South Asia, Southeast Asia & East Asia
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The Buddhist StupaSymbolism of a Sacred Structure
By David Raezer
The first and most fundamental of Buddhist architectural monuments, the Buddhist stupa (aka dagoba, chorten, pagoda) serves as a marker for a sacred space, a symbolic representation of the Buddha’s burial mound.
To understand the stupas and pagodas that you will see throughout Asia — including those in Bhutan, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, South Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, Nepal, China and Japan — it is helpful to first appreciate the design of the earliest stupas, which are found in India and Sri Lanka. These stupas exerted great influence on later designs.
The Great Stupa at Sanchi, in central India, is one of the earliest stupas; it served as an architectural prototype for all others that followed. The world-famous stupa — first constructed by the 3rd-century-BCE Mauryan ruler Ashoka in brick (the same material as those of Sri Lanka) — was later expanded to twice its original size in stone.
In the most basic sense, as an architectural representation of a sacred burial site, a stupa — no matter where it is located in the world or when it was built — has three fundamental features.
Around these three core building blocks were added secondary features.
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