After the Buddha’s death in the early 4th century BCE, his body was cremated and the remains were divided amongst his followers. According to his last words, his remains were to be enshrined in dome-shaped structures called stupas, erected at prominent roads.
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Birth of Stupa
In the Buddha’s time, great kings and religious leaders often had their ashes placed into urns and buried in such mounds made from piled earth. By the 3rd century BCE, stupas were no longer just mounds made from soil but were built with bricks and mortar. Buddhists and Jainas both adapted the construction of stupas all throughout India, although it is primarily known outside of India as a Buddhist religious structure. When Buddhism spread outside of India, stupas were always the first type of architecture to be carried with the religious philosophy. Over time, in all foreign lands, relics of the Buddha were found and enshrined. It is unclear whether all stupas were originally intended to house relics of the Buddha or were just meant to symbolically represent the Buddha and his death. However, during some excavations undertaken by British and Indian archaeologists throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, reliquaries were unearthed in some stupas. Some of these reliquaries were inscribed with labels that indicate whose relics were buried there. Several of these ornate urns claim to contain bits of bone and relics of the Buddha himself. Over time, the architectural style of the stupa changed to accommodate new worship patterns of the Buddhists. By the 10th century of the Common Era, Buddhist stupas were more of an artistic symbol than reliquary mounds.
History of Stupas
Buddhist tradition asserts that Emperor Ashoka located all of the original stupas containing the Buddha’s relics. He excavated the stupas and unearthed the reliquaries. From there, he divided the relics even further and constructed thousands of stupas all over the Indian subcontinent, spreading the breadth of his entire empire. He also repaired earlier stupas, such as those attributed to the relics of prior Buddhas before Siddhartha Gautama. Prior to the Buddhists and Ashoka, the word stupa meant ‘crest’ or ‘summit’ but it is probably that Ashoka innovated the widespread use of the word to indicate a brick burial mound.
Jainas built stupas during the Kushana period at Kankali in Mathura (3rd century CE). However, few Jaina stupas were built after this time, although it is likely that many of the early Jaina stupas just simply did not survive until the present day. The Jainas also extended the meaning of a stupa to symbolize a heavenly core from which the Jina, namely Mahavira, taught. Architecturally, though, their stupas looked approximately the same as Buddhist stupas. In fact, stupas represented in the art at Mathura look so similar to well-known real Buddhist stupas that it is probably that there was some overlap between the Buddhist and Jaina builders. The relationship between early Buddhists and early Jainas is one of the great testaments to religious diversity and plurality in India, as the differences between the religions were subtle. Likely, at the level of the layman, only experts could tell the difference between each religious tradition’s art and architecture.
Stupas as Architecture
Stupas were originally piled clumps of earth forming a mound. Eventually, after Ashoka, stupas became brick mounds held together with mortar and plaster on the outside. Their domes were often painted and decorated with unique features such as garlands or ornate designs. Beyond the basic dome, however, stupas were often accompanied by other architectural features unique to this type of structure. The dome, called an anda (‘egg’), was supported on a base, called a medhi. Depending on how large the stupa was, a stairway often led up to an elevated plinth around where a secondary circumambulatory path existed. On the top of the stupa was a chattra (‘umbrella’), which symbolized royalty in ancient India. The chattra extends from a yashti, or ‘pillar’ which functions as a type of axis mundi rooted in the center of the earth. The circumambulatory path around the very base of the stupa is called a pradashinapatha and is enclosed by the vedika, or ‘railing.’ Some larger stupas contain toranas, or ‘gateways’ which functionally separate the inner sanctum space from the outside world. Stupas that have gateways are always oriented towards the four cardinal directions.
While all stupas are easily identifiable as stupas, the form and function of the stupa did not always remain the same. Stupas built of brick were often placed on top of hilltops or mountains in the outside world. Stupas may also be built of pure stone, as at the rock-cut sites such as Ajanta or Ellora. Scholars call stupas made of brick “open-air stupas” while the stone stupas are simply “rock-cut stupas.” Originally stupas were intended to house only the relics of the Buddha, but later many stupas were found to house relics of prominent monastic teachers or saintly patriarchs of subsects within the Buddhist community. Both open-air and rock-cut stupas served as objects of Buddhist worship from the 4th century BCE until the present day where stupas now function as an artistic symbol of the Buddha and his teachings.
The earliest and best preserved of Buddhist stupa-sites is Sanchi in modern Madhya Pradesh, India, which dates to the 2nd century BCE. The large stupa there sits on top of a hill overlooking a small village below. The stupa there was originally built with large bricks and simple plaster but later expanded to its current size where smaller bricks added an artistic aesthetic to the quality of the stupa. Around the stupa at Sanchi is a monumental railing separating the area used for individual, contemplative worship of the stupa from the outside world. Worshipers, including laymen and monastic Buddhists, would circumnavigate around the stupa to earn merit. Despite its size and grandeur, the stupa at Sanchi has never yielded any reliquaries to its excavators. Around the stupa at Sanchi, shrines and monasteries were erected to house monks and nuns. Later, in the 1st century BCE, monumental gateways were added to the stupa’s railing. These gateways sit high into the air and are some of the most famous relief art in all of India. Any textbook on Indian art would not be complete without a section devoted to the art at Sanchi.
The gateways depict scenes known from the Buddha’s life, including his past lives. However, fascinatingly, the art belongs to a period of Buddhist art where the Buddha himself was not depicted in the art, even in scenes well known in Buddhist literature, such as his Great Departure from Kapilavastu. Rather, the Buddha is represented aniconically where symbols associated with his life in various ways sit in for him. As such, in the art, trees represent the Buddha at Bodh Gaya, the seat of enlightenment, wheels represent the Buddha at Sarnath, the location of the first sermon, and stupas represent the Buddha in death as he was cremated at Kushinagara. Other scenes represented at Sanchi include, but are not limited to, Indra’s heaven, Ashoka visiting pilgrimage sites associated with the life of the Buddha, elephants worshiping at stupas, the Vessantara Jataka where the Buddha in his final life before being born as Siddhartha Gautama gave away all of his possessions including his wife and children, and the mourning laity celebrating the Buddha’s life after his death.
Sanchi may be unique in its art, but its fame largely rests on its preservation status. Sanchi is a Unesco World Heritage monument and has been preserved by the British and Indian governments as a cultural icon. However, it is definitely not the only stupa site of its kind. Other sites which are equally as large and nearly as elaborate in terms of their art and architecture are Bharhut, a stupa now preserved in the Calcutta museum, and Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh. Each of these sites was built similar to Sanchi on hilltops overlooking villages. At Sanchi, and presumably at other sites, the stupa served as the primary object of worship but was not the only interesting feature at the site. It has been well attested that the monks at Sanchi were somehow involved in irrigation with the villagers who lived below the hilltop. Many tanks and man-made canals have been found at Sanchi, suggesting that the monks maintained some sort of economic relationship with the villagers, likely trading service-for-service. As known through Buddhist literature, the relationship between the Buddhist monastic community and the lay community was symbiotic, each needing each other to survive.
- J. Hawkes and A. Shimada: Buddhist Stupas in South Asia (Delhi and Oxford, 2009).
- S. L. Huntington and J.C. Huntington: The Art of Ancient India (Boston and London, 1985).
- M. Milligan: A Study of Inscribed Reliefs within the Context of Donative Inscriptiosn at Sanchi. M.A. Thesis, University of Texas at Austin.