What is a Stupa? - Definition & Symbolism

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Architecture is rarely a matter of simply making structures that stand up, and few edifices demonstrate the symbolism of buildings better than the stupa. In this lesson, we'll examine this architectural form and see what it represents.

The Stupa

Many philosophies have definitive architectural structures that are associated with them. For the Greeks, it was column-lined temples. For Catholics, it's the basilica or cathedral. For Buddhists, no architectural form is more important than the stupa. At its most basic, a stupa is a ceremonial burial mound used for the veneration of Buddhist saints and relics, as well as the Buddha himself. However, Buddhism is a deeply symbolic cosmology, so it would be foolish to assume that the oldest Buddhist architectural tradition is not filled with symbolism. It's more than just a structure; it's a lesson in Buddhism.

Stupas are very important architectural symbols in Buddhism

Origins of the Stupa

To understand the stupa, we have to go way back in ancient Indian history. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha himself, died in the 5th century BCE. His followers were then left with a very important question: what do we do with his remains? At the time, burial mounds were commonly used to inter kings and other important figures. So, the Buddha's cremated remains were divided, with one portion traveling to each of the eight kingdoms in which he had resided. As a result, eight stupas were built, holding the Buddha's ashes and giving his followers a place to meet, meditate, and discuss their philosophies.

Buddha's remains were also seen as the living essence of Buddha, which people could still tap into and learn from on their own journeys towards enlightenment. So, these stupas were very important, and others were built to hold relics associated with later Buddhist teachers. The oldest archaeological evidence of Buddhist stupas dates to the 4th century BCE, although tradition maintains that there were many built before this. It's likely that the oldest stupas were made of wood, not stone, and have since deteriorated.

Development of the Stupa

In the 3rd century BCE, the Emperor Ashoka became the first ruler of India's Mauryan Empire to convert to Buddhism. In order to spread Buddhism across the subcontinent, he had the eight original Buddhist stupas opened, and according to tradition, redistributed the remains amongst 84,000 communities while having stupas built for each of them. It was at this point that Buddhist stupas became ubiquitous features of the Indian landscape.

The Great Stupa of Sanchi may be the oldest existing stupa in the world, and part of its construction probably took place during the reign of Emperor Ashoka

By the 3rd century BCE, Buddhist practitioners had refined the stupa, and altered it to reflect Buddhist teachings. Spreading this form across India solidified it as a uniquely Buddhist structural design. So, what made the Buddhist stupa different? The traditional mound, originally made of earth, was now generally made of stone. It was also elevated on top of a flat, rectilinear or circular platform. Finally, the mound was topped with some form of pinnacle, often in the shape of a cone or spire. The grounds immediately surrounding the stupa were also enclosed with a gate or fence featuring four gateways, one on each side.

What does this all mean? The stupa itself is a symbol of the Buddha, and more accurately, of his enlightened mind and presence. The gates are associated with the four definitive events of his life: the eastern gate with his birth, the western gate with his first sermon, the southern gate for his enlightenment, and the northern gate for nirvana. The platform, which touches the earth, is a reminder that the Buddha was born on earth, a testament to the idea that he really lived. The mound itself is said to represent the form of the seated Buddha, meditating and striving towards enlightenment. Finally, the spire represents enlightenment itself, the pinnacle of Buddhist achievement.

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