In Buddhist Architecture 101: What is a Pagoda?, I mentioned that pagodas evolved from the stupas of ancient Nepal. In this post, I’ll elaborate a little on the interesting history, purpose and symbolism of stupas, and how they have evolved over time, as well as where to see some of the finest and most unique examples.
What is a stupa?
Stupas began as pre-Buddhist burial mounds in Nepal. The originating name “stupa” actually translates to “heap” in the classical Indian language Sanskrit. Stupas were adopted by Buddhists to hold sacred relics, scripts and the ashes of monks, as well as to be a site of meditation.
Each stupa also possesses a wooden pole carved with prayers and embellished with gems, which runs vertically through the centre of the building from top to bottom as a representation of the “tree of life.” Stupas serve as commemorative monuments and are not intended to have devotees enter. As stupas spread with Buddhism across Asia, they became known by many names including chorten in Tibet, zedi in Myanmar and chedi in Thailand, amongst other localised variations.
While generally remaining based on the original mound shape, the stupa’s form evolved differently depending on its location and localised cultural influences. The overall architecture can be broken into five basic shapes building from the base to the peak. These start at the bottom with a rectangular section upon which a dome sits. The dome supports a conical segment that is topped with a hemisphere. Finally at the apex of the structure is a stylised parasol that acts as the structure’s spire.
The symbolism of a stupa’s shape can also vary depending on where you are, who you ask and the specific structure in question. For some, it is the five elements: earth, fire, water, wind, space. Others believe the five shapes represent a monk’s possessions: folded robes, an inverted alms bowl, drinking cup, staff and parasol. Another theory is that the stupa silhouette represents Buddha seated in meditation on a throne.
Super stupa top 10
In the 3rd Century BC, Emperor Ashoka The Great commissioned the now World Heritage-listed Great Stupa of Sanchi in India, the oldest remaining Buddhist structure of its kind. Some more unique and outstanding examples of stupas to look out for include:
1. Borobudur, Magelang, Indonesia
2. Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand
3. Phra Pathommachedi, Nakhon Pathom, Thailand
4. Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar
5. Shwezigon Zedi, Shwesandaw Zedi and various other stupas in Bagan, Myanmar
6. Pha That Luang, Vientiane, Laos
7. Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal
8. Kesaria Stupa, Kesaria, India
9. Sanchi Stupa, Sanchi, India (as mentioned above)
10. Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Stupa visitor etiquette
There are a few easy rules to follow when visiting a stupa:
- Respect the stupas are a place of worship and speak quietly.
- Remove your shoes and never point with your fee, or sit with your feet towards a Buddha image or monk.
- Respect “no photography” signs.
- When in Tibet, always move around a stupa in a clockwise direction.
- As with all Buddhist religious sites, women should cover their upper arms and knees.
You can read the other parts of the Buddhist Architecture 101 series here:
Buddhist Architecture 101: What is a Pagoda?
Buddhist Architecture 101: Wat or Not?
Peace, love & inspiring travel,