Distant heir to the funerary mound common to multiple cultures – there are also non-Buddhist stupas, Jains in particular – the stupa is above all a monumental reliquary. It is therefore not surprising to learn that the term "dhâtu-garbha", which very precisely means reliquary, can be used as a synonym of the word stupa. The terms dagoba, and pagoda, are derived from it.
The typical structure has a cubic base or circular plan on which rests a solid hemispherical masonry called "anda" (egg). The relics are enshrined there in a permanently sealed cavity, and they cannot be extracted without destroying the building. A pillar, the "yasti", often metal is stuck in this dome which it crosses to reach the ground. Its base, at the top of the anda, is surrounded by a small balustrade or set in a cubic structure called “harmika”. This pole carries an odd number of parasols to which garlands and banners can be attached. In the majority of cases, a stupa is oriented according to the cardinal directions.
The whole was originally surrounded by a monumental balustrade, the "vedika", endowed with one or four toranas, impressive porticoes which, in the early days of Buddhist art, were the only elements of a stupa with carved decoration.
Mention of the first stupas from the XNUMXth century BC.
With the evolution of Buddhism and its expansion across Asia in countries with very diverse cultures, the stupa acquired an increasingly present decoration, and its silhouette changed in a sometimes substantial way. Certain parts of the monument have grown considerably in size and have also taken on a symbolic value unknown to the original Buddhism, which tended to attribute meaning to the structure as a whole.
Texts dating back to the XNUMXth century BC refer to the construction of stupas. These are stories evoking the funeral of the Buddha and the erection of the first stupas on his ashes, in accordance with the indications which would have been given by the Blessed One himself to his disciple Ananda. These same texts specify that these buildings are also those that were built for the kings, which implicitly justifies the presence of the pillar carrying the parasols, symbols of both royalty and holiness.
The oldest inscriptions found on stupas insistently remind us that the most important fact is not so much the construction of the building itself as the preservation of bodily relics within it.
The earliest surviving examples, however, date no further back than the mid-XNUMXrd century BCE. They are still included in later reconstructions which make it impossible to know their original appearance. This is the case of the famous stupas of Sañnhi or Sârnâth.
Ashoka and the 8400 stupas
The construction of a stupa – its financing as well as direct participation in the work – generates merits. It is therefore not surprising that over the centuries, secondary, votive stupas have multiplied around the original monument to end up in some of the great holy places of Buddhism such as Bodh Gaya or certain monastic sites famous today in ruin like Hadda in Afghanistan, to a veritable tangle of constructions. Tradition attributes to King Ashoka, whose reign dates from the middle of the 8400rd century BC, the foundation of XNUMX stupas spread over the entire extent of his empire.
However, the oldest inscriptions found on stupas remind us emphatically that the most important fact is not so much the construction of the building itself as the preservation of bodily relics within it. It is clear that despite the injunctions of the most eminent religious and theoreticians of Buddhism, according to which the relics are only a support on which the faithful can rely to better understand the teaching, the relics are quickly become the object of a real cult. The building therefore has a highly symbolic value, even if it no longer contains anything, or used manuscripts and ritual objects that can be substituted for the relics: it evokes the body of the Law ("dharma kâya") of the Buddha and constitutes for the faithful a material reminder of the great truths of Buddhism.
But like any religious construction, the stupa can also acquire a magical value in the eyes of a more popular Buddhism: a symbol of holiness protecting the traveler on mountain passes, for example. Several stupas can also be positioned in a network which gives a religious value to the organization of the space. Some Buddhist rulers have made a stupa the emblem of their power, the Mahâtupa, in Sri Lanka, is an example.
There is nothing specifically Buddhist about the "cult" that unfolds around the stupa: offerings of flowers, perfume and light, even music and dance, combine with the essential practice, the "pradakshina", or ritual wandering around the building.
Today, more than 2500 years after the entry of the Buddha into the Mahaparinirvana, the stupa remains the monument in which Buddhists all over the world, all schools combined, recognize themselves.