Outstanding Buddhist temples, monasteries and other sacred monuments
Landmarks are arranged by region and chronologically.
- Kushinagar – India, Uttar Pradesh. This is one of the most important Buddhist sites, it is here that Gautama Buddha died. It consists of numerous monuments, including Makutabandhana hill, the site of Buddha’s cremation.
- Bhaja Caves – India, Maharashtra. One of the oldest Buddhist rock-cut structures in world. 22 caves, created approximately in the 2nd century BC. Beautiful stone carved facades, other values of art and history.
- Ajanta Caves – India, Maharashtra. One of most beautiful rock-cut temple complexes of the world, developed in the 2nd century BC – 480 AD. In total here are 28 – 30 rock-cut structures, containing murals and sculptures of high importance to the culture of mankind.
- Karla Caves – India, Maharashtra. Beautiful rock-cut temple complex, includes the most beautiful prayer hall – chaitya – of Indian cave temples. Developed in 120 BC – the 10th century AD.
- Sanchi – India, Madhya Pradesh. An important Buddhist pilgrimage site with some 50 buildings from the 3rd – 12th centuries. It is an enormous hemispheric stupa from the 3rd century.
- Nalanda Buddhist University – India, Bihar. Important Buddhist learning centre in 427 – 1197 AD, one of the first great universities of the world. Complex of amazing buildings built from red brick.
- Sarnath – India, Uttar Pradesh. One of holiest sites for Buddhism, it is here that Buddha gave his first sermon. It contains numerous ancient and contemporary monasteries and temples, including Dhamek Stupa (500 AD), Chaukandi Stupa (the 4th – 6th centuries) and others.
- Mahabodhi Temple – India, Bihar. One of holiest sites for Buddhism, it is the location where Buddha attained enlightement. Its main element is a 55 metres high, richly decorated tower built in the 5th – 6th centuries and heavily restored in the 1880s.
- Buddhist temples in Ellora Caves – India, Maharashtra. Although better known due to Hindu and Jain temples of exceptional beauty, Ellora caves though started by 12 Buddhist rock-cut temples. Some of temples contain important artwork and murals.
- Dhankar Gompa – India, Himachal Pradesh. Located in dramatic setting, it is on top of 300 metre high cliff. It was founded between the 7th – 9th centuries.
- Tabo Monastery – India, Himachal Pradesh. An important Tibetan monastery, it was established in 996 AD. It is fortified with a large wall that encloses a large group of buildings and is an important centre of knowledge with an important collection of writings and artworks.
- Key Gompa (Ki Gompa) – India, Himachal Pradesh. Could be founded in the middle of the 11th century. The buildings of the monastery cover a steep hill, thus creating a very picturesque monument of urban design. It contains important works of art.
- Phugtal Monastery – India, Himachal Pradesh. Founded in the early 12th century. It is located in unique, dramatic location; on a steep cliffside below the entrance to an enormous cave.
- Thikse gompa – India, Jammu and Kashmir. This is an impressive 12-floor monastery from the middle of the 15th century.
- Rumtek Monastery – India, Sikkim. A Tibetan monastery, initially built in the 16th century, it was rebuilt in 1966. It is the largest monastery in Sikkim and is located in a beautiful setting.
- Tawang Monastery – India, Arunachal Pradesh. It is one of the largest Buddhist monasteries, founded in 1681. It contains an important library.
- Dambulla – Sri Lanka, Central Province. A unique complex of 5 cave temples and monastery, worship has been practised here since 1 century BC, inhabited since prehistoric times. Partially rock cut caves, adorned with numerous frescoes and statues.
- Temple of the Tooth – Sri Lanka, Central Province, Kandy. A politically important Buddhist temple, it is considered that whoever holds control over its relic, tooth of Buddha, controls Sri Lanka. The tooth was smuggled to Sri Lanka in the early 4th century and was moved to different locations in Sri Lanka – each consequenty becoming a capital. The temple where the tooth is nowadays, was built in the early 18th century.
- Ruwanwelisaya – Sri Lanka, North Central Province, Anuradhapura. This is a beautiful halfdome stupa, 92 metres high.
- Swayambhunath – Nepal, Kathmandu Valley. One of holiest Buddhist sites in the region, it contains an enormous stupa and a group of shrines and temples. It was founded in the beginning of the 5th century.
- Boudhanath – Nepal, Kathmandu. One of largest spherical stupas in world, it is also one of holiest Buddhist sites in the region and was initially built in the 6th – 7th century.
- Paro Taktsang – Bhutan. This monastery is in a dramatic setting on the side of a cliff, 900 metres above the bottom of valley. It was built in 1692.
- Mount Kailash – Tibet. Visually very impressive mountain, 6638 metres high. It is a very sacred site for many of the religions of Asia, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. It is off limits to people due to its religious signficance. Pilgrims walk around the mountain in a 52 km long trek.
- Potala Palace – Tibet, Lhasa. A monument of world importance, this is the chief residence of the Dalai Lama. The first palace was built here in 637, while the current palace was built in 1645 at 13 floors and 117 metres high. It contains 1000 rooms and numerous monuments of art and knowledge, although most of them have been lost since the Chinese invasion.
- Jokhang – Tibet, Lhasa. Built sometimes around 642 AD, it is one of the most sacred sites for Tibetans and contains many revered statues.
- Samye Monastery – Tibet, Shannan. The first Buddhist monastery in Tibet, it was founded sometimes around 775 – 779 AD. The original buildings are not preserved and the monastery was rebuilt several times.
- Shalu Monastery – Tibet, Shigatse. A comparatively small but important monastery, it was founded in 1040. It was ancient centre of education, esoteric studies and psychic training, and is renowned for its painted murals.
- Sakya Monastery – Tibet, Shigatse. This is a large monastery, founded in 1073, and a leader in Tibet in the 13th century. It has medieval Mongolian architecture and contains very important artworks and a library with 84 000 scrolls.
- Drigung Monastery – Tibet, Lhasa prefecture. A keeper of ancient Tibetan traditions, this monastery was founded in 1179 and emphasizes sky burials, tantric meditation, Phowa.
- Ganden Monastery – Tibet. The first monastery of Tibetan Geluk order, it was founded in 1409. In the early 20th century it had around 6000 monks. It was demolished in 1959 and 1966 by the Chinese, partly reconstructed afterwards.
- Drepung Monastery – Tibet, Lhasa prefecture. Reported by some to have been the largest monastery in world, in the first half of 20th century it had up to 10000 monks. It was founded in 1416 and had high standards of education. It was partly destroyed by Chinese in 1951.
- Palchor Monastery – Tibet, Shigatse. An impressive monastery complex with a large Kumbum (a multi-storied aggregate of 108 chapels). The main temple was built in 1418 – 1428. It has an impressive fortification wall around the monastery.
- Sera Monastery – Tibet, Lhasa. Founded in 1419, this was one of three great Gelukpa Buddhism monasteries and housed more than 5000 monks in 1959. Today there are just a few.
- Tashilhunpo Monastery – Tibet, Shigatse. An important monastery, founded in 1447, that had up to 4000 monks. It has numerous important art works.
- Nechung Chok – Tibet, Lhasa prefecture. The seat of the State Oracle of Tibet, who consulted Dalai Lama. The monastery once had up to 1000 monks.
- White Horse Temple – China, Henan. Considered to be the oldest Buddhist temple in China, established in 68 AD. Comparatively small temple but famous, many legends.
- Donglin Temple – China, Jiangxi. This temple was founded in 386 AD and was once very influential, although it now contains only a small community of monks.
- Huacheng Temple – China, Anhui. The main and oldest temple on sacred Mount Jihua, its history started in 401 AD. It was rebuilt numerous times; the last in 1981.
- Tuopulukedun Temple – China, Xinjiang. Small temple of ancient Kingdom of Khotan, covered with fine murals. Established the latest in the 5th century.
- Shaolin Monastery – China, Henan. Located on sacred Mount Song, this monastery was founded in 477 and destroyed and rebuilt many times. It is renowned in Western world as it is associated with Chinese martial arts; however, the temple is also the birthplace of Zen Buddhism. It has largest collection of stupas in China.
- Hanging Monastery – China, Shanxi. Wooden monastery buildings, first built in 491, are situated in a unique place – on the cliffside of sacred Mount Heng. The 40 buildings are supported by wooden poles; the last rebuilt in 1900.
- Songyue Pagoda – China, Henan. A very old pagoda, it was constructed from brick in 523 AD and is 40 metres high. It is a 12-angled building.
- Nanchan Temple – China, Shanxi. An ancient temple, rebuilt in 782 AD, the wooden structures from this rebuilding are among the oldest wooden structures in China. It is one of numerous monasteries of sacred Mount Wutai.
- Three Pagodas – China, Yunnan. Here, three enormous ancient pagodas are arranged in an equilateral triangle. This is visually a very unusual monument. The main pagoda was built sometimes around 824 – 840 AD and is 69.6 metres high, with 16 floors. Two other pagodas were built in the 10th century and are each 42 metres high. They were built to deter the dragons living in the nearby lake.
- Iron Pagoda – China, Henan. A beautiful brick pagoda, built in 1049 AD and one of most beautiful pagodas in China.
- Pagoda of Fogong Temple – China, Shanxi. This wooden pagoda, built in 1056 AD is a remarkable achievement of engineering with its very sophisticated design. The total height of the tower is 67 metres and has survived powerful earthquakes without much damage.
- Kumbum Monastery – China, Qinghai. Established in 1560, this monastery is in the burial place of Tsongkhapa, the founder of Gelugpa Buddhism. It was once renowned for its mysterious sandalwood tree. By the middle of the 20th century it included thirty temples and around a thousand buildings, four colleges and a repository of numerous valuable artefacts.
- Labrang Monastery – China, Gansu. This important and enormous Tibetan monastery was founded in 1709. It contains numerous valuable Tibetan books (60000 sutras) as well as works of art.
- Puning Temple – China, Hebei. This enormous temple complex was built in 1755. It contains the world’s tallest wooden sculpture, which is 22.28 metres in height.
- Tōdai-ji – Japan, Nara, Japan. This important and beautiful temple complex was established in 728 and contains the largest wooden building in world.
- Kiyomizu-dera – Japan, Kyoto. An important temple it was founded in 798, with the current buildings dating from 1633. The wooden structure was built without nails.
- Kinkaku-ji – Japan, Kyoto. This is a magnificent Zen Buddhist temple; a wooden structure, covered with gold leafs. It was initially built in 1397, was burnt down several times and last reconstructed in 1955.
- Ryōan-ji – Japan, Kyoto. A Zen Buddhist temple, renowned for its dry rock garden from the late 15th century, containing 15 boulders, of which only 14 can be seen from any angle. Only the enlightened are able to see the 15th.
- Borobudur – Indonesia, Central Java. Possibly started as non-Buddhist strtucture, finished sometimes around 830 AD. Largest Buddhist structure in world, exceptionally impressive pyramid-shaped shrine adorned with 2,772 sculpted panels and 504 Buddha sculptures. Approximately 123 m wide and long, 34,5 m high.
- Popa Taung Kalat – Burma, Mandalay Region. This beautiful monastic complex sits on top of an extinct volcanic plug, rising 170 – 180 meters over the surrounding area.
- Phra Pathom Chedi – Thailand, Nakhon Pathom. At 127 metres height, it is the highest stupa in world. The oldest buildings here were erected in the 4th century, with the existing building being completed in 1870.
- Shwedagon Pagoda – Burma, Yangon. Gilded and 98 metres tall, this stupa is richly adorned with jewels. It is the most sacred pagoda in Burma. Initially built in the 6th century, rebuilt and extended, one of the most impressive architecture monuments in the world.
- Bagan temple city – Burma, Mandalay Division. An ancient temple city with numerous temples built mainly in the 9th – 11th centuries, once the most important centre of Buddhism in the region. Although most of the temples are not in active use, local inhabitants continue to use them for some religious activities.
- Shwezigon Pagoda – Burma, Bagan. Gilded pagoda, prototype of glorious Burmese pagodas. Completed in 1102, believed to enshrine a bone and tooth of Buddha.
- Shwemawdaw Paya – Burma, Bago. An enormous gilded pagoda that is 114 metres in height. It was originally built in the 10th century and rebuilt several times.
- Bayon – Cambodia, Siem Reap. Most beautiful and largest Buddhist temple in ancient Khmer capital Angkor Thom. Built in the late 12th – early 13th century AD. Adorned with numerous large towers, contains numerous artworks.
- Perfume Temple – Vietnam, Hanoi province. One of most important and beautiful Buddhist pilgrimage sites in country, it was developed in harmony with the beautiful landscape of the region. The first temple was built here in the 1400s. Its main attractions are the enormous Huong Tich Cave and the Thien Tru Pagoda.
- Wat Xieng Thong – Laos, Luang Prabang. An important and beautiful temple complex, it was built in 1560.
- Wat Phra Kaew – Thailand, Bangkok. The most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand, its construction started in 1785. It consists of a group of richly decorated temples, statues and pagodas. The central temple contains the Emerald Buddha, the palladium (symbolic keeper) of the Kingdom of Thailand.
- Kuthodaw Pagoda – Burma, Mandalay. This gilded stupa is 57 metres high, with other 729 stupas with stone inscriptions. These buildings comprise the world’s largest book and were constructed in 1857.
- Kyaiktiyo Pagoda – Burma, Mon State. This small pagoda on an enormous, gold covered boulder is located on the edge of a cliff. According to legend it is held in its place by a strand of the hair of Buddha.
- Buddhist shrines in Bamyan – Afghanistan, Bamyan. Group of Buddhist shrines, includes the oldest known oil paintings in world from the 5th – 9th century AD. Until 2001 site contained the highest Buddha statues in world, up to 53 m high. Deliberately destroyed in March 2001 by Taliban.
- Tongdosa – South Korea, South Gyeongsang. This is the largest Buddhist temple complex in Korea, established in 646 AD. Today it consists of 65 buildings. The temple candle has been burning without interruption for the last 1300 years.
- Haeinsa – South Korea, South Gyeongsang. An important temple complex, it was first built in 802 AD. Since 1398 it has held an entire set of Buddhist Scriptures – the Tripitaka Koreana written on 81,258 wooden blocks.
- Erdene Zuu monastery – Mongolia, Övörkhangai Province. The oldest existing Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, founded in 1585. It was almost completely destroyed by Communists in 1939.
- Ivolginsky datsan – Russia, Buryatia. A sacred Buryat site, the Buddhist temple opened in 1945. It serves as a treasury of Buryat art and holds the well preserved body of lama Itigelov.
Described Buddhist shrines
Buddhism is one of the world religions and at the same time is a spiritual philosophy with diverse traditions, beliefs and practices. There exists rich tradition of architecture expressed in Buddhist temples and monasteries. There are venerated numerous Buddhist sacred sites.
Religion evolved on the base of the more ancient religions of the Indian subcontinent and its development is attributed to a single personality – Siddhartha Gautama – Buddha (c. 563 – 483 BC). This religion has spread to Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia and via Silk Road – to Tibet, China, Korea, Japan and parts of Siberia. Its enormous territorial spread and diverse local, strong cultures have created an extreme diversity of Buddhist temple architecture.
Branches and diversity
Buddhism can be divided into the more ancient and conservative teaching – Theravada and the somewhat newer, more lay oriented Mahayana. Mahayana is further divided into several more influential traditions, although the bearers of the traditions themselves often would disagree with such classifications. Some of these traditions are: Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism.
Theravada is more confined to Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. This rather conservative and somewhat more isolated teaching has been very influential in the development of social and political processes in Thailand, Burma and other countries. Theravada monasteries serve as keepers of the otherwise extinct Pali language, which is used in liturgy and sacred scripts.
Mahayana has wider territorial spread and thus a higher diversity of traditions. Since around the 5th century, this has been a leading branch of Buddhism in India and was spread over Himalaya to Tibet and further abroad via the Silk Road.
In Tibet, Buddhism has intertwined with local traditions and evolved into several influential schools. Here, monasticism plays an even higher role than elsewhere. In Tibet, approximately half of the male population were monks up to the Chinese invasion in 1950. Tibetan monasteries are legendary in Europe since the late 19th century for to their aura of misticism or, rather, hidden knowledge in subjects less known to the Western world (the same can be applied to Buddhist monasteries in any other region).
Tibetan Buddhism in earlier times also spread to Mongolia, Tuva, Buryatia and other regions.
Zen Buddhism has played an important role in the history of China as well as Japan and Korea. This teaching originated in the Shaolin Monastery, where a great role was played by direct communication between the teacher and his disciples. This teaching method has also been popular in West.
In Japan, there several more branches of Mahayana Buddhism have evolved – such as Shingon, Tendai and others.
Active religious practice in Buddhism requires a specific lifestyle and a thorough education. This role, as well as the role of collection of knowledge is performed by Buddhist monasteries.
The monastic tradition was started by Gautama Buddha himself sometimes around 500 BC, based on the lifestyle of earlier sects, a set of rules was developed for the lifestyle of monks – vinaya. Buddhist monks, in many cases, have not been very isolationist and have played key roles in development of literate societies in Asia and in the development of culture and traditions in Asian countries. Up to this day, these monasteries have serves as keepers of (often little known to Western world) knowledge, repositories of art and institutions of learning.
Buddhist monasteries are built in accordance with the traditions of their respective countries, often themselves developing these traditions. Often, monasteries have fortification walls or are built in hard to access locations. These remote monasteries with their art and other valuable collections have been prey for armed gangs or enemy armies. In response to this threat, the otherwise peaceful monks in some regions have been forced to develop specific martial arts. An ascetic lifestyle, a trained intellect and the devotion of these monks have resulted in the unique tradition of such martial arts as wushu from Shaolin Monastery (China).
Stupas and pagodas
Stupas are important Buddhist monuments – structures which contain sacred relics and serve as places of worship. Initially these were earthen mounds but over the time stupas have evolved into diverse monuments with specific architecture of each respective region.
Oldest, original stupas are located in India. Legendary 10 initial earthen stupas still have to be found. The oldest dated existing stupa is Dhamek Stupa in Uttar Pradesh, India, built sirca 500 AD in site of earlier structure. In somewhat later Indian and also Sri Lankan stupas dominant features are enormous stone halfdomes with obelisk-like structure on top. Notable structures of this type are Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh, India), Ruwanwelisaya Chedi and Jetavanaramaya (both in North Central Province, Sri Lanka).
In Burma and Thailand stupas have evolved into some of most amazing architecture monuments of world. Here these structures often resemble enormous bells with high spire on top. Some of these giant structures are covered with gold, with hti (in Burma) – top ornament which is studded with the most valuable jewels. Most prominent of these buildings are Shwedagon (Yangon, Burma) Shwemawdaw Paya (Bago, Burma), and the 127 metres high Phra Pathom Chedi (Nakhon Pathom, Thailand).
Pagodas in principle are the same stupas but the term "pagoda" is used in Eastern Asia – China, Japan. Architecurally pagodas differ from stupas – these are multitiered, slender towers of odd number of levels, often built of wood. Some notable pagodas are 57 metres high wooden Iron Pagoda from 1049 AD (Henan, China), sophisticated, 67 metres high wooden Pagoda of Fogong Temple from 1056 AD (Shanxi, China). One of the oldest wooden buildings in world is Hōryū-ji, built in 607 AD (Nara, Japan).
Wondermondo has defined several other categories of religious structures:
- Religious architecture – list of more than 60 most interesting and impressive religious structures and sites around the world.
- Christian monasteries
- Hindu temples
- Jain shrines
- Judaism monuments, sinagogues
- Islamic shrines
- Other contemporary shrines
- Ancient pyramids
- Ancient and prehistoric shrines
Award-winning photographer Kevin Bubriski captures in stunning detail the sacred places of Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley. Noted scholar Keith Dowman provides history and commentary on the significance of the sites.
This multilayered historical ethnography of Bodh Gaya ― the place of Buddha’s enlightenment in the north Indian state of Bihar ― explores the spatial politics surrounding the transformation of the Mahabodhi Temple Complex into a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002.