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In Buddhism, a stupa (Sanskrit: ?????, lit. 'heap', IAST: stupa) is a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics (such as sarira - typically the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns) that is used as a place of meditation.
Circumambulation or pradakhshina has been an important ritual and devotional practice in Buddhism since the earliest times, and stupas always have a pradakhshina path around them. The original South Asian form is a large solid dome above a tholobate or drum with vertical sides, which usually sits on a square base. There is no access to the inside of the structure. In large stupas there may be walkways for circumambulation on top of the base as well as on the ground below it. Large stupas have or had vedika railings outside the path around the base, often highly decorated with sculpture, especially at the torana gateways, of which there are usually four. At the top of the dome is a thin vertical element, with one of more horizontal discs spreading from it. These were chatras, symbolic umbrellas, and tend not to have survived, if not restored. The Great Stupa at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, is the most famous and best-preserved early stupa in India.
Apart from very large stupas, designed to attract pilgrims, there were large numbers of smaller stupas in a whole range of sizes, which typically had much taller drums, relative to the height of the dome. Small votive stupas paid for by pilgrims might be less than a metre high, and laid out in rows by the hundred, as at Ratnagiri, Odisha.
As Buddhism spread, other forms were used for the same purposes, and the chortens of Tibetan Buddhism, and the pagodas of East Asian Buddhism are some of these. In South-East Asia various rather different elongated shapes of dome evolved, leading to high, thin spires. A related architectural term is a chaitya, which is a prayer hall or temple containing a stupa.
Table of contents
- Description and history
- Notable stupas
- Tibetan stupas
- Kalachakra stupa
- See also
Description and history
See also: Cetiya and Tumulus
Stupas may have originated as pre-Buddhist tumuli in which sramanas were buried in a seated position called chaitya.
In early Buddhist inscriptions in India stupa and caitya appear to be almost interchangable, though caitya has a broader meaning, and unlike stupa does not define an architectural form. In pre-Buddhist India caitya was a term for a shrine, sanctuary or holy place in the landscape, generally outdoors, inhabited by, or sacred to, a particular deity. In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, near the end of his life the Buddha remarks to Ananda how beautiful are the various caitya round Vaishali. In later times and in other countries Cetiya/caitya implies the presence of important relics. Both words have forms prefixed by maha for "great", "large" or "important", but scholars find the difference between a mahastupa and a stupa, or mahacetiya and cetiya hard to pin down.
Some authors have suggested that stupas were derived from a wider cultural tradition from the Mediterranean to the Ganges Valley, and can be related to the conical mounds on circular bases from the 8th century BCE that can be found in Phrygia (tomb of Midas, 8th c. BCE), Lydia (such as the tomb of Alyattes, 6th c. BCE), or in Phoenicia (tombs of Amrit, 5th c. BCE).
Archaeologists in India have observed that a number of early Buddhist stupas or burials are found in the vicinity of much older, pre-historic burials, including megalithic sites. This includes site associated with the Indus Valley civilization where broken Indus-era pottery was incorporated into later Buddhist burials. Structural features of the stupa- including its general shape and the practice of surrounding stupas with a stone or wooden railing- resemble both pre-Mauryan era cairn burials, as well as pre-historic relic burials found in southern India. Some stupas not believed to have been looted have been found to be empty when excavated, as have some pre-historic cairn sites, and animal bones are suspected to have occasionally been deposited at both types of sites.
Mounds for the relics of the Buddha (5th century BCE)
Further information: Buddhist architecture
Religious buildings in the form of the Buddhist stupa, a dome shaped monument, started to be used in India as commemorative monuments associated with storing sacred relics of the Buddha. After the parinirvana of the Buddha, his remains were cremated and the ashes divided and buried under eight mounds with two further mounds encasing the urn and the embers.
According to some early Buddhist sources, the Buddha himself had suggested this treatment, and when asked what a stupa was, had demonstrated the basic design: he folded his robe on the ground, placed his begging-bowl upside down on it, with his staff above that.
The relics of the Buddha were spread between eight stupas, in Rajagriha, Vaishali, Kapilavastu, Allakappa, Ramagrama, Pava, Kushinagar, and Vethapida. The Piprahwa stupa also seems to have been one of the first to be built. Lars Fogelin stated that the Vaisali relic stupa and Nigali Sagar stupa are likely the earliest archaeologically known stupas.
Guard rails --consisting of posts, crossbars, and a coping-- became a feature of safety surrounding a stupa. The Buddha had left instructions about how to pay homage to the stupas: "And whoever lays wreaths or puts sweet perfumes and colours there with a devout heart, will reap benefits for a long time". This practice would lead to the decoration of the stupas with stone sculptures of flower garlands in the Classical period.
Expansion under Ashoka (250 BCE)
According to Buddhist tradition, Emperor Ashoka (rule: 273--232 BCE) recovered the relics of the Buddha from the earlier stupas (except from the Ramagrama stupa), and erected 84,000 stupas to distribute the relics across India. In effect, many stupas are thought to date originally from the time of Ashoka, such as Sanchi or Kesariya, where he also erected pillars with his inscriptions, and possibly Bharhut, Amaravati or Dharmarajika in Gandhara. Ashoka also established the Pillars of Ashoka throughout his realm, generally next to Buddhist stupas.
The first known appearance of the word "Stupa" is from by Ashoka on the Nigali Sagar pillar (spelled in Pali in the Brahmi script as ???? "Thube").
Decorated stupas (from 125 BCE)
Stupas were soon to be richly decorated with sculptural reliefs, following the first attempts at Sanchi Stupa No.2 (125 BCE). Full-fledged sculptural decorations and scenes of the life of the Buddha would soon follow at Bharhut (115 BCE), Bodh Gaya (60 BCE), Mathura (125-60 BCE), again at Sanchi for the elevation of the toranas (1st century BCE/CE) and then Amaravati (1st-2nd century CE). The decorative embellishment of stupas also had a considerable development in the northwest in the area of Gandhara, with decorated stupas such as the Butkara Stupa ("monumentalized" with Hellenistic decorative elements from the 2nd century BCE) or the Loriyan Tangai stupas (2nd century CE).
Development in Gandhara (3rd century BCE-5th century CE)
The stupa underwent major evolutions in the area of Gandhara. Since Buddhism spread to Central Asia, China and ultimately Korea and Japan through Gandhara, the stylistic evolution of the Gandharan stupa was very influential in the later development of the stupa (and related artistic or architectural forms) in these areas. The Gandhara stupa followed several steps, generally moving towards more and more elevation and addition of decorative element, leading eventually to the development of the pagoda tower. The main stupa type are, in chronological order:
Origin of the pyramidal temple
- The Dharmarajika Stupa with a near-Indian design of a semi-hemispheric stupa almost directly on the ground surface, probably dated to the 3rd century BCE. Similar stupas are the Butkara stupa, the Manikyala stupa or the Chakpat stupa.
- The Saidu Sharif Stupa, pillared and quincunxial, with a flight of stairs to a dome elevated on a square platform. Many Gandhara minutiures represent this spectacular type (1st century CE).
- The Loriyan Tangai Stupa, with an elongated shape and many narrative reliefs, in many way the Classical Gandharan stupa (2nd century CE).
- The near-pyramidal Jaulian stupa (2nd century CE).
- The cruciform type, as in the Bhamala Stupa, with flights of stairs in the four cardinal directions (4th century CE).
- The towering design of the second Kanishka stupa (4-5th century CE).
It is thought that the temple in the shape of a truncated pyramid may have derived from the design of the stepped stupas which developed in Gandhara. The Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya is one such example, formed of a succession of steps with niches containing Buddha images, alternating with Greco-Roman pillars. The structure is crowned by the shape of a hemispherical stupa topped by finials, forming a logical elongation of the stepped Gandharan stupas such as those seen in Jaulian.
Although the current structure of the Mahabdhodi Temple dates to the Gupta period (5th century CE), the "Plaque of Mahabhodi Temple", discovered in Kumrahar and dated to 150-200 CE based on its dated Kharoshthi inscriptions and combined finds of Huvishka coins, suggests that the pyramidal structure already existed in the 2nd century CE. This is confirmed by archaeological excavations in Bodh Gaya.
This truncated pyramid design also marked the evolution from the aniconic stupa dedicated to the cult of relics, to the iconic temple with multiple images of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. This design was very influential in the development of later Hindu temples.
Expansion in Asia
Stupa architecture was adopted in Southeast and East Asia, where it became prominent as a Buddhist monument used for enshrining sacred relics. The Indian gateway arches, the torana, reached East Asia with the spread of Buddhism. Some scholars hold that torii derives from the torana gates at the Buddhist historic site of Sanchi (3rd century BCE - 11th century CE). In Tibet, the stupa became the chorten, and the pagoda in East Asia. The pagoda has varied forms that also include bell-shaped and pyramidal styles. In the Western context, there is no clear distinction between a stupa and a pagoda. In general, however, "stupa" is the term used for a Buddhist structure in India or Southeast Asia while "pagoda" refers to a building in East Asia which can be entered and which may be used for secular purposes. However, use of the term varies by region. For example, stupas in Burma tend to be referred to as "pagodas."
Stupas were built in Sri Lanka soon after Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura converted to Buddhism. The first stupa to be built was the Thuparamaya. Later, many more were built over the years, some like the Jetavanaramaya in Anuradhapura, being one of the tallest ancient structures in the world.
Development of the pagoda
The Asian words for pagoda (ta in Chinese, t'ap in Korean, tháp in Vietnamese, to in Japanese) are all thought to derive from the Pali word for stupa, thupa, the Sanskrit pronunciation being stupa. In particular the type of the tower-like stupa, the last stage of Gandharan stupa development, visible in the second Kanishka stupa (4th century), is thought to be the precussor of the tower stupas in Turkestan and the Chinese pagodas such as Songyue Pagoda (523 CE).
The earliest archaeological evidence for the presence of Buddhist stupas dates to the late 4th century BCE. Some of the oldest known examples of stupas are found in Vaishali, Kushinagar, Piprahwa, Ramgram, Sanchi, Sarnath, Amaravati and Bharhut.
With the top of its spire reaching 120.45 meters in height, Phra Pathommachedi in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand is the tallest extant stupa in the world. The Swat Valley hosts a well-preserved stupa at Shingardar near Ghalegay; another stupa is located near Barikot and Dharmarajika-Taxila in Pakistan. In Sri Lanka, the ancient city of Anuradhapura includes some of the tallest, most ancient and best preserved stupas in the world, such as Ruwanwelisaya.
The most elaborate stupa is the 8th century Borobudur monument in Java, Indonesia. The upper rounded terrace with rows of bell-shaped stupas contained Buddha images symbolizing Arupajhana, the sphere of formlessness. The main stupa itself is empty, symbolizing complete perfection of enlightenment. The main stupa is the crown part of the monument, while the base is a pyramidal structure elaborated with galleries adorned with bas relief scenes derived from Buddhist texts and depicting the life of Gautama Buddha. Borobudur's unique and significant architecture has been acknowledged by UNESCO as the largest Buddhist monument in the world. It is also the world's largest Buddhist temple. as well as one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world.
A Jain stupa was excavated at Mathura in the 19th century.
The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar is one of the largest and most holy stupas in the world.
See also: Buddhism in Europe
The Benalmádena Stupa is the tallest stupa in Europe. It is 33 m (108 ft) high and was inaugurated on 5 October 2003, the final project of Buddhist master Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche. Rinpoche built his first stupa at Karma Guen near Málaga in 1994, a symbol of peace and prosperity for Spain. Rinpoche went on to build 16 more stupas in Europe before his death in 2003.
A stupa was built on the ground of the Kalachakra Kalapa Centre in southwest Styria, Austria, between 2000 and 2002.
A stupa based on the bell shaped stupas at Boropodur, Central Java, is located at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery near Hemel Hempstead in the United Kingdom.
Types of stupas
Built for a variety of reasons, Buddhist stupas are classified based on form and function into five types:
- Relic stupa, in which the relics or remains of the Buddha, his disciples, and lay saints are interred.
- Object stupa, in which the items interred are objects belonged to the Buddha or his disciples, such as a begging bowl or robe, or important Buddhist scriptures.
- Commemorative stupa, built to commemorate events in the lives of Buddha or his disciples.
- Symbolic stupa, to symbolise aspects of Buddhist theology; for example, Borobudur is considered to be the symbol of "the Three Worlds (dhatu) and the spiritual stages (bhumi) in a Mahayana bodhisattva's character."
- Votive stupa, constructed to commemorate visits or to gain spiritual benefits, usually at the site of prominent stupas which are regularly visited.
"The shape of the stupa represents the Buddha, crowned and sitting in meditation posture on a lion throne. His crown is the top of the spire; his head is the square at the spire's base; his body is the vase shape; his legs are the four steps of the lower terrace; and the base is his throne."
Five purified elements
Although not described in any Tibetan text on stupa symbolism, the stupa may represent the five purified elements:
- The square base represents earth
- The hemispherical dome/vase represents water
- The conical spire represents fire
- The upper lotus parasol and the crescent moon represent air
- The sun and the dissolving point represent wisdom
To build a stupa, Dharma transmission and ceremonies known to a Buddhist teacher are necessary. The type of stupa to be constructed in a certain area is decided together with the teacher assisting in the construction. Sometimes the type is chosen directly connected with events that have taken place in the area.
All stupas contain a treasury filled with various objects. Small clay votive offerings called tsatsas in Tibetan fill most of the treasury. Creation of various types of tsatsas is a ceremony itself. Mantras written on paper are rolled into thin rolls and put into small clay stupas. One layer of tsatsas is placed in the treasury, and the empty space between them is filled with dry sand. On the thus created new surface, another layer of tsatsas is made, and so on until the entire space of the treasury is full.
The number of tsatsas required to completely fill the treasury depends on its size and the size of the tsatsa. For example, the Kalachakra stupa in southern Spain contains approximately 14,000 tsatsas.
Jewellery and other "precious" objects are also placed in the treasury. It is not necessary that they be expensive, since it is the symbolic value that is important, not the market price. It is believed that the more objects placed into the stupa, the stronger the energy of the stupa.
Tree of Life
An important element in every stupa is the "Tree of Life". This is a wooden pole covered with gems and thousands of mantras; it is placed in the central channel of the stupa. It is positioned during a ceremony or initiation, where the participants hold colorful ribbons connected to the Tree of Life. Together, the participants make their most positive and powerful wishes, which are stored in the Tree of Life. In this way the stupa is charged, and starts to function.
Building a stupa is considered extremely beneficial, leaving very positive karmic imprints in the mind. Future benefits from this action result in fortunate rebirths. Fortunate worldly benefits will be the result, such as being born into a rich family, having a beautiful body, a nice voice, being attractive, bringing joy to others, and having a long and happy life in which one's wishes are quickly fulfilled. On the absolute level, one will also be able quickly to reach enlightenment, the goal of Buddhism.
Destroying a stupa, on the other hand, is considered an extremely negative deed, similar to killing. Such an action is said to create massive negative karmic imprints, leading to serious future problems. It is said this action leaves the mind in a state of paranoia after death has occurred, leading to totally unfortunate rebirths.
Stupas in Tibet and the Tibetan influenced regions of the Himalayas such as Bhutan are usually called chorten in English, reflecting the term in the Tibetan language. There are eight different shapes of chortens in Tibetan Buddhism, each referring to a major event in the Buddha's life. The chortens are often made as a set, placed in a row. The Tibetan set differs slightly (by two events) from the Indian set of Eight Great Events in the Life of Buddha.
Lotus Blossom Stupa
Also known as "Stupa of Heaped Lotuses" or "Birth of the Sugata Stupa", this stupa refers to the birth of Gautama Buddha. "At birth Buddha took seven steps in each of the four directions" (east, south, west and north). In each direction lotuses sprang up, symbolizing the brahmaviharas: love, compassion, joy and equanimity. The base of this stupa is circular and has four steps, and it is decorated with lotus-petal designs. Occasionally, seven heaped lotus steps are constructed. These refer to the seven first steps of the Buddha.
Also known as the "Stupa of the Conquest of Mara", this stupa symbolizes the 35-year-old Gautama Buddha|Buddha's attainment of enlightenment under the bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, where he conquered worldly temptations and attacks, manifesting in the form of Mara.
Stupa of Many Doors
This stupa is also known as the "Stupa of Many Gates". After reaching enlightenment, the Buddha taught his first students in a deer park near Sarnath. The series of doors on each side of the steps represents the first teachings: the Four Noble Truths, the Six Paramitas, the Noble Eightfold Path and the Twelve Nidanas.
Stupa of Descent from the God Realm
At 42 years of age, Buddha spent a summer retreat in the Tusita Heaven where his mother had taken rebirth. In order to repay her kindness he taught the dharma to her rebirth. Local inhabitants built a stupa in Sankassa in order to commemorate this event. This type of stupa is characterized by having a central projection at each side containing a triple ladder or steps.
Stupa of Great Miracles
Also known as the "Stupa of Conquest of the Tirthikas", this stupa refers to various miracles performed by the Buddha when he was 50 years old. Legend claims that he overpowered maras and heretics by engaging them in intellectual arguments and also by performing miracles. This stupa was raised by the Lichavi kingdom to commemorate the event.
Stupa of Reconciliation
This stupa commemorates the Buddha's resolution of a dispute among the sangha. A stupa in this design was built in the kingdom of Magadha, where the reconciliation occurred. It has four octagonal steps with equal sides.
Stupa of Complete Victory
This stupa commemorates Buddha's successful prolonging of his life by three months. It has only three steps, which are circular and unadorned.
Stupa of Nirvana
This stupa refers to the parinirvana or death of the Buddha when he was 80 years old. It symbolizes his complete absorption into the highest state of mind. It is bell-shaped and usually unornamented.
Main article: Kalachakra stupa
A ninth kind of stupa exists, the Kalachakra stupa. Its symbolism is not connected to events in the Buddha's life, but instead to the symbolism of the Kalachakra Tantra, created to protect against negative energies.
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