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The Saffron Robe

Theravada Monks and the Original Robe


Theravada monks of southeast Asia wear robes thought to be very similar in to the robes worn by the historical Buddha and his disciples.
Buddhist monks in Laos

Young monks in Laos wear their uttarasanga robes in traditional off-the-shoulder style. The smaller sanghati robes, not needed on a hot day, are folded and draped over their left shoulders and secured with yellow sashes.

Chumsak Kanoknan/Getty Images

The robes worn by Theravada monks and nuns of southeast Asia today are thought to be unchanged from the original robes of 25 centuries ago. The "Triple robe" consists of three parts:

  • The uttarasanga or kashaya is the most prominent robe. It is a large rectangle, about 6 by 9 feet, that can be wrapped to cover both shoulders, but most often it is wrapped to cover the left shoulder but leave the right shoulder and arm bare.
  • The antaravasaka is worn under the uttarasanga. It is wrapped around the waist like a sarong, covering the body from waist to knees.
  • The sanghati is an extra robe that can be wrapped around the upper body for warmth. When not in use it is sometimes folded and draped over a shoulder, as you see in the photograph.

The original monks made their robes from discarded cloth found in rubbish heaps and on cremation grounds. After washing, the robe cloth was boiled with vegetable matter -- leaves, roots and flowers -- and often spices, which would turn the cloth some shade of orange. Hence the name, "saffron robe." Monks today wear robes made of cloth that is donated or purchased, but in Southeast Asia the cloth usually is still dyed in spice colors.

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