Cultures & Traditions


At the death of the Buddha Sakyamuni, the cremated relics of the Buddha were divided and placed inside large hemispherical mounds known as stupas. Monumental stupas, some several hundred feet tall, were the earliest Buddhist architecture preserved in India and served as memorials for deceased religious leaders and teachers. Stupa, or chorten in the Tibetan language, means a “support for worship.” Stupas symbolize the Buddha Shakyamuni's enlightened mind, prescribed path, and continued presence after his final transcendence.

Large stupas are a key component of Buddhist monastic complexes and often attract many religious pilgrims. To show their respect, worshippers participate in ritual circumambulation, which involves walking around the stupa counterclockwise, with the right shoulder closest to the structure. This act is intended to bring the participant merit and inspire them to follow the Buddhist path more effectively. The sacred interior of monumental stupas can be entered through passageways at the four cardinal points. These areas may contain relics or other ritual objects such as paintings, sculptures, and sacred texts meant to represent the Buddha or other religious figures for whom the stupa was built. The spread of Buddhism carried the form of the stupa throughout Asia, where it was reinterpreted as the domed chortens of Tibet and the pointed pagodas of China, Korea, and Japan.

Smaller stupas, such as this sculptural work, are commonly used as objects of meditation and can be placed on the altar of a temple alongside Buddha sculptures and volumes of sacred text. Both monumental architectural and small sculptural stupas adhere to strict rules of proportion. The main sections are the base, dome, and crowning, which respectively represent the throne, body, and crown of the Buddha. The rising tiers symbolize the Buddha’s path toward enlightenment. The sun and moon at the top represent the union of compassion and wisdom, and the upper-most flame references the highest form of enlightenment.

Excerpt from

DMA Connect, 2012.

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