Shortly after the Buddha's death, history records a scramble for his remains amongst monks from across the Indian subcontinent. His remains were finally divided into eight portions, each being placed in one of the twelve original Stupas that were built. Few of the original stupas still survive, but stupas continued to be built long after the Buddha's death with progressive modification of subsequent design as its meaning became more and more symbolic. However, the building of Stupas began long before the Buddha himself, as relic holding monuments of rulers. The symbolism was acquired at a much later date. To quote authors Thurman and Leidy (1997) :
"Stupas began in pre-Buddhist India as hemispherical burial grounds that marked the remains of temporal rulers. At an early stage in the development of Buddhist art, they became symbols of the Buddha's continuing immanance as well as representations of his mind........the fourteen rings around the spire (that are seen in all "modern" stupas) are all that remainn of the royal umbrellas often found in earlier stupas. They symbolise the fourteen stages traversed in the attainment of buddhahood; the four tantric stages added to the ten bodhisattva stages."
In its basic essence, a stupa represented the sitting posture of saints and the Buddha as shown in Figure 1, as it was customary for saints to be buried in a sitting posture. However, the Buddha wished to be cremated and his ashes to be distributed to eight kingdoms after his death to be housed in Stupas. Therefore the stupas were built according to a basic plan of the Buddha seated for meditation, to encourage generations afterwards to seek salvation through spiritual practice.
Figure 1. The sitting Buddha
However, after his remains were distributed to the eight kingdoms, the differences in Stupa architecture represented the eight different stages of his life as shown below in Figures 2. This was the original basis of symbolism based on the Buddha's life, but with time, the interpretations and further embellishments changed the architectural pattern of the Stupas.
Figure 2. The eight original Stupa plans
Deconstructing the Symbolism of the later Stupa
All stupas are built basically according to the principles that govern the process of Enlightenment that takes place during the acquisition of the Buddha-mind. Figure 3 shows the basic philosophical interpretations of the elements that made up a Stupa in its
Figure 3. Basic Stupa elements.
entirety - (a) the ornamental pole of parasol or canopy, representing wind , (b) the cone or harmika , representing fire, (c) the hemispherical round dome representing water, (d) the square base, reprenting the earth, and (e) the parasol itself, representing space.
At a higher order of understanding, these basic elements can be interpreted as Higher States of the Buddha mind as explained by the Buddhist master Dilgo Rinpoche :
" These are the essential attributes of a fully realised human being: the base of the stupa signifies earth and equanimity; the dome, water and indestructibility; the spire, fire and compassion; above the spire, wind and all-accomplishing action; and at the very top, the jewel represents space and all-pervading awareness. The stupa is a mandala, or sacred arrangement, containing all of these enlightened qualities."