Buddhist Architecture in India


Buddhism originated from India and was founded by an Indian prince called Gautama Buddha. The religion grew rapidly from the 5th century BCE throughout Asia. As the religion grew, more and more people became Buddhist monks. Slowly and steadily, a tradition of Buddhism and monks became a part of the Indian setup.

As the ranks of the monks grew, their requirements did so too. The first buildings which came up were solutions to the basic requirements for temporary shelters during the rainy season.

Buddhist Architecture in India

A tradition of charity also became common (bhikshu). The cities, traders and wealthy businesspeople donated food and provisions to the monks who only came to the city for supplies. The temporary shelters which came up were thus, were located on the outskirts of the city/in remote areas.

Origins of the Temporary Shelters (Buddhist Architecture in India)

Wandering (Buddhist) monks of the Sangha who dedicated their lives to asceticism and the monastic life, had no fixed abode. During the rainy season, they stayed in temporary shelters. These dwellings were simple wooden constructions/thatched bamboo hutments. This was just the starting point of Buddhist architecture in India. These ordinary hutments lead to the birth of the Buddhist style of architecture in India. The following are the different building typologies commonly associated with Buddhist architecture in India.

Principal components of Buddhist architecture in India-

1) Stambahs (or latas)
2) Stupas
3) Rails
4) Chaityas
5) Viharas

Let us discuss step by step the different building typologies.

The Humble Vihara- Buddhist Architecture in India

Buddhist Architecture in India

It was considered an act of merit not only to feed a monk but also to shelter him/her. Rich devotees created beautiful monasteries for the monks. They were located near settlements, close enough for begging alms from the population but with enough buffer so as to not disturb their meditation. This led to the birth of the humble vihara.

The normal Vihara is a central square space, with or without columns, surrounded by chambers for the priests, and occasionally containing a sanctuary for the shrine (located opposite the entrance).

It consisted of a walled rectangular court, flanked by small cells on the sides. The front wall was generally pierced by a door, the side facing it in later periods often incorporated a shrine for the image of the Buddha. The cells were fitted with rock-cut platforms for beds and pillows. This was deliberately done so that the monks could live in complete isolation from and devoid of luxury.

Viharas as Educational Places -Buddhist Architecture

Buddhist Architecture in India Buddhist Architecture in India

From the first century CE onwards Viharas also developed into educational institutions, due to the increasing demands for teaching in  Buddhism.

As permanent monasteries became established, the name “Vihara” was kept. Some Viharas became incredibly important institutions, some of them evolving into major Buddhist Universities with thousands of students, such as Nalanda. Nalanda was the first university in the world which taught a number of subjects and disciplines to its thousands of students. The university was centuries ahead of its time in this respect. It took centuries for the countries to develop similar institutions.

Details of Design for the Vihara-Buddhist Architecture in India

Buddhist Architecture in India

The simple layout shows that a Vihara has a hall (usually used for praying or gathering) in the middle, which is surrounded by cells and followed by a shrine.

The Shrine- Traditionally shrine rooms face the east – as this is the direction that the Buddha was facing when he became enlightened.Many monasteries also have a Bodhi tree shrine – these are often cuttings from the very tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.

Placement of the Vihara-

Buddhist Architecture in India

Studies have found out that most of the viharas were present along the adjacent side to the chaityas. Basic difference between a chaitya and vihara is that a chaitya has a place of prayer and offering whereas a vihara has a place for prayer and accommodation too.

Examples of Viharas (Buddhist Architecture) in India

1) Biharail (earliest vihara)
2) Ellora caves
3) Nalanda
4) Kalera caves
5)Mahabodhi Temple
6)Ajanta caves

Chaitya (prayer hall)- Buddhist Architecture in India

A chaitya can be defined as a Buddhist shrine or prayer hall with a stupa at one end.
It is said to have originated from the name of the funerary mound, from its root word Chita (ashes); so chaitya comes to mean the ashes worthy of worship. The chaitya were usually almost 40 meters long, 15 meters wide and 15 meters high.

Basic Layout-

Buddhist Architecture in India

The basic design of the Chaitya can be seen in the image above. The following are some of the spaces which were common in viharas-

  • Two story façade
  • Three doorways in the lower part
  • Upper Gallery has the usual arch
  • Vestibule -The walls of the Vestibule were decorated with huge sculptured figures (3-4 times human scale)
  • Stupas on one end crowned with Chatris

The Early Stages of Chaitya Development- (Buddhist Architecture in India)
Earlier the chaityas were built as free-standing structures with the stupa being surrounded by a colonnaded processional path enclosed by an outer wall with a congregation hall adjoining it. But as mentioned below the more exquisite of the viharas were rock-cut ones.

Rock-Cut Chaityas – Buddhist Architecture in India

Buddhist Architecture in India

The more spectacular and more numerous chaitya, however, were cut into living rock as caves. An ancient practice, rock-cut architecture has had a long tradition of Buddhism. Ancient Buddhist chaitya can be found in remote parts of Maharashtra, especially the Ashokan caves.

The chaityas thus can also be referred to as sculptures rather than buildings. Quarrying rock and building built forms of the same size was a tedious task. The time spent on it would have probably been a distraction away from the calm and peaceful lives of the monks. Thus, the Buddhist monks chiseled rather than build to create the great chaityas as seen in the images above.

Architectural Similarities of Buddhist Architecture in India to the Ancient Roman Styles-

Buddhist Architecture in India

Architecturally, the chaityas show similarities to ancient Roman architectural concepts of the column, arch, and spatial design. The monks built many structures which were carved out of a single massive rock, done with hammer and chisel, bare hands. These were known as cave temples/chaityas. It is my opinion that if these structures had been documented before the Roman monuments, the history of architecture would have been quite different and would have a new perspective.

The Buddhist Stupas in India

Buddhist Architecture in India

The stupas are probably one of the most famous building types of Buddhist architecture in India. The stupas are funerary mounds which were built at locations which house relics of the Buddha/ the places where he meditated. The stupas started out to be simple funerary mounds, but as Buddhism became more popular, the stupas were financed by wealthy merchants and the ruling class alike. The stupas grew in size and developed an architectural style peculiar to them.

The stupas (as seen in the image above) were an intersection of a circle, square and a cone. The amalgamation of these three were meant to signify the merger of heaven (circle) and earth (square). The cone points towards heaven and is meant to signify the link between earth and heaven.

As seen in the image above, the following are the components of a traditional stupa-

Buddhist Architecture in India

  • The Staircase in the front
  • Stambha
  • Hernika
  • The Chattra
  • The Pradakshina Path (the ceremonial path around the building)
  • Vedica (the balusters and the handrail)
  • The stupa (dome)

The peculiar curve of the stupa has long been associated with architecture in India. In fact, it has been used in a number of different applications as well. It has been used as the cover of many a postage stamp, books, and publications, as an emblem of the Government of India and so on and henceforth. The stupa has also inspired many a building such as the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The dome of the Rashtrapati Bhavan has been inspired by the Great Sanchi Stupa.

Stambahs (or latas)- Buddhist Architecture in India

Buddhist Architecture in India

The stambhas/latas were rather than being a building type themselves were placed in and around existing or new structures. For example- as discussed above the stambhas were used in conjunction with the stupas at the entrance.

The stambhas were pillars/columns which were highly decorated and carved. These structures had a great resemblance to the Roman classical columns. However, if one was to research deep enough, there is evidence stating that these structures were created long before the Romans and Greeks built theirs.

Buddhist Architecture in India

Similar to western columns the stambhas comprised on the prop, shaft and the capital as seen in the image above.

Prop: Base of the Pillar underground.
Shaft: Main Body of the column Hand Polished and chiseled.
Capital: The Head of the column with animals carved into it.

Thus, it is safe to say that Buddhist architecture was way ahead of its time in regards to their design and structural know-how. The Buddhist architecture in India was just a starting point which amalgamated with a number of other architectural styles to create the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture in India. Even in modern day India we see a number of buildings having a high resemblance or atleast borrowing a little bit from the ancient styles of Buddhist architecture in India.


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