Wat Buddhapadipa is a Thai temple and monastery, now based in Wimbledon, which was first established in 1965. Whilst the community previously occupied a house in East Sheen, they wanted to have a purpose-built temple, and therefore the decision was taken to search for property and land elsewhere. They found a house – Barrogill House in Wimbledon, built originally in the 1920s, which was to become the monastic residence and office, and which also had several acres of garden. They moved in, in 1976.
They began work building a temple in the grounds of the house in 1979. It was completed in 1982, to coincide with the bicentenary of Bangkok. The temple itself, also known as the uposatha hall, is, as we were told, one of two ‘architecturally perfect’ examples of Thai building outside Thailand (the other is in Switzerland). Funding for buying both the house and the land, and later building the temple, was granted by the Thai Government. The term ‘wat’ is the Thai for ‘temple complex’, and the uposatha hall is the consecrated ‘chapel’ area of ritual significance, where the principal Buddha image is kept.
According to the commemorative booklet produced for the inauguration of the ‘chapel’ in October 1982, the ‘design and architectural drawings were prepared by Mr Praves Limparangsi, the first architect of the Fine Arts Department, Ministry of Education of Thailand, ‘the structural stage being carried out by a local form and the decorative stage by a Thai firm’ (1982: 8).
The ground surrounding the uposatha is marked out by what is known as the sima boundary, and involves nine marker stones to delineate where sacred and ritual activity can occur. The principal Buddha rupa (statue), of black bronze, inside the uposatha hall is from the Sukhothai era, and is approximately 600-800 years old, and it was a donation from the Thai Government.
What is notable about the temple, which adopts in entirety a Thai architectural style, is the floor to ceiling murals located inside.
Whilst mural painting is a feature of Thai temples, many of those at Wat Buddhapadipa depict images that are rather closer to home. They were initiated in the 1980s, using British-Thai volunteer artists, and depict figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Colonel Gadaffi, a ninja turtle, a punk and Ronald Regan, amongst others. Although this might seem surprising, we were told that making the temple mural paintings relevant for their local audience also occurs within temples in Thailand. It is partly done to make the teachings of the Buddha that they depict pertinent for those who are likely to see them. As a result, the Wat Buddhapadipa murals were described to us as a ‘time capsule of the 1980s’. As we were not able to take photographs inside the temple – do have a look at Sandra Cate’s (2002) book, Making Merit, Making Art: A Thai Temple in Wimbledon.
Overall, we noted that the Wat Buddhapadipa complex has several purposes. The first is to house a monastic community, of which there are currently eight Thai monks. The second is to provide a sacred space for meditation, ritual, and ceremonial occasions, which typically take place in the uposatha hall. The third is for festival and cultural events, including a Thai language Sunday school, which also use further buildings and space in the temple complex. Activities include meditation sessions, classes, retreats, festivals, cultural events and occasions, and celebrations such as Thai New Year. People attend the temple for meditation, for merit-making activities, to speak to the monks and to provide offerings, and also for blessings, including on special occasions such as birthdays, or anniversaries. Wat Buddhapadipa also offers temporary ordinations, for both men and women, for short periods of time, following the Thai Buddhist tradition. Whilst the house is listed, the temple itself currently is not. The mission statement, and the purpose of the establishment of the monastic community, is, we were told, to promote Buddhism in the West. The community who use Wat Buddhapadipa are drawn from the Thai and Sri Lankan communities, and also a number of Westerners.
As with many of the other buildings we visited during our research, a key issue at Wat Buddhapadipa relates to maintenance, including with the roof tiles, and the marble used outside the uposatha hall which cracks and is highly slippery in winter – not an issue faced in Thailand given the warmer weather!