Symbolism of Stūpas in Bagan (1000-1300 AD)

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Paper read at the 9th Research Conference of Myanmar Academy of Arts and Science held in Yangon University on 22 October 2009.
Journal of the Myanmar Academy of Arts and Science, Vol. III, No.8, 2010, Page- 31

by Dr Zin Tun Tint


The study of stūpa symbolism in Myanmar with special reference to Bagan is best understood in the context of its development during the 11th to 13th century AD. The stūpa building of Buddhist devotees were taken as contributory towards the long life of the Religion until the end of 5,000 years after the Mahāpatinibbāna. The stūpa or tope is a dome-shaped structure which was a development of the low sculptural tumulus or cairn of earth of the prehistoric period, in which bricks were substituted for earth and stones with a view to durability. The word “tope” is a corruption of the Pali thupa and the Sanskrit stūpa, a mound or tumulus. Stūpa or tope is therefore a name common to each kind of tumulus; whether it is the solid structure dedicated to the Supreme Being, or masonry mound erected over the relics of Buddha, or of one of his eminent followers. The Myanmar Buddhists, like other orientals, live more in the future than in present, and the extraordinary number of pagoda all over the country attests to their anxiety to attain bliss in the next world as well as to the stronghold which Buddhism has over them. This paper will present from the preachings of Lord Buddha and traditions of Buddhist devotees to hypothesis regarding the conception and symbolism of Buddhist stūpa. A stūpa itself even, architecturally speaking, is not without conception and symbolism associations.


There are numerous pagodas and shrines all along the length and breadth of Myanmar. In Myanmar with the exception of the villages which generally have only one or at the most two pagodas, the towns and cities are certainly found adorned with numerous Buddhist shrines.
The most charming custom of Myanmar Buddhist devotees is pagoda building which they constructed on the peak of mountains or hills throughout Myanmar and adorned it with whitewash and gold.
Probably it derives from Pali thūpa and Sanskrit stūpa, the name for an ancient Buddhist monument in the form of the social dome. That reminds one of Sanchi Stūpa, 2nd century BC, Śrīksetra Bawbawgyi, 4th century AD, Arimaddana (Bagan) Ngakywenadaung, c. 10th century AD, Siripaccaya Lawkananda, 11th century AD , and finally Jeyapura (Sagaing) Kaunghmudaw, 17th century AD.

Dome-shaped Stūpas

Anthropology tells us on the other hand that in primitive civilization, long before the emergence of culture and formed religions, mound-worship like tree-worship was a widely prevalent form of piety.
Heights had a mystic sacredness to primitive mind as is evidenced by the Sumerian and Babylonian ziggurats built to imitate natural mounds, the Jewish custom of seeking high places for performance of worship and sacrifice, etc.
A Ziggurat is a temple tower of the ancient Mesopotamian valley and Persia (Iran). The Ziggurat may have been built as a bridge between heaven and earth.
The temples of the Sumerian were believed to be a cosmic axis, a vertical bond between heaven and earth.

Mesopotamian Ziggurat

The stūpa developed as the nucleus of Buddhist faith and worship, but its origin cannot be regarded as Buddhist for evidence of its roots date back to c. 2000 BC.
Burial mounds containing relics were raised from earth and rock according to an age old custom that had survived from as early as Neolithic times.
These burial mounds were also common during the life time of the Buddha and he instructed his disciples to erect them at cross-roads to commemorate great kings, sages and heroes.
In Mahāprinnirvāna Suttanta, Lord Buddha addressed to Ānanda regarding the worthy of a stūpa:
Ānanda, there are four persons who are worthy of a stūpa being built to their honour. Who are these four?
  • A Ththāgata, Homage-worthy, Perfectly Self-Enlightened, is worthy of a stūpa.
  • A Pacceka Buddha is worthy of a stūpa.
  • An Ariya disciple of a Thatāgata is worthy of a stūpa.
  • A Universal Monarch (Cakravartin) is worthy of a stūpa.
The highest objects of worship for the Buddhist are the Triratana or the Three Jewels:
(1) the Buddha, (2) the Dhamma and (3) the Sangha.
According to the Mahāprinnirvāna Suttanta there are also other objects of worship.
These are the relics of holy persons like the Buddha, the Pacceka Buddhas, the Arhats, and the Cakravartins over which great monuments were erected by a ‘grateful posterity.
In the majority of cases, these relics are what are called dhātus which can be conveniently grouped into three classes.
These three kinds of sacred memorial (cetiya) are considered, –
(i) a relic of Lord’s body (sārīrika),
(ii) an object with which the Lord in his life-time was physically associated (paribhogika, i.e., ‘something used’), and
(iii) a likeness which represented the Lord (uddesika). Uddesika memorial is meant a Buddha-image.
The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon – is said to contain relics of all four Buddhas of the present kalpa (Gabā).
At the end of the Seven Weeks, the two brothers Tapussa and Bhallika, took refuge in the Buddha and the law, and received the eight hairs from the Lord at the foot of the Rājāyatana tree, they brought them to Yangon, where the king and the spirits bestirred themselves and deposited the Hairs at Dagon Pagoda on Singhuttara Hill.
There also Kakusandha the Buddha has enshrined his water-pot, Konagamana the Buddha his staff, and Kassapa the Buddha his bathing-cloth. The relics of the Four Buddhas are enshrined in Shwedagon Pagoda
The chief corporeal relics are ‘those which are properly called Śarīras, i.e., the remains of a corpse after cremation’.
After Bhddha’s attaining Nirvāna in the land of Mallās at Kusinagara, about BC 480, eight cities or principalities are said to have contended for the hanour of possessing his mortal remains, and the difficulty was met by assigning a portion to each of the contending parties, who are said to have erected stūpas to contain them in each of their respective localities.
In addition to these relics, there are others, the tooth relics, one of which is worshipped in Heaven, another in Gandhāra and one each in KalinHga and the land of the Nāgas respectively
Regarding the conceptions of the stūpa building there are many evidences of epigraphs during the zenith time of stūpa building in Bagan period.
Every donor of religious buildings in Bagan period who inscribed their religious dedication on sand stone slabs.
In stone inscriptions they are usually mentioned the name and address, rank or occupation of the donor, aims and objects of dedication, description of the dedicated object, the expenditure incurred, prayer for merit of dedication, etc.
The most distinctive prayers of Bagan period religious donors are the curses to fall upon those who vandalized the dedicated object and the donor’s sharing out of his religious merit to all sentient beings.
Besides the donors also prayed at the same time that he or she (the donor) wanted to behold the Metteyya Buddha and the vandal may not behold Metteyya Buddha.
To the Theravādin, Metteyya is the equivalent of the Mahāyanist’s future Buddha Amitabha.
Most Buddhist devotees desired to be reborn as humans at the time when Metteyya will descend to the earth to preach the dhammacakra, the ultimate sermon.
The stūpa is a Buddhist building, but the field of the analytical enquiry has been extended beyond the borders of Buddhism to include the symbolic formulations of Brahmanism.
All of the religious buildings including stūpa were designed to replicate elements of the Brahmanic-Buddhist cosmos in an effort to promote harmony between the gods and man.
At the centre of the Buddhist Universe is Mount Meru.
At various heights on the Mount Meru are ranged the six blissful seats or Deva-loka (Heavens), such as the Tushita and TavatimHsa, where deva (celestials) are known to dwell.
Tushita is the fourth Deva-loka, where all Bodhisattvas are reborn before finally appearing on earth as Buddha.

Mount Meru and the surrounding  seven mountains with the seven seas,

Mount Meru and the surrounding  seven mountains
(Mural painting at Winido, Bagan)

Mount Meru is encircled by seven concentric mountain chains separated by seven seas.
Around Mount Meru lay the Four Great Islands (Mahādipa) facing the cardinal points of it.
Of them, the southern one, Jambudīpa, is the most important. Man lives on Jambūdipa, the Southern Continent.
It is only on Jambudipa that Buddhas can be born to free mankind from suffering and the constant round of rebirths.
Every structural and decorative detail of religious architecture in Myanmar originally had symbolic meaning. The main edifice may be considered a manifestation of Mount Meru, home of the gods, centre of the Universe.
Like the Mesopotamia Ziggurat, the basic concept of the stūpa was an architecture diagram of the cosmos.
Just as these concepts of Mesopotamian and Vedic origin determined the form and function of the stūpa-mound, so the architecture of the surrounding railing and the actual ritual of veneration may be traced to pre-Buddhist solar cults.
The ground plan of the railing, with the gateways at the four points of the compass describing the revolving claws of a swastika, is no accident, but a purposeful incorporation of one of the most ancient sun symbols.
A reminiscence of solar cults may certainly be discerned in the prescribed ritual of circumambulation, in which the worshipper, entering the precinct by the eastern gateway, walked round the mound in a clockwise direction, describing thereby the course of the sun through the heavens.
So almost all of worshipper in Myanmar who entered into eastern gateway of the stūpa and walked round the stūpa in a clockwise direction to pay  homage to the stūpa.
Besides regarding the building of the stūpa there are Four Enlightened Buddhas of present Kapal in cardinal points of the stūpa.
So these Four Buddhas set up in four shrines or niches of stūpa:
Kakusanda facing in the East,
Konagamana facing in the South,
Kassapa facing in the West,
Gautama facing in the North by the clockwise direction.
Those pagodas or temples are four sided, with the four Buddhas seated or standing, back to back, against or within its four faces, with single or double corridor surrounding the whole.
In some of the ancient pagodas at Bagan, like the Petleik and Seinnyet Nyima, which were built in 11th century, the four Buddhas of the present cycle are enshrined in niches cut on the upper portion of the bell-shaped dome, Maitreya, the coming Buddha, having no votaries in Myanmar.
Source: Hudson, Bob, The Origins of Bagan; The Archaeological  landscape of Upper Burma to AD 1300, Ph D Dissertation (University of Sidney, 2004)
The interesting point of the cosmological conception of stūpa building in Sriksetra is, as pointed out by Bob Hudson: 
Three tall stūpas, the Bawbawgyi, Payagyi and Payama are situated respectively to the south, north-west and north-east of the city wall.
The Bawbawgyi is almost cylindrical, and the Payagyi and Payama have been described as sugarloaf shaped.
There is a third “sugarloaf” stūpa, the Myinbahu. It has been suggested that these four buildings or at least the better known three, guarded, in the cosmological sense, the extremities of the city.
The symbolism of stūpa was described by Taw Sein Ko in his book The Burmese Sketches :
The stūpa rests on five receding terraces representing the five-fold division of Mount Meru , or on a triple basement representing the three worlds of Scene (Kāmaloka), form (Rūpaloka), and formlessness (Arūpaloka), the Buddha being “tilokamahita”, or the “Revered of the three worlds”. The form of the plinth or basement is always square, and symbolizes the abode of the Mahārājās or Catu-lokapālas , the Guardian Spirits of the world. Then comes the “shittaung” or octagonal band encircling the building, which represents the Tushita (Tôkthita) heaven, the abode of all Bodhisats or Buddhas in embryo. . . some of the ancient pagodas at Bagan, small niches facing the cardinal points. In each niche sits enshrined the small figure of a Buddha in a preaching attitude. The figures represent Kakusandha, Konagamana, Kassapa, and Gotama.
In the conception of the Buddhist cosmology the Catu-lokapālas, the four guardian nat devas looking after the world from the four cardinal points.
The rare evidence of the Catu-lokapālas symbolism of pagoda building in Myanmar can be seen at the upper terrace of the Kyaik-kasan pagoda, Thingun kyun township, Yangon.

Kyaik-kasan pagoda, Thingun kyun township, Yangon
(Southwest Corner)
The earliest stūpa of the life-time of Gautama was Cūlhāmani Zedi which located in Tāvatimsa Heaven.
When the Embryo Buddha cut off his hair and threw it in the air, it was Sakka (or Thagyā, from the Sanskrit Sakrā, Lord of TāvatimHsa) who caught it and enshrined it in his Cūlhāmani cetiya .
The stūpa had many variant forms. They are classified under the three categories:
The dome-stūpa
The terrace-stūpa
The tower stūpa
Angkor Vat is one of the famous temple-mountains of the ancient Khmer . It lies well to the south of the other great temples, and does not face east but west.
In conclusion, this paper dealt with the symbolism of stūpa. So also details of stūpa after Buddha attaining nirvāna are described here. In building stūpas, benefits are meant for a better life in thereafter and these merits are shared to all sentient beings. The builders of stūpas prayed that they be able to behold Metteyya Buddha and cursed that those who were against their deeds be not able to obeisance Metteyya Buddha. The cosmological conceptions of stūpa building in Śrīkśetra and of relic holding pagodas erected by Anawrahta is discussed. Another conception of stūpa building was cosmic mountain. According to the cosmic mountain the stūpas are constructed on the peak of mountains and hills. Besides the stūpas are erected the form of stepped pyramid. The paper explained the symbolism of the stūpa in detail according to the both Buddhist and Brahmanic traditions.

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စွယ်စုံကျော်ထင်ကျမ်း၊ စွယ်စုံကျော်ထင်ကျမ်း၊ ဒု-တွဲ၊ (မန္တလေး၊ ဟံသာဝတီ ပိဋကတ်ပုံနှိပ်တိုက်၊ ၁၉၁၄)

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