During the reign of emperor Ashoka,
the Great Stupa in Sanchi India was built. Being a country of great diversity,
India has a high Buddhism rate. The purpose of the Great Stupa being created
was for Buddhist to have a place for burial and receptacle in a religious tone.
Emperor Ashoka was the first king to be emerged in the Buddhist religion and
was responsible for creating over 84,000 stupas and splitting the ashes of the
Buddha between all. Ashoka built the Great Stupa in the birthplace of his wife,
Devi, in the village of Sanchi, a place known for its market trading.  The Stupa serves as dirt and stone burial for
Buddhist figures. Since the Stupa was used as a burial ground for religious
figures, people began to affiliate the sacred space as a physical body of the
Buddha, the ashes of the Buddha gave the Great Stupa its energy.

The
Great Stupa in Sanchi, India

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            Built in 3rd century BCE,
the Great Stupa in Sanchi started off as a modest mound of mud. Around the year
150 BCE, it was restored and reconstructed to be double its original size. The
architectural design of the building has a unique Buddhist Art and Architecture
style. The sacred space consists of a torana, anda, harmika, medhi, chattra,
and an enclosed wall. The anda is the domed shaped mound of dirt. Its purpose
was to cover the Buddha’s remains. Spiritually, the anda symbolizes the fact
that the gods are the center of the universe. The chattra serves as a
protection element. Its umbrella shape symbolizes the ‘pivot of the universe’.
The axis represents the divine descending from heaven and becoming one with
humanity. The three disks serve to represent the three Jewels of Buddhism:
Buddha, Dharma (religious laws), and Sangha (monastic). The harmika surrounds
the chattra and serves as an important piece of the space because it marks the
stupa as a sacred burial ground. The torana and medhi surround the structure and
support the anda serving as a ‘platform for ritual circumambulation’. The
burial ground consists of a sandstone pillar that is inscribed with Schism
Edict by emperor Ashoka.  Visitors are
greeted by 4 gateways, one of which pictured above. Each gateway is on the 4
sides of the site. The gateways have various designs and motifs representing
the Buddha and the life they lived. The images give viewers insight on ancient
India beliefs. The axis of the stupa symbolizes the cosmos dividing the world
into 6 directions: south, east west, the nadir and the zenith.

The
Great Stupa in Sanchi, India architecture

            In regards to the Great Stupa’s
harmony with nature, cardinal directions play a significant role. Openings, or
toranas, were placed at 4 sides of the stupa representing the directions:
north, south, east, and west. The use of these cardinal directions suggests that
they symbolize something more. Spiritual leaders believed that each gate
represented the four greatest events in the life of the Buddha. East representing
the Buddha’s birth, south representing their enlightenment, west epitomizing
the first sermon where he preached dharma, and the North symbolizing nirvana. In
addition to its harmony with nature, natural elements from the earth, such as mud
and dirt, were used in the creation of the stupa.

            Symbolism plays a notable role in
the Great Stupa in Sanchi. Although the burial site was made to represent the
Buddha; he is not portrayed in human form. Four symbols are portrayed on the
Stupa to represent the Buddha and other various things. The Lotus or the
elephant symbolize the religious birth. The lotus is a symbol of spiritual
growth and the elephant is a connection the Buddha’s conception, his mother
dreamt of a white elephant when pregnant and it tapped her on the belly with
the lotus in its trunk. The tree symbolizes enlightenment. This event is one of
the most important in the Buddha’s life as it made him who he is, the
Enlightened One. After seeing the four signs; an old man, a sick man, a corpse,
and a wandering monk, the Buddha left home and began his journey of
enlightenment. The wheel symbolizes the Buddha turning of the wheel of dharma
or preaching his first sermon at Sarnath. The Stupa itself symbolizes
parinirvana which is the death of someone who attained nirvana during their
lifetime.

            The funny thing about the Great
Stupa is that one cannot actually enter it. It is a solid mound of dirt that
has relics of the Buddha therefore elucidating the impression that this is the
only sacred object within the site.

            Considering the Great Stupa in
Sanchi is not an actual place to enter, worshippers do things a different way: circumambulating.
The belief is that if worshippers circumambulate three times clockwise around
the stupa, all devas, dragons, yakshas, and ghosts will approach them and make
offers. They follow the path of the sun to be in harmony with the universe. If
one circled around counter-clockwise, they would generate negative karma. The
purpose of this to “meditate on the lives and teachings of the Buddha, and to
walk in the teacher’s steps.” Circumambulation was used by original worshippers
in the BCE years and by current worshippers today.

            The Great Stupa can be compared to
many other sacred spaces such as the Chartres Cathedral. The Chartres Cathedral
in France has many similarities and differences in comparison to the Great
Stupa. Both the Great Stupa in Sanchi and the Chartres Cathedral in France
contain relics of important religious figures. For the Great Stupa, relics from
the Buddha are held in the mound of dirt within the center. In the Chartres
Cathedral, relics such as the tunic Virgin Mary wore during the time of
Christ’s birth are a part of the sacred building. In addition to the
similarities of both sacred spaces, both have art built into them that
symbolizes religious themes. For the Great Stupa, the Buddha’s life is
represented through the placement of the gateways in the different cardinal
directions and other images such the lotus flower or elephant which are used to
symbolize the Buddha’s conception and birth. In the Chartres Cathedral, symbolism is found in the rose
windows. The stained glass is seen as a symbol for Virgin Mary’s Immaculate
Conception. The light passing through the window entering the space without
breaking the glass represents Mary being impregnated with the Holy Spirit while
preserving her virginity. In relation to differences, the Chartres Cathedral and
the Great Stupa differ in terms of interior space. As stated before, the Great
Stupa has no interior area, per say, because one cannot enter it. The center of
the stupa is a big mound of dirt and in order for worshippers to use it, they
must circumambulate around it. In
contrast, the Chartres Cathedral has an
open internal room that worshippers and visitors can enter. Another difference
is the architectural type and style. The Great Stupa is a Buddhist stupa and
has Buddhist styled architecture while the Chartres Cathedral is a church and
has French Gothic styled architecture. Ultimately, both sacred spaces represent
different religions in alluring ways.

The Chartres
Cathedral exterior

The Great
Stupa in Sanchi exterior

The
Chartres Cathedral interior

The Great
Stupa in Sanchi interior

 

            Overall, it may be said that the Great
Stupa is beautiful and unique in its own way. As a source for meditation and
good karma, people of the Buddhist religion have a beneficial space to give in
to the Buddha. The Great Stupa serves as an educational way to enlighten
Buddhist and non-Buddhist folk so understanding of that religion is met. 

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