In Part 1 of Buddhist Architecture 101, I defined the purpose of a pagoda; in Part 2 I elaborated on the significance of stupas. Part 3 will delve into the wat. A wat is a complex that combines a number of important religious buildings. These include a monks residence, a stupa, a building for a large image of Buddha known as a wihan, and a congregation hall for religious lessons, sermons and ordination of new monks. By its technical definition, a wat must also have a minimum of three resident monks. Wats can be found in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
In Thailand wat buildings often exhibit the local architectural characteristics of tiered roofs with decorative Lamyongs (bargeboards) that usually take either the undulating form of Nāga (snake deity of Buddhism and Hinduism) or feathers of Garuda (a mythical bird).
The finials that protrude from the bottom corners of the Lamyongs are called a hang hong (goose tail) and are shaped as Nāga’s head turned up and away from the building. Sometimes this is stylised in a Kranok (flame-like) motif or may have multiple heads. The ornament at the peak of the Lamyong is called a chofa (sky tassel) and takes the form of Garuda’s beak.
Laotian wats are generally more modest in appearance when compared to their Thai or Cambodian neighbours. Characteristic features of Laotian architecture mostly relate to the ordination hall. The hall may possess a roof ornament called dok so fa (pointing to the sky), which represents the centre of the universe; an ornately carved panel hanging over the entrance of the hall called dok huang phueang (beehive pattern); and a tall, peaked tile roof that sweeps downward in a number of tiers.
Most of the wats you will hear referred to in Cambodia are those of the Angkor complex, an archaeological site covering 400 square kilometres, containing ruins of various types of religious buildings. The buildings were constructed by the historical residents of the land, the Khmer Empire. Technically none of the buildings fit the definition of a wat by having resident monks, instead the term is widely used to denote a variety of religious buildings.
As leadership of the empire changed over time, so too did the dominant religion, generally alternating between Hinduism and Buddhism. Therefore the buildings of Angkor are a unique mix of architecture and symbolism. The most reliable common factor is that they are all made of stone or brick, as only religious buildings were.
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