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The Buddhist Stupa: origin and development

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Art History 120, Fall 1996

"The Stupa is truly the image, or rather the epiphany, of the Buddha, of his Law that rules the universe, and is moreover a psycho-cosmogram. The form, suggested by the apparent aspect of the vault of the sky, implies in its turn the total presence and intangibility of the Buddha, who in this way is seen not as a human teacher but as the essence of the Universe."

The Stupa (India), Dagoba (Sri Lanka) and Chorten (Tibet) have an ancient and detailed history, and within the confines of this monograph it has been my attempt to provide as much information with regard to their structure and symbolism as possible. By detailing specific examples from chosen categories, I have ventured to typify the Stupa in terms of architectural style and symbolism to give the reader an introduction to the structure that is the most quintessential object of Buddhist adoration and worship.

The study of the Stupa may be approached from three tangents, namely, its historical, stylistic and regional development. The historical development of the Stupa can be roughly divided into two phases:

1. Hinayana or Theravada,
2. Mahayana,

The Hinayana (c. 400 B.C- 250 A.D.) was the 'doctrine of the elders', and Mahayana or later phase (c. 251- 700 A.D.), 'the great vehicle' of Buddhism. The latter phase witnessed a shift from iconic to aniconic imagery of the Buddha, but the Stupa architecture itself remained distinct from all previous monuments and future architecture.

In terms of construction, the Stupa is found in two major forms. First, the free standing or 'built-up', and second the rock-cut or excavated (chaitya hall). Stupas, variegated in size, shape and adornment, are located mainly in India, Tibet, Nepal, Sri Lanka and regions of East Asia. This text deals with the former four regions, concentrating mainly on the Indian Stupa and its variants.

Vadduvaakal stupa 01.JPG

After a brief introduction to its origin, I have ventured to discuss in detail two of the Stupa's major stylistic occurrences: free standing (Sanchi) and rock-cut (Bhaja), both from India. Parallel developments in other regions are then outlined and the styles that characterize Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism are identified as they occur.


The word 'Stupa' is said to have been derived from the Sanskrit root 'Stu' meaning 'to worship' or 'to praise'. The Stupa developed as the nucleus of Buddhist faith and worship, but its origin cannot be regarded as Buddhist for evidence of its roots date back to c. 2000 B.C. Burial mounds containing relics were raised from earth and rock according to an age old custom that had survived from as early as Neolithic times. These burial mounds were also common during the lifetime of the Buddha and he instructed his disciples to erect them at cross-roads to commemorate great kings, sages and heroes. Naturally, after the death of the Buddha, a Stupa was to be raised in his honor, and eight of the mightiest princes fought for his ashes and bones. These relics were thus distributed to eight different kingdoms and Stupas were erected over them. During Ashoka's reign (c. 273-232 B.C.), they were redistributed and a portion is said to have been enshrined in the Great Stupa at Sanchi.

It is perhaps only in Buddhism that a particular structure has been recommended by its founder for worship and salvation, for the Stupa enables the worshiper to not only think of the Buddha as an imminent reality (by regarding the Stupa as a visual manifestation of the Buddha), but also epitomizes his enlightenment and nirvana. In this way the Buddhist Stupa transcends its predecessor, the burial mound or tumulus, by shifting the emphasis from a particular relic to a higher transcendental actuality as realized by the Buddha, i.e. the Buddha's attainment and the worshiper's goal.



The monastery at Sanchi was originally constructed by Bimbisara, king of Magadha and contemporary of the Buddha. It owes its present form to renovations by Ashoka and the later Shunga kings who through their support and patronage established Stupa worship as an institution in Buddhism.

The main structure of the Great Stupa (Figure 1) consisted of a flattened hemispherical cupola or dome, called an anda, placed atop a cylindrical base. Anda, literally an egg, alluded not only to the shape, but to its deeper significance as a symbol of latent creative power. The anda was also intended as an architectural replica of the infinite dome of heaven, representing the cycle of death and rebirth (anda related to the universe in ancient Hindu mythology and was also sometimes called the Garbha or 'womb'). The harmika, located at the summit of the anda, symbolized the zenith beyond life and death (nirvana) and its resemblance to a sacrificial altar was of particular significance, for the attainment of nirvana required the sacrifice of the self and the world (what was below needed to be sacrificed to reach the top).

A torana (entrance gate).
B vedika (stone fence railing).
C pradaksini patha (circumambulatory path).
D foundation, base.
E medhi (terrace or upper pradaksina patha).
F anda (hemispheric cupola or dome).
G harmika (kiosk).
I chattra (honorific umbrella).
J staircase leading to the terrace for cirumambulation.
K Ashokan column


Details from GOVINDA, LAMA ANAGARIKA, Psycho-cosmic Symbolism of the Buddhist Stupa (California: Dharma Publishing, 1976), p. 13.

. The Great Stupa at Sanchi

Rising from the harmika was one of the most important elements of the stupa. The yasti or pole (that was imagined to run through the anda into the ground) represented the axis-mundi (world axis) that connected heaven and earth. This link was duplex: a pathway of ascent from the limited physical world to the unlimited and unbounded, and a channel for the down-flow of reality into the world (an influx that imbues the world with meaning and the finite with infinite). Above the anda the yasti serves as a support for tiers of circular umbrellas or chattras that signify the supremacy of the whole structure. The parasol was always a distinguishing feature that implied royalty and dignity, but moreover, as a crowning feature of the stupa it symbolized the sacred Tree of Life or enlightenment. The three elements of the chattra at Sanchi represented the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Law, and the community of monks. The idea of the chattra as a tree is summarised by Govinda: "…the Tree of Life and Enlightenment grows out of the ashes of the sacrificial altar (harmika) which crowns the dome, the monumental world-egg and the womb of a new world which has been fecundated by the seeds of a glorious past… thus, the spiritual birth of the world starts in the mind of man, and the Tree of Life grows out of his own heart, the center of his world, and spreads into ever new infinities, into ever higher and purer realms, until it has turned into a Tree of Enlightenment."

Keeping with the ancient tradition of enclosing a sacred tree with a fence, the chattra was enclosed by a railing or vedika. Similar vedikas were repeated around the stupa and on the terrace on which the anda rested (medhi level). They served to demarcate the boundary of the sacred precinct with the secular world. The lowest vedika had four entrance gateways or toranas, and enclosed the main pradaksina patha (circumambulatory path). The orientation of the toranas (east, south, west and north), and the direction of ritualistic circumambulation corresponded with the direction of the sun's course: to sunrise, zenith, sunset and nadir.

The decoration of the Stupas during the Hinayana period was restricted almost entirely to the sculpture of the vedikas and toranas. Fig. 2 shows a reconstruction drawing of a torana from the Bharut Stupa (Madhya Pradesh, India). By contemplating the imagery on the toranas, the worshiper entered the necessary state of mind required prior to circumambulation. The elaborate reliefs give the torana a striking contrast to the plain body of the stupa. It was only during the Mahayana and later periods that the body of the stupa became the subject of relief sculpture and aniconic depiction of the Buddha was seen on the anda itself (in the chaitya halls of Ajanta).

Shanti Stupa012.jpg


The term 'chaitya' is derived form the Sanskrit word 'chita', the mound of ashes formed by the cremation of a dead body. Eventually it came to mean the earth mound heaped over the ashes or relics of a saint, and chaitya became 'that which is worthy to be gazed upon,' thus 'worshipful'.

The earliest 'rock-cut' sanctuaries date back to c. 200 B.C. These chambers were carved as retreats for ascetics and monks of various sects. The architecture resembled the wooden structures of the time, with barrel vaulted interiors and vertical grooves on the walls to imitate wooden beams and members (even the thatched vedikas and toranas of the 'built-up' stupas were made to resemble parallel developments in wood-work).

Figure 3. The chaitya hall and viharas at Bhaja, Maharastara (mid-second century B.C.)

Illustration from Rowland, Benjamin. The Art and Architecture of India, 3rd revised ed. (New York: Penguin, 1977), p. 114.

As Buddhism developed from isolated asceticism to a monastic organization, the single cell chamber developed into a monumental chaitya hall that could accommodate a much larger assembly. One of the earliest chaitya hall and vihara (monastery) complexes is the one at Bhaja (Figure 3), in western India. The chaitya hall, as described by Craven, "is a long apsed chamber divided longitudinally by two rows of columns which create a broad central nave flanked by two narrow aisles [the circumambulatory passage]. In the apse the aisles meet and curve around the stupa, which, when seen from the entrance door, is centered dramatically at the nave's end." The chaitya arch that makes up the façade is the main source of daylight for the hall, and its pattern is reminiscent of the windows of similar wooden structures. In fact, the entire façade was once constructed of wood and wooden ribs were affixed to the vault, thus imitating the structure of free standing buildings. Even the pillars that divide the nave and the aisles were tilted inwards to provide the necessary 'thrust' that would be needed to support a free standing structure. But this similarity to wooden buildings gradually disappeared, and with it the Hinayana period of chatiya architecture. The Mahayana period not only detached rock-cut architectural style from its wooden predecessor, but also introduced anthropomorphic representation of the Buddha on the stupa. The chaitya halls at Ajanta (Figure 4) represent the apex of Buddhist rock-cut architecture and bear the theistic imprint of Mahayana Buddhism.

Stupa in Gotemba.jpg

Figure 4. Interior of Cave 19, Ajanta, Maharastra (late fifth century A.D.)

From Huntington, Susan L. The Art of Ancient India (New York: Weatherhill, 1993), p. 249.

The chaitya halls embodied the same metaphysical symbolism that was attached to the stupa form. One of the reasons, according to Stierlin, for the preference given to rock-hewn monuments was: "the stupa, in its meaning as cosmic egg, could be represented directly in the 'primeval matter', stone, in the dark depths of a subterranean chamber, without the substance of the anda having to be transported or reconstructed by human hand." The chaitya hall itself was thought of as a universe in a microcosm, with the entrance arch as a doorway to the world. But as rock-cut chaitya halls became more popular, the stupa began to lose its original meaning and became merely symbolic.


As Buddhism faced decline in India (c. sixth and seventh centuries), it found its way to Tibet and Nepal in the north and Sri Lanka in the south. The growth of the religion in these regions saw a parallel development of the stupa, though the original shape was retained almost perfectly in the Dagobas of Sri Lanka (Figure 5). Whereas the fundamental symbolism of the anda as the universe and the floor plan as a cosmic diagram remained the same, the chattra evolved into a spire or elongated cone, with a number of horizontal rings which progressively diminished toward the summit. The different strata of the cone corresponded to stages of consciousness on the way to enlightenment.

Elevation of Ruvaneli Dagoba, Andhrapura, Sri Lanka. (Second-first century B.C.)

Lotus Stupa.jpg

From Govinda, Lama Anagarika, Psycho-cosmic Symbolism of the Buddhist Stupa (California: Dharma Publishing, 1976), p. 18.

Figure 6. Elevation of a Tibetan Chorten.

From Snodgrass, Adrian. The Symbolism of the Stupa (New York: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 1991), p. 367.

Above the harmika of the chorten (Figure 6) rose a stepped pyramid in thirteen stories, reinforcing the idea of the Tree of Life or enlightenment and typifying the thirteen heavens of the devas. This in turn was surmounted by an honorific umbrella or flame finial.

The homology of the stupa and the Body of the Buddha is expressed quite literally in the Tibetan Chorten (Figure 7). The axis of the stupa was identified with the Buddha's spinal column and the supporting base with his legs and thighs. The harmika was his head, and accordingly the Nepalese painted his eyes on its four sides (Figure 8), to depict the 'all-seeing' Buddha.


Just as the construction of a legendary 84,000 stupas by Ashoka led to Buddhism's establishment in India, the first ten centuries of Buddhist architectural development acquired the stupa a place of its own in the history of Asian Architecture and Civilization. In Sushila Pant's words:

"The Stupa as an architecture, though religious in character and sui genere, assimilated the secular, religious folk art practices of the past and the traditions of the alien art and thus contributed to the development of art in India."

Craven, Roy C. Indian Art (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985).
Govinda, Lama Anagarika, Psycho-cosmic Symbolism of the Buddhist Stupa (California: Dharma Publishing, 1976).
Huntington, Susan L. The Art of Ancient India (New York: Weatherhill, 1993).
Pant, Sushila. The Origin and Development of Stupa Architecture in India, 1st ed. (Varanasi, India: Bharata Manisha, 1976).
Rowland, Benjamin. The Art and Architecture of India, 3rd revised ed. (New York: Penguin, 1977).
Snodgrass, Adrian. The Symbolism of the Stupa (New York: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 1991).

Stierlin, Henri. Architecture of the World: India (Germany: B. Tascken, n.d.).