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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: May 2017

3 - How Many Monks? Quantitative and Demographic Archaeological Approaches to Buddhism in Northeast Thailand and Central Laos, Sixth to Eleventh Centuries Ce



This article explores a number of ways in which to reconstruct the possible extent of monastic Buddhism in the Khorat Plateau during the Dvāravatī period. In an attempt to so, it is consequently multidisciplinary in its conception, being primarily archaeological while also drawing on areas of anthropology, art history, demographics and Buddhist studies. In doing so, it attempts to move beyond the sole analysis of archaeological and art historic objects in order to investigate the social, demographic and geographical factors that lie behind the production of these artefacts. It proposes to do so by a number of quantitative means: first, by giving hypothetical population estimates of urban centres/moated sites during the Dvāravatī period and consequently the number of monks these settlements could have supported. These estimates are then used to consider how many monks may have been sustained according to these figures. Second, by carrying out a quantitative analysis of sema stone numbers and their distribution throughout the Khorat Plateau this also provides a method to calculate the number of possible consecrated spaces (viz., sīma) in the region and their geographic extent. The analysis shows that institutional, monastic Buddhism primarily spread and settled along the major river systems throughout the region. Third, by plotting the distribution, quantity and quality of Buddhist narrative artwork on sema to pinpoint the locations of possible workshops and centres. This also allows for a number of conclusions to be drawn in terms of the socio-economic support needed to develop and maintain workshops and craftsmen and relates directly to population densities.

It should, however, be stated at the outset that this paper proposes nothing more than a possible scenario to aid in explaining and understanding the extent and spread of Buddhism during this period. I am here using the term “scenario” in reference to Donn Bayard's cautionary remarks regarding archaeology and the use of models. As Bayard explains, a model, strictly speaking should be based on reliable datasets which are testable and “ideally consists of a set of relationships between variables to which more or less precise numerical values may be assigned”. As will become clear in this paper, the assigning of such precise figures to the subject under investigation (viz. Buddhism) is unrealistic given the current incomplete state of the datasets from the region and time period in question.