In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Stūpa Pagoda Caitya

  • Introduction
  • Historical Background
  • Construction
  • Symbolism
  • Cult
  • Functions
  • Context
  • Jain Stūpas
  • India
  • Sri Lanka
  • Tibet
  • Gandhāra
  • Central Asia
  • Burma
  • Southeast Asia

Buddhism Stūpa Pagoda Caitya
Ulrich Pagel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0087


The stūpa ranks among the most visible and enduring symbols of Buddhism. It first appeared in the shape of a hemispherical earthen mound sometime around 400 to 300 BCE. In India, stūpas became a prominent and regular feature of Buddhist monastic complexes soon after that. Already during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, we meet with large-scale stūpa constructions at a number of key Buddhist sites, including Bhārhut, Sāñchī, and, perhaps a little later, Amarāvatī. As buddhist monks began to spread the buddha’s teachings to the other countries of Asia from the 2nd century BCE onward, stūpas grew into one of the most readily identifiable symbols of their arrival. Even in those areas where Buddhism did not survive (including India), the stūpas were left behind to continue to testify to the (once-) widespread presence of Buddhist communities, including in Afghanistan, central Asia, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos, as well as in its variant form as a pagoda in China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. As Buddhism gained acceptance in these countries, it molded its prescriptions governing stūpa construction to accommodate local architectural traditions, discovering new building materials and changing shapes. From early on, stūpa structures were employed for multiple purposes. They served as central places of worship attracting monks and laymen, were adopted as mortuary containers to hold the ashes of local monks, were used to raise funds to improve living conditions in monasteries, became destinations of pilgrimage, and, more recently, have been turned into symbols of national unity, to name only a few. However, most importantly, they served to signal the presence of the buddha, not just in the abstract but also in a very physical living sense, commanding specific rights and privileges through the relics they enshrined. Furthermore, as a carrier of archaeological evidence, the stūpa continues to hold a prominent place in the study of the history of Buddhism, because its structures feature some of the earliest examples of religious architecture, stone sculpture, and inscriptions in South Asia.

Historical Background

The publications cited in this section contain discussions of key research into the history of the stūpa, focusing on India. Schopen 2004 and de Marco 1987 explore the stūpa’s connection to prehistoric burial `practices. Irwin 1979 links the stūpa with the cosmic axis as a potent symbol in early religious architecture. Bénisti 1981, Bareau 1974, and Przyluski 1935 explore the early history of the stūpa in India, using archaeological and textual sources. Huntington and Huntington 1985 includes many insightful discussions of some of the most famous stūpa sites in India, together with their art and iconography. However, because the book is organized by region (and chronology), its stūpa references are scattered over many pages. Hawkes and Shimada 2009 consists of a collection of essays charting the discovery of stūpas in colonial India, together with case studies of the stūpa’s urban context, temporal socioeconomic basis, and cultural production.

  • Bareau, André. “Sur l’origine des piliers dits d’Aśoka, des stūpa et des arbres sacrés du bouddhisme primitif.” Indologica Taurinensia 2 (1974): 229–274.

    Seminal study into the early history of the Buddhist stūpa, drawing on archaeological, epigraphic, and textual sources.

  • Bénisti, Mireille. Contribution à l’étude du stūpa bouddhique Indien: Les stūpa mineurs de Bodh-Gayā et de Ratnagiri. Paris: École Française d’Extrême-Orient, 1981.

    Provides an in-depth discussion of the features and symbolism of the smaller stūpas at Bodhgayā and Ratnagiri (Orissa) in northeastern India. The author draws on artistic motifs to date and place stūpa design, focusing on iconography and stylistic elements.

  • de Marco, Giuseppe. “The Stūpa as a Funerary Monument: New Iconograpical Evidence.” East and West 37.1–4 (1987): 191–246.

    This contribution examines in detail the origins and functions of the stūpa as a funerary mound.

  • Hawkes, Jason, and Akira Shimada. Buddhist Stupas in South Asia: Recent Archaeological, Art-Historical, and Historical Perspectives. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    This volume constitutes the most recent addition to the study of the stūpa in India. The volume consists of fifteen contributions that examine the discovery of Buddhist stūpas in colonial India; the religious symbolism of the stūpa; the wider archaeological context; the social, political, and economic dimensions of stūpa constructions; and the revival of the stūpa tradition in contemporary India. It includes a fine, up-to-date, but not comprehensive bibliography.

  • Huntington, Susan L., and John C. Huntington. The Art of Ancient India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain. New York: Weatherhill, 1985.

    Although this publication is primarily an art-historical study, it provides valuable information about key stūpa sites and the context of their construction. It is included here for its thematic breadth and cross-religious, pan-Indian scope.

  • Irwin, John. “The Stūpa and Its Cosmic Axis: The Archaeological Evidence.” In South Asian Archaeology 1977: Papers for the Fourth International Conference of the Association of South Asian Archaeologists in Western Europe. Edited by Maurizio Taddei, 799–845. Naples, Italy: Istituto Universitario Orientale, 1979.

    Groundbreaking study exploring the connection of the central stūpa spire with the cosmic axis. Irwin has published many articles on this topic, but this is probably the most important contribution. For two fine reviews, see J. W. de Jong, Indo-Iranian Journal 24.4 (1982): 316–318, and Fussman 1986 (cited under Symbolism).

  • Przyluski, Jean. “The Harmika and the Origin of the Buddhist Stūpa.” Indian Historical Quarterly 11 (1935): 190–210.

    This article connects the role of the harmika, or central spire, with the original design and purpose of the stūpa.

  • Schopen, Gregory. “Immigrant Monks and the Protohistorical Dead: The Buddhist Occupation of Early Burial Sites in India.” In Buddhist Monks and Business Matters: Still More Papers on Monastic Buddhism in India. By Gregory Schopen, 360–381. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2004.

    Explores the reasons why early Indian Buddhists often settled on, or near, sites with funereal associations.

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