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Pha That Luang Stupa: History, Architecture & Temple

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

All Buddhist stupas are pretty stunning, but Pha That Luang may take the cake. In this lesson, we'll explore the history and architecture of this unique and opulent monument.

The Pha That Luang Stupa

In today's world, it's easy to find things that look fancy but aren't. You can buy fake diamonds, imitation gemstones, and mock-silver paint. There's even an entire temple in Laos that looks like it's covered in gold.

Wait a minute - a golden temple in Laos? That can only be Pha That Luang, and that's not sparkly gold-colored paint you're seeing. That's actual gold. In fact, Pha That Luang is covered in about 1,102 pounds of pure gold leaf. It's a stunning building, situated right in the heart of Laos' capital, Vientiane. It looks like Laos wants the world to know there's no imitation of great architecture here; they've got the real deal.

Pha That Luang of Laos
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History of Pha That Luang

Pha That Luang is a remarkable stupa, a Buddhist monument, in Laos. So, how did Laos end up with this architectural marvel? The history of Buddhism in Laos actually dates back to at least the 3rd century CE, when the Indian emperor Ashoka sent emissaries to spread Buddhism across Asia. According to tradition, one of those emissaries ended up in Vientiane, and founded the first Buddhist temple of the city.

That temple was replaced by the Khmer Empire of Laos in the 13th century, but the new temple later fell into disrepair. Then, in 1566, the Laotian king Setthathirat decided to move his capital from the city of Luang Prabang to Vientiane. When he did, he realized he had to rebuild Vientiane into a royal capital worthy of his throne, and he started by building the stupa of Pha That Luang. As a Buddhist, the king would have hoped that building the stupa would help on his own path to enlightenment, as well.

The stupa you see today is directly modeled on King Setthathirat's, but it's not unaltered. In 1828, Pha That Luang was almost completely destroyed by the invading Kingdom of Siam. The biggest thing to save it from being burnt to the ground was likely a desire to pillage all the gold from it.

The stupa was abandoned after that, until the French decided to rebuild it once they expanded their empire into that part of Asia. The French ultimately rebuilt the stupa along Setthathirat's plans in 1930. It was again nearly destroyed in 1940 during the independence movements of Southeast Asia, but after World War II was finally reconstructed into the monument you see today.

Architecture of the Stupa

Let's look at the stupa a little more closely. There's actually more to it than just its shiny façade. Pha That Luang is a massive monument, over 147 feet tall. It has a unique, pyramid-like shape and is surrounded at the base by 30 smaller spire-shaped stupas. The associated temple around the stupa also contains numerous statues and paintings of the Buddha, as well as altars that are used in Laotian festivals throughout the year.

The architecture of Pha That Luang is deeply symbolic.
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Buddhist architecture tends to be deeply symbolic, and Pha That Luang is no exception. The entire stupa is divided into three tiers, each narrower than the last. These three tiers represent different places in the Buddhist cosmology. The bottom tier is the underworld, the middle represents the 30 perfections of Buddhist teaching, and the top tier (with its reaching spire) represents heaven or enlightenment.

In this sense, the entire temple is a map of Buddhist teachings. You start with a broad base, which is life. As you study the Buddha's teachings you are refined, and your path narrows until ultimately you reach enlightenment at the pinnacle of your spiritual journey.

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