Buddhism is a religion that respects the environment. Most Buddhists aim to transcend worldly, material desires and establish a close relationship with nature. Disciples could establish and sustain a calm and joyful mind, especially during the Buddha’s lifetime when they frequently resided in very primary and unfinished thatched homes. They were at ease wherever they lived, whether in a suburban neighbourhood, a forest, by the water, in a chilly cave, or under a tree. However, as the number of Buddhist adherents increased, King Bimbisara and a follower of Sudatta suggested that a monastery be constructed, allowing practitioners to congregate in one location and engage in a more organized practice. The Buddha approved for followers to donate to monasteries after giving the idea careful thought and subsequent wholehearted agreement. The Megara-matr-Prasada Lecture Hall, the Bamboo Grove, and the Jetavana Monastery—all of which bear the donor’s Sanskrit name—were built as a result. This marked the start of Indian Buddhist architecture.

An overview of Buddhist architecture - Sheet1

Types and Styles of Buddhist Architecture

An overview of Buddhist architecture - Sheet2

The hub of cultural activities is frequently a Buddhist temple. From a contemporary perspective, temples can be compared to museums because they house priceless and unique works of art and are, in and of themselves, stunning works of art. They combine architecture, sculpture, painting, and calligraphy-like art museums do. One can find peace and tranquillity in temples because they provide a harmonious environment and a spiritual atmosphere. They are helpful locations for people in distress to unload their burdens, calm their minds, and find peace.

Stupas were the primary type of architectural construction in early China. The hall (or shrine) started to take centre stage in the Sui and Tang dynasties. A stupa, also known as a pagoda, is sometimes referred to as the “high rise” of Buddhist architecture because of its tall, narrow shape that extends upward, sometimes with enormous height. India is where the idea and physical form of the Chinese stupa was developed. A stupa serves as a shrine for the Buddha’s relics, where visitors can then make offerings to the Buddha. The stupa has undergone significant changes in China, where it originally had a relatively straightforward design. These changes and advancements show off the nation’s artistic and architectural prowess. Stupas are built in different sizes, proportions, colours, and imaginative designs while retaining a generally recognizable shape. Although stupas can be found near water, in cities, mountains, or the countryside, they were all built to blend in with and enhance their surroundings. One of the most well-liked styles of architecture in China is the stupa.

Every region’s Buddhist architecture has a distinctive personality due to its varied cultural and natural environments. India and Ceylon share a close architectural resemblance. Similar architecture can be found in Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia, where wood is incorporated into the design of the buildings. The stupas in Java are similar to those in Tibet, which are made of stone and symbolize the nine-layered Mandala (a symbolical circular figure representing the universe and the divine cosmology of various religions: used in meditation and rituals). Large monasteries in Tibet are frequently built on hillsides and resemble European architecture in terms of how the structures are linked to one another to create a kind of street-style arrangement.

It is common practice in China to construct Buddhist temples in the emperor’s palace style, known as “palace architecture.” The main gate and main hall are in the centre, and other facilities, such as the celestial and the abbot’s quarters, are lined up on either side. This layout was created with symmetry in mind. There is a ceremonial bell on one side and a ceremonial drum on the other. A guesthouse for lay visitors and the Yun Shui Hall, where staying monastics can be accommodated, will be located behind this symmetrical line of buildings.

Wood and tile, with the roof tiles painted a particular colour, were used to construct the temple’s ancillary buildings. China has very few palace-style temples that have survived from the early ages because wood is a complex material to preserve over long periods. However, it is a blessing that the Tang-era wooden construction of Fo Guang Temple is still standing. Fo Guang Temple’s main palace-style hall is still remarkably sturdy and pristine, giving us an impression of the era’s opulence. This still-standing temple still features exquisite Tang Dynasty artwork, which includes sculpture, paintings, and murals. This allows us to realize that this period was the pinnacle of Chinese artistic expression. This temple, designated a national treasure, serves as a reminder of China’s glorious period of art and architecture.

An overview of Buddhist architecture - Sheet3
Amaravati stupa_©https://www.insightsonindia.com/indian-heritage-culture/architecture/buddhist-architecture/

The modifications of structure, decoration, and construction techniques that change and evolve through various eras can be seen in Fo Guang Temple and the other temples that have endured through the years—although there are not many. Additionally, they act as the tangible visual memory of a particular time and place, enabling us to study the architectural and cultural history of the area. Despite China’s 5,000-year history, very little of its architecture has been preserved, as was already mentioned. The reason we do not have more standing temples from the early ages to study today is not just because they were built with wood, which is highly flammable and prone to decay. There are other explanations for why there are not many temples left. For instance, some dynasties that gained power around the 16th century mandated the destruction of the essential structures built by the previous dynasty. Alternatively, temples were damaged or even destroyed during various wars and acts of aggression. Regardless of the building materials employed — wood, stone, clay, etc. – Human rivalry made it almost impossible for many temples to endure. Buddhist cave temples, fortunately, were largely safe from human vandalism and weather damage. They are well-preserved and enable the viewing of conventional architecture and historical art.

It is common for contemporary Buddhist temples to copy older designs. For instance, the main shrines of Taiwan’s Fo Guang Shan, the Hsi Lai Temple in the United States, and the Nan Tien Temple in Australia were all modelled after early Chinese architectural styles. The Chinese culture has been introduced and disseminated throughout the world by several Buddhist temples today, in addition to honouring and preserving it.

Cave Temples 

An overview of Buddhist architecture - Sheet4
Sirpur in Chhattisgarh_©https://www.insightsonindia.com/indian-heritage-culture/architecture/buddhist-architecture/

The rock cave, or cave temple, and all of the art it contains is the most critical link in Chinese Buddhist art and architecture history. A cave temple is a chamber of varying sizes carved out of a single block of rock, sometimes right up against a cliff face. Many are rather large. Ornate statues, sculptures, and vibrant paintings of the Buddha, bodhisattvas, arhats, and sutras can be found inside the rock caves. 366 C.E. saw the beginning of this artistic practice. E. until the 15th century, it was started by a monk by the name of Le Zun. In some places, enormous carved statues and countless cave temples cover mountainsides. The Dung Huang cave is the most well-known for its magnificent and opulent mural among the numerous cave temples. Longmen Caves in Luoyang, Yungang Caves in Datong, and the Thousand Buddhas Cave in Jinang are a few other well-known caves in China. Due to its enormous size, Yungang Cave is particularly well-known.


The construction of cave temples took place over a long period, spanning several dynasties. Unlike wooden temples, which deteriorate due to exposure to the elements, cave temples are protected by solid rock and thus continue to stand as impressive and imposing reminders of how Buddhism once flourished throughout China. The world has been awed by the beauty and grandeur of the Buddhist artwork found in the caves, which has managed to capture the essence and specifics of the teachings for the enjoyment of all who visit. In the opinion of both artists and archaeologists, this kind of Buddhist architecture is particularly vibrant, lovely, and indicative of how Buddhist art has changed and evolved. They are priceless works of art that have an important place in China’s history of culture, art, and architecture.

The design of secular buildings, especially imperial palaces, has long influenced Chinese temple architecture. This custom is upheld in Nan Tien by the structures and colours used throughout. From a distance, grandiose roofs signify status: the higher the rank, the higher the height and slope. Consequently, the Main Shrine has the tallest and most impressive roof. The emperor in dynastic China only wore yellow items. The yellow temple walls and terracotta roof tiles are significant symbols. Traditional fire protection measures include small mythical creatures lining the roof hips. Back when the entire building would have been made of wood, the fire was a real threat. Even though the roof framing on Nan Tien is mainly made of steel, the painted end beams that extend under the eaves give the impression that the building is made of wood.

Associated with the emperor is the colour red, which is also considered lucky. It was applied to imperial columns, beams, and lintels like at Nan Tien. Palace balustrades were typically made of white marble carved; Nan Tien’s concrete balustrades are made similarly and are painted white.

The prominently raised podium for Buddha or Bodhisattva statues found at the back of each shrine is another feature reminiscent of imperial architecture; it is similar to the throne that the emperor was seated upon in royal audience halls.

As in conventional palace design, Nan Tien’s courtyard plan of less important buildings rising to the most important is directed by axial geometry reflecting an established hierarchy. The Main Shrine serves as the head, the surrounding buildings serve as the arms, and the courtyard serves as the lap in a seated Buddha’s arrangement in the courtyard.

A Buddhist’s journey along the Middle Path to enlightenment is analogous to the progression through the complex, which includes climbing stairs to the Front Shrine, more stairs to the courtyard, and continuing along a central walk to a final set of stairs before the Main Shrine.

Temple compounds typically include a meditation hall, sutra library, and lodging for monks in addition to the shrines dedicated to specific Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. In addition to these, Nan Tien includes other amenities required for day-to-day operation: a museum, a conference room with cutting-edge technology for conferences and simultaneous translation, an auditorium that is well-equipped for large gatherings, a dining hall that serves the general public vegetarian buffet lunches, and Pilgrim Lodge, which provides lodging for both visitors and participants in retreats or celebrations held at Nan Tien.


Rajras: Buddist Architecture in India [online] Available at: https://www.rajras.in/buddhist-architecture-of-india/ [Accessed date: 15 November 2022].

AHTR: Buddist Art and Architecture before 1200 [online] Available at: https://arthistoryteachingresources.org/lessons/buddhist-art-and-architecture-before-1200/ [Accessed date: 14 November 2022].

UCLA Social Science: Buddist Architecture [online] Available at: https://southasia.ucla.edu/culture/architecture/buddhist-architecture/ [Accessed date: 15 November 2022].

Insightsias: Buddist Architecture in India [online] Available at: https://www.insightsonindia.com/indian-heritage-culture/architecture/buddhist-architecture/ [Accessed date: 15 November 2022].

Slideshare: Buddist Architecture in India [online] Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/roopachikkalgi/buddhist-architecture-73527008 [Accessed date: 18 November 2022].


Chan Simon is a fresh architecture school graduate from the University of Juba with a passion for evening the playing field. He is currently a design studio teaching assistant in the architecture department at the School of Architecture, Land Management, Urban and Regional Planning (University of Juba).