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Sanchi Stupa, 1st c BC, © geocities.com

Buddhist Stupas

Burial mounds or tumuli were common in India from prehistoric times. This form of veneration was adopted by Buddhists quite early but seems to have received a stimulus when the emperor Ashoka decided to build stupas throughout India to house the remains of the Buddha and his disciples. Over the centuries the stupas became progressively larger and more elaborate usually through additions to the original building by succeeding patrons. Railings were raised around the mound that imitated wooden construction and were often profusely carved, such as at Bharhut, Sanchi, and Amaravati. They were also provided with elaborate gateways, consisting of posts supporting architraves, all covered with sculpture. The central mound was also enhanced by adding terraces around the dome and increasing the number of parasols on top. In Gandhara and southeastern India sculptured decoration was extended to the stupa as well, so that terraces, drums, and domes were decorated with figural and ornamental sculpture in bas-relief.

The stupas and accessory structures at sites such at Bharut, Sanchi, and Amaravati have a large number of representations of contemporary buildings which are a rich source of information about early Indian architecture. They depict walled and moated cities with massive gates, multi-storied residences, pavilions with a variety of domes, together with simple, thatched-roofed huts that remained the basis of most Indian architectural forms. A striking feature of this early Indian architecture is the consistent and profuse use of arched windows and doors.

Stupas and monasteries continued to be built upto the 9th century AD inspite of the decline of Buddhism in India. They also aspired to height, which was achieved by multiplication and heightening of the supporting terraces. A good example of this is new form is the Dhamekh stupa at Sarnath. Viharas were also built on the plains to house very large groups of Buddhist students, visitors, and pilgrims. The excavated sites at Nalanda and Paharpur, both in Eastern India, and both patronized by the Pala dynasty of Bengal, are vast constructions containing many hundreds of brick shrines and monasteries.

Bangalore, 2006

Photos and Text © Amit Guha