Article by Rachel Greenberg, originally written for NileGuide
Siddhartha Gautama, aka the Buddha, lived sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C.E. Soon after, communities began to follow his teachings, and temples dedicated to Buddhist prayers and learning were built across the Asian continent. Today, there are around 500 million practicing Buddhists all over the world, and it’s no surprise that Buddhist buildings of worship are as diverse as the practices of the people who build them. Some of the most spectacular examples of Buddhist temples lie on Siddhartha’s home continent.
Although all the temples on this list make for pretty incredibly viewing, they are also sacred places for millions of people and are still used for religious purposes. When visiting them, it is essential that non-religious visitors are extra careful to cover themselves with modest clothing, and be as respectful as pilgrims visiting for religious reasons.
Now for some terminology: many of the temples are in traditional forms – they have worship rooms, living quarters for monks, and study centers. Others are ‘stupas‘ – mound-shaped buildings traditionally used as the resting place for Buddhist artifacts. Stupas are places of worship, built as an act of respect and honor for the Buddha.
1. Taktsang Dzong (Tiger’s Nest Monastery) – Paro, Bhutan
There are a few competing stories about how this monastic complex got such a bad-ass name — mostly involving someone flying into the incredibly isolated mountain top on the back of a tigress.
What we know for sure is the temple was built in 1692 and is perched 3,000 feet above the forested Paro valley in rural Bhutan. The four temples and living quarters that make up this monastery are nested into the mountain’s granite face, and make for an incredibly breathtaking site.
Although it looks pretty cool, it’s not all that easy to get to. Taktsang Dzong is a few hours hike from the closest road, and the ascent to the temple is steep and rocky.
Keep in mind: if you’re a foreigner looking to visit, plan in advance. Although the temple is a pilgrimage spot for many, all non-Bhutanese visitors are required by law to have a permit and be accompanied by a guide when visiting Taktsang Dzong.
2. Bagan City, Burma
Image: Kyle Lease/Flickr
The landscape of this ancient city is littered with stunning spires and golden stupas. At the height of Bagan’s popularity as a cultural and religious center in the 11th and 12th centuries, there were over 13,000 temples in existence. Many of these temples were destroyed or torn down over the years, but 2,000 structures still stand. Although the surviving temples have made it through some tough times, they aren’t out of the woods yet.
Image: TJ Clarke/Flickr
The military regime currently in power in Burma is aware of the tourism potential of the iconic temples. Instead of conducting proper restorations, the regime has made hasty repairs by unskilled laborers, rebuilding with no concern for the original structure, and whitewashing over ancient, but faded, interior paintings. Instead of bringing in thorough professionals and using correct materials, the regime is going the fast, cheap, and clearly irresponsible “restoration” route. UNESCO was so horrified by the government’s handling of these national treasures, they decided not to grant the site World Heritage status.
Most of the temples are currently open to the public, but won’t be standing for long if they aren’t properly restored.
3. Wat Rong Khun Chian – Rang, Thailand
If you’re expecting another ancient monastery, think again. The “White Temple” is the baby on the list – construction began in 1997. Designed by internationally renowned Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, and funded by a local businessman, Wat Rong Kuhn is built primarily in white to signify the purity of Lord Buddha.
Although the entire temple is monotone, the intricacy of the facade is pretty amazing. Reliefs, statues, carvings and mosaics cover every inch of the white plaster exterior, and white glass and white coi fish round out the theme. The architect didn’t go easy on the symbolism either – everything from hands ‘reaching up from hell’ to symbolic animal sculptures dominate the ground. In another surprising turn, the inside of the temple has an incredibly bright and modern mural depicting Buddha’s teachings, including a painting of the World Trade Center in flames.
Another unusual – but colorful – surprise is the “golden toilet”. The bathroom building is painted gold and stands out pretty starkly against the rest of the all-white buildings.
4. Chion-in Temple – Kyoto, Japan
This Japanese National Treasure was first built in 1234 by the newly-formed Pure Land Sect of Buddhism. The original sturcture no longer exists but the stunning temple you can see today was constructed in the 1600s, including the temple’s iconic (and massive) main gate.
Chion-in is a popular tourist attraction in Kyoto, and if you’re lucky enough to visit there are a few things you absolutely can’t miss.
Temple bell: this is no little ring-ring kind of bell. It weighs 74 tons and takes exactly 17 (exceptionally strong) monks to ring it.
Intentionally creaky floorboards: they were actually constructed that way on purpose, as a kind of old-fashioned security system – metal tips on the floor boards intentionally rub across metal joints in the floor to warn when intruders are afoot.
The Wasuregasa (“Forgotten Umbrella”): left in the eves of the temple by a 15th century construction worker. Since the temple was built with wood, fire was a serious concern. In Japanese tradition, umbrellas bring rain, and this umbrella was left to ward off fire and keep the temple safe. Looks like it’s done its job!
5. Boudhanath Stupa -Kathmandu, Nepal
Image: lucag/Wikipedia Commons
There are some pretty charming stories about the creation of this huge and colorful stupa. In one, an old woman wanted to build a temple in honor of the Buddha, so she asked the king for enough land to construct a glorious building. The king told her she could have as much land as a single buffalo skin could cover. The old woman was still pretty sharp because she took a single skin, cut it into thing strips, and made a huge circle. The king couldn’t argue with her logic, and gave her the land she needed to build the stupa.
Built around 500 AD, the stupa is a geometric and symbolic feat. Five levels represent the five Buddhist moral principles, as well as the five elements (earth, air, water, fire, space). Above that is a whitewashed dome, and the piercing eyes of the ever-watching Buddha are painted on all four sides of the pyramid. Below Buddha’s eye is the number ‘one’ in Sanskrit to represent wholeness, and above his eyes on all sides is a third eye, denoting wisdom. Above that is a golden pyramid with 13 steps and a gilded canopy, symbolizing air. Colorful prayer flags stream from the top of the building, sending prayers flapping in the wind.
If you’re lucky enough to visit, make sure to circumvent the stupa clockwise, always keeping God on your right. It’s the traditional way to explore Boudhanath, and not doing so is showing disrespect.
For some more Boudhanath quirks, keep your eyes out for prayer wheels that are built into the edifice on the lower level of the stupa. They’re a nod to the huge number of Tibetan refugees that have flooded the country since their country’s conflict with China. Also be on the lookout for artists selling Thangka, incredibly labor intensive traditional Buddhist art. There’s a Thangka school across the street from Boudhanath, and many artists sell some of the finest examples of this art outside the stupa.
6. Shwedagon Pagoda – Yangon, Burma
If you’re Burmese and a Buddhist, this is the place to be. Standing 321.5 feet tall, this golden pagoda is beyond spectacular. There’s some heated debate as to the original date of the sturcture – scientists believe it was built between the 6th and 10th centuries while religious Buddhists argue it was around during the life of the Buddha. Either way, the original structure was built specifically to house a few pieces of the Buddha’s super-sacred hair and exist today as a testament to the grandeur and opulence of the Burmese culture.
Image: Wikipedia Commons
Seriously, this thing is decked out. There are reportedly over twenty thousand gold bars used in the constructions of the pagoda’s body, and it doesn’t end there. On the very tip of the structure, way above where the human eye can see, 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies and sapphires are inlayed in the gold. Above that are 1,065 golden bells and finally, just for good measure, a 76 carat diamond rests at the tip top.
If you’re not a Burmese Buddhist, make sure you ask your parents what day of the week you were born before visiting. Burmese Buddhism puts a lot of emphasis on planetary astrology, and you won’t be able to pray in the right spot without knowing your birthday-day.
Image: Kyaw.m.naing/Wikipedia Commons
7. Borobudur – Java, Indonesia
Image: Gunkarta/Wikipedia Commons
This amazing structure has mystery, abandonment, discovery – what more could you ask for?
Built in the 9th century in central Java, the original structure was a seemingly impossible architectural feat. Three round platforms on top of six square ones, the massive temple was built to house a Buddhist artifact. There are 2,672 relief carvings around the structure and almost 600 statues of Buddha as well.
Sometime in the 14th century Borobudur became passe (probably when Islam was introduced to Java) and it was abandoned. Lush rain forest and volcanic ash claimed the temple, and it was completely obscured in the forest for centuries.
Although Indonesians knew if its existence, the rest of the world had no idea about this ridiculously cool building, hidden in the middle of the jungle. During British rule of Java, colonial ruler Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles heard the folklore about this magical place, and sent his team on an epic exploration to find it in 1814. It took two months, but it finally surfaced .
Although Borobudur was in rough condition, a massive project went underway in the ’70s to stabilize the structure, funded by UNESCO. Today it’s Indonesia’s biggest tourist attraction and is especially photogenic at sunrise.
8. Potala Palace – Lhasa, Tibet
Sadly this religious site is no longer an inhabited palace, but was converted to a museum by the Chinese government in the 1960s. Even though it’s not currently a place of worship, this temple is incredibly sacred to Tibetan Buddhists, and is one of the most striking buildings in the entire world. Built on a mountain-top above one of the highest cities in the world, Potala Palace looks like it is perched on top of the world. Built in 1649, the palace was constructed to be the winter home of the Dali Llama, and housed many Dali Llamas until conflict with the Chinese in the 1950s made it unsafe.
Today it’s an incredibly popular tourist attraction, and there are strict rules about the number of visitors the site can have daily. If you’re lucky enough to go, make sure to get there early in the morning to ensure you’re one of the 1,600 people who can enter that day. Also, the interior of the palace is intricately painted with vivid colors and stunning decoration, but be warned in advance that photography is forbidden inside.
9. Ta Prohm – Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Also known as “Ankor Wat”, Ta Prohm was constructed around 1185 AD by the Khmer Emperor Jayavarman VII. He envisioned a massive temple structure that would serve as a Buddhist place of worship and a study center. The amazing compound he created housed 12,500 people and employed almost 80,000 neighboring villagers. Although Ta Prohm was once a great center of spirituality and learning, when the Khmer Empire fell in the 15th century, the temple was abandoned and forgotten, left to retreat back into the lush jungle from which it was built.
It was only in 20th century that Ta Prohm was “rediscovered” and a path was cleared through the jungle for visitors. Unlike many other temples in the region, the Cambodian government decided to leave Ta Prohm almost completely untouched. Other than structural enhancements to maintain the integrity of the buildings, many of the stunning trees and plants that had overtaken the temple during the hundreds of years it lay dormant were left alone.
Unfortunately visitors are not longer allowed inside the temple buildings due to erosion and safety concerns, but it’s undeniable that the buildings’ exteriors make for some pretty epic photo-ops.
10. Daigo-ji – Kyoto, Japan
In 874, interest began in building a Buddhist temple on the top of Mount Daig, and in 951 the incredibly iconic and beautiful five story pagoda was built. Amazingly, it still stands to this day and is one of the 18 national treasures that call Daigo-ji home. Not only is this temple a classic Japanese beauty, but its lush gardens are an amazing spot to experience the blooming of the cherry blossoms in their full glory.