Buddhism is practiced around the world, and temples in each country and regional branch of Buddhism exhibit a different architectural and decorative approach. There are Buddhist temples carved into stone walls dating back 2,500 years when Buddhism originated in Nepal, and modern constructions built in the West as Buddhism spread beyond the East. But Buddhist monks decorate all temples with some common features, including a sculpture of the Buddha himself, Siddhartha Gautama, who was awakened to spiritual enlightenment thousands of years ago through meditation.
Pagodas and Stupas
The pagoda is a common architectural style of Buddhist temples in China and Japan. With their distinctive pointed eves pagodas resemble a series of stacked buildings. The stupa, another type of temple, is a rounded stone construction usually coming to a point at the top. Stupas house the remains of monks or statues of the Buddha, like at Borobudur Temple in Indonesia decorated with hundreds of Buddha statues, many of which are sheltered beneath their own individual stupas.
Paintings inside temples depicting Buddhist imagery are common, the lotus flower being a recurring Buddhist symbol of rebirth. Intricate mandalas are unique Buddhist temple features. A mandala is a symmetrical, circular design of incredible detail and color, usually painted or composed of richly colored sand. Mandalas symbolize the infinity of the universe, and the sand mandala represents the impermanent nature of everything. Some Buddhist temples also house sacred artifacts, like the Shwedagon Pagoda in Burma that has eight hairs of Gautauma -- the eponymous Buddha himself .
Inside every Buddhist temple there is a sculpture of the Buddha, and there are usually sculptures of other Buddhist deities as well. Sculptures of "bodhisattvas" are figures that are worshiped by monks for their decision to sacrifice heaven to instead stay on earth and enlighten others. Sculptures of Buddhist deities are often oriented towards the four cardinal directions, North, South, East and West.
One of the most recognizable Buddhist decorations around the world is the Buddhist prayer flag unique to the Tibetan monk tradition. Hung indoors or outside around the temple, the flags symbolize prayers for universal compassion. The colors of the flags -- blue, white, red, green and yellow -- symbolize the five Buddhist elements: the sky, its clouds, fire, water or wood, and the earth.
Now claiming over 376 million devotees around the world, the Buddhist religion has inspired great art and temples for thousands of years. Buddhist cave-temples, for example, were built in northwest China between 5 C.E. and the fourteenth century. The temple walls were painted by monks with sprawling and detailed murals. Because excavating the murals for preservation would destroy them, many of the cave scenes have been traced and reproduced in beautiful detail by Chinese painters whose copies are displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as of 2013.
- BBC Religions: Buddhism At A Glance
- BBC Religions: Buddhist Worship
- Buddhist Studies: A Chinese Buddhist Temple
- Buddhist News: Famous Buddhist Temples from Around the World
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Lotus and Water Birds
- BBC Religions: Sacred Mandala
- Merriam-Webster Online: Bodhisattva
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Buddhist Oasis
- Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images News/Getty Images