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Stupa / Dagoba / Chaitya / Chedi

The stupa is the earliest known Indo-Aryan monument. To these the Burmese term tsedi or sedi, which corresponds with the Sinhalese dagaba / dagoba, Chaitya in Nepal and the Chedi of Siam, is sometimes given. This is a dome-shaped structure which was a development of the low sepulchral tumulus or mound of earth, in which baked bricks were substituted for earth with a view to durability. The purpose for which they were erected by the Buddhists was to serve as monuments enclosing relics of Buddha or of Buddhist saints, which were placed in a stone coffer. Some, however, contained no relics, but were only commemorative of important events or miracles connected with the history of Buddha. The Stupa became, to the early Buddhist, the religious edifice. The Jains also worshipped at stupas.

The primitive sacred object in Buddhism was not an image, but a relic. When the Buddha lay upon his death-bed he directed his disciples to collect his bones after cremation, and to bury them under a mound like a heap of rice. Hence the mounds or stupas in India were originally intended to cover relics of the Buddha or of some saint, and as such they were venerated by Buddhists. The relics were not set in a temple, but enclosed in a stupa or tope, an elongated hemispherical structure standing on a base, the exterior often richly carved or ornamented, and crowned with a square capital and the chhattra, or umbrella. Many stupas contained no relic, but were erected as commemorative objects. Near Benares stood a Stupa on the spot where the Buddha preached his first sermon; not far from it another Stupa commemorative of 500 Pratyekas who there entered Nirvana. Finally they were raised without any special object, but merely as a votive offering.

A path fenced by a railing surrounded the stupa, for circumambulation. The stuipa was decorated with flags, streamers, and flowers; and it was the chief religious edifice of early Buddhism. The stupa in its earliest known form was a dome roughly hemispherical in shape, the procession path at the base being usually enclosed by the massive railing, known as a vedika, such as surrounded an Aryan palace, fortified camp or settlement, or kept off the "impure" at Vedic sacrifices. The vedika had an entrance gateway, or torana, at each of the cardinal points, similar to that which is represented in Buddhist sculptures as the approach to a royal palace or town. On the summit of the stupa was the receptacle for the cinerary urn of the king or hero, crowned by the royal umbrella, and often surrounded, like the stupa itself, by the vedika which marked off holy ground. Sometimes, for greater safety, the urn was buried deeply in the structure of the stupa.

The exterior of the dome was plastered, so that the deeds of the hero or saint might be depicted on it for the edification of the relatives or pilgrims as they went round in solemn procession. The stupa, as it now exists, is nearly always a solid structure of brick or stone, but probably it was originally a domical hut built of bambu or wooden ribs. Thus the earliest stupa may have been the Aryan chieftain's hut or tent, imitated or reproduced in Vedic funeral rites as a temporary abode for the spirit of the deceased, until the due performance of the shraddhas by his relatives helped him to pass from the earthly sphere.

Vedic rites may be divided into two main classes, in which the germ of the two main divisions of modern Hinduism, the Vaishnava and Saiva sects, may be discovered. The first were addressed to the spirits of the daySurya, the Sun; Ushas, the Dawn; Indra, the wielder of the Thunderbolt, brother of the Fire-god, Agni, and others. They were joyful rites accompanied by songs, and were performed in the daytime by the Kshatriya householder or the chieftain of the tribe to secure the prosperity of the living. The chieftains who presided at the tribal sacrifices were the Surya-vamsa, the ministrants of the Sun-god, and from these patriarchal rites sprang the idea of the bhakti-marga, the path of devotion, and karma-marga, the path of service, which became the leading motives of Vaishnava religious teaching.

The second class included all the rites performed for the benefit of the dead, which were addressed to Chandra, the Moon, Varuna, the God of the night sky, and to Yama or Siva, the Lord of Death. These were associated with the pessimistic school of thought, mainly Brahmanical, of which both Saivism and Buddhism were branches, looking for moksha, or liberation by following the jnana-marga, the way of knowledge, whether it was that indicated by the Vedic seers, or the Eightfold Path pointed out by the Buddha.

The rites of both classes were often intermingled, but those of the Chandra cult were naturally centered round the stupa and the cremation ground, while the sacrificial hut, or the car of royalty with the sikhara roof, naturally became the principal shrine of the Surya cult. It was thus that the stupa became the sacred symbol of Buddhism, for the early school of Buddhism, the Hinayana, was essentially pessimistic, teaching the vanity of earthly desires. And in taking over the symbols of the Chandra cult, Buddhism adopted the whole symbolic framework of Vedic sacrificial rites.

The earliest stupas in India were hemispherical. Afterwards the hemisphere was raised upon a cylinder, which gave to the stupa more the appearance of a tower. The hemispherical dome supported a square block, which represented the box in which the relic was placed, and above this came a finial, built in the form of an umbrella, with three, seven, or nine stories. Later on this finial became much more important, and assumed the proportions of a spire.

Stupa / Dagoba / Chaitya / Chedi

The stupa was a dome in form, on its top was a member called a "tee," and over this were a number of umbrellas, these being royal emblems. The Stupas show a square or circular base, either with or without a railing {sucaka, suet). On the base is placed a dome surmounted by a graduated inverted pyramid which is connected with the dome by a short neck, gala, to use the Nepalese term. The whole is surmounted by an umbrella, or by two umbrellas one above the other. The umbrellas are hung with garlands and flags. Buddhists attach a symbolical meaning to the Stupa and parts of it. The two, three, five, seven, nine, and thirteen umbrellas, and the gradations of the inverted pyramid suggest divisions of the universe. The great cosmical Stupa produced by the miraculous power of the Buddha in Lot. Chap. XI is marked by a series of umbrellas rising upwards to the heaven of the gods of the four quarters.

Both the Northern Buddhists and their brethren in the South see in certain Stupas symbolical representations of Mount Meru. Considering that the Prasadas or towers show a multiplicity of stair-like divisions, e.g. the Mahal Prasada at Pollanarua in Ceylon, the more composite type of Stupas, as at Mengyun in Burma and at Boro-Budur in Java with their graduated terraces, owe their development to a blending of the characteristics of the Dagob and the Prasada.

The large Stupa at Sanchi in Central India, dating in all probability from the third century BC, is an example of the Asoka type. Upon a substructure consisting of a low circular drum a hemispherical dome was erected. This dome was surrounded by a procession path forming the upper rim of the drum. On the top of the dome was a boxlike structure surmounted by an umbrella (the Indian emblem of sovereignty), and surrounded by a stone railing. This structure is usually called a tee (a Burmese word). The tee has disappeared from all the Indian Stupas, but its form can be seen from the Stupas surviving in Ceylon, as well as from stone models and sculptural representations preserved in great numbers in India. The Stupa itself was surrounded by a massive stone railing, with gates on four sides, enclosing a procession path and a sacred precinct. Both the rails and the gates were unmistakable imitations of wooden models. The gateways, which are usually called by the Sanskrit name of Torana, were introduced into China and Japan along with Buddhist architecture from India.

In size these stupas varied from clay models about an inch in diameter to that of the grand Stupa at Peshawer, the ancient Puiushapura, which is described as being 400 cubits [feet] high. The earliest Stupas were very low in proportion to their diameter. Thus the oldest known example, that of Piprahwa (450 BC), stands only about 22 feet high, with a diameter at the base of 116 feet. As time went on the relative height increased. Thus the great Stupa at Sanchi, erected some 200 years later, is 54 feet high, while the basal diameter of the dome is 106 feet. The proportional height here is just about half, while at Piprahwa it is less than one-fifth. The Stupa of Sarnath, near Benares, was erected several centuries later. Here the height is 110 feet above the surrounding ruins and 128 feet above the plain, with a diameter of 93 feet. Thus the height is now considerably more than the diameter. In other words, the Stupa showed a tendency in course of time to assume the shape of a tower.

Concurrently with the elongation of the Stupa there was an elongation taking place in the tee also. This may be observed in chronologically successive rock - cut specimens at Ajanta. The combined elongation is well represented by a Stupa found in Cambodia. The next step is a further elongation of the tee with a corresponding diminution and flattening of the main body of thcStupa as shown by an example in Nepal. Here the umbrellas have disappeared and assumed the shape of thirteen roofs. In the Indian rock-cut specimens there are never more than three umbrellas, but in many of the model stone Stupas in Behar there are nine. Proceeding to Burma, the process went still further. In a pagoda found in Pegu, the tee is very long, though the Stupa still remains in an attenuated form. But in another Burmese example hardly anything but the tee is left, the lower portion almost disappearing. Finally, there is the last development in China, where the tee is practically all that is left.

Stupa / Dagoba / Chaitya / Chedi Dhammakaya Cetiya

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Page last modified: 31-03-2017 19:45:16 ZULU