One of the pleasures of travel is the encounter with the familiar at the most unlikely places. It forces attention on forms and designs that were glossed over as part of one’s childhood world. The unfamiliar awakens the powers of observation. One gets to know more of the cultural spaces of the faraway regions than one’s own.

Even though the pagoda form of the temple arose in India, one pays little attention to it in its native setting. An old theory sees the word pagoda derived from the name of a gold coin that was current in India in the 18th century. On one side of the coin was the form of the Goddess, Bhagavati, and on the other the shape of a terraced temple. The Austrian missionary and Sanskritist Paulinus of St. Bartholomew (1748-1806), who lived in Southern India during 1774-1789, informs that the coin was called Bhagavati. Specifically, it was a Durgi, for it had the image of Durgā.

The name of the coin in rapid colloquial speech sounded like pagode or pagoda to the Europeans but they wrongly associated it with the shape of the temple. In time, other gold coins issued by various Indian kings were also called pagoda by the Europeans, although their local names were determined by the imprint like Rāma, Varāha, Matsya, Venkateśvara, and so on and their value varied based on the purity of gold. Col Thomas Munro writing in 1806 about the Bellary district observed that there were 32 kinds of pagodas and 16 kinds of rupees (silver coins).

Paulinus, the first European to notice that Sanskrit and European languages belonged to the same family and publish a grammar of Sanskrit in Europe, lived in India around the time that the term pagoda came into European usage. James Prinsep (1799-1840) is responsible for popularizing the erroneous view that the term pagoda is derived from the shape of the pyramidal temple depicted on one side of the coin. The common Tamil name for the gold coin was Varāha from the imprint of the boar on the obverse side of the most popular coin.

My wife and I would have missed the much-loved Brisbane Pagoda but for our friends and long-term residents Prabhakar Murthy and his wife Jayashree, who declared it a sight not to be missed. They explained that it served as the Nepal Pavilion for World Expo ’88 and it became so popular that the city decided to install it at the northwestern end of the South Bank Parklands on the bank of the Brisbane River.

We were staying at a hotel on the Spring Hill that sits above the Central Business District of the city. From there, we first walked by the Roma Street Parklands with its Mahatma Gandhi statue.  Next came the Old Windmill, the oldest surviving building in Queensland, which was built by convicts in the colonial era to grind grains. The Windmill originally had wind-powered sails and also a treadwheel.  From there the pedestrian-only zone of the city are nearby as is the bridge on the river.

The pagoda form, with its tiered roofs, is believed to have evolved from the stupa. I particularly like wooden pagodas with their multiple eaves and simplicity of conception. The ancient Pashupatinath Temple on the Bagmati River in Kathmandu is an early example of the wooden pagoda. According to historians, the pagoda form was taken from Nepal to China in the seventh century from where it spread to the other eastern countries. The Malla kings built some of the greatest pagodas in Nepal.

The pagoda is now associated more with China than India. It is amusing that another common word associated with China, mandarin, comes from the Sanskrit for minister or official, mantrin. The Indian interlocutors told the Portuguese that the Chinese officials they wished to meet were mantrin and the word stuck and eventually became the name of the influential variety of the Chinese language that the officials spoke.

As a student of temple architecture, it has long been my wish to visit the great wooden temples of Nepal in Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur, for these and other similar temples in the mountains of India constitute a unique branch of Indian temple architecture. But somehow it has not come to pass. So I was mighty pleased when I realized that Brisbane’s Pagoda is a replica of the Pashupatinath Temple.

Craftsmen from 160 families worked on the Brisbane Pagoda in Kathmandu over a two-year period. The pieces were fashioned out of Terai timber, shipped to Australia, and assembled at the Expo site on the Brisbane River by Australian workers under Nepalese supervision.

The pagoda has images representing the different incarnations of Śiva and the Buddha, and an image of Avalokiteśvara, the deity of compassion. The Peace Pagoda is used for weddings and other private functions, and it also has benches for personal meditation. The pagoda is just a ferry-ride away from the University of Queensland campus.


Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak is Regents Professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Born in Srinagar and educated in Kashmir and Delhi, he has lived in the United States since 1979. He has has written six volumes of poetry in English and Hindi and another fourteen books on a wide variety of subjects that include history of science and art. He was the anchor in Raga Unveiled, which is a four-hour long documentary on Hindustani classical music.