Understanding Buddhist Stupa Symbolism & Significance
Being not just the world's natural wonder, the Himalayas is also a center point for spirituality, especially Buddhism. And amongst these snow-capped peaks and mountains, one can find numerous sacred Buddhist Stupas/ momuments called 'Chortens.' Serving as the symbol of devotees' dedication and ambitions, the building of these sacred structures, Chortens is one of Buddhism's many customs. These hemispherical structures are one of the most distinctive types of Buddhist monuments, also known as stupas, derived from the pali word 'Thupa.'
Chortens are ubiquitous in the Himalayas; you can witness them explicitly throughout the Himalayan regions. With millions of followers of Buddhism in Asia and beyond, such structures can be found all over Asia, from grand golden Chortens in bustling city-center temple complexes to humble ones sitting alongside remote mountain trails. Usually, however, chortens are simple in architecture, adorned with prayer flags and mani stones, and can be found alongside routes, high points, or spiritually significant locations. Regardless of their architectural complexity, all such striking structures embody the art and symbolism of Buddhism and have deep cultural and spiritual significance for the people who create and revere them.
These structures symbolize the Buddha's presence and hold precious Buddhist relics, sometimes even the preserved bodies of renowned Lamas. Having said all of the religious and spiritual significance of the Chortens, their aesthetic and artistic existence cannot be denied. These structures are also a testament to the creativity and skill of the artisans who crafted them. Let us explore the symbolic world of Chortens, or Buddhist stupas, and delve into its history, meaning, and art.
What is a Chorten?
Found throughout the Himalayas, from Bhutan to Nepal to Tibet and throughout Asia, Chortens are Buddhist monuments or structures containing relics, offerings, sacred texts, and even the preserved remainings of revered Lamas (Buddhist Spiritual Gurus) meant to honor the Buddha and his teachings. Chortens can vary in size and shape, ranging from small shrines to towering structures that can be seen for miles. They serve as a focal point for Buddhist devotion and meditation, to which devotees can gain merits.
They are usually dome-shaped, with a square base and a pointed top, and can range in size from a few feet to towering structures that are hundreds of feet tall. They are often decorated with intricate carvings and colorful paintings that depict Buddhist deities, scenes from Buddhist scripture, and other symbols of spiritual significance. They may also contain prayer wheels, which devotees can spin while performing the 'Koras' (Circumambulation or pradakhshina) as they believe the act of Koras of the monument to be an act of high merit and blessing.
Different types of Buddhist Chorten
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Several different types of chortens are associated with Buddha's life, each with its unique design and purpose. The most common types of chortens include:
Lotus Blossom Stupa: Also known as the 'Stupa of Heaped Lotuses or Birth of the Sugata Stupa,' it refers to the birth of Buddha. According to legend, Buddha took seven steps in the four directions immediately after his birth. Lotus flowers sprang up wherever he stepped, symbolizing the Four Immeasurables: love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. So based on this belief, this type of stupa has lotus-petal designs. Sometimes, referring to the seven first steps of the Buddha, seven heaped lotus steps are constructed.
Enlightenment Stupa: a.k.a the 'Stupa of the Conquest of Mara,' symbolizes when the 35-year-old Buddha achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya. It is believed that he conquered worldly temptations and attacks that manifested in Mara.
Stupa of Many Doors or Gates: Characterized by a series of doors on each side of the steps, each of these doors represents the first teaching of Buddha after attaining enlightenment, i.e., the Four Noble Truths, the Six Perfections, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Twelve Links in the Chain of Dependent Origination.
Stupa of Descent from the God Realm: This type commemorates when Buddha, 42, spent a summer retreat in Tushita Heaven with his mother, who had reincarnated there. It is said that Buddha taught his reincarnated mother about dharma. The stupa is characterized by a central projection at each side that contains a triple ladder.
Stupa of Great Miracles: The 'Stupa of Conquest of Tirthikas refers to the many miracles the Buddha performed when he was 50. According to the legend, he overpowered several demons known as maras and tirthikas. The Lichave tribe raised this type of stupa to commemorate the event.
Stupa of Reconciliation: The Sangha, the Buddhist monastic community, had been divided into disputing fractions. However, Buddha managed to reunite the Sangha, and a stupa in this design was built to celebrate reconciliation in the kingdom of Magadha. The four octagonal steps with equal sides distinguish the stupa's style.
Stupa of Complete Victory: This type of stupa is built to commemorate Buddha, successfully prolonging his life by three months, represented by the three steps, which are circular and unadorned.
Stupa of Nirvana: Symbolizing the Buddha's complete absorption into the highest state of mind, The Stupa of Nirvana refers to the death of the Buddha when he was 80 years old. It is bell-shaped and usually not ornamented.
Styles of Chortens
The designs and decoration of each of the several chorten styles are distinctive. The most typical fashions are:
Nepalese style: defined by a square foundation and a multi-tiered dome.
Tibetan style: distinguished by its cylindrical form and vibrant appearance.
Bhutanese style: The conical shape and ornate carvings are its distinguishing features.
Historically, hemispherical tombs were made for ancient Indian kings that became a prototype for stupas in India, which housed the Buddha's relics. After the infiltration of Buddhism in Tibet, the chortens were built based on the Indian Buddhist stupas but infused with traditional Tibetan artistry. While some chortens still contain important relics, they all hold offerings and prayers. They embody symbolic and spiritual meaning for Buddhists than just a physical structure of Buddhist artistry.
The dome represents the universe, and the square base symbolizes the four cardinal directions and elements: earth, water, fire, and air. The path to enlightenment, an ultimate objective of Buddhism, is symbolized by the spire at the top of the chorten. The enshrined sacred relic or manuscripts embodies the Buddha's teachings and wisdom. Even the exterior ornamental features serve a bigger purpose of visually aiding meditation and introspection than just aesthetic purposes. These external decorative elements are also used to tell Buddhist mythologies and cosmologies.
Just living nearby or passing through the area of a chorten is believed to bestow positive energy; hence, they are considered religious and spiritual focal points for Buddhist practitioners. The act of circumambulating (walking around) or constructing a chorten is believed to be a way of generating positive karma and accumulating merit, which can help them progress on the path to enlightenment.