The Tibetan Stupa

The most common monument of any Tibetan scene is the Buddhist stupa, introduced to Tibet during the seventh century. The stupa originally represented represented the funeral mounds under which the shared relics of Sakyamuni’s incinerated corpse once rested, and it soon became the chief symbolic representation of Buddhism, just as the cross become the symbol of Christianity.

At first the stupa was said to symbolize the person of the departed lord, and in very early Buddhist times it became an object of faith and devotion. With the loss of historical perspective, overtime, the stupa became the symbol of Buddhahood itself, and in a later period this symbolism was made even more noticeable by the Buddhas of the four directions which were set into the stupa’s four sides. Thus it was no longer associated specifically to Shakyamuni, but rather to the very essence of Buddhahood.

The stupa’s various parts became endowed with symbolic significance over time, and despite variations in local styles and designs, it generally retained certain essential features: The dome had always remained the fundamental part since it contained the sacred objects, its essential character as a coffer or shrine for relics was also never lost. As time went on instead of relics from holy men the later stupas often contained sacred images or books, or even a few inscribed prayers instead. It also continued to be used as a tomb, since even now some contain the ashes of deceased lamas, or of the friends and relations of anyone who chose to have the monument erected. They may also sometimes contain whole bodies, presumably embalmed.

Physical symbolism:
The dome normally rests upon a five-tier platform which is said to represent the five elements of existence (earth, water, fire, air, space). The dome rests on a decorated base, usually referred to as the ‘throne’. Above the dome is a spire consisting of thirteen rings, this design was derived from the ceremonial umbrellas which used to be present on top of the earliest Indian structures. The thirteen ring are said to symbolize the thirteen stages of a would-be Buddha’s advance towards Buddhahood. The spire is topped by a small circular device known as the ‘drop’ (Tibetan: thigle‘) resting on a sun which rests on a lunar crescent. The drop is said to represent a jewel which is symbolic of enlightenment, the sun representing wisdom and the moon representing compassion or ‘heart of awakening’.

(*See above picture on the right for more Buddhist symbolism within the Stupa’s construction)

Sources: Smellgrove, David & Hugh Richardson. A Cultural History of Tibet. Boulder, Colorado: Prajna Press, 1980. p. 80-89


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