There are around 30000 Buddhist temples in Thailand. Thai temples are magnificent buildings, testaments to an enduring faith and to centuries of cultural endeavour. They are rightly at the top of anyone's sightseeing list. The immediate attraction lies in their fabulous appearance, their exotic architecture, their wealth of decorative detail.Yet there is more than just the initial visual impact, and a closer look at Buddhist temples opens up a whole world of understanding about Thai society and its art and culture.

To begin with, "temple" is largely unsatisfactory as a translation of the Thai word wat. It implies a single structure, as is the case with Christian church, but this is not so with a Buddhist wat. Besides monks' residential quarters that are commonly, though not always, found at a wat, a Thai temple is a complex comprising several distinct religious buildings.

The principal structure is the bot, the most sacred part of the temple and the place where monks' ordination ceremonies are conducted. It is identified by eight boundary stones called sima placed outside at the four corners and the four cardinal points.

Buddha image
A temple will also likely have one or more viharn, a hall similar in appearance to a bot but without the sima. This building is used as a sermon hall for monks and lay worshippers. Both the viharn and the bot enshrine Buddha statues, a presiding image and usually several smaller attendant statues. Many of these images are of great antiquity, and some have individual renown as possessing exceptional spiritual powers.

Both bot and viharn follow identical architectural styles, being rectangular buildings with sweeping multi-tiered roofs covered with glazed brown and green or blue tiles. Each end of the roof's peak terminates in a gilded finial known as a chofa, or "sky tassel". A gracefully curved ornamentation, the chofa looks like a slender bird's neck and if head, and is generally believed to represent the mythical Garuda, half bird, half man.

Along with the bot and viharn, the most characteristic of temple structures is the chedi. Dominating the compound of a wat, this is a tall decorative spire constructed over relics of the Buddha, sacred texts or an image. Essentially they are two basic forms: bell-shaped and raised on square or round terraces of diminishing size, and tapering to a thin spire, or a round, finger-like tower. The latter derived from Khmer architecture and symbolic of the mythical mountain abode of the gods, is known as a prang.

Other buildings in a temple compound can include a library for sacred texts, and a mondop. Traditionally the former was built on stilts over a pond to protect the fragile manuscripts from ants, while the mondop is a square-shaped building with tapering roof enshrining some relic, often a Buddha footprint, a decorated stone impression far larger than life-size. These, like the chedi, are not merely architectural features, they also serve as monuments in the true sense, objects to instruct and focus the mind.

Some larger wats may also have cloisters, opensided galleries perhaps displaying rows of Buddha images, while bell towers and various pavilions can be other additional features.

Wats further have a crematorium, identified by its needle-like chimney and, usually, a school for monks and perhaps also for lay children. This latter building is indicative of one of the traditional functions of a Thai temple that extended beyond those of a place of worship and home to a religious community.

Rather like a medieval Christian' church, the Thai temple was the focal point of every village in centuries past. Unlike the church, however, it served far more than the community's spiritual needs. In the past, and still today in some rural areas of the country, cultural life revolved around the wat that stood as social services centre, school, hospital, dispensary, hostelry, and village news, employment and information agency.

The most vivid illustration of the wat's community role and social focal point these days is the annual temple fair. Most wats continue the tradition of what are essentially fundraising events, but also occa- sions for sanuk, having fun. At these times the normally placid temple compound becomes full of action with swings and roundabouts, sideshows, likay, or folk opera, theatre shows and all the other typical fun-of-the-fair amusements, while the otherwise serene air is rent by loudspeakers blaring out raucous Thai music.

In a more serious vein, the temple has also been the storehouse of knowledge, sacred and profane - as with herbal medicine, for example - and monks, as one commentator has put it, "provided the vast majority of the inhabitants of pre-modem Siam with the ultimate basis for making sense of the world".

Thailand 's high literacy rate, both now and in the past, owes much to temple schools where youngsters are taught to read the sacred texts. On the day-to-day practical level abbots will also often take the lead in instigating community projects such as digging a village well.

Most fascinating from the visitor's point of view is the temple as art centre. Unlike the wat's other functions, this role was unwittingly assumed. Until the modern period all Thai art was religious; it had no conscious aesthetic function and served purely devotional aims. So sculpture, painting, and arts such as gilt on lacquer, mother-of-pearl inlay and woodcarving, found expression almost exclusively in temple decoration.

Sculpture was largely limited to images of the Buddha. These are not idols but rather reminders of the teachings and, in theory at least, are all modelled on the same attributes of the Enlightened One. In practice, of course, sculpture did evolve into different styles during various art periods and Buddha statues do vary considerably in form and expression.

Images were executed in one of four basic postures - standing, sitting, walking and reclining - and in addition individual images display different, mudras, or hand gestures. For example, both hands placed in the lap of the sitting Buddha indicate the meditation pose, whereas if the fingers of the right hand are pointing to the ground the statue represents the Buddha's subduing of Mara, or forces of evil. In the standing image, the right hand raised signifies the mudra of "Dispelling Fear".

These and other placing of the hands, as well as the four postures, remain constant throughout Thailand 's art history. Stylistic forms, however, do vary and are illustrative of the different schools of sculpture that arose during the course of Thailand 's cultural development. These evolved from early Indian influences through the pre-Thai art of the Mon and the Khmer, and on to the Thai schools proper. The latter again display considerable variation and range from, for example, the serene and poetic images of the Sukhothai period to the crowned and highly ornamented statues of Ayutthaya times.

The wat is also a showcase of Thai classical painting, the art form achieving its finest expression in murals. Typically these were painted on all four walls of bots and viharns,though due to the fragile nature of the medium and the ravages of the climate few surviving examples pre-date the 18th century.

All murals were purely didactic in purpose and the classic formula was to decorate the side walls with episodes from the life of the Buddha or his previous incarnations, individual scenes being separated by registers of praying celestial beings. The back wall generally showed a graphic interpretation of the Buddhist cosmology, and the front wall was covered with the scene of Buddha's victory over Mara.

Typically, murals lack any attempt at perspective and figures tend to be small, while the entire picture area is filled with detail. Because of the latter convention, artists often completed backgrounds with scenes of Thai daily life that today are fascinating for their content and as areas where the painters display greater self-expression.

Doors and window shutters also sometimes have painted scenes, while all flat surfaces are commonly brilliantly adorned. Especially notable among the decorative arts are mother-of-pearl inlay and gilt-on lacquer work that frequently have a high pictorial quality. Coloured glass mosaic is also frequently used and adds to a temple's lavish overall decoration. Brilliant and kaleidoscopic, such ad- ornment is effective in bright sunlight, strangely managing to avoid the overbearing and not distract from the overall ambience of quiet devotion.

Finally in wandering around a temple compound you can come across a number of mythological beings. While high-art sculpture was limited to images of the Buddha, craftsmen had scope in creating minor statuary, representations of creatures that play familiar roles in Thai myths and legends. Among those most commonly seen are the half-man, half-bird Garuda, the mount of the god Vishnu; the naga, king of serpents, frequently fashioned in the form of balustrades flanking stairways at temple entrances; Yakshas, guardian giants charged with warding off evil spirits; kinnaree, graceful beings half-woman and half bird, and apsaras or celestial nymphs who dance for the delight of the gods.