published on 02 September 2013
The 'Great Stupa' at Sanchi (Gérald Anfossi)

In Buddhism, a stupa is a commemorative building usually housing sacred relics associated with important saintly figures. Stupas have a very distinctive semi-spherical shape and are made of unburnt bricks, often surrounded by a stone fence. They contain a circular platform in the centre of which there is a small place for a receptacle containing different relics. Traditionally, stupas contained mainly ashes of saintly persons, but they can also contain other relics such as personal items. Stupas have four entrance gates, which symbolise the connection of the stupa with the four quarters of the world and emphasizes the universal spirit of Buddhism.

The Origin & Meaning of Stupas

From pre-historical times, burial mounds were common in some Indian traditions, and they were used to bury important people. Today, stupas are almost exclusively linked to Buddhism, but they were also used as monuments in some other traditions such as Jainism.

Some Buddhist accounts claim that when the Buddha passed away, his followers divided his relics, including his cremated remains, into eight portions. These relics were distributed to different kingdoms within India and stupas were erected over them to honour the Buddha’s memory. As an act of homage to Buddhism, the legend says that the Indian emperor Ashoka the Great (304-232 BCE) redistributed the relics during the 3rd century BCE. The intention of Ashoka was also to ensure the protection of the Buddha all across his empire. The relics, originally divided into eight portions, were divided by Ashoka into thousands of portions (the most popular account claiming it was 84,000) and thousands of stupas were built on top of them. This legend along with many others helped the stupas to became a signature icon of Buddhism.

Before the time of the Buddha, stupas were mainly treated as sepulchral monuments but some Buddhist accounts hold that when the Buddha requested his remains to be placed into a stupa after his death, he also suggested a different interpretation for stupas: a symbol of an enlightened mind, as opposed to merely a place to house the dead. Therefore, stupas are also considered a place of meditation in addition to their traditional meaning as commemorative monuments.

Important Stupas

Some stupas have a special importance in the Buddhist tradition because they were built exclusively to commemorate important events related to Buddhism. One example is the Dhamek Stupa located in Sarnath, also known as the deer park, near the city of Varanasi. Sarnath is the place were the Buddha first taught others what he had learnt. This is a key moment in the Buddhist tradition, traditionally known as the moment when the Buddha “set in motion the wheel of the law”, his first sermon.

Another important stupa is the “Great Stupa at Sanchi”, located at Sanchi, a small Indian village. It was built during the 3rd century BCE by Ashoka and enlarged in the 2nd century BCE to twice its original size. It is one of the most important places of Buddhist pilgrimage and the tradition claims that it was built over the relics of the Buddha, including a portion of his cremated remains.

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