The stupa, an architectural structure usually housing the cremated remains or possessions of important saintly figures, is considered to be the structural emblem and the most important type of monument of Buddhism. Most stupas have a very distinctive semi-spherical shape, often surrounded by a fence. As Buddhism was introduced in different regions, the basic architectural features of stupas were transformed into a variety of shapes reflecting the artistic expressions of those cultures.
Origin of the Stupa in the Buddhist Tradition
The Mahaparinirvana Sutra (an ancient Buddhist text describing the last days of the Buddha) claims that after the Buddha passed away, his followers divided his cremated remains into eight portions. Each of the eight kingdoms in which the Buddha had lived received one portion of the relics, and a stupa was erected in each kingdom in order to house the remains. Buddhist sources claim that during the 3rd century BCE, the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka the Great ordered these eight stupas to be opened, further distributed the relics of the Buddha into 84,000 portions, and had stupas built over them all over the expanding Buddhist world.
The relics of the Buddha were not merely considered a commemorative symbol by the Buddhist community; they were believed to be the living presence of the Buddha, a depository of his protective powers and living energy. Early in the Buddhist tradition, clergy and laity alike practiced the veneration of stupas and the relics in them in order to gain spiritual merit. The importance of the stupas gradually increased as a result of both the emphasis of the Buddhist relic-cult and their multiplication during the time of Ashoka. Stupas became a symbol not only of Buddhism itself but also an architectural testimony to its expansion and strength.
It should be noted that the veneration of stupas is not unique to Buddhism. This practice had its origin in Indian traditions pre-dating the emergence of Buddhism. From pre-historical times, burial mounds containing the remains of the dead were a common funerary practice in some Indian societies: in these mounds, the living paid homage to their dead, just like Buddhists would do for their saints centuries later.
Stupas & Early Buddhism
The earliest archaeological evidence for the presence of stupas in North India dates to the late 4th century BCE. These are all pilgrimage stupas, which means that they were built outside the domains of monastic complexes, at pilgrimage sites. Although we have no material evidence of earlier stupas, Buddhist scriptures claim that stupas were built at least a century earlier. It is possible that before this time, stupas were built with non-durable materials such as wood, or even as burial mounds, in which case archaeological detection would be nearly impossible.
The earliest evidence of monastic stupas dates back to the 2nd century BCE. These are stupas that were built within Buddhist monastic complexes. It is possible that these stupas replaced older stupas made of wood: some of their architectural components were shaped imitating wooden parts. Unfortunately none of these left any visible trace.
Architectural Development of the Stupa
During early Buddhist times, stupas were composed of a semi-spherical dome with a parasol placed on top. The dome covered a square base with a small receptacle in the centre containing relics, while a space for circumambulation was defined around the dome. This basic format underwent changes as stupas were introduced in other cultures.
In Sri Lanka, the stupa is known as dagoba. Different shapes of domes developed in Sri Lanka, and a very unique architectural expression also developed, in which the dagoba itself was enclosed by a large dome known as vatadage, supported by columns located around the dagoba. Among the many vatadages built in Sri Lanka, there is one of particular importance named Thuparama, which supposedly houses the collarbone relic of the Buddha.
In Myanmar, the stupa, known as the zedi, also went through a number of changes. The parasol on top of the dome was elongated and resembled a cone, and the number of disks increased and their size decreased, the higher they are on the dome. The square base was also modified following a complex geometry, including different levels with terraces, and resembled the shape of a pyramid.
Pagoda is the name for stupas found in China, where they are shaped like a tower. Here, the dome was eliminated, and the emphasis is on verticality. This architectural form travelled into Korea, where it is known as Tap, and also into Japan, where it known as To.
The Importance of Stupas in Buddhism
As the importance of the stupa grew, so it did its functions and meanings. In addition to being considered the living presence of the Buddha, his protective powers, and living energy, they were also a site of rituals and ceremonies. Their presence eventually attracted other constructions including monasteries.
The pilgrimage activity around the stupa had an important impact on the social history of Buddhism. Merchants, artisans, and monks alike enjoyed the benefits of the income generated by the activity resulting from the emblematic stupas. The religious function of the stupa was still central, but market activity and social interactions revolving around it were equally important for the communities where stupas were present.