Monks inside the Angkor temple complex make their morning alms round

One of the most distinctive aspects of life in Southeast Asia is the presence of Buddhist monks clothed in saffron-colored robes. The tradition began with Siddhartha Gautama, the man who became the Buddha or the “Enlightened One,” some 2,500 years ago.

The Buddha taught his first disciples to make their robes from discarded pieces of cloth found in garbage heaps and cremation grounds. The scraps were sewn together without pattern into a large rectangle, and then the cloth was dyed using plants, leaves, bark, roots, flowers, fruits and sometimes turmeric and perhaps saffron. This produced a variety of earth tones ranging from yellow to reddish brown, known in Sanskrit as kashaya. Sometime later, in order to distinguish the Buddhists from other wandering mendicants, the Buddha asked his closest disciple Ananda to design a robe based on the rows and paths of rice patty fields. Known as the Kashaya Robe, this became the most symbolic item for Buddhist monastics.

After the Buddha’s death, his disciples proclaimed saffron the color for Buddhist robes and mantles. Derived from the stigma of saffron crocus flowers, saffron has been prized as a spice, medicine and dye by different cultures since ancient times. Due to the high cost and scarcity of saffron, most likely Buddhist monks used turmeric and jackfruit to produce saffron’s golden yellow hue. By virtue of its connection with the Buddhist robes, yellow is the most sacred color in Buddhism, symbolizing humility, renunciation of material life, rootedness and earth.

As Buddhism spread throughout Asia and adapted to new cultures and climates, so did the style and colors of the Kashaya Robe. However, in the Theravada tradition that prevails today in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Sri Lanka, the custom of the saffron-colored robes continues.

Theravada follows the teachings found in the earliest Buddhist scriptures. It requires individuals to take full responsibility for their actions, including improving their merit (karma) in this lifetime to better their condition in the next life. Besides meditation and prayer, Theravada monks should follow 227 precepts of conduct, including the five basic precepts for monastic life that prohibit eating after noon, using personal adornments, handling money, partaking in entertainment and sleeping on a luxurious bed. Monks are also expected to be celibate and should not be touched by women.

In Southeast Asia, most young men become ordained as monks for three months to one year, many become monks for up to ten years and some become monks permanently. This brings great merit to both the monk and his parents. The monks live in local monasteries and play an active role in their communities by performing spiritual services for the laypeople, who in turn give the monks daily alms, money and new robes in a ceremony that takes place after the monsoon.

The different hues of saffron robes — from sandy yellow to brownish red — reflect different geographic regions, sects and personal preferences. “I wear the bright orange color from Thailand like most young monks do now,” says Kimly Som, a short-term monk and father of four from Cambodia. “Globalization is changing life for the monks too, but the robes still remind us of our commitment to learning Buddhism and our work towards enlightenment. This is the most important thing. If we lose it, we lose our culture.”

Published in Hand/Eye Magazine, Issue 6, Global Color