All You Need to Know About the Sacred Stupas of India

Stupas are structures of religious reckoning usually relating to the Buddhist and Hindu faiths. For some, stupas are one of the finest pieces of evidence of the intermingling of religions. This is to say that religions tried to outdo each other in terms of popularity. In that quest, being entirely different from each other would only polarize the population, to no one’s gain. It was only wise to vary the rituals imbibed through cohabitation and share the spoils. This theory explains how the Christian choir evolved out of the dramatic essence of the Jewish congregation.

The Philosophy

Not only were these structures similar in their build, but they also had a similar philosophy behind these constructions. The stupas symbolized the futility of trying to reify the existence of God. The only reconciliation between His divine presence and His mysterious ways is possible through an abstraction. This abstraction is to be achieved through a profound submission to Him. Consequently, these structures served as places of introspection for the followers of these religions. Later, they also served the purpose of housing the remains of the greatest teachers who graced the populace.

It was emperor Ashoka who took upon himself the task of restoring the Buddhist tomes. He also made a sincere effort to re-popularize the religion after its stint during the Maurya Empire. Ashoka built four stupas at Sarnath, Sanchi, Amravati and Vaishali. The walls of these stupas are typically adorned with the tales of the Jataka. The teachings of the Buddha, or the enlightened one, are propagated, symbolically or overtly, through artworks. At this point, Buddhism steers away from idolatry and moves towards monotheism. Perhaps this aspect of the religion laid down the grounds for Islam, which entered the Indian peninsula in the 12th century.

Statues that represent idolatry in other religious belief

The Prominent Features

There are two consistent aspects of the stupas that are found in all the 17 specimens found in India. These are the presence of Toranas and Vedikas, which mean arched gateways and railings respectively. In the Ajivika caves in Bihar (3rd Century B.C.), you can easily notice the carvings depicting the Yakshas and Yakshinis. These are the male and female components of the fertility myth. In some way, this theme propagates the transience of life as an eternal truth.

The annihilation of life is as inevitable as birth itself, and human fecundity is nothing but the manifestation of pain.  In a nutshell, this is the core teaching of the Buddha. The religion teaches its disciples to let go of their ego and strive for eternal consciousness. It is only through this path that one can hope to free oneself from the shackles of pain and attain Nirvana. These stupas are certainly among the places to visit in Bihar.

Fertility cave

Revisiting a Lost Time

However, it is probably a hundred years from then that the Buddhist stupa became more stylized as a form of art. The Ajanta caves in Maharashtra draw millions of tourists every year from across the world. These caves are the seat of an establishment of the 3rd century B.C. that was further propagated down south by Ashoka. In the excavated stupas of Maharashtra, we find the representation of the powerful god, Indra. Indra is well-recognized in Hindu mythology as the king of gods. These caves should be among the places to visit in Pune, Maharashtra.

The most remarkable feature of these stupas is the caves that are inevitably found in abundance. Sometimes, they are used as Chaitya-Grihas, or prayer halls. In some of these caves, these prayer halls have been nearly closed down with huge uncut rocks. The idea was to keep the place of worship away from the profanities of daily life. Another feature observed in the caves of the earlier periods (1st-2nd B.C.) is the countenance of the carved faces. The warmth observed in them just vanishes in the later times.

A monk standing outside the holy cave

If you go by our travel tips, these stupas tell more about Buddhist life than the grand monasteries do. With these stupas, you somehow travel back to the time when Buddhism and Hinduism were conceived. Consequently, you can appreciate the philosophy that they talk about from a better vantage point. We hope that this article could whet your interest enough to get you going on a trip!

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