There are two reasons
stupas were built after the historical Buddha Shakyamuni died:
Eight Great Deeds
When he ended his earthly life, and his mortal remains were cremated, his ashes - thus it has been said - were divided into eight parts which were closed up and protected by the princes and communities. Or ten, or eleven, according to different traditions. More stupas were built over these relics. Of the really old stupas still intact today, most are said to contain relics of the Buddha.
There is more about the history on the Sanchi page (click on that image for a bigger photo, and story)
Tibet, the construction of stupas (mchod-rten, pronounced chor-ten) came to be
an intregal part of the spiritual life. The symbolism is so vast and complex it
is slightly rediculous to attempt any simplification of it. Every part of the
outwardly visible stupa has specific significance, yet this is only the surface:
within are scriptures and relics in defined positions, each equally alive with
So in building a
stupa, or contributing in any way towards one, is considered a *good thing* by
Buddhists in general. It is a structure that invites (or even invokes) peace.
Robert Thurman / Denise Leidy say: "Stupas began in pre-Buddhist India as hemispherical burial grounds that marked the remains of temporal rulers. At an early stage in the development of Buddhist art, they became symbols of the Buddha's continuing immanance as well as representations of his mind........the fourteen rings around the spire (that are seen in all "modern" stupas) are all that remainn of the royal umbrellas often found in earlier stupas. They symbolise the fourteen stages traversed in the attainment of buddhahood; the four tantric stages added to the ten bodhisattva stages." (This quote is from "Mandala The Architecture of Enlightenment", by Denise Leidy and Robert Thurman, an exquisite book published by Asia Society Galleries & Tibet House, available (where else?) at amazon.com (there's a link on the book pages, if you haven't already got it saved)
my collection of stupa stuff is an untitled section of symbolism which starts
with this quote from His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse, Rinpoche:
As the Buddhist teachings point out, every element of a buddha's physical body is pervaded with enlightenment. Thus, even after cremation, the teacher's remains are considered sacred, because they are the distilled essence of his or her physical form and are therefore themselves the embodiment of enlightenment. Because it enshrines these relics, the stupa is powerful.
It is said that in venerating the stupa, one can "meet" the teacher. The visual impact of the stupa on the observer brings a direct experience of inherent wakefulness and dignity. Stupas continue to be built because of their ability to liberate from confusion simply upon seeing their structure.
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.
The stupa also symbolizes the five elements and their relationship to enlightened mind. These are the essential attributes of a fully realised human being: the base of the stupa signifies earth and equanimity; the dome, water and indestructibility; the spire, fire and compassion; above the spire, wind and all-accomplishing action; and at the very top, the jewel represents space and all-pervading awareness. The stupa is a mandala, or sacred arrangement, containing all of these enlightened qualities."
And here is a page of photos of an old stupa in Afghanistan. Tony, who sent me the pictures writes:
"It is at the ancient, well preserved site of a Buddhist cave monastery. It was probably destroyed by raiders from the north in about 460 CE (AD). The site was excavated in 1959-60 and was only slightly damaged in the 25 years of war.
The stupa is hewn into the solid rock of a large hill - and so cannot be seen from the foot of the hill - it has entrances through caves at the foot of the hill. From a distance all that can be seen is the square relic chamber on the top."
If you want to create a link to these pages, feel free to take one of these little stupas as an
icon: or click on any of them for a big version for a homework assignment :-)