Antiquities of the Buddhist stupa: a study on rare and lesser known stupas of Sri Lanka.

Part 1

A stupa is a common and delightful sight in almost every town and village in Sri Lanka. It is an architectural wonder as well as a pious and sacred object to the Buddhist. Over many centuries’ stupas has been the centre of various prayers, offerings and rituals. According to legend, the first known Buddhist stupa was built by the two merchants Thapassu and Bhallukha. Following this, stupas were built all across India, Sri Lanka, South-east Asia, central Asia and the Far East. As the concept of ‘Buddhist stupa’ travelled across various geographical locations, they took many shapes and styles, representing those cultures, resulting in many stupa styles and technologies.


The ‘Stupa’ is the Sanskrit term and in Pali it is ‘Thupa’. Stupa means ‘heap’. The Sinhala terms are as ‘Thumba’ or ‘Thuba’. Also, Dagaba is another Sinhala word, which is derived from the Sanskrit word, Dhathu-gharba (relic chamber). Professor Senarat Paranavitana in his much acclaimed scholarly work, The Stupa in Ceylon says that the Sinhala word Vehera is derived from the Sanskrit Vihara. The Pali word, Chaithya is also used to mean a stupa. In Thai a stupa is called ‘Chedi’ which closely resembles the Pali Chaithya, and in Myanmar it is ‘Zedi. In Laos, the word is ‘That’ and in Tibet it is ‘Bum-pa’. The Chinese word ‘T’a’, Korean ‘T’ap’ and Japanese ‘To’ all means Pagoda or Stupa and these words are derived from the sound, Thumba, Thuba or Thupa.

What is a stupa?

A stupa is a unique feature of Buddhist architecture. It is an essential architectural feature in every temple in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and many other Buddhist countries. It is a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing an object sacred and pious to the Buddhist. This object may be relics of the Buddha, or of an Arhat or an object used by the Buddha such as a seat, rice bowl, robe or an object that represents the Buddha such as an image of the Buddha or even a place sacred to the Buddhists. Later, books with sacred writings such as mantras and tantras were also kept inside stupas.

Buddhist sutras gives descriptions of four types of stupas; Stupas built for

Buddhas 2) Pacceka Buddhas 3) Arhats 4) Chakravarty kings.

The practice of building a mound to commemorate things

According to Professor Paranavitana, stupa worshiping was spread towards southern and East Asian countries from India. He believes that stupas were originated in India. He states that stupa is not with a Buddhist origin though it is popular among Buddhists. Furthermore, he states that there were religious places which were called as ‘Chaithya’ (Pali- Chethiya), during the lifetime of the six great masters of Ancient India. He believes that ‘Chaithya’ means not only stupas, but it was a common name used for various types of religious objects such as sacred trees.

Henry Parker in his book ‘Ancient Ceylon’ stated that the concept of stupa building has its origin in the far Middle East ancient civilizations. In the East the structure took a form of a solid dome of stone or brick, called in Ceylon a Wehera, Saeya, Dagaba (relic chamber), Thupa, or Cetiya, and in India Ceitya or Sthupa (tope). And also He suggests that the east borrowed the idea of the dome-shaped building from the Phoenicians. These Phoenician tombs existed before the Hindu and Buddhist stupas. They were of a similar design, as Parker states, consisting of a segment of a hemisphere resting on vertical-sided cylinders of larger diameter. As they burrowed the alphabet from the Semites they might equally adopt this form of durable tomb, seeing that many other ‘motives’ in the art of the East are derived from those of the Euphrates valley and Phoenicia. Parker strongly stated that East and early Ceylonese art was influenced or derived from ancient Euphrates valley and Phoenicia.

While Henry Parker believes the stupa has its roots in Phoenicia, Dr. Roland Silva sates that stupas has a Vedic origin.  Scholar Gavin Flood states that Aryan migraters brought their beliefs and cultural practices along with them when they entered the Indus valley. This suggests that the Aryan culture, which was later evolved into the Vedic culture, has its roots in the Middle East and central Asia. This idea was suggested by scholar Beckwith. He states as follows; The Vedic beliefs and practices of the pre-classical era were closely related to the hypothesized Proto-Indo-European religion and the Indo-Iranian religion. According to Anthony, the Old Indic religion probably emerged among Indo-European immigrants in the contact zone between the Zeravshan River (present day Uzbekistan) and present day Iran.

Stupas as relic chambers

Worshiping relics is an age old practice of the Buddhists. It is mentioned in the Thripitakas and considered an act of high merit. Worshiping relics is a common practice for all Buddhists including Theravadins and Mahayana followers. Buddhist stupas were built to enshrine the relics of the Buddha and Arhats. Later, stupas were even built as monuments on sacred places such the birthplace of the Buddha, or places where the Buddha has visited.

Pre-Buddhist Chethiyas and stupas

There were Jain stupas, which belongs to an earlier period than the earliest Buddhist stupas. Emperor Asoka’s grandson Samprati built thousands of Jain stupas and temples in India. Asoka’s grandfather, Chandragupta was a great devotee on Jainism and spread Jainism in India. Paranavitana states that Buddhists and Jains adopted stupa worshiping from religions which existed prior to Jainism and Buddhism in India.

Monuments built for enshrine images or to commemorate places or other religious objects are Chethiyas, which means ‘in memory’ or ‘to remember’, to commemorate. There are examples of sacred trees which were called as Chethiyas. The Sanskrit word Chethiya/ Chaithya means reminders or memorials.

There were ‘Chethiyas’ during the lifetime of the Buddha, in India. These places were of religious importance, may be devalas or places where people performed rituals and offerings. Mahaparinirvana sutra mentions names of various chethiyas such as, Gothamaka chethiya, Bahupuththaka chethiya, Saththambaka chethiya and the Chapala chethiya.

Vajjis used to follow ‘chethi pooja’ and also Mallas who were rulers of Kushinara, had a chathiya named as Makuta bandhana chethiya. Satapatha Brahmana, the ancient brahmanic script states that there were two types of chethiyas. One was of the Vedic Brahmins and the other of the non-vedics. Gothamaka, Saththamba bahupuththaka, Ananda, Chapala, Saranda are to name a few of these ancient chethiyas. Some of these places were later evolved into Buddhist temples. The birthplace, place of enlightenment, place of the first sermon, place of parinibbana are also identified as ‘chethiyas’ in ancient Buddhist scripts. In Buddhist tradition, there are three types of chethiyas

1) Sharirika chethiya

2) Paribogika chethiya

3) Uddesika chethiya.

Stupas built during the lifetime of Gautama Buddha

The earliest archaeological evidence of the presence of Buddhist stupas dates to the late 4th century BCE in India. Stupas were built for Arhat Sariputta and Arhat Moggallana during the time of the Buddha. These two stupas were built by devotees following the master’s advice. When arhat Sariputta passed away, the patron Anathapindika, obtained the Buddha’s permission to build a stupa over Arhat Sariputta’s relics.

Traditional accounts relate that stupas were built to enshrine the relics of Kasyapa, the Buddha before Gautama, and some sources mention stupas built for Kakusandha and Konagamana as well. The Mahayana texts mentions stupas built during the Buddha’s lifetime to commemorate his actions before and after enlightenment. Their locations have been described by travellers in ancient times.

Shortly after enlightenment, the Buddha gave hair and clippings of his nails to Thapassu and Bhallukha. The Buddha demonstrated the stupa’s form by folding his robe four times for the base, inverting his alms bowl and placing it upon the robe for the dome, and placing his staff upon the bowl for the pinnacle. When the merchants returned to their homeland (or on the way?) they built stupas to enshrine the hair and nails. Claimed by various Buddhist traditions these stupas have been variously located in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Burma.

Stupas of Asoka

The earliest archaeological remains of Buddhist stupas in India belongs to the period of Emperor Asoka. Ancient scripts records that he built 84,000 stupas all over India, housing the relics of the Buddha. Prior to Asoka’s stupas, existed the Drona stupas. There were ten of them. Maha parinibbana sutra provides us with valuable details of these stupas. The relics of Buddha were taken over by the Mallas and divided into eight equal shares by Drona, and given to eight kings. These eight kings built eight stupas housing the relics, in their kingdoms. The ninth stupa was built by Drona housing the bowl he used to divide the relics. The tenth stupa was built by the Moriyas of Pipphalivana housing the embers of the cremation fire.

The first known Buddhist stupa of Sri Lanka  

The history of Sri Lankan stupa construction dates back to the 4th century BC or even before. Some scholars believe that the Mauryans built the first Buddhist stupa and then later it was introduced to the Sinhalese during the 3rd century BC. Literature states that two stupas were built in Sri Lanka during the Buddha’s lifetime, which are the stupas at Thiriyaya (Girihandu seya) and Mahiyangana. As there are doubts about the antiquity of the stupa at Thiriyaya, Mahiyangana stupa can be considered as the first Buddhist stupa built in Sri Lanka. It could be that the remaining stupa at Thiriyaya was rebuilt at the same place where the old stupa was built by Thapassu and Bhallukha.  The first notable Buddhist Chethiya was at Nagadeepa, the Rajayathana Chethiya.

Buddhist scripts narrates how the two merchants, Thapassu and Bhallukha built stupas housing Buddha’s hair relics and according to some legends, it is nail relics. However, recent discoveries reveal that their homeland is Balkh, modern day Afghanistan and they have built a stupa in their homeland. These two were merchants and their route was along the ancient Silk Road. Therefore it is understandable how ideas, concepts and cultures were spread across the Silk Road through merchants, traveller and monks.

Legends in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar suggest that the two merchants built stupas housing Buddha’s hair relics in these countries too. Shewadagon pagoda and Thiriyaya stupa are believed to be built by Thapassu and Bhallukha.

Etruscan Tombs

Etruscan Tombs

Phoenician Tombs

A recently excavated Buddhist stupa, or shrine, at Mes Ainak, 35km south of Kabul.

Ancient Ruins at Balkh

Sanchi Stupa

The Distribution of the Buddha’s Relics, by Drona the Brahmin.

Thapassu and BhallukaThe Distribution of the Buddha’s Relics, by Dron

Shwedagon Pagoda

Thiriyaya Girihandu seya


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