The stupa is a mound or domed structure which serves as a Buddhist reliquary, or container for relics. Stupas are a form of Mandala, or sacred form of circle in Buddhist religious traditions. The Mandala is comprised of a square within the circle. This geometric pattern is thought to symbolically or metaphysically represent the Cosmos in microcosm.
Stupas were originally simple crude piles or heaps of mud which contained artifacts of Buddha. Several thousand stupas were built after the third century, with the advent and spread of Buddhism. They eventually evolved into engineered domed structures. This evolution of structure reflected the change in the stupa from an object of memorial to one of veneration.
Most of the stupas were built as corbelled arch domes, not as true arch domes (as I discussed in an earlier blog). These corbelled arch structures require a very large amount of masonry material, resulting in very strong structures which are robust, long lived and somewhat reminiscent of the Romanesque in their extensive use of material.
Some of the great stupas famous to us today are the Great Stupa at Sanchi, India; the Dhamek Stupa in northeastern India; the Ruwanwelisaya Chedi in Sri Lanka; and the Borobudur in Indonesia: the largest Buddhist structure in the world.
The existence of such a large number of ancient stupas today is testament to the fundamental strength and stability of this domed structure. Many of these stupas have survived a long history of seismic activity and major earthquakes. This domed structure also points to the cultural acceptance and reverence for the dome in Buddhist cultures, as seen in Muslim culture relative to the mosques.
The square within the stupa (as described by four sacred gates) is an interesting manifestation of “squaring the circle” as discussed earlier on this blog. This superposition of circle and square seems a fundamental archetype of human nature, and is found across many cultures and societies. As described in An Introduction to Stupas, “"The shape of the stupa represents the Buddha, crowned and sitting in meditation posture on a lion throne. His crown is the top of the spire; his head is the square at the spire's base; his body is the vase shape; his legs are the four steps of the lower terrace; and the base is his throne." This strong cultural acceptance and reverence indicates that a domed masonry structure is readily accepted and embraced by Buddhist societies.