Ancient stupas can be described as a mount-like structure, which typically contain relics of varying forms, and are primarily utilized as a space for collecting thoughts or meditating. The earliest archaeological findings of stupas can be found in India in late 4th century BCE (Gustav, 162). Stupas date back to pre-Buddhism when mounds of dirt or rocks were placed over the buried body. Following the Buddha’s journey to Nirvana, the Buddha’s remains were cremated; however, the ashes were separated and buried to extend over eight different mounds (Ahmed, 1). Although Buddhist writings claim that stupas were constructed at least a century earlier before they were actually documented archaeologically, it is believed that stupas were originally built with other materials, such as wood (Snodgrass, 30). More monastic stupas have been dated back to 2nd century BCE, and have been found inside of Buddhist monastic structures (Govinda, 55). These, however, have been found to replicate the older style of stupas with wood as the primary component. Throughout history, the stupa has become an embellished entity with its spread across Asia, such as the pagoda in East Asia.
Buddhist stupas can be categorized based on their purpose and style into 5 basic categories: relic, votive, object, symbolic, and commemorative. The relic stupa is utilized to house the remains of the Buddha or his followers and other lay saints. The votive stupa functions more as a place of spiritual growth. The object stupa contains particular items that once were possessed by the Buddha or his disciples. These items may include certain Buddhist scriptures or a robe. Lastly, the commemorative stupas were constructed to celebrate certain life events of the Buddha or his followers (Roth, 150).

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In the earliest periods of Buddhism, stupas were originally constructed with a semi-spherical dome, with a parasol placed at the top (Govinda, 91). This dome would cover a square base, of which in the center there were relics. However, this basic style evolved over time as stupas were introduced to other areas. For example, in Sri Lanka, the stupa is referred to as dagoba (Hirst, 1). Typically, the dagoba would be enclosed with a larger shaped dome, which would be bolstered by columns around the entire structure. In Myanmar, the stupa also evolved to another form. The stupa here was referred to as the zedi, with the parasol on top becoming a longer structure and more like a cone (Roth, 189). The square base also became more complex, with additions of other levels and terraces, and thus forming more of a pyramid shape. As mentioned earlier, pagodas are another name for stupa, specifically in China. Here, pagodas are shaped like a tower, with the focus being on a more vertical shape (Snodgrass, 474). In Korea, this style was also prominent, as well.

These regional differences in stupa construction can be attributed to not only its growing importance throughout history, but also the importance of the stupa’s meanings and functions. The stupa was considered by all to be the living spirit of the Buddha and his energy, as well as a site for special ceremonies, events, spiritual growth, and ceremonies (Ahmed, 1). The mere presence of stupas also attracted other constructions that were spiritual in nature, such as monasteries.

In summary, stupas are age-old constructions that emphasize the Buddha’s presence through the holding of relics or other significant spiritual materials. Stupas have developed a wide presence throughout history, and can be found nearly all over Asia in varying forms. Though stupas exist for a wide variety of purposes, the primary purpose of them is their connection to the Buddha and his living spirit.

  • Ahmed, Naeem. “The Buddhist Stupa: Origin and Development.” History. University of Pennsylvania, 1996. Web. 16 Feb. 2016.
  • Govinda, Anagarika. Psycho-cosmic Symbolism of the Buddhist Stūpa. Emeryville, CA: Dharma Pub. 1976. Print.
  • Hurst, Kris. “Stupa – Archaeology of the Sacred Architecture of Buddhism.” Education. 20 Jan. 2016. Web. 16 Feb. 2016.
  • Roth, Gustav. Stupa: Cult and Symbolism. New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture, 2009. Print.
  • Snodgrass, Adrian. The Symbolism of the Stupa. Ithaca, NY: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell U, 1985. Print.