221st Meeting - Tuesday, April 9th  2002

'Buddhist Stupas in Asia - The Shape of Perfection'

A slide presentation and talk by Joe Cummings

Summary of Joe’s talk and presentation:

Joe Cummings, author of the hardcover pictorial Buddhist Stupas in Asia: The Shape of Perfection, opened his presentation with a brief history of the Buddhist stupa.

The earliest known mention of the word stupa appears in the Rigveda, circa 1200 BC, where it is used to describe a knot or tuft of hair; the upper part of the head; crest, top or summit. The stupa as a monument may have been inspired by burial mounds used to inter the remains of highly revered royalty in pre-Buddhist India. According to legend, the first Buddhist stupas were built immediately following the passing away of Gautama Buddha in the mid-6th C BC. After the Buddha's cremation at Kushinagara, India, his remains or 'relics'; also known as dhatu in Sanskrit, the Buddha's bone fragments, ashes and possibly robe and bowl remnants, were divided into eight portions. Each portion was placed inside a large hemispherical stupa, each stupa located in one of the places associated with the eight great events of the Buddha's life; his birth, enlightenment, first sermon, death, etc. The exact primacy of the eight events/places remains a matter of debate between various Buddhist sects. No visible portion of these eight great stupas remains today. It is said that during the reign of the great Buddhist king Ashoka in the 3rd C BC, these eight stupas were carefully disassembled and the Buddha's dhatu were further subdivided and interred in 84,000 stupas throughout Asia. Of this possibly apocryphal number, only a handful of the stupa ruins visible today have been historically linked to the Ashokan era via epigraphic examination.

Joe then talked about other names for the stupa common in Asia. The Pali version of the word stupa is thupa. In modern Assamese thupa is a heap of straw. The Punjabi version is thope, a word appropriated by the British for certain kinds of hats worn by the British Raj. A second Sanskrit term, chaitya, is thought to have derived from chiti, a Brahmanic fire altar. Sites where repeated Brahmanic fire sacrifices were held may have become favorite preaching and/or accommodation places for traveling Buddhist monks during the Buddha's lifetime. These places may have eventually been chosen as auspicious sites for stupa construction. Terms used to mean 'stupa' in other Asian countries are:

Nepalchaitya, although in the Kathmandu Valley the Newari use the term chibha.

Thailand - chaitya was changed to the Pali chetiya and then shortened to chedi.  

Indonesiachandi, from Pali chetiya, in central Java, Borobudur and associated Buddhist sites.

Burmazedi, also from Pali chetiya.

Laos and NE Thailandthaat from Sanskrit dhatu referring to the Buddha relics.

Vietnamthap from Sanskrit dhatu.

Koreat'ap from Sanskrit dhatu.

Chinata from Sanskrit dhatu.

Japanto from Sanskrit dhatu.

Sri Lankadagaba or dagoba from dhatugarbha which means 'element-womb'.

It is thought that the English word pagoda may have come from either an inversion of dagoba, the Persian butkadah (idol temple) or from Portuguese pagao (pagan).

Tibetchorten means offering receptacle, a Tibetan translation of the stupa's main function.

At this point the lights were lowered and Joe commenced presenting 77 slide images depicting stupas and stupa culture. Joe explained that for logistical reasons, none of the images he was showing this evening were from the Bill Wassman's collection of 250 images that appear in Buddhist Stupas in Asia: The Shape of Perfection but they were representative of the scope and depth of Bill's work.

The images Joe presented were as follows:

Slide 1: Great Stupa at Sanchi, India: mid-13th C.

Slide 2: Torana (gateway) carvings at Sanchi.

Slide 3: Dharmarajika Stupa, Taxila, Pakistan: circa 1st or 2nd C. BC.

Slide 4: Ramabhar Stupa, Kushinagar, India: date unknown.

Slide 5: Griha (cave) stupa, Bhaja, India: 2nd C. BC.

Slide 6: Griha (cave) stupa, Ajanta, India: 2nd to 7th C. AD.

Slide 7:             Mahabodhi Stupa, Bodh Gaya, India. This 50 metre high stupa may cover an earlier stupa from the 5th to 7th C AD and possibly an even earlier Ashokan stupa. The original stupa was destroyed by Muslim armies during the Moghul empire era. What you see today is the result of British-sponsored restoration work in the late 19th C.

Slide 8: Tibetan prayer flags at the seat of enlightenment, Mahabodhi.

Slide 9: Thuparama Dagoba, Anuradhapura: 3rd C. BC.

Slide 10:           Rankot Vehara Dagoba, Polonnaruwa: 12th C. AD.

Slide 11:           Tissamaharama Dagoba: 2nd C. BC.

Slide 12:           Raja Maha Vehara Dagoba, Kelaniya, near Colombo. The chapter hall and stupa arrangement was later copied in Thailand.

Slide 13:           'Moonstone' at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

Slide 14:           Chandi Borobudur, central Java: late 8th C. AD

Slide 15:           One of 1,400 Borobudur relief panels. It takes 10 circuits of the various terraces, some of which must be circumnavigated four times, to view all of the panels. A 1.2-km walk.

Slide 16:           Chandi Plaosan, central Java: late 8th C. AD.

Slide 17:           Dukkanthein Paya, Mrauk U, Burma: 16th C.

Slide 18:           Eastern Ashoka Stupa, Kathmandu: date unknown.

Slide 19:           Svayambhunath Mahachaitya. Restored many times, the current form dates from the 15th C. It may have been built over a 5th C. stupa.

Slide 20:           Svayambhunath Mahachaitya. An aerial view at dawn.

Slide 21:           Bodhanath Mahachaitya, near Kathmandu, is about the same age as Svayambhu. It is considered by most Tibetans to be their most sacred stupa.

Slide 22:           Stone block stupas in front of Ama Dablam, northern Nepal.

Slide 23:           A stupa at a mountain pass in the Khumbu region of Nepal.

Slide 24:           Tsa-tsa (small votive stupas). 100,000 of them were placed in the base of a new stupa at Godavari, Nepal

Slide 25:           Making tsa-tsa, Nepal.

Slide 26:           Shwe Dagon Paya, Yangon, Myanmar. This 98 metre high stupa was completed in 1769. It is said to have been built over an 11th C. Mon stupa, which is said to have been built over an earlier one.

Slide 27:           Shwe Sandaw Paya, Bagan, Myanmar: 11th C.

Slide 28:           Thambula Paya, Bagan, Myanmar: 13th C.

Slide 29:           Shwe Zigon Paya, Bagan, Myanmar: 11th C.

Slide 30:           Mingun Paya, Mingun Myanmar. Begun in 1790 using slave labour, building work ceased abruptly in 1819 with death of King Bodawpaya, with only a third of its intended 150 metres height completed. The incomplete stupa was subsequently damaged by an earthquake in 1838.

Slide 31:           Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar, Mon stupa on top: date unknown.

Slide 32:           Stupas covering hilltops in Sagaing, Myanmar.

Slide 33:           Shan stupas at Indein, Myanmar.

Slide 34:           Shan stupas at Kekku, Myanmar: 200-800 years old

Slide 35:           Angkor Thom, Cambodia: 12th C.

Slide 36:           A stone stupa at Wat Preah Keo Morokot, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Slide 37:           Wat Pha That Luang, Luang Prabang, Laos. Built in 1910 this stupa contains the ashes of King Sisavong Vang.

Slide 38:           Pha That Luang, Vientiane, Laos: 16th C.

Slides 39 & 40: The Pha That Luang festival.

Slide 41:           Pha That Phuan, Xieng Khuang, Laos: 16th C.

Slide 42:           Wat Kukut, Lamphun, Thailand. Built in the early 13th C, possibly atop an 8th or 9th C stupa. The terraced, niched design was inspired by the similar Satmahal Prasada stupa in Sri Lanka.

Slide 43:           Chedi Athi Ton Kaew, Chiang Saen, Thailand: 14th C.

Slide 44:           Phra That Lampang, Lampang. At 42 metres high, this is a Lanna style stupa built in the mid 15th C.

Slide 45:           Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai. Completed in 1441, it may have been damaged by the same 19th C earthquake that cracked the Mingun stupa in Burma.

Slide 47:           Phra Mahathat, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand. This mid-13th C stupa stands

78 metres high. The upper finial is solid gold and weighs several hundred kilos.

Slide 48:           Wat Phra Si San Phet, Ayuthaya, Thailand: 14th C.

Slide 49:           Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok: late 18th C.

Slide 50:           The main stupa at Wat Arun, Bangkok. The original design for this 82-metre high, early 19th C stupa was inspired by the Khmer prang or tower at Angkor but as you can see it now has a distinctively Thai look.

Slide 51:           Wat Preah Keo Morakot, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This stupa was erected in 1980 to inter the ashes of King Norodom Ranariddh, Sihanouk's father.

Slide 52:           Manfeilong Stupa in southern Yunnan. This early 13th C stupa is sometimes referred to as the bamboo-shoot pagoda. Its design was the inspiration for stupas at Wat Ku Tao and Wat Phuak Hong here in Chiang Mai.

Slide 53:           Tibetan chorten at Mewa, Amdo. Commemorating the sermon at Sarnath, this is the most common style for Tibetan stupas.

Slide 54:           Tibetan chorten at Ladakh, India.

Slide 55:           Tibetan chorten at Tangboche Monastery, Khumbhu, Nepal.

Slide 56:           Tibetan chorten at Sakya, central Tibet.

Slide 57:           Dranang Jampaling Kumbum, destroyed by the Chinese Red Army.

Slide 58:           Nepalese-style stupa at Mt Kailash, Tibet.

Slide 59:           Lhagang Monastery, Kham. This stupa contains the ashes of the 11th Karmapa of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Slides 60 & 61: Tholing Monastery: early 13th C. The Guge kingdom in western Tibet was

home to Atisha, the great Bengali scholar who brought the second wave of Tantric Buddhism to Tibet in the 11th C.

Slides 62 & 63: Square-terraced stupas at Dolpo, Nepal. Dolpo is such an arid, barren area,

that here the stupas are built of air-dried mud bricks coloured with natural minerals.

Slide 64:           Lo Manthang, or Mustang, Nepal. This is a gateway stupa. The tricolor scheme represents the three protector deities of Tibetan Buddhism, Avalokitesvara, Manjusri, and Vajrapani.

Slide 65:           Detail of a winged spirit; probably a Bon deity, at Lo.

Slide 66:           Chortens and lhatos (stupa-like spirit shrines) at Tangbe, Lo.

Slide 67:           Chorten at Helambhu, central Nepal.

Slide 68:           Tabo Gompa, Spiti, India: 11th C. This area is part of the Guge Kingdom. The present Dalai Lama will most probably retire here.

Slide 69:           Tayuan, Wutai Shan, China. With its 'fat' finial and narrow dome this stupa shows the beginning of the emphasis of the finial in stupa design. In the 8th C. Amoghavajra taught Tantric Buddhism at Wutai Shan. Amoghavajra hailed from Samarkand, in present-day Uzbekhistan, but learned Tantric Buddhism in Java during the Borobudur era.

Slide 70:           Dayan Ta or Big Goose Pagoda, Chang-An, China. Built in the 7th C to house the Tipitka, brought to China from India by the great Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zang.

Slide 71:           Baisikou, Yinchuan, China. This 11th C stupa is noted for its twin tower design.

Slide 72:           Yangzuao Monastery, Taiyuan, China. This 16th C stupa has 13 levels. The cornices imitate the wooden terraces of Confucian temples. Niche-like windows may be inspired by 'auspicious doorways'.

Slide 73:           Thap Bac, Vietnam. A 17th C stone tower stupa.

Slide 74:           A wooden tower stupa or pagoda at Shoren-In, Tendai sect, Kyoto, Japan.

Slide 75:           Shingon gorinto, Koya-san, Japan.

Slide 76:           A 17th C wooden tower stupa at Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto, Japan.

Slide 77:           A stupa-shaped bell at Wutai Shan, China.


During the course of the presentation, Joe had used the images to show how, in its 2,500 year history, the Buddhist stupa has evolved from a simple, solid hemispherical dome with few sculptural details to a more vertical, tower-like structure with rich detail both inside and out. 

Following an informative question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where Joe was engaged in more informal discussions over snacks and drinks as he autographed copies of Buddhist Stupas in Asia purchased by members of the audience.


Thailand residents wishing to purchase a signed copy of this book may do so by contacting the author at buddhiststupas@yahoo.com. The price is 1395B if picked up in Chiang Mai, or 1500B shipped anywhere in Thailand. Most branches of Asia Books in Bangkok also carry the book.