Stupas are mounds that were built to hold relics of the Buddha or his chief students. They were also built to mark important events of the Buddha's life or lives of his disciples. King Ashoka is said to have built 84,000 Stupas all over India, from the original relics of the Buddha. In Sri Lanka stupas are called dagobas; in Myanmar, Thailand and China they are know as pagodas and in Tibet they are called chortens.
This diagram shows the different shapes of stupas or pagodas, while the colored diagram explains the symbolic levels in the stupas, representing the four primary elements: earth, water, fire, wind and the space element.
Stupas, even from different cultures, have a distinctive architecture comprising a broad base as if taking its stand on mother earth, and a high pinnacle pointing towards the sky, much as one aspires towards lofty aims and visions. They commonly house some religious relics and serve as a focal point for one’s recollections, devotions, respect and reverence.
In creating a stupa, the various Buddha images are assembled and arranged according to the cardinal points of the compass.
- The Dhammacakka Mudra occupies the centre
- The Abhaya Mudra occupies the North
- The Bhumiphassa Mudra occupies the East
- The Samadhi or Dhyana Mudra occupies the West
- The Dana Mudra occupies the South
As one draws near to the Stupa one acknowledges it with a bow and Anjali before circumambulating three times – the first time recollecting the Buddha, the second time the Dhamma, and the third time, the Sangha. Circumambulation is a very ancient way to express respect. Traditionally, the right side has always been regarded as the most fortunate side, and in the scriptures, those visiting the Buddha would always show their respect by keeping their right side towards him as they took their places for a Dhamma talk or sought his advice and guidance. One always circumambulates a stupa in a clockwise direction, keeping the right side of the body towards the stupa.
As one circumambulates the stupa one can chant and carry offerings such as candles, incense and flowers, and these can be offered at any one of the four shrines (facing North, East, South, and West), which form an integral part of the stupa. Circumambulation brings together bodily movement, chanting, and the carrying of offerings and the accompanying recollections in a concerted expression of our respect and reverence.
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