Distinguishing Structures of Buddhist Architecture

Distinguishing Structures of Buddhist Architecture

Buddhist architecture began to develop in the Indian subcontinent dawn of the Mauryan Empire, in the form of Indian Rock-cut architecture. The emergence of the earliest of these structures can be traced back to around 400 BCE, the time of the Buddha. Now only floor ruins exist as evidence of their construction. Buddhist architecture is a form of religious architecture that is characterized by three kinds of structures:


Vihara was the earliest of the distinguishing features of Buddhist architecture. Basically, the term refers to a Buddhist monastery where wandering monks and nuns took refuge during the rainy season. Although the vihara constructed later on featured stupas as well, Jivakarama Vihara, one of the earliest of these monasteries, didn’t feature one. The structure of a vihara, in general, can be divided into two parts: a huge central hall and a number of small cells connected to it. 


A stupa is a hemispherical structure that resembles a mound. Initially, the earliest of the stupas were constructed to house and safeguard the relics of Gautam Buddha. Later on, this practice of venerating the relics extended to other monks and nuns as their remains were safeguarded in the stupas that were also used as prayer halls and places of meditation. While the earliest archaeologically known stupas can be found in Vaishali, Bihar, it was the Sanchi stupa, which was famously constructed by King Ashoka, that marked an entirely new period of development in terms of Buddhist religious sites. 

Moreover, as Buddhism spread to various different places, new trends and ritualistic practices also began to emerge. Since circumambulation, or the practice of ritualistically circling around the central structure, is one of the earliest Buddhist practices, stupas also included a pradakhshina or circumambulation path around them.

Chaitya or Chaitya-griha

Image Source: Wikipedia.com

Originally, it means a prayer hall but it can also be used to refer to a temple, a shrine, a sanctuary, or any other type of sacred monument. In Buddhism, the term is used to refer to a structure that contains the stupa, a rounded high roof, and towards the opposite end of the entrance is a structure called an apse. In fact, stupas were also later incorporated into Chaitya-grihas. The only remaining evidence of the existence of these stupas remains in the form of surviving Indian Rock-cut structures. 

Kushal Trivedi

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