SOAS Research Online

A Free Database of the Latest Research by SOAS Academics and PhD Students

[skip to content]

Murphy, Stephen A (2010) 'Dvaravati Period Sema Stones: Shifting meanings and definitions in archaeology, epigraphy, texts and religious re-use.' Rian Thai: international journal of Thai studies, 3. pp. 259-282.

[img] Text - Published Version
Restricted to Repository staff only

Request a copy


Sema stones, or Buddhist boundary markers as they are commonly known in English, are a well attested phenomenon in the religious landscape of Southeast Asia. In modern day Theravada Buddhism they demarcate the sacred precinct of the ubosot, either in groups of eight or sixteen. The earliest archaeological evidence for these objects dates back to the Dvaravati Period (6th-11th century CE) where they are found at numerous sites and settlements throughout northeast Thailand and central and southern Laos, an area geographically defined as the Khorat Plateau. In scholarship to date, however, explanations regarding the function of Dvaravati sema have largely relied on modern analogies and comparisons and textual sources. Therefore, is it presumed that sema in the Dvaravati period functioned more or less in the same way as they do today, being set up in groups of eight or sixteen to demarcate the ubosot alone. Archaeological and epigraphic evidence, however, paints a somewhat different picture, illustrating that in some cases sema were placed around stupas, Buddha images and rock shelters, and that the numbers used could vary between eight and twenty-four. The epigraphic evidence further illustrates that sema fulfilled important social functions as objects of patronage and merit donated by local elites. Additionally, sema’s re-use today in Buddhist contexts illustrates their continual sacred appeal and alternative functions. This article re-evaluates the function, use and definition of Dvaravati sema by drawing on archaeological, textual, epigraphic, typological and contemporary evidence. Finally this article acts as a cautionary tale, highlighting the pitfalls and problems inherent in projecting modern religious beliefs and practice onto the past.

Item Type: Journal Article
Keywords: Thai Studies, Dvaravati, sema stones, Buddhism
SOAS Departments & Centres: Departments and Subunits > School of Arts > Department of the History of Art & Archaeology
ISSN: 19064241
Date Deposited: 21 Jan 2021 14:14

Altmetric Data

There is no Altmetric data currently associated with this item.


Download activity - last 12 monthsShow export options
Downloads since deposit
6 month trend
6 month trend
Accesses by country - last 12 monthsShow export options
Accesses by referrer - last 12 monthsShow export options

Repository staff only

Edit Item Edit Item