Buddhism is fascinating religion practiced in some shape or form by over one billion people. Over the centuries, Buddhist doctrine has inspired its followers to create some absolutely amazing temples and monuments. Below are nine of the most famous Buddhist temples known to exist in the world.
Pha That Luang (ພຣະທາດຫຼວງ)
Our first stop on the temple tour, Pha That Luang is one of the most remarkable places in all of southeast Asia and probably the most famous Buddhist structure in the capital city of Laos, Vientiane.
The legend goes that sometime in the 3rd century BCE, Buddhist missionaries from India’s famous King Ashoka built a stupa here and enclosed a relic, specifically the Buddha’s breastbone. The spot soon became a popular place of pilgrimage for the locals and became a Khmer temple in the 13th century. The place fell into neglect and was almost forgotten until the mid 16th century when a particular King Setthathirath relocated his capital to Vientiane due to fears of a Burmese invasion and ordered the construction of what is now the Pha That Luang in 1556.
Over the centuries, Vientiane was invaded many times with the Pha That Luang being either heavily damaged or almost destroyed on several occasions. The most recent destruction came in 1828 when the city was invaded by the Siamese (Thai) and the temple destroyed. In fact, it wasn’t until 1900 that the French, who ruled Laos as a colony, began restoring the building to its original design. The temple was again heavily damaged in during the Franco-Thai war between 1940 and 1941, this time by a Thai air raid. Finally after the end of the war, the Pha That Luang was reconstructed into the form that it maintains up to this day. The stupa of the temple has several levels, each representing different stages of Buddhist doctrine. The lower levels represent the material world with the highest representing nirvana, or a state of non-existence/oneness with the universe.
Haeinsa (해인사, 海印寺)
The next great Buddhist temple can be found in modern-day South Korea. It is known as the Haeinsa temple, the foundations of which were laid in 802. The story goes that two Buddhist monks, Suneung and Ijeong, were returning from China when they were brought to the court of King Aejang of the Kingdom of Silla and his ailing wife. The two monks were able to cure her and in gratitude to the Buddha and what the king believed were the mercy and blessings that he had bestowed upon her, he constructed the Haeinsa temple. Over the years, the Haeinsa became a popular spot for all types of pilgrims and a place for local Buddhist monks to study and meditate.
Perhaps though the most famous aspect of the temple grounds are the Tripitaka Koreana, also known as the Palman Daejanggyeong. These are a collection of 81,258 wooden blocks with various Buddhist scriptures carved onto them. It is said to be the world’s oldest and most comprehensive version of Buddhist doctrine in the Hanja script. The blocks are organized by over 1496 titles and into 6568 volumes with the total number of characters coming to over 52 million! Scholars also say that there are no errors within these volumes. I’m not sure how they determined that. After all, how do you keep track of over 52 million characters written in an ancient script that few understand? Being Buddhist though, I think we can trust them.
An interesting story is that when the Korean War broke out, about a thousand North Korean soldiers occupied the grounds of the Haeinsa temple. The UN forces, led by the United States and Koreans who would eventually form South Korea, were ordered to conduct an aerial bombardment of the Haeinsa complex. The leader of the air raid though, a Korean named Kim Young Hwan, was worried that the Tripitaka Koreana would be damaged or even completely destroyed, and so he refused to carry out the UN command. Due to this, the Haeinsa was spared any damage during the war and Kim Young Hwan was honored as a hero by many Koreans. Remarkably, the complex also survived the Japanese invasion a few decades earlier as well. It truly does seem as if the Buddha or some force has been protecting the Haeinsa.
Of course today, humans are doing their part to preserve the holy Haeinsa. In December of 1962, the South Korean government declared the Haeinsa complex, especially the Janggyeong Panjeon where the Tripitaka Koreana blocks are kept, a national treasure of Korea. The site was also honored as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
10 Chiin-ri, Gaya-myeon, Hapcheon-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do, South Korea
For Tibetan Buddhists, the Jokhang Monastery Temple complex, or simply the Jokhang, is the most sacred site in all of Tibet. Originally constructed in 642 by the Tibetan King Songtsän Gampo to house Buddhist relics brought over by his two wives, the Jokhang temple has had a long and eventful history. It has been not only a place of prayer but also of learning and scholarship, as several Tibetan Buddhist masters lived and taught here. Precisely for this reason as well as the spiritual and symbolic significance that it holds for the Tibetan people, the Jokhang has often been the site of actions against Tibetans by those who would wish to subjugate them. The temple and monastery had been desecrated and looted several times by the Mongols when they passed through the area. Most recently the temple was ransacked in 1966 by the Chinese Communist Red Guards as part of a campaign during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
Today the Jokhang complex has been restored and now encompasses nearly 25,000 sq. meters. It continues to be a site of pilgrimage for many Tibetans, despite restrictions placed on the site by the Chinese government.
Chengguan, Lhasa, Tibet, China
+86 891 633 6858
The giant Boudhanath temple and stupa is probably the most well known temple in all of Nepal. This seems only fitting as it is close to where the Buddha is believed to have been born. Though in Nepal, the Boudhanath is also very holy to Tibetan Buddhists as well, many whom live within the temple’s precincts. The temple’s most distinctive feature are the Buddha eyes that are present on all four sides of the tower. Though believed to have been consecrated shortly after the death of the Buddha, the current structure originates from the 14th century.
Boudhanath (Boudha), Kathmandu 44600, Nepal
The Shwedagon Pagoda is by far the holiest Buddhist site in Burma. Though local legend has it that the structure was first built around the time of the Buddha’s death, archaeologists maintain that the building actually dates from perhaps sometime between the 6th and 9th centuries (it was probably built in stages at different times). The story is that two brothers, Taphussa and Bhallika met the Buddha and obtained eight of his hairs. They then traveled to Burma where they met the local ruler, King Okkalapa, who helped them to build a shrine containing the hairs and also other relics. When King Okkalapa opened the box in which the Buddha’s hairs were in, many miracles occurred. Over time, the temple was expanded with the main stupa being renovated several times over the centuries and made taller.
Today the Shwedagon Pagoda is covered almost totally in gold and is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in all of Burma.
Thailand’s largest and capital city of Bangkok is home to one of the world’s most magnificent Buddhist structures, the Wat Arun Ratchawararam Ratchawaramahawihan, or simply the Wat Arun. It’s long, formal name that you most likely can’t pronounce simply means “Temple of the dawn.” It’s breathtakingly beautiful and seems to reach up towards the heavens. Though dating back at least to the 17th century, the temple and its distinctive spires (called prangs) were added under King Rama II in the mid 1800s. The image of the Buddha inside the Wat Arun was also painted by him as well.
Today, the Wat Arun is a popular place of worship for the locals in Bangkok as well as the millions of tourists who come to Thailand every year. Despite its name, the best time to go see the temple is actually not during the hours of dawn but at sunset, when the rays of the sun are cast upon the temple from behind it.
Wat Arun, Bangkok Yai, Bangkok 10600, Thailand
+66 2 891 2978
Bagan is more than a Buddhist shrine; it’s a city dedicated to Buddhism itself. Located in modern Burma, the ancient city of Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan from the 9th to the 13th centuries. This was a powerful kingdom and ruled over an area of land that was more or less the same as that of modern Burma today.
There are reportedly some 2,200 pagodas located here and thousands of other monuments in addition to other buildings such as houses, government buildings and royal residences. The city was abandoned in 1283 as the Mongols under Kublai Khan were advancing.
The city though is relatively intact, as are many of it’s most beautiful monuments. The most famous is the Ananda Temple which houses four golden statues of the Buddha and hundreds of murals depicting his life under a multi-tiered roof. Another one is the Shwezigon, famous for its large golden stupa said to contain the collarbone and one of the teeth of the Buddha. This ancient temple city should be on your Buddhist bucket list.
Nyaung-U, Myanmar (Burma)
Said to be the largest Buddhist temple in the world, Borobudur took 75 years to build and over two million blocks of stone. This is a massive complex that takes about an hour to climb to the top. Located on the Indonesian island of Java, Borobudur is made up of six square platforms below three more circular ones and decorated with 2,672 relief panels. There are another 500 or so statues of the Buddha throughout the complex, 72 of these on top of the temple and seated inside their own stupa. All of these statues are sitting in the famed lotus position.
The history of Borobudur is a bit strange. Built during the reign of the Sailendra dynasty (the actual name of the ruler is not known during time of construction is not known), Borobudur was abandoned just 200 years after its construction, most likely due to the eruption of the nearby Mount Merapi volcano. It remained abandoned in the dense jungle until it was rediscovered by British explorers in 1816.
Today Borobudur is one of Java’s prime tourist attractions where nearly all visitors, both Buddhist and others, are always left in awe.
+62 274 496402
Mahabodhi Temple (महाबोधि मंदिर)
Finally, we arrive to the place where it more or less all began. Yes, the Mahabodhi Temple in the Indian state of Bihar is where it is believed that the former prince Siddhartha gained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. In fact, the word mahabodhi means “Great Enlightenment.” This is arguably the most sacred place in all of Buddhism.
The temple was built by the Indian Emperor Asoka around 250 BCE, though the present structure dates from the 5th century. The temple is one of the largest all brick buddhist structures in the world.
Bodhgaya, Bihar 824231, India
+91 631 220 0735
And there you have it, nine of the most famous Buddhist temples in the world!
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