Monday, December 3, 2012

About Buddhist Stupa

Basic Introduction about Buddhist Stupa 

Well Known Great Stupa of Bodhnath, Kathmandu

Whoever visiting Buddhist countries or sites witnesses a pyramid-like structure erected on the base of a giant dome; some with decoration and some in simple form.  Such particular structure in Buddhist term is called Stupa. In Sanskrit it is also known as Caitya.   Nepal being the birth place of Lord Buddha and bearing the unbroken Buddhist Tradition than any other countries posses several Buddhist heritages.  Among them the Stupa represents as the most important emblem for Buddhists.  Every nook and corner of the historic section of Kathmandu valley (Kathmandu city itself, Patan, Bhaktapur, Kritipur and other ancient towns) is filled by interestingly decorated miniature stupas alongside the Hindu shrines and temples.  Legendry Stupa of Soyambhu and equally historic Bouddha (Bodhnath) Stupas are considered to be holiest pilgrimage sites for Buddhist devotees especially of Vajrayana Sect from all over the world. 

Stupa from the time of Buddha at Vaishali, India.
 Notice the Ashoka Pillar 3rd Centurey BC
Though it is now totally Buddhist treasure, tradition of constructing stupa was prevailed in Vedic (ancient Hindu) times.  Shortly before Buddha's passing away (Mahaparinibbana: Pali) Ananda, his personal attendant had asked him in grief that, what would be the best way to honor of his physical remains.  Buddha replied that as traditionally done to the saintly persons and kings, they should build a stupa to preserve the remains of his body.  Thus after the cremation of Buddha's body in Kushinagar (present Uttarpradesh in India) the stupa had to be build at the place to preserve his holy relics.  But the representatives of different countries at the funeral procession of Buddha claimed that they also need a portion of relics to pay homage by their people in their respective countries.  Then the relics were divided into 8 portions and were later preserved underneath stupas in those different countries. 

This is how the culture of constructing stupa merged into Buddhist Tradition right after the demise of Buddha.  In Buddhism the concept of building stupa dedicating to some special person didn't limited in the short time after Buddha, it rather developed in very unique way.  Among 8 different original stupas, 7 were unearthed by the missionary of Buddhist Emperor Ashoka (250BC) to collect the relics which later were divided into 84000 portions in order to build stupas all over the country. The only one leftover stupa by Ahsoka is happened to be in southern Nepal at present Ramagrama near Lumbini the birth place of Buddha. In ancient times stupa would be just a mound of half circle dome to protect the relics of saintly persons.  During the time of developing Mahayana sect of Buddhim the original shape of stupa was changed according to the Mahayanic philosophy.  The half circle dome was now to be decorated with engraving of Buddha's icon, Tree under which Buddha had realized truth and other related artifacts with Buddha's life. 

Mini Stupas at Soyambhu Stupa Premise, Kathmandu
Nepal being the cradle of Mahayana Buddhism (later dominated by Vajrayana) possesses different forms of Stupas from early stage to modern days.  Mound of Ramagrama, and Remains of twin Stupas at Dhamnihawa of Kapilvastu represent the primordial stupas whereas the numerous miniature votive stupas of Licchvi period found in Kathmandu valley represent the development of different components in construction of stupas.  Since the development of Mahayana, not only the relic of Buddha or saintly persons but the artifacts used by such persons i.e. cloths, attires, chanting books could also be kept underneath the stupa.  Similarly one could construct a stupa without putting anything underneath; it could be offered as a votive substance to pay homage to the Buddha and his teachings. Not only in the contents but the idea of constructing whole structure of stupa also were noticeably changed during the period of early Mahayana Buddhism. 

Soyambhunath Stupa, Kathmandu
The stupa of Soyambhu is the landmark reflecting all the features of Mahayana Philosophy.  This historic stupa dominates Kathmandu valley standing on the top of a hillock above 150 meters of valley surface.  According to the legend related to the history of Nepal the valley of Kathmandu was a huge lake in ancient times.  While Majushree one of the Bodhisattavas of that time drained the water, first thing came out of the lake was the hillock of Soyambhu.  People started to worship the 'first and special' substance from the holy lake.  During the early Licchivi period (c.100BC to 900AD) the Mahayana Buddhism had dominated the culture and life of the people of the valley.  Historians unanimously agree that during this period the Soyambhu Stupa was build by one of the religious Licchavi kings.  Though the stupa was renovated several times and few times it was enlarged to its present form the characteristic features of Stupa according to the religious books are believed to be according to its original form. This statement of historians has been supported by other historic stupas of the Licchavi period which bears all the character features; are in miniature form, made of single stone so they last long without much decaying.

An Old Tibetan Style Stupa (Chorten)
The half circled dome of Soyambhu made of stones and clay in which rest of the structure is based represents the samsara, the sorrowful world.  Around the dome there are 5 different shrines representing 5 different Buddhas of different direction.  The five Buddhas are Vairocana of centre, Akchhovya of  East, Ratnasambhava of South, Amitava of West and Amoghsiddhi of north; clockwise respectively.  The five Buddhas fill the wisdom to all direction to lead sentient sentient being towards liberation.  Above the dome there is square shaped structure with the painting of lord Buddha's 'eye of law' seeing all four directions. Further above is the 13 different circles shaping narrow as they head up one after another.  The 13 different circles represent the stages and path to be followed and completed by Bodhisattva towards final goal known as Buddhahood.  The Final goal itself or Buddhahood is represented by the pinnacle which stands on the top of Stupa. 

Apart from these basic features, Stupas in Nepal are decorated by prayer wheel containing millions of prayers of compassion dedicated to all the living beings.  While people visit a Stupa, they spin the wheel that multiplies the prayer generating more power of compassion to lead towards Buddhahood.  Similarly they offer 5 colored prayer flags which also contain same prayer.  While they are hung up above the stupa the prayer reaches far as the wind blows them.