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Stupas and pagodas

After the Buddha died, his body was cremated. His ashes were divided and buried in a number of different places in India. A large, dome-shaped mound called a stupa was built over the relics, or remains, at each burial place. Later, many other stupas were built all over the Buddhist world. Some were constructed over the remains of Buddhist saints, and others were built over copies of the scriptures. Many existing stupas were clad with decorative carved stone and given elaborate gateways. They soon became popular places of pilgrimage. In China, Japan, and parts of Southeast Asia, tall structures called pagodas developed from the stupa form.


Model stupas like this are used for personal devotion at home. When visiting a full-size stupa, Buddhists walk around it as an act of respect to the relic kept there.


This structure was built in the 5th century in Sarnath near Benares. It marks the site where the Buddha gave his first sermon. The stupa is now in ruins. The large, dome-shaped covering on the top has not survived, but the carved lower walls are still intact. The first stupa at this important site was built by the great Indian emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE.


This stupa, on the site of an early monastery in Sanchi in India, was built by the emperor Ashoka. He became a Buddhist after leading his army into a battle in which thousands were killed. Ashoka regretted the violence and devoted himself to spreading Buddhism and erecting thousands of stupas and shrines.


This carved stone slab once decorated a stupa at Nagarjunakonda in southern India. It shows the great, curving shape of a stupa decorated with symbols and scenes from the Buddhist tales. In front of the gateway stands a young man, perhaps a prince, with several followers. The young man holds up his hand to make an offering to the Buddha, gaining merit as he does so.


Borobudur is an enormous stupa in Java. The lower levels are richly decorated with relief carvings showing scenes from the Buddha’s life. The upper levels are plainer, and contain a series of smaller stupas. Each of the small stupas on the upper levels contains a statue of the Buddha.

“There, with the appropriate ceremonies, they erected in their capital cities stupas for the relics of the Seer.”
The relics



In China, Japan, and Korea, Buddhist relics are housed in pagodas. Chinese and Korean pagodas are usually built of stone or brick. Those in Japan are wooden. A long pole inside connects the relics buried at the base to the top of the structure. Pagodas are stunning buildings. They are often very tall and have ornate roofs with delicate, upturned corners.