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The Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary defines the word stūpa as "a knot or tuft of hair, the upper part of the head, crest, top, summit"; also "a heap or pile of earth, or bricks etc." Opinions about the etymology of the word stūpa differ, and the root √stūp, "to heap up, pile, erect," seems to have been a late invention in order to explain the term. Although now inextricably linked to Buddhism, originally the stūpa was not exclusively a Buddhist structure, but also a Jaina monument.

Generally the terms stūpa and caitya, said to derive from cita, "a funeral pile," are used interchangeably. Both terms indicate a mound of earth surrounded by a wooden railing, marking the place of the funeral pyre of a significant person. While the meaning of caitya may also mean observances "relating to a funeral pile or mound," the term stūpa designates the actual structure. Originally, stūpas contained relics, mainly ash, of a saintly person, and later other objects, such as crystal beads.

Buddhist texts narrate how the Buddha's relics were divided into eight portions; these were distributed to different kingdoms within India and stūpas were built over them. These relics were redistributed during the third century b.c.e. by AŚoka not only as an act of homage to the Buddhist faith, but also to ensure the Buddha's protection over his extensive empire. Thus, thousands of stūpas were built as a remembrance of the Buddha and of the crucial episodes of his life; for example, the stūpa at Sarnath commemorated the Buddha's first sermon. In time, stūpas were erected as an homage to any past or future buddha, or to any Buddhist saint.

Basically a stūpa consisted of a circular platform (meḍhī) on which was erected a solid masonry hemisphere, or aṇḍa (egg), made of unburnt bricks. In its center was a small space for a receptacle containing relics. On the summit of the plain aṇḍa, and aligned with the reliquary, was raised a shaft surmounted by one or more chattravali (parasols), a mark of royalty that later assumed a complex metaphysical meaning. The surface of the dome was finished with a thick layer of plaster. Because it was customary to circumambulate the stūpa as a part of worship, a pradakṣiṇapatha (processional path) was provided both on the meḍhī and at ground level by enclosing the monument within a vedika (wooden railing), leaving enough space for walking. The vedika, which, at least in theory, should be a perfect circle, was interrupted by L-shaped entrances at the four cardinal points, creating a cosmological diagram in the form of an auspicious svastika cross. An example of this early type of stūpa is that at Svayambhu Nath near Kathmandu; this stūpa has been worshiped for more than two thousand years.

This basic architectural scheme bears, in its simplicity, an infinite potential for variations dictated by local traditions, materials, and religious trends. Its crucial importance in the development of sacred buildings throughout Buddhist Asia, extending roughly from today's eastern Afghanistan throughout Central, East, and Southeast Asia, cannot be overestimated.

Early Pāli texts do not pay much attention to the actual building of a stūpa because its construction, maintenance, and worship were the concern of the laity. Later, however, the building process became the focus of intense metaphysical speculation. Each part of the stūpa, beginning from the terraces at its base, to the number of parasols on the chattravali, became imbued with a profound meaning, variously interpreted by different schools.

Central India: Stūpas at Sāñcī and Bhārhut

The greatest artistic expressions of early Buddhist tradition are the monuments at SĀÑcĪ and Bhārhut, in Madhya Pradesh, seats of two of the most important Buddhist communities from the third century b.c.e. Among the oldest surviving stūpas is Stūpa II at Sāñcī, which dates from the Śuṅga period (second to first centuries b.c.e.). This simple monument housed the relics of several Buddhist teachers; the relics were enclosed in caskets and buried within the stūpa's solid mass. Of great interest are the interior and exterior surfaces of the stone vedika, obviously a replica of a wooden prototype, embellished with sets of vigorously carved medallions. Especially elaborate are the reliefs on the pillars flanking the L-shaped entrances at the four cardinal points.

Dating from this early period is the now ruined mahāstūpa (great stūpa) discovered by Alexander Cunnigham in 1873 at Bharhut. The conspicuous size of the monument, whose diameter measures more than twenty meters, the care lavished on the decoration of the sandstone vedika, some three meters in height, and the monumental toraṇas (entryways) bear witness to the affluence of this commercial town, located on one of the major trade routes of ancient India. Although inscriptions on the vedika and the eastern toraṇa proclaim that they were erected during the Śuṅga period (possibly between 100 and 80 b.c.e.), the stūpa is probably earlier in date, because it was customary to add vedikas and toraṇas to earlier buildings. The toraṇa consists of two upright pillars supporting three architraves spanning the entry to the stūpa complex. The crossbars of the vedika are adorned with medallions displaying floral motifs, human figures, and jĀtaka scenes. On the vedika's terminal uprights are carved single figures, including standing warriors, equestrian figures, and yakṣīs clutching a tree. Animals, plants, creepers, geometrical motifs, and scenes from Buddha's life are among the subjects carved on the toraṇa. Most of the remains of this railing are now displayed at the Indian Museum in Calcutta and in the Allahabad Museum.

The celebrated Sāñcī Stūpa I was built between the third century b.c.e. and the first century c.e., with additions of the fifth century c.e. This imposing monument, measuring 36.6 meters in diameter, rises on top of the hill at Sāñcī. The solid hemisphere is truncated at the top by a harmikā (pedestal supporting the shaft of the umbrella) crowned by a three-tiered stone umbrella and set within a square railing. A circular terrace accessed by two staircases runs along the base of the aṇḍa. At ground level is a stone-paved circumambulation path encircled by a vedika that is interrupted at the four cardinal points by imposing toraṇas.

The present stūpa, dating from roughly the second century b.c.e., encases an older one that was built probably a century earlier. Its plain surface contrasts with the wealth of images carved on the vedika. Medallions display floral, animal, and bird motifs, as well as human figures and mythical beings. The balustrade is divided into four sections defined by the L-shaped toraṇas, which were erected in the first century c.e. These are similar in design and construction technique to those at Bhārhut, and they are covered with sculptures, whose liveliness and variety of subject matter are unsurpassed. The most famous scenes illustrate episodes from the jātakas and from the life of the Buddha.

As in the case of the previous monuments, Gautama is never represented in human form, but by emblems, such as an empty throne beneath the bodhi tree, footprints, the triratna (three refuges), and finally the stūpa. Salient events of his life and career have pride of place, such as his birth, the temptation of MĀra, the first sermon at Sārnāth, the conversion of the Kāśyapa brothers, and the miracles at Śrāvastī and Kapilavastu. Episodes that followed his death (e.g., the fight over the Buddha's relics) have also been illustrated. The predecessors of Gautama, the buddhas of antiquity, have been incorporated in the iconographic program of the four toraṇas and are represented either by stūpas or bodhi trees. Apart from scenes related to Gautama's life, there are others depicting everyday life, music, dance, sports, and the like. These three early stūpas, of seminal importance in the formation of early Indian sculpture, exemplify two opposing facets of early Buddhist art: On the one hand, there is the strict adherence to aniconic representation of the Buddha; on the other hand, there is the unstoppable, exuberant flow of narrative. The last addition to Sāñcī Stūpa I occurred in the fifth century c.e. when four Buddha images in teaching mudrĀ were placed against its walls, facing the entrances. Each figure is flanked by attendants.

Western Deccan

An interesting development occurred during the second and first centuries b.c.e., when a number of Buddhist cave complexes were excavated in the Western Ghats (e.g., Bhājā and Bedsā). These consisted of one or more caitya halls, pillared apsidal halls that contained a stūpa, and rock-cut cells, some of which served as accommodation for the monks and nuns. This architectural innovation brought the recluses into closer contact with the stūpa, which had to be included in their daily ritual, and eventually became the focus of worship.

An early example of this type of architecture is the monastic complex at Bhājā (Maharashtra), which consists of a large caitya hall with a monolithic stūpa and a substantial number of smaller cells. On epigraphical and stylistic grounds, it is probable that the main phase of the works took place between 100 and 70 b.c.e. This is possibly the earliest caitya hall of this region. It is divided into three naves by slightly inward-sloping octagonal columns, thus providing a circumambulatory passage around the stūpa. The light penetrates from the door above, which opens a horseshoe window, one of the many elements that derive from wooden architecture (the horseshoe window is part of the door). This basic model was followed in Buddhist rock-cut architecture of Western India until the seventh century c.e.

Gandhāra region

Buddhism was introduced in the Bactro-Gandhāra regions at the time of Aśoka. By around 130 b.c.e. the Śakas took control of this area in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan, and at the turn of the common era, the Parthians moved in from Iran. One of the legacies of the Śaka-Parthian domination was the terrace-stūpa. The circular base disappeared, to be replaced by a square terrace whose basement was adorned with classical elements inherited from the Hellenistic world: columns, pilasters, entablatures, and niches. In the first century c.e. the Kushan dynasty established its power over the territory of the Śaka-Parthians, and in the wake of their political influence Buddhism spread, not only throughout their territory, but also to adjacent countries, including Central Asia and China. By this time the MahĀyĀna doctrine had introduced a new conception of the Buddha, in which he was seen as the epitome of wisdom, truth, and compassion, and as such, his person was worthy of worship. This led to a crucial artistic development: the almost contemporaneous creation of the Buddha image in the two main cultural centers of the Kushan empire, the Gandhāra region, and Mathurā (Uttar Pradesh), the southern capital of the empire.

Among the numerous stūpas and monastic establishments built in this period is the second-century terrace-stūpa at Guldara in Afghanistan, a massive construction resting on an imposing square base adorned with pilasters, and a substantial superstructure now ruined. Also from this period is the large monastic establishment at Takht-i-Bahi in Pakistan, whose stūpa is completely destroyed but for its base. Its elongated appearance, however, can be reconstructed by examining smaller stūpas found in the region.

By this time the primordial hemispherical stūpa had developed into a towerlike monument by way of multiplying the layers of the base, elongating the aṇḍa into a domelike cylinder, and stretching the chattravali to a considerable length, either by multiplying the chattras or compressing them into a compact conical spire.

Another innovation was the tower-stūpa, which plays a determinant role in the evolution of the stūpa into the East Asian pagoda. The massive cross-shaped foundations of the famous Kanishka tower-stūpa at Shahji-ki-Dheri, near Peshawar, are still preserved. According to the reports of Chinese pilgrims, this building was characterized by superimposed wooden "stories" with cornices, windows, and niches, as well as a copper mast carrying thirteen copper umbrellas. It was probably from this model that the Chinese pagoda evolved.

The Deccan: Amarāvatī and Nāgārjunakoṇḍa

In most of peninsular India and Sri Lanka, the stūpa kept its hemispherical shape and continued to be erected on a circular platform. Among the numerous

Buddhist sites in the eastern Deccan, two are noteworthy: Amarāvatī and Nāgārjunakoṇḍa (Andhra Pradesh). The stūpa at Amarāvatī achieved its final form in the second and third centuries c.e. during the Śātavāhana and Ikṣvāku periods. Almost nothing is preserved of this monument, which was the largest in the eastern Deccan, apart from an earthen mound and a surrounding pathway defined by upright slabs. A number of celebrated finely sculpted limestone slabs that have survived depict this lavishly decorated monument with imposing projecting gateways in the four directions. Among the distinctive features of this structure were four votive platforms, each with five pillars, aligned with the four entrances. The surviving uprights, capping pieces, and slabs have been removed from the site and are displayed in various museums; the largest collection is at the Government Museum Chennai (Madras).

During the third century a number of changes were occurring in Buddhist religion and art. These are reflected in the structures at Nāgārjunakoṇḍa, the most important Buddhist settlement of the region, set in a valley delimited by the Kṛṣṇā river on the west. In the third and fourth centuries, when Nāgārjunakoṇḍa was the capital of the Ikṣvāku rulers, the successors of the Śatavāhanas, a large number of monasteries and stūpas were erected according to the cultic needs of various Buddhist schools, of which at least four were represented there. Here the great innovation is the wheel-shaped plan of the stūpas, demonstrating the transformation of a sacred Buddhist symbol into an architectural design. Each monastic unit consisted of a stūpa, a caitya hall, and a vihāra (monastic quarters). The residential unit would be generally separated from the stūpa by two caitya halls facing each other, one containing a stūpa and the other a buddha image, thus equating the stūpa with the buddha image. The stūpa and the image of the Buddha eventually coalesced in the fifth century in the AjaṆṬĀ caves. Although most of the excavated remains at Nāgārjunakoṇḍa were submerged under the waters of the Nāgārjuna Sagar, a few monuments were recreated on a hilltop, now an island in the middle of the lake. Limestone panels and friezes once decorating various monuments have been discovered, and together with the carvings found at Amarāvatī, they are the most important remains of the flourishing Buddhist art in the Deccan.

North and eastern India in the fifth to seventh centuries

The aesthetics of the Gandhāra and the Mathurā schools of Kushan art played a major role in the development of Gupta aesthetics. The Kushan power ebbed at the end of the third century c.e., and by the early fourth century the Gupta dynasty ruled over north and central India. Ancient sites connected with the Buddha, such as Bodh GayĀ (Bihar), were refurbished; Sārnāth, near Varaṇasī (the old Benares, in Uttar Pradesh), where the Buddha delivered his first sermon, became a major center of Buddhist learning and artistic development. The remains of two large stūpas, whose cores probably date from the Aśokan period, as well as of a number of monasteries, are still preserved there.

Another famous center of Buddhist learning was Nālandā, near Rājgir (Bihar). Despite its putative links to Gautama Buddha and to Aśoka, both of whom are said to have visited this site, no remains predate the fifth century c.e. The Stūpa/Temple 3 is the most prominent building at Nālandā. This monument underwent various phases of construction. At its core is a small stūpa set on a square base measuring 173 centimeters each side and 137 centimeters in height. It has been suggested that this could be an Aśokan stūpa, built on the caitya of ŚĀriputra, the Buddha's disciple renowned for his wisdom. It was further enlarged three more times. However, with the fifth enlargement, in the sixth century, the monument changed appearance and plan. It became a large-sized structure with four lavishly decorated towers at the corners. This monument was renovated twice more in the eleventh and twelfth centuries just before the decline of Buddhism in India.

The stūpa beyond India

The Buddhist doctrine was introduced in Sri Lanka in the third century b.c.e. During the subsequent centuries, a conspicuous number of dagobas or dhātugopas (relic-preservers) were built. Examples of this local version of the Indian stūpa are found at various sites, such as Anurādhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka from around the second century b.c.e. to the ninth century c.e. Here are the oldest surviving dagobas, the largest of which is the Abhayagiri dagoba. Its diameter is about 110 meters and its height from the base to the spire about 82 meters. As is the case of the stūpa in India and Nepal, the dagobas of Sri Lanka have richly carved oblong projections at each cardinal point, which were probably thrones for the Dhyāni buddhas. More recent and smaller in size are the Buddhist remains at Polonnaruva, the capital of Sri Lanka from the ninth to the end of the thirteenth century c.e. The remains at this site are extremely important because these monuments were built at a time when Buddhists had greatly reduced, if not altogether ceased, their building activity in India. Furthermore, the architectural developments at Polonnaruva may constitute the link between the architecture on the Indian subcontinent and architecture overseas.

Buddhism arrived in Burma from important centers on the eastern coast of India, such as Amarāvatī and Nāgārjunakoṇḍa, in about the fifth century c.e. Both the mainstream Buddhist schools and Mahāyāna were present at this early date as testified by archaeological evidence from the Pyu city of Śrī Kṣetra, near Prome. In time, further links with southern India and Sri Lanka, and subsequently with eastern India, were established, which had a seminal influence in the formation of Burmese architecture. The Burmese stūpa, an elegant, bell-shaped construction topped by a conical finial, is raised on a series of terraces or platforms; the most famous example is the great Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon (ca. fifteenth century).

Mainstream Buddhism was prevalent in Indonesia until the end of the seventh century c.e. By the end of the century, however, the Mahāyāna school had risen in importance and soon became the only form of Buddhism followed there. One of the most significant Buddhist monuments of the world is Borobudur in Java, dated to around 800. Every part of this magnificent building, from its maṇḍala-like layout to the tiniest detail of its decorative program, is imbued with a deep symbolic meaning. Here Buddhist doctrine, the structure of the universe, and the mystery of enlightenment are expressed through plan, architectural design, and sculpture.

SeeMonastic Architecture; Relics and Relics Cults


Dallapicccola, Anna Libera, and Zingel-Avé Lallemant, Stephanie, eds. The Stūpa: Its Religious, Historical, and Architectural Significance. Wiesbaden, Germany: Steiner, 1980.

Dehejia, Vidya. Discourses in Early Buddhist Art: Visual Narratives of India. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1997.

Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. London: Phaidon, 1997.

Hallade, Madeleine, Gandharan Art of North India and the Graeco-Buddhist Tradition in India, Persia, and Central Asia. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1968.

Huntington, Susan, and Huntington, John C. The Art of Ancient India. New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1985.

Isaacs, Ralph, and Blurton, T. Richard. Visions from a Golden Land: Burma and the Art of Lacquer. London: British Museum, 2000.

Knox, Robert. Amaravati: Buddhist Sculpture from the Great Stūpa. London: British Museum, 1992.

Marshall, John. A Guide to Sāñcī, 3rd edition. New Delhi: Manager of Publications, 1955.

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Sarkar, H., and Misra, B. N. Nāgārjunakoṇḍa, 3rd edition. New Delhi: Director General, Archaeological Survey of India, 1980.

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Zwalf, Wladimir. Buddhism: Art and Faith. London: British Museum, 1985.

A. L. Dallapiccola


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Stūpa (Skt.; Pāli, thūpa). A reliquary (relics) monument ubiquitous throughout the Buddhist world and which, as an object of formal devotion and as a symbol of Buddhahood itself, has been compared in role to the cross in Christianity. The stūpa originated in India from the earlier caitya, a funeral mound commemorating regional kings. Instructions from the Buddha that he himself should be so commemorated—in order to remind people of the possibility of nirvāna—are contained in the Hīnayāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra.

The earliest form of the stūpa (e.g. from the 1st cent. CE, at Sañci, C. India) consisted of a simple base supporting an egg-shaped dome (aṇḍa) which contained the relics, and a spire with three rings—a combination in meaning of the ceremonial parasol and the Three Jewels. The whole was surrounded by railings which circumscribed the stūpa as a sanctified area. From this basic form eight theoretical types were developed of which only two were commonly built. These were the Enlightenment Stūpa, which follows the above description, and the Descending Divinity Stūpa, commemorating the descent of the Buddha to teach his mother (after a Jātaka tale), which has steps leading to a raised walkway around the dome. Mahāyāna variations of these types could have five or seven ‘umbrellas’ to represent stages on the path to Buddhahood, and a multiple base to represent the five elements, thus greatly aligning the stūpa with the maṇḍala as a cosmogrammatic representation. The stūpa continued to evolve outside India, producing the pagoda in E. Asia, and reaching the height of its symbolic richness in the Tibetan chorten.


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stupa. Buddhist funerary mound in the form of a hemisphere of earth and rubble. The earliest (C3–C1 bc) are raised on low drums faced with brick or stone. Stupas are sometimes of bell-like form with a platform at the top (surrounded by stone railings) carrying a mast-like stone upright with one or more canopies resembling umbrellas (chattra). Stupa-like elements sometimes occur as ornaments in the Indian style.


Cruickshank (ed.) (1996);
Glauche (1995);
Snodgrass (1985);
Jane Turner (1996)


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stu·pa / ˈstoōpə/ • n. a dome-shaped structure erected as a Buddhist shrine.