Wats. The visitor gets confused by the profusion of strange-looking buildings, and the following account of the individual parts of a Wat may therefore be helpful.
The word Wat originally denoted any religious edifice, but is now applied to a Buddhist monastery. Its compound embraces the temple area and an outer precinct for the monks’ quarters, which as a rule contains no ritual buildings. This is called the khana, and consists of several buildings. In some, several monks live together under one roof, but never more than five or six. In some places every monk lives in a dwelling of his own. Usually the buildings for several monks are occupied by the more junior members of the Order. This house is also called khana. Two staircases lead down to the living quarters, which are usually below ground level.
The monks form a group under a chao khana. One of these chao khanas presides over six such groups, and is called raja khana. The chief raja khana, the somdetj raja kijana, is abbot of the whole temple. He directs the members of the Order and administers the monastery. A raja khana’s dwelling is generally bigger than that of a chao khana, and has a library. The dwelling of the somdetj raja khana is still more sumptuous.
Within the monastery compound you will find a school and lodging for the pupils (luksit) from various parts of the country. In return for instruction, board and lodging the pupils perform various services for the monks.
In the area occupied by the cult buildings, which is generally surrounded by a wall, the most sacred edifice is the bot (pronounced boht). This brick building has a long undivided nave. The ground-plan can, however, vary widely. The simplest form is a quadrilateral cella with just one door at the end facing the cult image. Larger temples have windows (any number from one to 13) along the sides, and several doors on the main front. In some bots, as at Wat Phra Keo in Bangkok, the wall behind the Buddha image is broken up by doors. The central entrance doorway is always larger than the others. If the interior is too large, two or more rows of columns are employed to support the roof and divide off two aisles. The building may also be extended by a portico. A very elaborate bot may also have a cloister round it, formed by rows of columns. As a rule the internal columns have no capitals, while the outer ones usually do.
It is a characteristic feature of Thai architecture that walls and columns taper towards the top. The walls are very thick, with deep door aid window embrasures. Beautifully carved door and window surrounds set off the pure white of the walls. Doors and shutters are or carved wood, lacquered in black and gold, painted or inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The interior walls are covered with mythological scenes and the ceilings are decorated. Opposite the entrance, usually in front of the west wall, is the most venerated Buddha image. In front of the figure is an altar consisting of several tables for offerings, mostly garlands of flowers. Statuettes of the Buddha, vases, lamps, clocks, miniature chedis (reliquaries) and jars of sand, in which lighted incense sticks are set, are scattered about in a random fashion which to western eyes seems to detract from the dignity of the Buddha. Shoes must be taken off before entering the Wat.
A series of roofs set one above the other, covered with brilliant glazed tiles, give a Thai temple its characteristic silhouette. The ends of the beams in all royal and religious buildings have a curious ornament called the cho fa, the origin of which is unknown. The gutters are decorated with stylised nagas (snakes or dragons) of gilded wood. Sometimes there are small bells with small heart-shaped pieces of metal attached to their tongues, causing them to tinkle in the wind. Bells of this kind hanging from coloured ribbons are often sold as souvenirs, particularly in Wat Arun and Wat Phra Keo.
The most important rituals of monastic life (ordinations, etc.) are performed in the Wat. The sacred area is marked out by eight boundary stones (sema). Originally these were flat stone tablets with carved decoration, lance-shaped, with a Gothic style pointed arch at the top, slightly curved sides and a horizontal base. Stones of this kind were also set up on town or palace walls like battlements. When they mark the boundaries of a bot there are often snake heads on either side of the base. In order to protect the stones from the weather little houses or tabernacles are set over them, richly decorated and crowned by various spires and structures, and often by a phra chedi. In this way the efficacy of the sema in warding off malign influences is doubled, since chedis also serve as boundary marks (for example at the national frontiers). In many parts of the country, particularly in the north, women are not admitted to the sacred area.
The counterpart of the bot is the wiharn, which is distinguished from the bot, in appearance only, by the absence of the semas. Usually the bot is the more magnificent, but sometimes the wiharn is more richly adorned. Inside, it always contains at least one Buddha image, and sometimes several. While the bot is primarily intended for the needs of the monks, the wiharn is chiefly there for the lay congregation. In large monasteries there are often several wiharns which are known by the names of the Buddha figures in them.
If there is an outer gallery round the temple area, the four gates are often replaced by so-called wiharn-thits, buildings divided into two rooms, the inner one of which opens into the inner court. When the gallery is circular, these are the rule. Sometimes only one gate is replaced by a wiharn-thit. There may be other wiharns, for instance along the four sides of the “jewel-wall’ forming the outer boundary. The axis of the wiharn then runs parallel to the wall. There may also be wiharn-khots in the four corners of the courtyard, containing either one or two rows of Buddha images.
In many cases the bot, the wiharn, or both, are surrounded by cloisters. In this way a quiet area is created, shutting off the sacred buildings from the noise of the outside world. As a rule these cloisters (phra rabieng) are rectangular, but circular plans are also found, particularly when a phra chedi stands in the middle. The entrances, which may be closed by doors, are in the middle of each side of the rectangle, and are generally richly adorned. The ends of the galleries are usually also emphasized by richer decoration. The cloister is enclosed by an outer wall, which along with the pillars inside it supports the roof. The monotony of the outer wall is relieved by a pediment or by another colonnade. The floor of the rabieng is always one step higher than the court. Along the inner wall of the cloister are rows of Buddha images on decorated bases; they are often gilded and all alike. Sometimes the bases contain the ashes of the dead. Here too, the gates are sometimes replaced by wiharn-thits. A particularly extensive complex of this type is found at Wat Phra Jetubon (Wat Po), where the wiharn-thit is so long that it accommodates eight small rabiengs, each with its little court.
At various points in the monastery compound small open halls are found, called salas. They offer rest and shelter from the heat of the sun, and on the occasion of great festivals the pilgrims sleep in them. They are also used as school-rooms, and offerings for the monks are deposited in them.
In the kambarien sermons are preached daily between 12 noon and 1 pm. This is a necessity for the monks and is therefore usually the first building to be erected after the monks’ dwellings, its place is not within the area of cult buildings but near the monks’ dwellings. Inside is a pulpit in which a monk, seated cross-legged, reads the sermon.
Also outside the sacred precinct are the library buildings, ho trai, in which the scriptures are kept. As it is difficult to protect the palm-leaf bundles with valuable manuscripts from the damp, and from the dreaded white ants, the building is erected on piles, so that the room containing the bookcases is raised about 3 m above the ground, and it is surrounded by a gallery which keeps the rain out. Because of the ants, a brick structure is usual, and sometimes the library is built in a small artificial pond. Each raja khana (head of a group of monks) has its own library, and if there are several raja khanas in the Wat there will be a corresponding number of library buildings.
The mondop is a cubic structure, often surrounded by columns. Numerous flat roofs, one above the other, and ending in a spire (yot), give the roof structure its typical pyramidal outline. Each storey is adorned with a characteristic ornament, the song ban taleng, modeled on the type of window found in the Indian chaitya. The mondop of the Temple of the Buddha’s Footprint at Saraburi is particularly fine.
The prasad is a building which may serve either a religious or royal purposes. The ground-plan is a Greek cross, with brick walls supporting the multiple, curved Thai roof. The central feature is a slender spire. When the building is for royal use, it has the form of the Thai royal crown (Dusit Maha Prasad in the Grand Palace, Bangkok). If it is designed for religious purposes or as a memorial hall the roof-structure ends in a prang (e.g. the Thepbidorn or Royal Pantheon in Wat Phra Keo).
Every Wat has one or more bell-towers (ho rakang). These are of various shapes, usually two-storied: in the upper storey hangs the bell, while the lower storey, which is closed, contains a large drum. Either the bell or the drum is used to summon the monks to services or meals. The tower is usually topped by a phra chedi or a phra prang.
The stupa was in ancient times the most sacred of religious buildings, because it contained a Buddha relic. Later stupas were erected over the relics of kings or saints, and more recently simply as memorials. Thus the stupa lost its position of supreme importance in Thailand to the bot.
Some of the largest wats have a particularly imposing stupa containing a relic of the Buddha. Such temples are called Wat Phra Mahathat (“Monastery of the Great Relic”). As, traditionally, a royal city must contain a Wat Mahathat, the presence of such a temple is a sure sign of a former royal city. In Bangkok there is one Wat Mahathat behind the National Library and a second (Wat Phra Si Mahathat), near the airport at Don Muang.
In Thailand the stupa takes two forms, the (phra) chedi and the (phra) prang. The chedi derives from Sri Lanka and perpetuates the type of the Indian stupa. It consists of a base, the dome-like anda or garbha, a cube-shaped reliquary (harinika) and a many-tiered umbrella roof (ehatira). The most imposing ancient chedis of this type are at Sukhothai and Nakhon Si Thammarat.
The Ayutthaya period developed the form further to produce a specifically Thai style. To the original stupa four niches were added, each crowned by a small chedi: one of these niches contains the entrance, while the other three have standing Buddha images. The three chedis of Wat Sri Sanphet at Ayutthaya are famous. A feature of the Thai chedi is the row of columns over the square harmika, directly under the umbrella. As a rule, the chedis are white-washed: only the most important are covered with gold leaf or glass mosaic. Small ones often have a square ground-plan.
Apart from its religious purpose the chedi serves as an important decorative element in the temple, sometimes the bot is surrounded by a series of chedis which, like the semas, have the function of warding off evil spirits. But usually they are erected anywhere within the temple grounds. In monasteries where cremations take place, whole cemeteries of chedis are gathered together, sometimes in neat rows or else, if they are of different sizes, in irregular groups.
The phra prang at once betrays its descent from the towers of the old Khmer temples. Set on a square base like the chedi, it has a slenderer and more elegant outline. The tower stands on a high pediment and, again like the chedi, has four niches, three containing statues and the fourth giving access to a small chapel. On each side is a steep flight of steps. The oldest prangs are at Sawankhalok, Phitsanulok, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya.
The function of the prang is much the same as that of the chedi, but it is much less commonly seen, being usually found in royal structures, and of such considerable size. Prangs are rare in cemeteries, and only occasionally found in a temple compound (like the east front of Wat Phra Keo). The most famous prang is that of Wat Arun on the banks of the Menam, a landmark of Bangkok.
The external wall surrounding all the cult buildings of a Wat is called kampeng keo or “jewel-wall”. It is often so high that from outside one can only see the roofs and the spires of the chedis. An exception is Wat Benchamabopit, where the wall is replaced by railings. The wall is usually richly decorated, with massive buttresses at the corners, also decorated. The gates, usually in line with the hot and the wiharn, are even more intricately decorated. Many have a horizontal lintel, others have a pointed arch filled with ornamentation. The gates sometimes have porticoes on their inner and outer sides.
In addition to the outer wall the largest Wats also have an inner kampeng keo round the bot, particularly when there is no cloister. Sometimes, however, there is a kampeng keo inside and outside the cloister, which then becomes merely a small ornamental parapet with little visual impact.
Mythological themes are frequently used as decorative features the creatures, half human and half bird, known as kinnari (female) and kinnara or kinnon (male); Garuda, Vishnu’s eagle, killing two snakes (a popular legendary motif); Erawan, the three-headed white elephant which was Indra’s mount. The gates are guarded by gigantic brilliantly colored demons.
Interesting Chinese stone statues are often to be seen in the courtyards. It is not known how they found their way to Thai monasteries, but since trade with China was a royal monopoly they may have been gifts from Chinese merchants to the king.
Also sometimes to be found within monastery compounds are curious little seated figures of rishis – hermits who lived in the wilderness and were hound by strange vows, usually benevolent but sometimes of less amiable disposition.
The Wat is the centre of the intellectual, religious and social life of the community. During the great religious festivals the monastery compound becomes a fair-ground filled with stalls and booths of all kinds and frequented by cheerful and uninhibited crowds.