Buddhist Stupa: Architecture & Symbolism

The first and most fundamental of Buddhist architectural monuments, the Buddhist stupa 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 Angkor, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Indonesia, China, Japan—it is helpful to first appreciate the design of the earliest stupas, which can be found in India and Sri Lanka. These stupas exerted great influence on later designs.

Buddhist Architecture: Great Stupa, Sanchi, India.

Great Stupa, Sanchi, India.

The Indian Prototype: Sanchi Stupa

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.

Buddhist Architecture: Elevation and plan. Great Stupa, Sanchi, India.

Elevation and plan. Great Stupa, Sanchi, India.

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.

  • A hemispherical mound (anda). The anda’s domed shape (green highlights) recalls a mound of dirt that was used to cover the Buddha’s remains. As you might expect, it has a solid core and cannot be entered. Consistent with their symbolic associations, the earliest stupas contained actual relics of the Buddha; the relic chamber, buried deep inside the anda, is called the tabena. Over time, this hemispherical mound has taken on an even grander symbolic association: the mountain home of the gods at the center of the universe.
  • A square railing (harmika). The harmika (red highlights) is inspired by a square railing or fence that surrounded the mound of dirt, marking it as a sacred burial site.
  • A central pillar supporting a triple-umbrella form (chattra).The chattra, in turn, was derived from umbrellas that were placed over the mound to protect it from the elements (purple highlights). Just as the anda’s symbolic value expanded over time, the central pillar that holds the umbrellas has come to represent the pivot of the universe, the axis mundi along which the divine descends from heaven and becomes accessible to humanity. And the three circular umbrella-like disks represent the three Jewels, or Triantha, of Buddhism, which are the keys to a true understanding of the faith: (a) Buddha; (b) dharma (Buddhist teachings or religious law); and (c) sangha (monastic community).

Around these three core building blocks were added secondary features.

  • Enclosure wall with decorated gateways (toranas) at the cardinal directions. The wall — with its trademark three horizontal stone bars (in the top image) — surrounds the entire structure. The wall is marked in light blue highlights and the toranas in yellow.
  • A circular terrace (medhi). The terrace—surrounded by a similar three-bar railing—supports the anda and raises it off the ground (black highlights); it likely served as a platform for ritual circumambulation.