Signs and Symbols

What’s the difference between a stupa and a pagoda?

A stupa is an ancient Indian burial or reliquary monument. Its fundamental unit is a solid hemispherical earthen mound called the “egg” (anda) or “womb” (garbha). Atop the mound sits a solid square or rectangular shape, originally surrounded by a four-sided railing, called the harmika, which may be a remnant of the days when the village altar stood inside a fenced enclosure. Growing treelike from that is a pillar that pierces several circular discs of decreasing diameter, usually an odd number from three to eleven. The result looks like a multitiered parasol. The Buddha’s cremated remains are said to have been originally enshrined in a large number of stupas built all over India. Mahayana teaching developed the notion that the Buddha was a cosmic spiritual being, rather than a mere human teacher, and the architecture of the stupa evolved to reflect those changes. Stupa designers began to raise the mound off the ground by using several square bases, meanwhile stretching the mound itself upward much the way a potter turns a round lump of clay into a tall graceful vase. The “parasol” is also stretched heavenward, becoming more streamlined and adding disks.

When Mahayana Buddhism moved into China, architects transformed the upper portion of the stupa into an independent structure, turning the multiple discs into roofs. The earth-hugging funerary mound was replaced by the pagoda. The new structure was derived from the stupa and still contained relics, but the pagoda symbolized transcendence rather than earthly existence. Pagodas soon added their own sets of multiple discs, leaving the stupa, so to speak, in the dust. In the Theravada lands of southeast Asia, reminders of the stupa remain in the gently tapered monuments of Burma and Thailand. Mahayana Buddhist establishments all over East Asia identify themselves with their graceful, multiroofed pagodas. Unlike the typical stupa, the pagoda actually has interior space, sometimes on several levels.


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