Stupa - Archaeology of the Sacred Architecture of Buddhism

Buddhist Architectural Sacred Structure

3rd Century BC Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh, India
3rd Century BC Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh, India. Photo by Nagarjun Kandukuru

A stupa is a domed religious structure, a type of megalithic monument found throughout South Asia. Stupas (the word means "hair knot" in Sanscrit) were built by Buddhists, and the earliest extant ones date to the spread of the Buddhist religion in the 3rd century BC. Stupas are not the only type of religious monument constructed by early Buddhists: sanctuaries (griha) and monasteries (vihara) were also prominent. But stupas are the most distinctive of these.

Buddhist scholar Debala Mitra outlined four broad types of stupas found in mainland South Asia (cited in Fogelin 2012). The first (ancestral stupa) are those that contained the remains of the historic Buddha or one of his disciples; the second contain the Buddha's material possessions such as robes and begging bowls. The third mark the locations of key events in Buddha's life, and the fourth type are small votive stupas which contain remains of Buddhist devotees and are placed around the outskirts of the other types. 

Stupa Form

A stupa is typically a solid hemispherical mound of fired clay bricks topped with a small square chamber. The size of the form certainly places stupas in a category with megalithic monuments, and it is possible, perhaps likely, that the form was influenced by earlier enormous constructions.

In Sri Lanka, the stupa form changed over the centuries of its use, beginning with the original Indian form of a solid dome, topped by a square chamber and a spire. Stupa forms today vary considerably world-wide. The brickwork of all elements in a Sri Lankan stupa are made of solid, high quality brick laid with a thin mortar and waterproofed with a thick plaster layer. Sri Lankan stupas have between one and three cylindrical terraces or basal rings at the bottom. The square chamber is also a solid structure, capped by one or more cylinders with a spire and pinnacle consisting of a minaret and a crystal.

Dating Stupas

When a particular stupa was built is often quite difficult to determine. Many stupas today have been renovated numerous times, during their lifetime of use and then again after several centuries of abandonment, during which time they were often looted for their building materials. Traditionally, stupas have been dated by using broad occupational phases of architectural typologies of associated structures.

Optically stimulated luminescence dating (OSL) has been applied to the bricks from several stupas in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Scholars tested bricks beneath the top veneer of several stupas in the Anuradhapura hinterlands, and results were presented in Bailiff et al. 2013. The study found that the resulting dates of some of the stupas matched previous phase-dated typologies, while others did not, suggesting that OSL dating may very well assist in finer detailed chronologies at Anuradhapura and elsewhere.

Stupas and the Idea of the Sacred

According to the Mahaparinibbana-sutta (cited in Fogelin 2012), when the Buddha died, his body was cremated and his ashes given to eight kings to place in earthen mounds which were to be erected near a crossroad. Those mounds were called stupas, and they became a principal focus for Buddhist ritual. Fogelin (2012) argues that the original form of the stupas was a stylized representation of the burial mound in which was placed the relics of the Buddha. By mid-first century BC, stupas were being re-engineered to appear taller and imply more mass than actually existed, which Fogelin suggests was an effort by the monks to assert their authority over the Buddhist laity. By the third through fifth century AD, however, the development of Mahayana Buddhism gradually refocused importance away from the relationship between monks and the Buddha to that between regular people and the Buddha, and the creation of Buddha images became the primary icons and symbols of Buddhism. 

An interesting paper by O'Sullivan and Young uses the stupa as an example of sacred architecture that should force archaeologists to reconsider their categories of sacred and secular. Stupas were the focus of worship and pilgrimage during ancient Anuradhapura's heyday, but they faded out of importance after that city's destruction in the 11th century AD. Since the 20th century, however, stupas have again become the focus of pilgrimage and religious practices for Buddhists world-wide.

O'Sullivan and Young point out that archaeologists traditionally approach ancient structures as either binary categories of secular/sacred, when actually that category changed over time with the needs of the community.

Preserving the Stupas

Stupas built as early as the 3rd century BC are the focus of important heritage preservation efforts, as described by Ranaweera and Silva. In Anuradhapura, ancient stupas built as early as the 3rd century BC stood abandoned from the 11th century destruction of the city until the turn of the 19th century. Early efforts to rehabilitate the stupas were ill-considered, according to Ranaweera and Silva, and even as recently as 1987, a restoration of the 2nd century BC Mirisaveti stupa resulted in its collapse.

Historically, various kings of Sri Lanka carried out reconstructions, with the earliest on record that of King Prakramabahn, who restored many of the stupas in the 2nd century AD. More recent efforts concentrate on constructing a new veneer over the ancient core, with some embedded beams for support, but leaving the original construction intact.