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The Great Stupa at Sanchi, India,established by Ashoka the great (4th–1st century BC).
Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath, northeastern India is the oldest Stupa in existence.
Ruwanwelisaya Chedi in the sacred city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.
The main Stupa crowning Borobudur, the largest Buddhist structure in the world, Java, Indonesia.
The Great Stupa at Shambhala Mountain Center, Colorado, USA
The Great Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar
Phra Sri Ratana Chedi within Wat Phra Kaeo

A stupa (from Sanskrit: m., स्तूप, stūpa, Pāli: थुप "thūpa", literally meaning "heap") is a mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics, typically the remains of a Buddha or saint, used by Buddhists as a place of worship. In other Asian languages such monuments are called

  • chorten (Tibetan མཆོད་རྟེན༏ (Wylie: mchod rten), "dharma place/seat")
  • chedi (Thai: เจดีย์, from the Pāli cetiya (चेतिय))
  • dāgaba (usually spelled "Dagoba") (Sinhalese: ඩගොබ, from Sanskrit dhātu-garbha (दातु-गर्भ) "relic-chamber" )
  • tope (Hindi: स्तूप, from the Sanskrit)
  • garbha (Sanskrit: गर्भ, meaning a storehouse or repository)

After "stupa," "chorten" is the most commonly-encountered English term. The term "reliquary" is sometimes used, after a Roman Catholic functional equivalent.

Stupas are an ancient form of mandala.[1]


Description and history

Evolution of the Butkara stupa, through the Mauryan, Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian and Kushan periods.
Jetavanaramaya stupa in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka is the second largest brick structure in the world
Stupa surrounded by four lion-crowned pillars. Gandhara, 2nd century AD.

The stupa is the latest Buddhist religious monument and was originally only a simple mound of mud or clay to cover supposed relics of the Buddha (cetiya). After the parinirvana of the Buddha, his remains were cremated and the ashes divided and buried under eight stupas with two further stupas encasing the urn and the embers. Little is known about these early stupas, particularly since it has not been possible to identify the original ten monuments. However, some later stupas, such as at Sarnath and Sanchi, seem to be embellishments of earlier mounds.

In the third century BC, after his conversion to Buddhism, the emperor Ashoka had the original stupas opened and the remains distributed among the several thousand stupas he had built. Nevertheless, the stupas at the eight places associated with the life of the Buddha continued to be of particular importance. Accordingly, the importance of a stupa changed from being a funerary monument to being an object of veneration. As a consequence their appearance changed also. Stupas were built in Sri Lanka soon after King Devanampiyatissa converted to Buddhism, the first stupa to be built was the Thuparamaya. Later on Sri Lanka went on to build many stupas over the years, some like the Jetavanarama in Anuradhapura being one of the tallest ancient structures in the world. Sri Lanka also boasts construction of stupas, which have used most advanced engineering techniques and knowledge, for example the use of 'lightning conductors' and 'special shelters (vatadage)', which is the reason they have been standing undamaged for thousands of years.[citation needed]
Ghalegay hosts one of the biggest stupas at Mohallah Singardar in district Swat, Pakistan.[citation needed]

They evolved into large hemispherical mounds with features such as the torana (gateway), the vedica (fence-like enclosure evolved from the vedic villages), the harmika (a square platform with railings on top of the stupa), chattrayashti (the parasol or canopy) and a circumambulatory around the stupa. From the first century BC onwards, stupas were incorporated into the hall of the chaitya-griha.

One such stupa was discovered at Sopara, an ancient port near Mumbai, and is believed to be one of most ancient stupas in the world. The oldest known stupa is the Dhamek Stupa at Sarnath, India, while the tallest is the Phra Pathom Chedi in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand, at a height of 127 metres. The most elaborate stupa is the 8th century Borobudur monument in Java, Indonesia. The upper rounded terrace with rows of bell shaped stupas contained buddha images symbolizing Arupadhatu, the sphere of formlessness. The main stupa itself is empty, symbolizing complete perfection of enlightenment. The main stupa is only the crown part of the monument, while the base is pyramidal structure elaborate with galleries adorned with bas relief of scenes derived from Buddhist text depicted the life of Siddharta Gautama. Borobudur unique and significant architecture has been acknowledge by UNESCO as the largest buddhist monument in the world. According to Brahmi ,kharoshti , Pali and Sanskrit edicts Ashoka the great founded 84,000 stupas all over the south Asia.

The stupa evolved into the pagoda as Buddhism spread to other Asian countries. The pagoda has varied forms that also include bellshaped and pyramidal ones. Today, in the Western context, there is no clear distinction between the stupa and the pagoda. But in general stupa is used for a Buddhist structure of India or south-east Asia, while pagoda refers to a building in east Asia which can be entered and which may be secular in purpose.


The sharing of the relics of the Buddha, Zenyōmitsu-Temple Museum, Tokyo
Buddha relics from Kanishka's stupa in Peshawar, Pakistan, now in Mandalay, Burma. Teresa Merrigan, 2005

"The shape of the stupa represents the Buddha, crowned and sitting in meditation posture on a lion throne. His crown is the top of the spire; his head is the square at the spire's base; his body is the vase shape; his legs are the four steps of the lower terrace; and the base is his throne."[2]


Five purified elements

Although not described in any Tibetan text on stupa symbolism, it has been assumed that the stupa represents the five purified elements:[3]

  • The square base represents earth
  • The hemispherical dome/vase represents water
  • The conical spire represents fire
  • The upper lotus parasol and the crescent moon represents air
  • The sun and the dissolving point represents the element of space.


Stupa in Quaid i University Campus Islamabad, Pakistan

To build a stupa, transmissions and ceremonies from a Buddhist teacher is necessary.[4] Which kind of Stupa to be constructed in a certain area, is decided together with the teacher assisting in the construction. Some times the kind is directly connected with events that have taken place that certain area.[4]


All stupas contain a treasury filled with various objects. Small offerings called Tsa-Tsas fill a major part of the treasury. Creation of various kind of Tsa-Tsas is a ceremony itself. Mantras written on paper are rolled into thin rolls, and put into these small clay stupas.[4] Filling the treasury, one layer of Tsa-Tsas are placed, and the empty space between is filled with dry sand. On the new surface appearing, another layer is made, until the entire space of a treasury is full.[4]

The number of Tsa-Tsas are dependent on the size of both treasury and Tsa-Tsa, since it should be completely filled. The Kalachakra stupa in southern Spain has for example 14.000 Tsa-Tsas within.[4]

Jewellery and other "precious" objects are also placed in a treasury. It is however not necessary very expensive jewellery since the symbolic value that is important, not the market price.[4] The more wonderful symbolic objects filled into the stupa, the stronger energy of the Stupa will be.[4]

Tree of Life

A very important element in every Stupa is the Tree of Life. It is a wooden pole covered with gems and thousand of mantras, and placed in the central channel of the stupa.[4] It is placed here during a ceremony or initiation, where all the participant hold colorful ribbons connected to the Tree of Life. Together all make their most positive and powerful wishes, which are stored in the Tree of Life. In this way the stupa is charged up, and will start to function.[4]


Building a stupa is considered extremely beneficial, leaving very positive karmic imprints in mind. Future benefits from this action will result in fortunate rebirths. Fortunate worldly benefits will be the result, such as being born in rich family, having a beautiful body, a nice voice, and be attractive and bringing joy to others and getting a long and happy life, where ones wishes are fulfilled quickly.[5] On the absolute level, one will also be able to reach enlightenment, the goal of Buddhism quickly.[5]

Destroying a stupa on the other hand, is considered an extremely negative deed, similar to killing.[6] Such an action is explained to create massive negative karmic imprints, leading to massive future problems. It is said this action will leave the mind in a state of paranoia after death has occurred, leading to totally unfortunate rebirths.[6]

Eight great stupas

The Eight Great Stupas

There are eight different kind stupas, all referring to major events in Buddha Shakyamuni's life.

Lotus Blossom Stupa

Also known as stupa of heaped lotuses or birth of the Sugata stupa.

This stupa refers to the birth of the Buddha. It is said that “at birth Buddha took seven steps in each of the four direction”[3] (East, South, West and North). In each direction lotuses sprang, symbolizing the Four Immeasurables: love, compassion, joy and equanimity. The four steps of the basis of this stupa is circular, and it is decorated with lotus-petal design. Some times seven heaped lotus steps are constructed referring to the seven first steps of the Buddha.[3]

Enlightenment stupa

Also known as the stupa of the conquest of Mara.

This stupa symbolizes the time the 35-year-old Buddha reached enlightenment under the bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya. It is said that he conquered worldly temptations and attacks Manifesting itself in the form of Mara.[3]

Stupa of many doors or gates

After reaching enlightenment, the Buddha taught his first students in a deer-park near Sarnath. Here he gave his first basic teachings, with series of doors on each sides of the steps . The teachings are called the "Four Noble Truths, the six perfections, the Noble Eight folded Path and the twelve links in the chain of dependent origination."[3]

Stupa of descent from the god realm

42 years old, Buddha spent a summer retreat in Tushita Heaven, where his mother had taken rebirth. In order to repay her kindness he taught the dharma to her reincarnation. Local inhabitants build a stupa like this in Sankasya in order to commemorate this event. The stupa is characterized by having a central projection at each side containing a triple ladder.[3]

Stupa of great Miracles

Also known as stupa of conquest of tirthikas This stupa refers to various miracles performed by the Buddha when he was 50 years old. Legend tells he overpowered several demons known as maras and tirthikas. This stupa was raised by the Lichave tribe to commemorate the event.[3]

Stupa of reconciliation

The Sangha had been divided into disputing fractions. However Buddha managed to reunite the Sangha, and a stupa in this design was build in the kingdom of Magadha. It has four octagonal steps with equal sides.[3]

Stupa of complete victory

This commemorate Buddha successfully prolonging his life by three months. It has only three steps, which are circular and unadorned.[3]

Stupa of Nirvana

This stupa refers to the death of the Buddha, when he was 80 years old. It symbolizes the Buddha's complete absorption into the highest state of mind. It is bell-shaped and usually not ornamented.[3]

Kalachakra stupa

A 9th kind of stupa exists; the Kalachakra stupa. It's symbolism is not connected to events in the Buddha's life, but instead to the symbolism of the Kalachakra Tantra, created to protect against negative energies.[7]

Regional names

The gorintō is a Japanese stupa variant.
Commemorative stupa at Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Cambodia.

Regional names for stupa include:

  • Chaitya (Nepal)
  • Candi (Indonesia and Malaysia)
  • Chedi (Thailand [เจดีย์])
  • Chorten [Tibet, Ladakh(India) and Bhutan]
  • Dagoba/Chaitiya (Sri Lanka)
  • Chedey (Cambodia)
  • Phrathāt (Lanna)
  • Suburgan/Suvarga (Mongolia)
  • Tap (Korea [塔/탑 lit: "tower"])
  • Tháp (Vietnam [ lit: "tower"])
  • Thart (Laos)
  • Ta (China [ lit: "tower"])
  • (Japan [塔/とう lit: "tower"])
  • Zedi (Myanmar [စေတီ) /Pahto (ပုထိုး])

See also



  1. ^ Prebish & Keown, Introducing Buddhism, page 89
  2. ^ "Introduction to stupas". Retrieved 2009-04-18. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Beer, Robert: The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs (2004) Serindia Publications Inc. ISBN 1 932476 10 5
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Miracle Stupa - Stupa". Retrieved 2009-04-18. 
  5. ^ a b "Benefits Resulting from the Building of Stupas". Retrieved 2009-04-18. 
  6. ^ a b Article: Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche: The Four Thoughts which Turn the Mind from Samsara. BUDDHISM TODAY, Vol.5, 1998. Available online
  7. ^ "Kalachakra Stupa". Retrieved 2009-04-18. 


  • Mitra, D. (1971). Buddhist Monuments. Sahitya Samsad: Calcutta. ISBN 0-89684-490-0.

External links


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