If you would like to know more detail, here is a nice explanation of a wat from the website asiatours.net. I find them extremely similar to visiting chapels in Italy, Spain or France. Except instead of Jesus, it is Buddha and instead of saints and biblical stories portrayed in the art and architecture, it is stories about Buddha’s life and the gods/figures he encounters along the way. In place of candles, here there are incense sticks and fresh flowers. *i will post my wat photos starting this afternoon*
In Thailand, a temple is much more than a place to worship, The wat is the center of village life, serving as a school, orphanage, theatre, meeting hall, crematorium, youth club, playground – even sometimes a market, political center or restaurant.
Thais love to “make merit” with Buddha by donation religious objects to temples. These are always accepted, which means that temples are cluttered with religious bric-a-brac.The richer the populace the more extensive and impressive the objects donated. (I notice that many of the donated objects are figurines of animals, especially dogs. People even donate electric fans, which mean a lot around here!)
Although wats are exclusively Buddhist, there are elements of pre-Buddhist, Hindu beliefs in most temples. Hindu gods such as Shiva may have their statues included, and Thais combine Buddhism with ancient Animist beliefs so that temples have become centers of local superstition as well as Buddhism.
A wat is a complex of several buildings. There is no fixed pattern, but in general the largest and most central building is the wiharn. This building will have one or more Buddha statues at the far end (Buddhas should always face east), before a large open area for the general public. In this area people come to worship, and to receive instructions from the monks. The walls of the wiharn are usually decorated with murals depicting the life of Buddha. These vary from exquisite ancient depictions to ugly modern ones.
To one side of the wiharn there will usually be one or more chedis. These conical structures of brick, coated with plaster painted white or covered in brass or gold, are said to resemble piles of rice. When asked at his death how he should be remembered, Buddha replied “Make piles of rice to remember me by” (I’ve also seen many tall piles of sand at what’s that have colorful streamers and incense stuck in them – these must symbolize piles of rice). Chedis contain the bones or other relics of religious leaders.
The bot is the building where monks are ordained. It may contain the most sacred Buddha sculpture, but is often closed when not in use, and the building may be quite small, tucked away in a corner. (I think women are not allowed in a bot.)
Most temples also contain a library, usually a decorated wooden building raised on a podium, and a sala where novice monks or orphaned children are educated by ordained monks. It is customary to have a bodhi tree within the temple grounds. It was under this thick trucked tree with heart shaped leaves that Buddha became “enlightened”.
To one side of the temple grounds, identified by the saffron robes hanging out of windows, are the monks’ quarters. Monks administer, clean and look after the wat, as well as teaching and meditating in it.
All temples are covered in small, highly reflective mosaics of colored glass. Their significance is to drive away evil spirits – if they approach too close they will see their reflection and be frightened away. There are other precautions to ward off bad spirits, including the monster figures often guarding doorways. Many temples are approached by long flights of steps, guarded at the base by pairs of fearsome serpent heads (nagas) whose long scaly backs form the walls on either side of the steps.
Singhas are very popular in Northern Thailand. These are stylized lion statues, and originate in Burmese folklore. They represent strength and power and are usually depicted with mouth half open, seated outside temple door, or devouring a frightened victim.
The Kalais a monster that devours itself, representing the relentless passage of time. It is usually shown without its lower jaw, which it has already eaten. Originally a Hindu god, it is often seen above windows and doors.
Kinnari are beautiful women above the waist, but with the wings and legs of a bird. They are companions to the gods, and are Himalayan and Animist in concept. Ornate Kinnari are popular in Chiang Mai temples.
The Hongse is a mythical swan-like creature, the mount of the god Brahma. It is often seen in the Northern Thailand as a decoration for ornamental gates or standing on a tall pole in front of the wiharn.
All temples contain at least one, and usually many, Buddha images. They can be made from a wide range of materials, but are commonly brick based and covered in cement or plaster stucco. Smaller or more venerable statues will be made of molded bronze, brass or gold. In front of the main image in every temple will be an arrangement of offerings, including lotus blossoms covered in a tea cozy like hood of dried flowers, bronze or copper money trees and commonly a host of lesser Buddha statues, donated by worshippers to make merit.
The physical features of Buddha are largely determined by convention. These vary over time and from place to place. All Buddha’s though, have certain features in common. There is a lotus bud on the head to symbolize enlightenment, and very long earlobes which show he was of a royal family who wore such heavy earrings that the ears became lengthened. The fingers are, in most styles, of equal length, as are the toes.
Some statues of Buddha are very different. The Chinese favor an obese, pot bellied Buddha. This Buddha is associated with happiness, wealth, food and plenty. A fine example towers over the food market at Chiang Rai. An emaciated statue refers to Buddha’s experiment as an ascetic – when he decided that total self denial was unnecessary, and developed the idea of ‘the middle path’.
Buddha may be pictured in number of different poses. Most usually he is seated cross legged, which indicated meditation. If the right hand is raised, palm outwards, this indicates that Buddha is imploring peace. With left hand raised, palm up, he is teaching. If two fingers are held up, he is blessing. If both bands are down, then Buddha has achieved enlightenment.
The reclining Buddha, in which he is seen resting on a cushion with one arm holding his head, refers to the death of Buddha – the point at which he achieved nirvana.
The walking Buddha refers to walking meditation – regarded as very difficult by most monks. Standing with both hands raised, palms outwards, is a sign of power and refers to a legend in which Buddha stopped the sea from engulfing a village by adopting this pose.
All Buddha images are designed according to precise convention. The sculptor has no artistic freedom in which to work. The changes through time and place of the statues is a catalogue of cultural evolution, not artistic development.