every part of the world the landscape
has its own distinctive appearance,
shaped both by the forces of nature
and the design of mankind. To the natural
scene - mountains, hills, plains, barren
deserts or lush forests - human beings
contribute architectural features of
many kinds: mud huts, magnificent pyramids,
soaring church spires or the modern
clusters of skyscrapers.
its beginnings in India, Buddhism has
spread over an area extending from the
deserts of Central Asia in the west
to the islands of Japan in the east,
and from the icy regions of Tibet in
the north to the sun-drenched tropical
island of Sri Lanka in the south. The
natural features of all these regions
are very different, and so are their
architectural features. But wherever
you travel throughout this vast area,
there is one type of architectural monument
which is everywhere; whether on bleak
mountain tops, in pleasant valleys,
in the midst of vast plains, or even
by the seashore. This ubiquitous Buddhist
monument is the stupa.
There is an interesting
legend behind the origin of the stupa.
The ancient text 'Maha-parinibbana Sutta'
tells us that it was the Buddha himself
who outlined the basic design of the
stupa. The story begins at Buddha's
deathbed. When he realized that death
was imminent, Buddha gave instructions
about the disposition of his body. He
said that his body should be cremated,
and the relics divided up and enclosed
in four different monuments. These monuments
were to be erected at the following
places, marking important milestones
in the Buddha's spiritual journey:
1). Lumbini: The
place of Buddha'sbirth.
2.) Bodhgaya: Where the Buddha attained enlightenment under the bodhi tree.
3). Sarnath: Where he gave his first teaching.
4). Kushinagar: Place of Buddha's death (parinirvana)
intrigued disciples naturally asked
what form this monument should take.
In reply the Buddha did not say anything,
but gave a practical demonstration.
He took his outer yellow robe folded
it in two and two until it formed a
rough cube. Then he took his begging-bowl,
which of course was round, turned it
upside down, and put it on top of the
robes. 'Make the stupa like this,' he
said. Indeed till today, whatever its
geographical location, the basic form
of the stupa retains this elemental character.
a). A square base
b). A hemispherical dome
c). A conical spire
d). A crescent moon
e). A circular disc
Each of these components
is rich in metaphoric content and is
identified with one of the five cosmic
elements said to make up the entire
manifested existence. These are earth,
water, fire, air and space.
This symbolizes the element earth. The
phenomenal world spreads out in the
four directions and the square with
its four sides is an appropriate metaphor
for the same. These four directions
define the earth and bind it in order.
Hence the square is the perfect symbol
to denote the terrestrial world. Often
a stupa would have four gates, one for
each direction, and various deities
protecting the specific directions would
stand guard over them.
Dome: The main mass of the classical
form of the stupa consists of a solid,
hemispherical dome. Early Buddhist texts
refer to this as the garbha, meaning
'womb' or 'container.' With this reference
the stupa as a whole is called the 'dhatu-garbha.'
Dhatu is Sanskrit for element. Herein
lies the derivation of the word 'dagoba,'
which is the short form of dhatu-garbha
and which is the most usual designation
of the stupa in Sri Lanka. Thus this
section of a stupa is an allusion to
the primordial, creative waters. Indeed
in all the major cosmologies, life arose
from the archetypal waters, a female
symbol of formless potentiality. The
dome by virtue of representing the womb
from which issues all manifested existence
signifies this creative matrix.
a beautiful ritual of devotion, the
hemisphere of the stupa is identified
with the golden cosmic egg of Yogic
thought called 'Hiranyagarbha.'
Hiranya is Sanskrit
for golden and garbha, as mentioned
above, means womb. According to Vedic
cosmology, this golden womb was the
nucleus from which all creation evolved.
As a matter of fact it was often the
practice to carve small recesses in
the curved wall of the stupa to hold
rows of oil lamps, so that the whole
mound may be illuminated at night. The
effect was to render the abstract concept
of the golden womb or egg into a visible
The dome is a symbol
of both the womb and the tomb. According
to Buddhist thought, before we are invested
with a material body our souls are free
and fully alive in the spiritual world.
Our physical conception in the womb
follows our death in the spiritual realm.
The womb is thus the symbol of the tomb.
This is the metaphysical counterpart
of the historical view that the stupa
evolved out of the ancient funerary
mound. In this context the stupa is
often referred to as the 'chaitya,'
a word which is derived from the Sanskrit
word for funeral pyre 'chita.'
The Conical Spire:
This signifies the element of fire.
Fire, of course, always rises upwards.
When we kindle a fire it never burns
downwards but always goes straight up.
So fire symbolizes energy ascending
upwards. It represents wisdom which
burns away all ignorance.
The Crescent Moon:
This denotes the element of air. Air
has the capacity to expand. The female
of the species shares this property
with air. This is exemplified in the
expansion of a pregnant woman. Indeed
the crescent moon is an ancient symbol
denoting femininity since the waxing
and waning of the moon is said to mirror
a woman's menstrual cycle.
The perfect shape of the circle expresses
wholeness and totality. It represents
the principle which has no end or beginning.
It thus signifies the element of space.
crowning the apex of the stupa is a
jewel like shape. This surmounts all
the five elements and hence expresses
a higher state of reality than that
characterized by these elements.
This protruding jewel
is found not only on top of stupas but
also crowns the heads of Buddha-images
of all countries and all periods. This
is the ushnisha which sometimes looks
like a flame springing from Buddha's
head, and sometimes like a lotus bud
signifies the Highest Reality, namely
the Enlightenment of the Great Buddha
himself. Hence in a sense, the journey
to the stupa's top is a process of spiritual
ascension, where the jewel lying at
the end of the quest is Nirvana itself.
of the highest point in the stupa with
the highest point in Buddha's image
leads us to ponder as to whether a more
deeper correspondence can be established
between the stupa and Buddha's physical
body. According to Yogic thought, the
five elements are correlated with the
five psychic centers within the human
body. This correlation is as follows:
1). The earth (prithvi)
is the lowest psychic center. This is
located between the feet and the knees.
2). Water (apas) lies between the knees
and the anus.
3). Fire (agni) lies between the anus
and the heart.
4). Air (vayu) lies between the heart
and the middle of the eyebrows.
5). Space (akasha) lies between the
middle of the eyebrows to the top of
Finally above the
head is the final seat of enlightenment.
This is identified with the Sahasrara
chakra, which is said to be the seat
of pure consciousness or ultimate bliss.
This is the Buddha' s ushnisha.
According to the
principles of yoga, our composite selves
are made of two superimposing constituents.
These are the physical self, known as
the gross body, and the other is the
higher self, which is the microcosm
of the universe, known as the subtle
body. The subtle and the gross bodies
are both analogues of each other. We
have seen above how the subtle body
is presented in the stupa.
The Buddha's physical
form too finds an echo in the stupa.
In such a visualization, the base is
Buddha's legs, the dome is his torso,
and to represent the head a second cubical
structure is added between the dome
and the spire. This cube known as the
harmika is exactly at the place where
Buddha's eyes should be. This can be
seen in the typical stupas of Nepal
where, on each side of the harmika,
a pair of eyes is painted.
There is an amusing
story told about an old man who had
led a rather negative and unhelpful
life, marked by constant conflicts over
petty matters. Nevertheless, he wanted
to become a monk for good luck. The
head monks, however hard they tried,
were having difficulty ordaining him,
since tradition decreed that a prospective
candidate for priesthood need to have
performed at least one good deed. Mobilizing
all their clairvoyant powers and searching
even his former lives, they could find
no good deed.
Not wanting to give
up, the compassionate monks then took
him to see the Buddha himself. Now the
Buddha's power of clairvoyance was far
more powerful than even the most saintliest
of his followers. Looking back the man's
many, many lifetimes the Buddha finally
said, 'Ah! It's all right, you can ordain
him - I've found something good in his
past.' 'What is it?' they enquired.
The Buddha replied, 'Long ago, he was
reborn as an ant, and he came with his
clan to the great stupa of Bodhnath
(Nepal), where some people had gathered
to pay homage to the monument. At the
moment when the head of the family began
his pious circumambulations, our man
here was crawling across his boot, trying
to get more crumbs. He was able to hang
on to the boot while the pilgrim made
it three times around the stupa! This
was a meritorious deed, good enough
to gain a monkhood for him.'
In the traditional
view, a building needs to satisfy both
the physical and metaphysical needs
of man. As an expression of artistic
intent, it will elaborate upon the manner
in which phenomenal world relates to
the spiritual one. Architecture being
by nature three-dimensional is eminently
suitable to act as a metaphor, since
any construct is bound to be rooted
in the phenomenal world, and then must
begin the ascent to the Higher levels.
The stupa by virtue
of being the monument of Buddha's choice
is deemed especially sacred as exemplified
in the above story. The spiritual merit
of this monument is enhanced no less
by it being a reflection of the Cosmic
Man, visualized in the ideals of Yoga,
who resides in each of us.
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