Vihara (विहार, IAST: vihāra) generally refers to a Buddhist
bhikkhu monastery. The concept is ancient and in early
Pali texts, it meant any arrangement of space or facilities for
pleasure and entertainment. The term evolved into an
architectural concept wherein it refers to living quarters for monks
with an open shared space or courtyard, particularly in Buddhism. The
term is also found in Ajivika, Hindu and Jain monastic literature,
usually referring to temporary refuge for wandering monks or nuns
during the annual Indian monsoons.
Vihara or vihara hall has a more specific meaning in the study of
Indian architecture, especially ancient Indian rock-cut architecture.
Here it means a central hall, with small cells connected to it
sometimes with beds carved from the stone. Some have a shrine cell set
back at the centre of the back wall, containing a stupa in early
examples, or a
Buddha statue later. Typical large sites such as the
Ajanta Caves, Aurangabad Caves, Karli Caves, and
Kanheri Caves contain
several viharas. Some included a chaitya or worship hall nearby.
The vihara was originated to be a shelter for Monks when it rains.
1 Etymology and nomenclature
2.1 Viharas as pleasure centers
2.2 Viharas as monasteries
3.1 Variants in rock-cut viharas
4.1 Viharas as a source of major Buddhist traditions
4.2 Viharas of the Pāla era
4.3 Southeast Asia
5 Image gallery
6 See also
9 External links
Etymology and nomenclature
Vihāra is a
Sanskrit word that appears in several Vedic texts with
context sensitive meanings. It generally means a form of
"distribution, transposition, separation, arrangement", either of
words or sacred fires or sacrificial ground. Alternatively, it refers
to a form of wandering roaming, any place to rest or please oneself or
enjoy one's pastime in, a meaning more common in late Vedic texts, the
Epics and Gryhasutra literature.
Its meaning in post-Vedic era is more specifically a form of rest
house or temple or monastery in ascetic traditions of India,
particularly for a group of monks. It particularly referred to a
hall that were used as temples or where monks met and some walked
about. In performance arts context, the term means the theatre,
playhouse, convent or temple compound to meet, perform or relax in.
Later it referred to a form of temple or monastery construction in
Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, wherein the design has a central hall
and attached separated shrines for residence either for monks or for
gods, goddesses and some sacred figure such as Tirthankaras or the
Buddha or a Guru. The word means a Jain or Hindu temple or "dwelling,
waiting place" in many medieval era inscriptions and texts, from
vi-har which means "to construct".
It contrasts with Aranya (Sanskrit) or Aranna (Pali) which means
"forest". In medieval era, the term meant any monastery,
particularly for Buddhist monks.
Matha is another term for
monastery in Indian religious tradition, today normally used for
The northern Indian state of
Bihar derives its name from the word
"vihara", due to the abundance of Buddhist monasteries in that area.
The word "vihara" has also been borrowed in Malay where it is spelled
"biara," and denotes a monastery or other non-Muslim place of worship.
China (called jingshe; Chinese: 精舎), "vihara" has
a narrower meaning, and designates a shrine hall or retreat house. It
is called a "Wihan" (วิหาร) in Thai, and a "Vihear" in
Khmer. In Burmese, wihara (ဝိဟာရ, IPA: [wḭhəɹa̰]),
means "monastery," but the native Burmese word kyaung
(ကျောင်း, IPA: [tɕáʊɴ]) is preferred. Monks
wandering from place to place preaching and seeking alms often stayed
together in the sangha. In the Punjabi language, an
open space inside a home is called a 'vehra'.
Cave 12, Ellora, a late multi-story rock-cut vihara. Further
decoration of the pillars was probably intended.
Viharas as pleasure centers
During the 3rd-century BCE era of Ashoka, vihara yatras were travels
aimed at enjoyments, pleasures and hobbies such as hunting. These
contrasted with dharma yatras which related to religious pursuits and
Ashoka converted to Buddhism, states Lahiri, he
started dharma yatras around mid 3rd century BCE instead of hedonistic
royal vihara yatras.
Viharas as monasteries
The early history of viharas is unclear. Monasteries in the form of
caves are dated to centuries before the start of the common era, for
Ajivikas, Buddhists and Jainas. The rock-cut architecture found in
cave viharas from the 2nd-century BCE have roots in the Maurya Empire
period. In and around the
Bihar state of
India are a group of
residential cave monuments all dated to be from pre-common era,
reflecting the Maurya architecture. Some of these have Brahmi script
inscription which confirms their antiquity, but the inscriptions were
likely added to pre-existing caves. The oldest layer of Buddhist
and Jain texts mention legends of the Buddha, the Jain Tirthankaras or
sramana monks living in caves. If these records derived
from an oral tradition accurately reflect the significance of monks
and caves in the times of the
Buddha and the Mahavira, then cave
residence tradition dates back to at least the 5th century BCE.
According to Allchin and Erdosy, the legend of First Buddhist Council
is dated to a period just after the death of the Buddha. It mentions
monks gathering at a cave near Rajgiri, and this dates it in
pre-Mauryan times. However, the square courtyard with cells
architecture of vihara, state Allchin and Erdosy, is dated to the
Mauryan period. The earlier monastic residences of Ajivikas,
Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains were likely outside rock cliffs and made
of temporary materials and these have not survived.
The earliest known gift of immovable property for monastic purposes
ever recorded in an Indian inscription is credited to Emperor Ashoka,
and it is a donation to the Ajivikas. According to Johannes
Bronkhorst, this created competitive financial pressures on all
traditions, including the Hindu Brahmins. This may have led to the
development of viharas as shelters for monks, and evolution in the
Ashrama concept to agraharas or Hindu monasteries. These shelters were
normally accompanied by donation of revenue from villages nearby, who
would work and support these cave residences with food and services.
The Karle inscription dated to the 1st century CE donates a cave and
nearby village, states Bronkhorst, "for the support of the ascetics
living in the caves at Valuraka [Karle] without any distinction of
sect or origin".
Buddhist texts from Bengal, dated to centuries later,
use the term asrama-vihara or agrahara-vihara for their
Plan of cave 1 at Ajanta, a large vihara hall for prayer and living,
Buddhist viharas or monasteries may be described as a residence for
monks, a centre for religious work and meditation and a centre of
Buddhist learning. Reference to five kinds of dwellings (Pancha
Lenani) namely, Vihara, Addayoga, Pasada, Hammiya and Guha is found in
the Buddhist canonical texts as fit for monks. Of these only the
Vihara (monastery) and Guha (Cave) have survived.
At some stage of Buddhism, like other Indian religious traditions, the
wandering monks of the
Sangha dedicated to asceticism and the monastic
life, wandered from place to place. During the rainy season (cf.
vassa) they stayed in temporary shelters. In Buddhist theology
relating to rebirth and merit earning, it was considered an act of
merit not only to feed a monk but also to shelter him, sumptuous
monasteries were created by rich lay devotees.
The only substantial remains of very early viharas are in the rock-cut
complexes, mostly in north India, the Deccan in particular, but this
is an accident of survival. Originally structural viharas of stone or
brick would probably have been at least as common everywhere, and the
norm in the south. By the second century BCE a standard plan for a
vihara was established; these form the majority of Buddhist rock-cut
"caves". It consisted of a roughly square rectangular hall, in
rock-cut cases, or probably an open court in structural examples, off
which there were a number of small cells. Rock-cut cells are often
fitted with rock-cut platforms for beds and pillows. The front wall
had one or more entrances, and often a verandah. Later the back wall
facing the entrance had a fairly small shrine-room, often reached
through an ante-chamber. Initially these held stupas, but later a
Buddha image, sometimes with reliefs on the walls. The
verandah might also have sculpture, and in some cases the walls of the
main hall. Paintings were perhaps more common, but these rarely
survive, except in a few cases such as Caves 2, 10, 11 and 17 at the
Ajanta Caves. As later rock-cut viharas are often on up to three
storeys, this was also probably the case with the structural ones.
As the vihara acquired a central image, it came to take over the
function of the chaitya worship hall, and eventually these ceased to
be built. This was despite the rock-cut vihara shrine room usually
offering no path for circumambulation or pradakshina, an important
In early medieval era, Viharas became important institutions and a
part of Buddhist
Universities with thousands of students, such as
Nalanda. Life in "Viharas" was codified early on. It is the object of
a part of the
Pali canon, the
Vinaya Pitaka or "basket of monastic
Shalban Vihara in
Bangladesh is an example of a
structural monastery with 115 cells, where the lower parts of the
brick-built structure have been excavated.
Somapura Mahavihara, also
in Bangladesh, was a larger vihara, mostly 8th-century, with 177 cells
around a huge central temple.
Cave 12, Ajanta Caves, cell entries off a vihara hall
Variants in rock-cut viharas
Usually the standard form as described above is followed, but there
are some variants. Two vihara halls, Cave 5 at
Ellora and Cave 11 at
Kanheri, have very low platforms running most of the length of the
main hall. These were probably used as some combination of benches or
tables for dining, desks for study, and possibly beds. They are often
termed "dining-hall" or the "Durbar Hall" at Kanheri, on no good
Cave 11 at the
Bedse Caves is a fairly small 1st-century vihara, with
nine cells in the interior and originally four around the entrance,
and no shrine room. It is distinguished by elaborate gavaksha and
railing relief carving around the cell-doors, but especially by having
a rounded roof and apsidal far end, like a chaitya hall.
Mahabodhi Temple in India.
The earliest Buddhist rock-cut cave abodes and sacred places are found
in the western Deccan dating back to the 3rd century BC. These
earliest rock-cut caves include the Bhaja Caves, the Karla Caves, and
some of the Ajanta Caves.
Vihara with central shrine containing devotional images of the Buddha,
dated to about the 2nd century CE are found in the northwestern area
of Gandhara, in sites such as Jaulian,
Kalawan (in the
Taxila area) or
Dharmarajika, which states Behrendt, possibly were the prototypes for
the 4th century monasteries such as those at
Devnimori in Gujarat.
This is supported by the discovery of clay and bronze
but it is unclear if the statue is of a later date. According to
Behrendt, these "must have been the architectural prototype for the
later northern and western Buddhist shrines in the Ajanta Caves,
Aurangabad, Ellora, Nalanda,
Ratnagiri and other sites".
Behrendt's proposal follows the model that states the northwestern
influences and Kushana era during the 1st and 2nd century CE triggered
the development of
Buddhist art and monastery designs. In contrast,
Susan Huntington states that this late nineteenth and early twentieth
century model is increasingly questioned by the discovery of
Buddha images outside the northwestern territories.
Further, states Huntington, "archaeological, literary, and
inscriptional evidence" such as those in Madhya Pradesh cast further
doubts. Devotional worship of
Buddha is traceable, for example, to
Bharhut Buddhist monuments dated between 2nd and 1st century BCE.
The Krishna or Kanha Cave (Cave 19) at Nasik has the central hall with
connected cells, and it is generally dated to about the 1st century
The early stone viharas mimicked the timber construction that likely
Inscriptional evidence on stone and copper plates indicate that
Buddhist viharas were often co-built with Hindu and Jain temples. The
Gupta Empire era witnessed the building of numerous viharas, including
those at the Ajanta Caves. Some of these viharas and temples
though evidenced in texts and inscriptions are no longer physically
found, likely destroyed in later centuries by natural causes or due to
Viharas as a source of major Buddhist traditions
As more people joined Buddhist monastic sangha, the senior monks
adopted a code of discipline which came to be known in the
Vinaya texts. These texts are mostly concerned with the
rules of the sangha. The rules are preceded by stories telling how the
Buddha came to lay them down, and followed by explanations and
analysis. According to the stories, the rules were devised on an ad
hoc basis as the
Buddha encountered various behavioral problems or
disputes among his followers. Each major early Buddhist tradition had
its own variant text of code of discipline for vihara life. Major
vihara appointed a vihara-pala, the one who managed the vihara,
settled disputes, determined sangha's consent and rules, and forced
those hold-outs to this consensus.
Three early influential monastic fraternities are traceable in
Buddhist history. The
Mahavihara established by Mahinda was the
oldest. Later, in 1st century BCE, King Vattagamani donated the
Abhayagiri vihara to his favored monk, which led the Mahavihara
fraternity to expel that monk. In 3rd century CE, this repeated
when King Mahasena donated the Jetavana vihara to an individual monk,
which led to his expulsion. The Mahinda
Mahavihara led to the orthodox
Theravada tradition. The Abhayagiri vihara monks, rejected and
criticized by the orthodox Buddhist monks, were more receptive to
heterodox ideas and they nurtured the
Mahayana tradition. The Jetavana
vihara monks vacillated between the two traditions, blending their
Viharas of the Pāla era
The ruins of Shalvan Vihara, the Buddhist monastery that operated
between 7th-12th century in Mainamati, Bangladesh.
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Mahavihara and Buddhism
A range of monasteries grew up during the Pāla period in ancient
Magadha (modern Bihar) and Bengal. According to Tibetan sources, five
great Mahaviharas stood out: Vikramashila, the premier university of
the era; Nalanda, past its prime but still illustrious, Somapura,
Odantapurā, and Jaggadala. According to Sukumar Dutt, the five
monasteries formed a network, were supported and supervised by the
Pala state. Each of the five had their own seal and operated like a
corporation, serving as centers of learning.
Other notable monasteries of Pala period were Traikuta, Devikota
(identified with ancient kotivarsa, 'modern Bangarh'), and Pandita
vihara. Excavations jointly conducted by Archaeological Survey of
India and University of
Burdwan in 1971-1972 to 1974-1975 yielded a
Buddhist monastic complex at Monorampur, near Bharatpur via Panagarh
Bazar in the
Burdwan district of West Bengal. The date of the
monastery may be ascribed to the early medieval period. Recent
Jagjivanpur (Malda district, West Bengal) revealed
another Buddhist monastery (Nandadirghika-Udranga Mahavihara) of
the ninth century.
Nothing of the superstructure has survived. A number of monastic cells
facing a rectangular courtyard have been found. A notable feature is
the presence of circular corner cells. It is believed that the general
layout of the monastic complex at
Jagjivanpur is by and large similar
to that of Nalanda. Beside these, scattered references to some
monasteries are found in epigraphic and other sources. Among them
Pullahari (in western Magadha),
Halud vihara (45 km south of
Paharpur), Parikramana vihara and Yashovarmapura vihara (in Bihar)
deserve mention. Other important structural complexes have been
Mainamati (Comilla district, Bangladesh). Remains of
quite a few viharas have been unearthed here and the most elaborate is
the Shalvan Vihara. The complex consists of a fairly large vihara of
the usual plan of four ranges of monastic cells round a central court,
with a temple in cruciform plan situated in the centre. According to a
legend on a seal (discovered at the site) the founder of the monastery
was Bhavadeva, a ruler of the Deva dynasty.
Vihara, locally called wihan, of
Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang in Northern Thailand
Buddhism spread in southeast Asia, monasteries were built by local
kings. The term vihara referred to the assembly hall of these
monasteries. Many of these viharas continue to play an important role
in the modern era practice of
Theravada Buddhism. For example, during
the twelfth lunar month in Thailand, lay Buddhists visit a monastery
and circumambulate the vihara and the reliquary as a means to earn
merit. Devotees may hold banana boats containing burning incense
sticks, flowers, sticky rice and few coins as they complete the
circle. These boats are then carried to a local river or pond and set
afloat. At other times, the lay Buddhists gather for kathina
ceremonies in the vihara where they donate robes, soap, towels, canned
food, cigarettes and other material goods for the monks, with the
belief that the merit they so earn will enable them to live in
heavenly samsara after some future rebirth. Many of these
Theravada viharas feature a
Buddha image that is considered sacred
after it is formally consecrated by the monks.
Cave 4, Ajanta Caves
Entrance to a vihara hall at
Wall carvings at
Simple slab abode beds in vihara at
Doorways of a Vihara, Bedse Caves
List of Buddhist temples
Wat - a
Buddhist temple in Cambodia, Laos or Thailand.
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