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Buddhist Architecture

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Aly Dimichele

on 19 October 2015

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Transcript of Buddhist Architecture

Buddhist Architecture
Buddhism is a religion with a long rich history, dating back to 5th century BCE. There are two major branches of Buddhism, which commonly go by Theravada and Mahayana. The highest percentage of Theravada Buddhism is present in Sir Lanka whilst Mahayana is most commonly seen in China, Japan and Tibet. With a religion that promotes such individualistic beliefs, we see few homogeneous elements. This presentation will explore how Buddhist architecture is not only harmonious but an effective extension of the religion as a whole.
The Stupa is a dome-shaped structure that was placed on top the Buddhist shrines, giving them their distinct shape. The way these structures were strategically built – both internally and externally – accommodated the beliefs of the religion while adding their own element to the practice of this faith. Internally, the center Stupa with an open assembly area allowed the possibility for group worship whilst a circumambulatory path allows for the effortless escape into solitude. Externally, railings and gateways, all of which are meticulously decorated with imagery of the Buddha’s life as well as Jataka tales, surround the Stupa’s. Both these elements remain consistent over centuries, effectively maintaining uniformity in Buddhist religion and acting as a valid representation of belief.
The unique design of the Stupa was the earliest preserved Buddhist monument. With its square base and pointed dome it presents itself as an independent marker. Yet with a closer look, the circular shape and wide base were also used for joint worship. The picture on the left shows a small scale Stupa, used to hold the remains of the deceased. This picture is used to show that although this presentation will focus on larger scale Stupa's with focus on architecture, representation of Stupa sculptures remain consistent.
A Harmonious Extension of Religion
This floor plan shows the internal workings of the Stupa. The circulatory path shows the individuals ability for solitude while the open assembly area encourages group worship with focus still on the Stupa.
By examining the interior of the Stupa structures, we can see the significance the layout had in embodying Buddhism beliefs. The cooperation between solitude and openness was in itself a powerful message. The viewing of many Buddhist scriptures and sculptures itself was an empowering experience. "It was believed to emanate a kind of holy energy or “charisma” which was in itself efficacious even for those who did not actually read or recite the text” (Zhiru, 99). Meaning, even if you were unaware of the teachings the building's layout would essentially act as your guide
The viewing "audience" for these Stupas began as monks and nuns but later comprised of a majority laity audience (Fogelin, 130). Meaning that external appearance became equally important as internal accommodations to faith. The picture above shows how extensions such as the railings and the Tarama were relics added to represent the Buddha through Relics opposed to the symbolic representation that was practiced by the clarity. These external elements added extended belief to Buddha without taking away importance from the Stupa.
The Stupa at Sanchi can be used as a perfect example of progression, whilst maintaining crucial elements of the Stupa such as its distinct shape and strategic build. Beginning as a Stupa with no relics, as dynasties of India continued to leave their mark, the Stupa gained decorations and relics. Today, the Stupa is considered one of India's seven wonders. As Stupas continue to develop and grow, their connection with Buddha is enhanced, not lost. The picture below shows the Stupa at Sanchi and embodies this idea of enhancement through decor and entrance ways yet preserving the initial shape and feel of a Stupa.
This picture of the progression of Stupas including Mauryan and Indo-Greek support my general thesis in saying that Buddhist architecture - much like the faith itself - has a high degree of individualism and yet maintains common trends which unify the complex religion.
As Zhiru states, to question the forms of religious authority in today's modern society are nearly inevitable. It is through sculptures, scriptures and most importantly architecture that faith is accurately represented and studies. Thus, it was through the internal and external construction of Buddhist Stupa's that enhanced the faith as a whole. Whether it was between the clergy and the laity (as proposed by Fogelin) or between different controlling dynasties each leaving behind a mark of their own, the faith of Buddhism has flourished under the study of these monuments. As Buddhism itself finds a perfect balance between individualism and consistent elements (such as the 4 Noels Truths previously mentioned) its architectural counterpart beautifully harmonizes with the religion as a whole.
Above is an example of the Jataka images that became popular in Buddhist art and architecture during the 3rd century BCE (Harvey, 9). They were specifically used as inspiration for the decoration of the external Stupas. Jataka tales spoke of the life and heroic events of Buddha and essentially acted as a guide and overall reminder of Buddha's work for worshipers. The use of the Jataka tales spread the unvarying accomplishments of the Buddha.
Aside from architecture, very few elements of the Buddhist faith remain consistent. However the Four Noble Truths remain as an unvarying
element of Buddhism. These Truths show to have a significant affect on not only the actions of followers but on the progression of Buddhist architecture.
The Stupa at Sanchi, complete with
railing and Taramar
With the growth of Buddhism
and its "audience" we
begin to see external
extensions which enhance
the "viewing experience" (see next passage). Also, the use of relics and
Jataka tales enhance
the Buddhist message through symbolic stories and powerful images.

The Stupa structure will be the focal point of
this presentation as its presence in the
Buddhist religion remained constant
throughout time while still allowing a degree
of variation between dynasties. Beginning with a short video below, this will provide a brief explanation of the Stupa structure as well as touch on key elements that will be seen again throughout the duration of this presentation.
Key elements within the video:

- at 0:36 note the visitors ability to walk completely around the Stupa structure. This element will be examined in more detailed in the following section about the interior significance of these monuments.
- at 1:30 note the elaborate and meticulously decorated gateways that were later added This will be examined later in the presentation when discussing essential external elements of Stupas
- at 2:17 note the discussion of progression and the application of decor and deities due to "popular" decision and want ( noted again at 3:30)
Progression of Buddhism architecture was inevitable, however that does not mean it lost its unique sense of worship. Below are three of photos to illuminate the levels of progression seen with Buddhist Stupas. Despite their change of height and colour, it is important to note that both the general shape and its use for holding relics, remain consistent.
Boudhanath Stupa. Kathmandu, Nepal. This monumental Buddhist Stupa was founded in 590-604 CE with high architectural influence by Tibetan empires.
The "Wat Phra Kaew" (often called the Golden Stupa). Bangkok, Thailand. This Stupa shows its glory through its golden shine and expensive elements like standing jade stone with an emerald colour.
The "Great Stupa" at Sanchi, India Madhya Pradesh. This original Stupa began as a brick hemisphere and was later expanded, added to, and decorated according to influential dynasties. The Great Stupa at Sanchi will be used as an example for the progression of Buddhist architecture
Work Cited

- Fogelin, Lars. "Ritual And Presentation In Early Buddhist Religious Architecture." Asian Perspectives 42, no. 1 (2003): 129-154.
- Harvey, Peter. An introduction to Buddhist ethics foundations, values, and issues. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
- Schopen, Gregory. Bones, stones, and Buddhist monks collected papers on the archeology, epigraphy, and texts of monastic Buddhism in India. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1997.
- Tarlow, Sarah. The Oxford handbook of the archeology of death and burial. London, England : Oxford Handbooks in Archeology, 2013.
- Zhiru, Shi. "Scriptural Authority: A Buddhist Perspective." Buddhist-Christian Studies 30, no. 1 (2010): 85-105.


Following a brief introduction, this presentation will examine the interior layout of the structures, the external elements as well as the ability for Stupas to progress and change while still maintaining true to Buddhist beliefs. It was through these elements that architecture was able to be a harmonious extension of the Buddhist faith.
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