THAILAND: Wat Arun Ratchawararam Ratchawaramahawihan. Due to the length of its official name, almost everyone simply refers to this Buddhist temple, located on the west bank of Bangkok's Chao Phraya River, as Wat Arun ("Temple of Dawn"). The temple derives its name from the Hindu god Aruna, who personifies the radiations of the rising sun. Although it has existed since the 17th century, its distinctive prang (spires) were built in the early 19th century during the reign of King Rama II. The temple was located in the grounds of the first royal palace in Bangkok, but the palace was later removed to the other side of the river. It was abandoned for a long period, until the reign of King Rama II (1809–1824), who had the temple restored and the main pagoda raised to 70 meters. The work was finished during the reign of King Rama III (1824–1851). Photo: Tom Coyner

In the 1960s, “The Orient” captured a new interest among the post-World War II Beat Generation as the lures of Zen Buddhism, Indian music, Thai weed and related mind-altering experiences rippled through the hip communities of the West. 

While young American GIs were fighting the Vietnam War, more peaceable folks were donning backpacks and heading East, with their first stops often being Japan, India or Thailand. And no less a Western cultural icon than The Beatles spread the notion that chilling out and getting your spirituality on at an Indian ashram was the cool thing to do, man. 

Subsequently, South Korean monasteries won a reputation for being more open to foreign novice monks, while Bali became a famed global tourist destination not just for its beaches, but for its status as an island of colorful Hinduism in a predominantly Islamic archipelago. 

Since then, with the expansion of global air travel and niche agencies, East Asia’s religious people, sites and traditions have become ever more accessible. Interested persons could – at least before the Covid-19 pandemic – investigate the intricacies of Islamic architectural traditions or mix Himalayan trekking with temple stays. 

Seoul- based American photographer Tom Coyner, who last week presented the Asia Times gallery Asia’s servants of the gods, introducing us to the region’s clergy, this week takes us on a tour of Asia’s religious sites. Once again, our pilgrimage proceeds from east to west, kicking off in Japan, and terminating in India.

JAPAN: Hanazono Jinja. The Hanazono Jinja (temple) is located in a hidden corner of Tokyo’s lively Shinjuku district. In the 18th century, the Hanazono family constructed this Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the androgynous god of fertility and worldly success. As a result, it became a favorite place for businessmen to pray for successful ventures. In the 19th century, the site was also the location of a Buddhist temple, but with the establishment of State Shinto during the Meiji era, the Buddhist temple was banished. Often individuals and small groups will take a short cut through these Shinto grounds – sometimes taking a few minutes out for a respite of peace and quiet before diving back into the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. Photo: Tom Coyner
JAPAN: Yasukuni Shrine. This Tokyo shrine offers peace and solace as one of the capital’s most beautiful urban Shinto sites. However, every couple of years it becomes embroiled in both domestic and international controversy as senior Japanese politicians pay their respects to its enshrined war veterans, who controversially include recognized war criminals, non-Japanese and Japanese conscientious objectors conscripted and killed in service with the Imperial armed forces.The shrine was the center of State Shinto, formed during the latter19th century and disbanded with Japan’s defeat in 1945. This large complex, located in Kundanshita, Tokyo, also features a huge iron torii gate and a museum dedicated to World War II – featuring a narrative that stems from a far-right Japanese perspective. Photo: Tom Coyner
SOUTH KOREA: Haein-sa. During the Buddha’s birthday season in spring, temples are adorned with colorful paper lanterns, many depicting the Baby Buddha taking his first step and making his first religious pronouncements. These lanterns are strung at the famous Haein-sa (“sa” refers to “temple”) in Gayasan National Park. The temple was founded in 802, but has been ravished by fire several times. It is the home to the national treasure the Tripiṭaka Koreana, a priceless set of woodblock scriptures. At the height of the Korean War, guerrilla warfare raged around the temple and UN forces were ordered to bomb Haein-sa. However, an air force general feared for the loss of the Tripiṭaka Koreana and did not obey the command. Photo: Tom Coyner
SOUTH KOREA: Haein-sa. In traditional Korean architecture, both lay and holy, the aesthetic aim was to draw the eye upwards toward the building’s leading design feature – its roof. So, here, the curved, tiled temple roof is outlined against the moody heavens. Photo: Tom Coyner
INDONESIA: Pelinggih Meru. This is the second most venerated temple of Bali, built on a small island in Lake Bratan, a key source of irrigation for the center of the island. Bali. Built in 1633, the Hindu temple is used for offerings and ceremonies dedicated to the Balinese water, lake and river goddess Dewi Danu. The 11-storey Pelinggih Meru pagoda in the complex is dedicated to Shiva and his consort Parvathi. This temple is also called the “Bali Temple on the Lake” because it looks as if it is floating. The lake and the religious complex constitute a “must see” tourist site for visitors to Bali. Photo: Tom Coyner
MALAYSIA: Putra Mosque. The Putra Mosque, constructed in 1999, is the leading mosque in Putrajaya, a satellite city of Kuala Lumpur. It is located next to the Malaysian Prime Minister’s office and is reflected in the man-made Putrajaya Lake. Photo: Tom Coyner
MALAYSIA: Putra Mosque. The mosque can accommodate 15,000 worshippers at any one time. Even using an ultra-wide 14mm lens, it was impossible to capture the vastness of the interior, hence this photo consists of two merged images. Photo: Tom Coyner
THAILAND: Erawan Museum. One of the most staggering sights in greater Bangkok is the giant, three-headed elephant Erawan Museum, a three-story building that contains antiquities and priceless collections of ancient religious objects. The intent of this museum is to instill appropriate Thai spiritual values in young people. This view is looking upward, from within the body of the elephant. The stairs lead into one of the elephant heads, a room representing the Travatimsa Heaven, on the summit of Mount Meru in Buddhist cosmology. In that uppermost space, many visitors pause to pray. Photo: Tom Coyner
THAILAND: Wat Ban Rai. Thailand is well known for some of the most creative and modern approaches to religious sites in Asia. Wat Ban Rai’s architecture and design is either inspired or kitsch, depending upon your point of view. Originally, Wat Ban Rai was a small monastery until a famous monk, Luang Pho Khun, developed it into today’s complex. Today, it is one of the busiest tourist destinations of Nakhon Ratchasima province in northeast Thailand. It is also Asia’s largest ceramic shrine, using more than 20 million pieces of mosaic. This modern mural is just one of many mind-boggling details of the temple. Photo: Tom Coyner
THAILAND: Wat Chedi Luang. The “Temple of the Big Stupa” is arguably the most famous Buddhist temple in the center of Chiang Mai. Completed in the mid-15th century, it took almost a century to build. It was 82 meters high, making it the largest building in the former kingdom of Lanna. In 1468, the famous Emerald Buddha was installed in its eastern niche. However, in 1545, the upper 30 meters of the structure collapsed after an earthquake, and six years later the Emerald Buddha was moved to Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo: Tom Coyner
MYANMAR: Shwedagon Pagoda. The “Golden Dagon Pagoda,” also known as the Golden Pagoda, is a gilded stupa located in the center of Yangon, Myanmar. If tradition is accurate, the Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago, which would make it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. Two merchant brothers are said to have met the Gautama Buddha and received eight strands of the Buddha’s hair. The brothers returned to Burma and presented them to their king who enshrined the strands along with some relics of the three preceding Buddhas in a stupa on the Singuttara Hill in present-day Myanmar. The rest is history – right up to the present day when this huge Buddhist complex was often at the center of struggles for political power. Shwedagon is one of the most revered Buddhist sites in the world. Photo: Tom Coyner
MYANMAR: Sule Pagoda. Sule Pagoda, according to legend, was built before the Shwedagon Pagoda, making it more than 2,600 years old. It has been a focal point of Burmese politics since it was made the center of Yangon by Lt. Alexander Fraser of the Bengal Engineers, who created the present street layout of Yangon during the British occupation in the mid-19th century. Sule served as a rallying point in both the 1988 uprisings and the 2007 “Saffron Revolution.” Photo: Tom Coyner
MYANMAR: Bagan. Bagan (formerly Pagan) is an ancient city and UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Mandalay region. From the 9th to 13th centuries it was the capital of the Pagan Kingdom, the first kingdom to unify the regions that are now modern Myanmar. Some 4,446 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed on the Bagan plains alone, of which the remains of 3,822 temples and pagodas survive to today. The site was depopulated as groundwater weakened the temples, which were also badly damaged by frequent earthquakes. Nonetheless, the temples continue to be repaired. Bagan is deservedly one of the major tourist attractions of the country. Photo: Tom Coyner
BHUTAN: Paro Taktsang. The “Tiger’s Nest” is the Kingdom of Bhutan’s most iconic landmark and tourist destination. A prominent Himalayan Buddhist site, the temple complex clings to the cliffs of the Paro Valley. To get there entrails 3-4 hours of hiking: The oxygen level at 3,120 meters makes this a challenging walk for non-Bhutanese, but once there, the views are spectacular and the rock-hewn rooms and hallways within the monastery remind one of a medieval movie. Indeed, the site started out as a meditation cave in the 8th century, and was formally built up as a monastery in 1692. Photo: Tom Coyner
INDIA: Taj Mahal. Virtually everyone on earth is familiar with the iconic front of India’s Taj Mahal, but this is a rear view, encompassing one of the four wall minarets and one of the two accompanying mosques that flank each side. What impresses is the sheer size of this famed Muslim mausoleum. From a distance, “The world’s most beautiful building” appears to be just that. It is only when you actually enter the complex that you are stunned by not just its design magnificence, but is mighty scale. Photo: Tom Coyner
INDIA: Masjid-i Jehan Numa. This photo looks out from the main entrance to the Masjid-i Jehan Numa (“Mosque of the Celestial Sphere”) – commonly known as the Jama Masjid in Delhi. One of India’s largest mosques, it was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan between 1650 and 1656 at a cost of one million rupees. It features great gates and two 40-meter high minarets constructed with strips of red sandstone and white marble. Its courtyard can accommodate more than 25,000 people. On the floor, 899 black borders mark out spaces for worshippers. It has been the venue of both peace and violence. From 2006 to 2013, there have been four attacks, the last carried out by on-the-run Pakistanis after the Delhi Imam had allowed “semi-naked” foreigners – ie Western tourists – inside. Photo: Tom Coyner
INDIA: Varanasi Ghat. The 88 ghats of the northern India city of Varanasi are riverfront steps leading to the banks of the River Ganges. Most are for bathing and ceremonials and two are used exclusively as cremation sites. Most were rebuilt in the 18th century, and many are associated with legends or mythologies. The ghats make up one of India’s leading tourist attractions as well as a major draw for Hindus who undertake ritualistic bathing here. Holy men are a frequent sight. Photo: Tom Coyner

For those wishing to see a larger selection of Coyner’s images of Asian religious sites, please click here.  

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