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The hemispherical mounds known as stupas have been central to Buddhist worship since the sixth century BC, when Buddha himself modelled the first prototype. Asked by one of his disciples for a symbol to help disseminate his teachings after his death, Buddha took his begging bowl, teaching staff and a length of cloth – his only worldly possessions – and arranged them into the form of a stupa, using the cloth as a base, the upturned bowl as the dome and the stick as the projecting finial, or spire.

Originally, stupas were simple burial mounds, but as the religion spread, the basic components multiplied and became imbued with symbolic significance. The main dome, or anda – representing the “divine axis” linking heaven and earth – grew larger, while the wooden railings, or vedikas, surrounding it were replaced by massive stone ones. A raised ambulatory terrace, or medhi, was added to the vertical sides of the drum, along with two flights of stairs and four ceremonial entrances, carefully aligned with the cardinal points. Finally, crowning the tip of the stupa, the single spike evolved into a three-tiered umbrella, or chhattra, standing for the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Law and the community of monks.

The chhattra, usually enclosed within a low square stone railing, or harmika, formed the topmost point of the axis, directly above the reliquary in the heart of the stupa. Ranging from bits of bone wrapped in cloth to fine caskets of precious metals, crystal and carved stone, the reliquaries were the “seeds” and their protective mounds the “egg”. Excavations of the 84,000 stupas scattered around the Subcontinent have shown that the solid interiors were also sometimes built as elaborate mandalas – symbolic patterns that exerted a beneficial influence over the stupa and those who walked around it. The ritual of circumambulation, or pradhakshina, which enabled the worshipper to tap into cosmic energy and be transported from the mundane to the divine realms, was always carried out in a clockwise direction from the east, imitating the sun’s passage across the heavens.

Of the half-dozen or so giant stupa sites dotted around ancient India, only Sanchi still survives. To see one being used, however, you have to head southwards to Sri Lanka, northwards to the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau, or across the Bay of Bengal to Southeast Asia, where, as dagobas, chortens and chedis, stupas are still revered as repositories of sacred energy.

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