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Thai Temples for Dummies:

Part II, What’s in a Wat

 

By B.S.

 
Every Buddhist temple in Thailand is prefixed by the word “Wat”. In Siam, the words “Wat” and “Temple” are interchangeable, and can both be used to accurately describe any complex of religious buildings dedicated to the study of Buddhism. But to be precise, a wat is not the main temple; it refers to all of the structures, shrines, and the occasional school that are situated within the walls which separate the entire wat from the secular world on the wall’s other side.
 
Buddhist temples have long been amongst the most beautiful and impressive structures in the Land of Smiles. However, because of regional styles, sectarian differences, and changing design trends through the ages, Thai temples differ in respect to their arrangement, architecture, and the art contained within. Lanna style temples are characterized by low buildings and the use of wood. Wats constructed in the Sukhothai style are easily recognized by their gilded bell-shaped towers. The elongated, tiered towers common to Khmer influenced temples are typically made from stone. Chinese influenced wats feature sweeping tile roofs ornamented with images of animals and flowers. While the highly ornate Rattanakosin, or “Old Bangkok” style temples, which became all the rage during the Chakri dynasty, remain fashionable today.
When I first gawked in awe at the intricate wood carvings, the foreboding demon standing sentry like, the Hindu deities carved in stone, and the opulent mystical serpents undulating along a temple’s roofline, I thought I’d fallen through a rabbit hole into a world designed by the likes of Lewis Carroll, Dr. Suess, and Salvador Dali. In other words, I had no idea what every aspect of the awesome architecture I gazed upon represented. If you are as ignorant as I, this guide will hopefully enlighten, enlarge, and edify your knowledge on the subject of Thai temples.
 
Wat’s in a Wat
With very few exceptions, the majority of wats in Thailand are comprised of two sections – the Phutthawat, or the common area dedicated to Buddha, and the less common sector, containing all of the edifices of a utilitarian nature called the Sangkhawat. The following structures are generally situated within the phutthawat:
 
Chedi
The Chedi, or relic tower, which is also called a “Stupa”, and sometimes a “Pagoda” is the most important and sacred building on the grounds of any wat, as this is where the sacred relics of Buddha have been enshrined. Chedi have also been constructed to contain the relics of a king, or the ashes of a revered religious teacher, or some other equally important individual. Several different styles of Chedi have been used in Thai temples: The tall, richly carved spire known as a Prang is found at Khmer style temples. A type of Prang that resembles a vertical corn cob resting atop a square or cruciform shaped structure is often seen at transitional temples that were constructed prior to the golden age of Ayutthaya. The most common Chedi shape in Thailand today is the bell-shaped tower that evolved during the Ayutthaya era.
 
Bot or Usbosot
Second in importance only to the Chedi, and also the largest building of the wat is the Bot. In addition to containing the temple’s most sacred Buddha image, the Bot is the ordination hall, where the monks take their vows, and where all other important monastic rituals are held. Always rectangular in shape and with its main entrance always facing east – the direction in which Buddha was facing when he attained enlightenment, the Usbosot’s walls are often decorated with murals inspired by the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana which relates the previous lives of Buddha. Because the Bot is considered to be one of a wat’s most sacred structures, it’s only open to the public on Buddha days and during Buddhist festivals. By the way, “Bot” is also the Thai word for a Christian church.
 

Sema Stone & Lok Nimit

No Thai Bot is ever complete unless it’s surrounded by eight stone tablets or Sema Stones. Set on consecrated ground, these stones are placed one to a corner and at the center of each of the Bot’s four walls. A ninth Sema Stone is buried beneath the main Buddha image housed within the Usbosot. Most Sema Stone’s are of a humble design. At the larger temples however, the Sema Stones are often enclosed in an elaborate frame-like housing known as a Mondop. Ritually buried under each Sema Stone is a large spherical iron ball called a Luk Nimit. Before being interred, the iron spheres are prominently displayed so the faithful can “make merit” by way of a donation which allows them to apply a scrap of gold leaf to the sacred stone in exchange for future prosperity.
 
Viharn
Due to its similar appearance, the Viharn is often confused with the Bot. It is easily distinguished by the fact that both monks and lay people can congregate within, and by the fact that it is not surrounded by eight Sema Stones. Also, unlike the Bot, of which there is but one per wat, a temple may have more than one Viharn. The Viharn’s original purpose was to provide shelter in which wandering monks could take refuge during the rainy season. Today however, the Viharn is the busiest building on the grounds of a wat, as it functions as a meeting hall, a sermon hall, a shrine hall, and as a place for prayer and meditation. As such, its doors are open to everyone including monks and all persons – pious and otherwise. It is also the building in which the wat’s principle Buddha image, or images are displayed.
 
Hor Rakhang
The bell tower, or Hor Rakhang, which can be quite a tall structure, is where the bell which summons the monks to their daily devotions is housed. In addition to the Hor Rakhang, many wats feature a line of smaller free standing bells, that when rung in sequence will bring the ringer good fortune.
 
Hor Trai
The Hor Trai is the wat’s library in which all of its holy manuscripts and sacred scriptures are kept. The architectural shape and size of a wat’s library will vary from temple to temple. However a traditional Hor Trai is a wooden building on stilts that can only be accessed via a ladder. Wat libraries were intentionally erected over a pond to protect the vulnerable dried palm leafs and string texts from being ravaged by insects.
 
Salawat
Thai temples have traditionally been a place of refuge to all who are in need, including stray and sick animals. Because of this, open sided pavilions known as Sala or Salawat are scattered throughout most wats to provide a place for both shelter and rest. Used for a variety of purposes the humble Sala bears a number of sub-titles: Sala Kan Parien – the largest of the Salas is used for afternoon prayers, making merit, and it is where monks study for their Parien exam; Sala Batra – used by monks to receive alms; Sala Rai – used by travelers as an overnight resting place. A Sala located on a temple is distinguished from an ordinary Sala situated along the roadside, like a bus stop by the addition of the suffix “wat”, i.e. Salawat.
 
Rohng Rian
Prior to the advent of a government run school system, the village temple was the only place where a basic education could be had by the children of Thai peasants. Male children who had an aspiration for a higher education, served at the temples as a “child of the wat” or dek wat. Despite the development of a modern education system, a number of Thai temples, especially those in rural areas continue to operate a Rohng Rian or school situated on their grounds. 
 
Sangkhwat
The area within a wat’s walls where all the practical structures like the monks living quarters, kitchen, toilet block, and the buildings required for maintenance are situated is known as the Sangkhwat. No holy buildings are allowed in this area, but in some cases the Sangkhwat may contain the above mentioned bell tower (Hor rakhang), and or study hall (Sala Kan Parien). In this area one will typically find the following buildings:
 
Kutri
With the exception of Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew, where none but the royal family is permitted to reside because it’s within the palace walls, all Thai temples have accommodations for its resident and visiting monks. The dwelling, which appears in many forms and sizes, where the individual monks sleep and meditate, is known as a Kutri. Traditional a Kutri is a very small detached building or hut raised on stilts. In more modern temples monks often inhabit small individual cells or rooms in a single structure that is not unlike a modern apartment block.
 
Phra Men
It is customary for the followers of the Buddhist philosophy to be cremated after death. Because of this, the majority of Thai temples include a Phra Men or crematorium somewhere on the premises. The Phra Men is easily identified by its high chimney. Many of the older wats still use wood, charcoal or oil to immolate the mortal remains of the faithful, while modern more temples utilize a gas or electric oven to accomplish this task. It is customary for the body of the deceased to lie in state at a wat for up to a week in order to allow mourners to pay their respects before the remains are cremated.