Main Contents Luang Prabang and Its Art Furniture and Statuary Beliefs and Religions Population and Habitat

Phou Si Temple


Sacred Buildings: Chapel, Stupa, and Temple


Chapels, whose religious role was indicated either by the presence of one or more Buddha statues or of a stupa, fail into three categories in Luang Prabang.

Chapels of the first type, of which none exist today, were rather light and open structures. Constructed on square street-level bases, they featured simple roofs framed by single balustrades, like the one at Vat Xieng Thong.  Others, like the one at Vat Aham, featured tiered structures and peripheral naves.

Chapels of the second type were constructed from different natural elements with masonry walls and covered, like the temples, by a roof.  Usually, the chapel hail has only a single entrance and one or two windows along its sides. If the hall is large, it would have pillars; in this case, the chapel would resemble a real temple.

The funerary chapel of King Sisavang Vong at Vat Xieng Thong, the most important in Laos , is one of the finest examples.

Chapels of the third type are classified as vaulted chapels. Decorated with stucco-work, these small chapels were built from bricks and mortar, including the roofs. The leafs of the only door are as richly adorned as the temple decorations themselves.

Niches, looking very much like the vaulted chapels, and mounted on square-based elevated pedestals, shelter small Buddha statues. Meant for receiving offerings: flowers, fruits, dishes of food, candles, rice balls - they are erected in front of the chapels or at the foot of the stupas.

In Luang Prabang, as in other parts of the country; the stupa is a solid building with votive or funerary characteristics.

According to belief, reliquaries of the Buddha, saint monks, kings, members of the royal family, high-placed dignitaries, or even of wealthy individuals are preserved within.

In Luang Prabang, stupa styles, whose height can vary from less than two meters to several tens of meters, are extremely diverse. The Indian-style semi-spherical stupa of That Mak Mo within the grounds of Vat Vixun is one of its kind in Laos . Another stupa characteristic peculiar to Laos is the carafe shaped gemlike type of construction. Its appearance elsewhere, as in the case of Burmese stupas, indicates an accessorial function; and not part of the main building.

Previously hidden from view, sema (stones marking the boundaries of viharns and sacred cultural buildings) are revealed at last. Sometimes decorated with lotus petals or lotus buds, most of the sema are roughly carved large stone balls that were buried in the centre or around the sides of the viharn.

Laotian religious architecture is distinguishable by the general form of the main temple building or viharn and its roof. Three major styles corresponding to the regions of Vientiane , Xieng Khuang and Luang Prabang can be observed.

The temples of Luang Prabang are characterized by immense two- or even three-layered roofs covered with flat tiles, sometimes with a change of roof gradient. Another characteristic is the existence of a peripheral nave.

Roof ornamentation, which is very varied in Luang Prabang, is overall characterized by horned ridge-tiles portraying a naga’s upper torso; these may be richly decorated or sometimes reduced to a simple schematic contour. A medial spike, often with three, seven or nine small prasat rises from the top. Depending on the number of spikes, the prasat represent Mount Sinew (the most important mountain in the Buddhist cosmology, with seven annular chains on either side. Features like crested spikes and horn-like gable slopes, designed to cut out the wind, are the finishing touches to roof ornamentation. The gable planks are generally decorated with stenciled gold patterns on red and black backgrounds. The main difference between the architecture of Luang Prabang and that of Thailand and Cambodia lies in the presence of porches under the gables. In the same way, roof intersections, common in Bangkok and Phnom Penh , are absent in Luang Prabang. Another feature that differentiates Luang Prabang architecture from that of the above-mentioned neighboring countries are columns without bases and lotus leafdecorated capitals. Where one may notice some Chinese or Burmese influence in the decoration of door leaves, this usually represents deities and persons from Buddhist mythology Carved from a solid block of wood, these unrivalled pieces are among Luang Prabang’s most beautiful works of art due to their simple and more primitive forms. The mixture of elements from the vegetable, animal and human world employed in decorations originated from the animistic beliefs of the Luang Prabang people.

Another wooden article, typical of carving in Luang Prabang, is the valance, which is composed of a pair of blind arches coupled with a medial pattern tapering down the facade of the porch. The delicacy of the work shown in the treatment of animal or floral patterns gives work an overall “beehive” appearance, hence its Laotian name Huang Pheung.


     Back to Luang Prabang and Its Art


SEAsite Laos | Overview | History | Art & Culture | Language | Literature

Gallery | Folklore | Other Topics | Links | SEAsite


2003 SEAsite Laos.  Treasures of Luang Prabang
Last Modified: