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The Buddhist ‘Vihara’
|by Ashish Nangia|
... Recent Knowledge on Its Architecture and Etymology
There is a curious resemblance between the modern day word ‘Bihar’ (a state in India) and the Buddhist, or Pali, word for the seclusion centers where Buddhist monks used to stay. This word, ‘Vihara’, possibly meant ‘refuge’ or dwelling’ or even ‘a place to stay’, and the typology originally came into use to shelter wandering Buddhist monks from the vagaries of the weather. In its initial, early form, Buddhism did not permit the use of iconography and images of the Buddha and so viharas by definition are bereft of all but the most simple iconography and images, preferring instead to reflect the reclusive life of their inhabitants.
Plan Form and History
The Deccan plateau in India is home to some of the earliest chaityas and viharas, some dating as early as the 3rd or even the 4th century BC. While we see in these viharas and chaityas a struggle to evolve a distinct plan form, some of the most common features are elaborate pillars, doorway arches and ornate facades. Endowed by wealthy merchants, these viharas and chaityas benefited from the trade routes across Asia towards Roman territory.
The difference between these early rock cut viharas and the later free standing ones in Bengal and Bihar, for example, is that the latter have four rows of cells, not three, around a free standing courtyard. Later examples became more complicated, with rows of adjunct and ancillary buildings marking the appearance of a complex of buildings reflecting the increasingly complex life of the Buddhist monastery, which changed in function from a simple abode for monks to an administrative and educational center, the prime example being that of the Buddhist university at Nalanda in Bihar, which attracted scholars from regions as far as China and south east Asia.
These accounts have been witnessed by the Chinese travelers Xuanzuang and Hsieun-Tsang, who also noted the appearance of a stupa containing relics of the Buddha at the end of the vihara. It has been said that viharas and chaityas, however ornate they became in the late era of Buddhism, never totally forgot their roots from wood structures and that the stone carvings and indeed the structure was reflecting this nuance. However it must also be said that Buddhism by its very nature is a very plastic religion compared to the rigid tenets of the late Vedic religion, and some of this playfulness on the exterior facades and interior spaces of the later Vihara and chaitya structures may simply have been a response to this playfulness and a desire to differentiate between the nascent religion and the overwhelming presence of the dominant religion.
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M D Subash Chandran
12/02/2015 14:11 PM
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