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A stupa (from Sanskrit: m., स्तूप, stūpa, Tibetan མཆོད་རྟེན་ chöten, Sinhalese: දාගැබ, Pāli: थुप "thūpa", literally meaning "heap") is a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing Buddhist relics, typically the ashes of Buddhist monks, used by Buddhists as a place of meditation.
Stupas originated as pre-Buddhist earthen burial mounds, in which ascetics were buried in a seated position, called chaitya. After the parinirvana of the Buddha, his remains were cremated and the ashes divided and buried under eight mounds with two further mounds 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.
The stupa was elaborated as Buddhism spread to other Asian countries becoming, for example, the chorten of Tibet and the pagoda in East Asia. The pagoda has varied forms that also include bell-shaped and pyramidal styles. In the Western context, there is no clear distinction between the stupa and the pagoda. In general, however, 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.
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.
A stupa was discovered at Sopara, an ancient port near Mumbai, and is believed to be one of the 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 Great Stupa at Sanchi or the Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh in Central India is the oldest stone building in India. In Sri Lanka, the ancient city of Anuradhapura includes some of the tallest, most ancient and best preserved stupas in the world, such as Ruwanwelisaya.
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.
Built for a variety of reasons, Buddhist stupas are classified based on form and function into five types:
"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."
Although not described in any Tibetan text on stupa symbolism, the stupa may represent the five purified elements:
To build a stupa, transmissions and ceremonies from a Buddhist teacher is necessary. Which kind of Stupa to be constructed in a certain area is decided together with the teacher assisting in the construction. Sometimes the type of stupa chosen is directly connected with events that have taken place in the area.
All stupas contain a treasury filled with various objects. Small offerings called Tsa-Tsas fill a major part of the treasury. Creation of various types of Tsa-Tsas is a ceremony itself. Mantras written on paper are rolled into thin rolls, and put into these small clay stupas. 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.
The number of Tsa-Tsas are dependent on the size of both the treasury and Tsa-Tsa, since it should be completely filled. For example, the Kalachakra stupa in southern Spain has approximately 14 000 Tsa-Tsas within.
Jewellery and other "precious" objects are also placed in the treasury. It is not necessary that the jewellery be expensive, since it is the symbolic value that is important, not the market price. It is believed that the more objects placed into the stupa, the stronger the energy of the Stupa will be.
A very important element in every Stupa is the Tree of Life. It is a wooden pole covered with gems and thousands of mantras, and placed in the central channel of the stupa. It is placed here during a ceremony or initiation, where the participants hold colorful ribbons connected to the Tree of Life. Together the participants 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.
Building a stupa is considered extremely beneficial, leaving very positive karmic imprints in the mind. Future benefits from this action will result in fortunate rebirths. Fortunate worldly benefits will be the result, such as being born into a rich family, having a beautiful body, a nice voice, and being attractive and bringing joy to others and having a long and happy life, in which one's wishes are fulfilled quickly. On the absolute level, one will also be able to reach enlightenment, the goal of Buddhism, quickly.
Destroying a stupa on the other hand, is considered an extremely negative deed, similar to killing. 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.
Also known as Stupa of Heaped Lotuses or Birth of the Sugata Stupa, this stupa refers to the birth of the Buddha. "At birth Buddha took seven steps in each of the four directions" (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 designs. Occasionally, seven heaped lotus steps are constructed. These refer to the seven first steps of the Buddha.
Also known as the Stupa of the Conquest of Mara. This stupa symbolizes the 35-year-old Buddha's attainment of enlightenment under the bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, where he conquered worldly temptations and attacks manifesting in the form of Mara.
Also known as the Stupa of Many Gates. After reaching enlightenment, the Buddha taught his first students in a deer-park near Sarnath. The series of doors on each side of the steps represent the first teachings: the Four Noble Truths, the Six Perfections, the Noble Eightfold Path and the Twelve Links in the Chain of Dependent Origination.
At 42 years of age, 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 built a stupa like this in Sankasya in order to commemorate this event. This stupa is characterized by having a central projection at each side containing a triple ladder or steps.
Also known as Stupa of Conquest of the Tirthikas. This stupa refers to various miracles performed by the Buddha when he was 50 years old. Legend claims that he overpowered maras and heretics by engaging them in intellectual arguments and also by performing miracles. This stupa was raised by the Lichavi kingdom to commemorate the event.
This stupa commemorates the Buddha's resolution of a dispute among the sangha. A stupa in this design was built in the kingdom of Magadha, where the reconciliation occurred. It has four octagonal steps with equal sides.
This stupa commemorates Buddha's successful prolonging of his life by three months. It has only three steps, which are circular and unadorned.
A 9th kind of stupa exists; the Kalachakra stupa. Its 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.
Regional names for stupa include:
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