Thursday, 17 January 2019

The story of the Stupa

In 1936, A.H. Longhurst, former Superintendent in the Archaeological Survey of India, published a book titled “The Story of the Stupa”. It traced the evolution of the stupa, far before the era of Gautama Buddha and well into modern times.

It had four chapters, three of which were seemingly unrelated to stupas. The first explained the significance of the umbrella in Indian culture,and the extremely high privilege it held symbolically, at the time of Longhurst’s writing.

Megalithic Origins

Longhurst begins not with megalithic monuments, especially in Kerala. Kodakallu is a class of monument, whose name literally means umbrella-stone in Malayalam (koda=umbrella; kallu=stone). It is aptly named for its shape. These are burial monuments. A massive stone is placed over the grave of a corpse; such pre-historic burial monuments, called dolmens, are found all over India. Usually they are merely large and crude; the umbrella shaped versions are found only in Kerala, and this one in the picture is a masterpiece for its perfection, which must have been achieved only using stone tools.

Longhurst explains that the heavy stone is to prevent the spirit of the dead from coming alive and haunting the living. Extant tribes with such animist beliefs and fears are common all over the world.

Burial sites are common among prehistoric peoples, even in India, which contrasts sharply with the Hindu custom of cremating the dead.

Dolmen, Mallachandram
Picture : Manonmani Puduezhuthu
Koda kallu

Buddhist Stupas

Buddhists and Jains constructed stupas to bury their saints, though today only excavated Buddhist stupas seem to have survived in India. Stupas are mentioned even in Vedic literature.

While the most famous stupas are for Gautama Buddha himself, hundreds of other people, mostly monks in the Buddhist sangha also had stupas. Cunningham excavated a casket in Bhilsa on which was inscribed the name of Haritiputra, a disciple of Buddha. Scattered around major stupas in places like Vaishali, Sanchi, Nalanda, Ratnagiri etc are the stupas of several monks of local monasteries.

The famous stupas of massive structure and intricate art, like Sanchi, Amaravati and Bharhut, contends Longhurst, are exceptions, rather than the rule. Sanchi is exceptional in another way. Its claim to fame is not any direct connection with Buddha, but that it was the hometown of Vidisha Devi, one of Maurya Asoka’s favorite queens.

Importance of Umbrellas

Exploring the ceremonial and social significance of umbrellas, Longhurst says they were reserved for the Gods and their human representatives, royalty. This is especially visible in the sculptures  and paintings over two millennia, as also recorded history and administrave texts. The umbrella of the enemy king was a prized possession, to be captured in battle. Temple processions often feature ceremonial umbrellas of the Gods. Chariots (rathas) are often topped by umbrellas. An inscription in Tiruvarur, Tamilnadu, speaks of the privilege of carrying an umbrella, granted to a devadasi.

Jain tirthankaras, except Parshvanatha, are always shown with triple umbrellas.  Jain acharyas have only one umbrella over them. While it is quite common to see images of Buddha featuring single umbrellas, some monuments like Pithalkora, show triple umbrella over Buddha also, in paintings.

The Hindu God Vinayaka is popularly featured with an umbrella over his head. Paper umbrellas are quite popular during Vinayaka Chathurthi. Mahishasura Mardhini is also often featured with an umbrella. The major Gods though, are rarely shown with an umbrella; Vamana is one such rarity. Unusual exceptions are a Kalyana Sundara sculpture in Kanchi Kailasanatha, a standing Brahma in Pullamangai.

The funerals of the Todas, a Nilgiri tribe, even today feature umbrellas over the funeral car. This is remarkably similar to a Gandharan sculpture showing the Buddha’s own funeral car, with umbrellas.

Toda funeral procession

The custom was so strong in India that even Muslim rulers of India adopted it as a royal emblem, even though neither the nations of their origins nor Islam gave umbrellas any social significance. Europeans of the 17th century, who had also no special status for umbrellas in their culture, were forced to stow away or surrender their common sun protection umbrellas, when entering the city of Delhi.

Evolution of Stupas

The earliest stupas of Buddha were of mud and brick, as befitting a renunciate. One such mud stupa has remnants in Vaishali. During the era of Asoka, these were dismantled, and the buried relics of Buddha apportioned and distributed to hundreds of stupas across Jambudvipa. These stupas were usually undecorated. It is only the vedikas surrounding the stupas, as in Sanchi or Amaravai, or the entrance arches, that were richly adorned in sculptures. Perhaps one exception is a brick and mortar stupa at Nalanda, which features images of the Buddha, but its age is uncertain.

The stupa slowly evolved from a mound over a burial, to a symbolic object of worship. This is best shown by the rock cut stupas of Kanheri, Karle, Ajanta, Pithalkhora etc., where the stupas are carved out of the mother rock – no monk was buried under them. Like the earlier brick stupas of Sanchi, Amaravati, etc, these too feature harmikas over them. Some but not all stupas in Kanheri and Pithalkora, have an umbrella carved on the ceiling of the cave, over the stupa. Paintings in the pillars of the large chaitya at Pithalkora, and cave 9 in Ajanta, feature Buddha with triple umbrellas. The stupa in Ajanta cave 19 is quite elaborate – it features a several bas relief images of the Buddha, and also an intricate triple umbrella.  

Mud stupa,Vaishali, Bihar

Bhaja stupa with harmika, no umbrella

Karle stupa with umbrella

Kanheri stupa with umbrella on ceiling

Ajanta Cave Nineteen
Elaborate stupa with Buddha image
and triple umbrella

A parallel evolution can be seen in stupas in Sri Lanka, the earliest ones being mainly massive brick mounds, but the later dagobas featuring more architectural triple umbrellas. Dagoba is a contraction of dhatu-garbha. Hiuen Tsang in his travels, records multi storeyed wooden temples for Buddha one of which in Rajagriha (Rajgir, Bihar), was completely burnt in a fire accident, which he witnessed. These wooden temples, notes Longhurst, continue in two regions, Kerala and the Himalayas. He specially observes that Nepal, which was never ravaged by Islamic invasions, best preserves Hindu and Buddhist temples from a millennium ago, and perhaps an even older era. 

The influence of Hiuen Tsang and other pilgrim monks who took Buddhism to China and other east Asian nations can still be felt in their architecture of their Buddhist stupas and temples. They must have been copies of what existed in India at that time, argues Longhurst, hence a snapshot in time. But the mounds got shorter and the symbolic umbrellas got more and more elaborate, as reflected in in Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma or the White Dagoba in Beijing. An even later rendition is the Yukishiji pagoda in Japan, where the upper storeys, are not functional, but decorative, being architectural versions of the umbrella.

White Dagoba, Beijing - with umbrella
Picture : Wikipedia

Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma
Picture: Wikipedia

Yakushiji Temple, Japan
Picture :

Such umbrellas and inscribed figures, not just of Buddha, but several yakshas and yakshis, can be also seen in the votive stupas in Ratnagiri, Orissa, which were discovered only in the 1970s.


I wonder if Longhurst’s conjecture, even the whole book, could have been proposed by a scholar today. The umbrella has been democratized.He lived and wrote in the 1920-30s, when the princely states of India and royal regalia were visible and omnipresent. Perhaps also to be kept in mind, is that, several such conjectures were made in the early days of Oriental research, that time has falsified. Still, a remarkable book.

Other related Links
Vaishali - a visit
The Art of Amaravati
Ajanta - An overview (Prof Swaminathan's slideshow)
Introduction to Amaravati sculptures (lecture video)

Photo Credits
Most of the photos in this essay are my own. Links for others here.
Kodakallu, Kerala : Miyapadavu Social Club
Thiruvarur temple chariot - Wikipedia
White Daboga, Beijing - Wikipedia
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) - Wikipedia
Yakushiki temple, Japan - Japan Guide
Toda funeral This website (link broken)

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