Anon Lord Buddha’s enlightenment, perceiving the supreme goal towards stability to encapture the meaning and objective of life in 528 B.C, the first teaching cell, preaching the virtues of life, was formed. As monks travelled upon these verses of resoluteness all around the year, young plant offsprings, and tiny creatures like the ants, were often crushed underneath, especially in the monsoons. Thus, the lord called upon for a retreat in the monsoons, and the first settlement, which eventually evolved as a monumental complex, with its dwelling places and halls, was entrenched. These were the airs of the first monastery to be built, beaming with clean, pure, self-denying, and intellectual breezes, which unfolded many physical and spiritual aspects over the years.

Thus, a monastery houses a building or a complex of monuments, dwelling the domestic and working cells of monks, with a senior extending out his helping hands to hundreds of students. The monastery includes areas for prayer halls, dormitories, and cloisters (a covered quadrangular pathway). Stupas, refectory (dining), libraries, balnary (bathing), and infirmaries (health care) depend as per the region accustomed.

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The cloister of Hemis monastery, Ladakh, India. ©

The Buddhist cosmology paints the universe as a manifestation of space, time, and matter. With the focal point as mountain Sumeru, seven concentric mountains, each shaped with the ocean, radiate with their sun and moon. The extrinsic concentric circle portrays diverse human perspectives and beliefs within its four continents. The uppermost domain, the Arupa Loka, originates from the formless energy, with no perceptible character and sensation. The Rupa Loka rests 16 gods, which have their form but celebrate only the cerebral civilization. The Karma Loka enchants lotus bloomed paradises of lesser gods, which is later flanked by the macrocosm of the human community, pulverizing the paths to demons, ultimately to hell. This vista of cosmological knowledge remains paralleled by the concept of the Axis Mundi, the grand linear axis of the Earth’s rotation between the celestial poles. This axis, when fused with other forms of ornamentation, forms the basis of a monastery design. Such fused concepts boast vocalization multifariousness.

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The Enchey Monastery, Gangtok, Sikkim, India. ©

The diversified multifunctional structures housed in a monastery complex radiate from the centre where the Stupa or the main prayer hall remains positioned. This complex, flanked by shorter lap walls that illustrate the solemn space and beyond, personifies the walls of the natural world, sturdy and sacred, breaking the plane of the godly paradise from the profane ones. This cosmological translation gets sub-divided into facets of forces, one, the diagram of the universe as the mandala, and secondly, as the perception of natural forces, air, sun, water, dust, and fire. The mandala spawns over niches, associating the worshipper to the larger cosmos. The natural forces lay in a single frame of time and space, depicted as permutations and combinations of circular, quadrangular, and planar geometry.

The Buddhist cosmology suggests the equilibrium of two adversarial pairs of axes depicting the celestial world dimension, the middle world dimension, the mystical world dimension, and the subversive world dimension. The centrality of stable space, thus achieved by the monastery, is where all these vectors drawing a visual pattern, lay in equilibrium. The manoeuvring light to the monastery planning lies in the individuality of parallels amongst the complex, apprehended not only as built forms but also as symbolics, specifying a microcosm. These recite the verses of the emblematic dimensions, based amid the centre of the world axes. These four dimensions sketch a mandala, while the intersection of axes represents the position of the praying pillar in a single room monastery or a large praying hall in a complex. The praying hall herein, as interpreted in the Buddhist cosmology, is a living exemplification of the centre of the cosmos, the world tree with its strong roots and sturdy bark, and the cosmic axis. This centre is the interacting funnel to export selfishness and jealousy to the underworlds and import peace, sanity, and humility from the above heavens and spirits. From this central focal point, beams navigate to different directions, creating diverse areas for other functional uses like cooking and bathing.

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The Praying wheel pillar, Tashiding Monastery, Sikkim, India. ©

In a generously grand monastery complex, another intriguing element often replicated as the vessel of worship marks its latency. Technically termed as the Chorten, this element rests upon a square-based platform of four ascending steps with descending treads or widths and supports a colossal, bulbous dome. Wheels surge up from the sandwiched portion of this dome and wind up in a crystal clear vision of the crescent moon and the glowing sun.

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The exemplary Tibetan Chortens. ©

These Chortens represent the five Panchamahabhutas, in each of their elements. The square base to the structure portrays the toughness of the globe while the tapering stem sketches the flame of fire, the crescent reproduces the fragile air, while the acuminated circle interprets ether. The handling of all these elements lies in the correct proportion to the Nav-tal system that signifies the ratios for an impeccable human body. The four corners of a monastery complex are depicted by these four Chortens, as in the Sarvatobhadra type, guiding the serene plane from the subterranean vices.

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The Monastery complex at Tabo, Himachal Pradesh, India. ©

These portrayals of cosmology manifested in design planning converted to reality by the consolidation of distinct construction materials like burnt brick along with stone for the skeleton, timber, and stucco for ornamentation and building of pillars, substructures.


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The stucco clad, brick constructed, Yiga Choeling Monastery, Darjeeling India. ©
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The Interiors of the Tabo Monastery, Spiti Valley, India. ©Amitava Ray

However, in the new-born contemporary era, the explosion of the tourism sector has induced irreparable damage to this cosmologically interpreted monasteries. Broadening tourism population, motorized vehicles have resulted in the organic expansion of many areas like guesthouses, thus, veiling the main structure. Commercialization of monasteries has resulted in the loss of cosmological phrasing and needs to be conserved. Tourists, even though keen to visit a particular monastery, should always recite,

Long live the tales, Long live the historical monastery, long live the place of peace and magically good deeds,

Let’s protect the sanity, let’s dive in the peace, let’s splurge the waters where the evil finally recedes and recedes…………..


An architecture student by profession, a curious empath by choice, Ruchika’s perceptive hearing has always unfolded the esoteric and stupendous tales of folklore and tradition in architecture. With a piercing interest in art, history and architecture, she holds strong to her poetic conclusions whilst analyzing human perception of the same.