Theravada Buddhism is the professed religion of more than 94% of all Thais, and casts strong influences on daily life. Buddhism first appeared in Thailand during the 3rd Century B.C. at Nakhon Pathom, site of the world's tallest Buddhist monument, after the Indian Buddhist Emperor Asoka (267-227 B.C.) despatched missionaries to Southeast Asia to propagate the newly established faith.
Besides moulding morality, providing social cohesion and offering spiritual succour, Buddhism provided incomparable artistic impetus. In common with medieval European cathedrals, Thailand's innumerable multi-roofed temples inspired major artistic creation. Another reason for Buddhism's strength is that there are few Thai Buddhist families in which at least one male member has not studied the Buddha's teachings in a monastery. It has long been a custom for Buddhist males over twenty, once in their lifetimes, to be ordained for a period ranging from a few days to several months. This usually occurs during the annual Rains Retreat, a 4 month period during the Rains Season when all monks forego travel and stay inside their monasteries.
Besides sustaining monastic communities, Thai temples have traditionally served other purposes - as the village hostelry, village news, employment and information agency, a school, hospital, dispensary and community centre - to give them vital roles in Thai society. The Thais have always subscribed to the ideal of religious freedom. Thus sizeable minorities of Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs freely pursue their respective faiths.