Buddhist Architecture 101 Part 2: Stupa
January 15, 2015
Shwe Zi Gon stupa in Bagan, Myanmar | Duende by Madam ZoZo

In Buddhist Architecture 101: What is a Pagoda?, I mentioned that pagodas evolved from the stupas of ancient Nepal.  In Part 2, I elaborate a little on the interesting history, purpose and symbolism of stupas, and how they have evolved over time.

Primitive beginnings

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.

Architectural evolution

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 which acts as the structure’s spire.

Stupas | Buddhist Architecture 101 | Duende by Madam ZoZo
A selection of stupas...left: Pha That Luang, Vientiane, Lao PDR. Centre: Phra Si Ratana Chedi, Bangkok, Thailand. Right: Shwe Zi Gon, Bagan, Myanmar

Stupa symbolism

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, inverted alms bowl, drinking cup, staff and parasol. Another theory is that the stupa silhouette represents Buddha seated in meditation on a throne.

The world’s oldest and best

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. The Shwedagon Pagoda (technically a stupa) of Myanmar, is another famous example.

You can find more of the Buddhist Architecture 101 series here.

Peace, love & inspiring travel,

Madam ZoZo

Shwezigon Stupa | Duende by Madam ZoZo
Buddhist Architecture 101: Stupa

About author

Madam ZoZo

Hi! I'm Madam ZoZo, aka Zoë, an Australian designer, creative consultant, blogger and digital nomad. I'm passionate about travel, design, dance and new experiences that fuel my creativity. I strive to travel in a style that is gentle on the earth and that contributes to the communities I visits, even if it is merely to take away a greater understanding of a different culture. Duende by Madam ZoZo, is where I share the stories of my travels and the duende (soul/inspiration) I find along the way.


Top Tips for Visiting Teotihuacan – Ancient City of Mystery

Top tips for visiting Teotihuacan, the mysterious ...

Read more
Chapultepec Castle

Chapultepec Castle: A Mexico City Must-See

In Buddhist Architecture 101: What is a Pagoda?, ...

Read more
Round vaulted hallways of Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary – An Eerily Photogenic Experience

In Buddhist Architecture 101: What is a Pagoda?, ...

Read more

There are 3 comments

  • […] as that! In Part 2 of Buddhist Architecture 101, I will delve into the […]

  • […] you missed Part 1 or Part 2 of the Buddhist Architecture 101 series, you can shortcut to them […]

  • […] important in countries such as Myanmar where one of the main attractions is the variety of Buddhist stupas […]

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.