Stūpas hold endless fascination for me. They are constructions with no purpose other than religious significance. Some representations are tiny, and can be placed on your desk. Some are among the largest constructions of the ancient world. Jetavanārāmaya Stupa in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, built with over 93 million bricks, was one of the largest structures of the ancient world, the largest after the pyramids.
They have different names and different shapes and styles, depending on the region. They may be called zedi (Myanmar), chorten (Tibet), chedi (Thailand), dagoba (Sri Lanka) and their counterparts found from Japan, Korea and Mongolia to Vietnam, Cambodia and India.
Some of them are said to hold relics of the Buddha himself. In many cases, they have some kind of a treasure in them, not necessarily of material value, but a reliquary nevertheless.
While these are the current interpretations by tradition, some believe that historically, they originated as burial mounds for important figures, common in the first millennium BCE in a large part of the world, from Phoenicia, across the fertile crescent, into Persia, Afghanistan and India and perhaps some other areas. The samaṇas (the Buddha was one) might have also used such structures before the Buddhist era began.
The shape itself, apart from the significance that various traditions attach to it, seems very calming and pleasing to me. I’m not sure why, but the image of numerous stūpas passing through the mind as we go into the new year feels good. Another such image that I find universally calming is the image of a person in meditation. It doesn’t have to be the image of the Buddha or any other famous person of any tradition. The image of any woman or man in meditation or prayer is something pleasant – perhaps the stillness and non-threatening nature of the image is what attracts us. Which makes me feel – is it the agitated mind (of others, our own) what we really fear?
Perhaps a New Year’s resolution-ish thing for me would be to share a little bit about some of the great stūpas and pagodas that I’ve had the good fortune to visit or hope to see some day.
Among the prominent ones, Ruwanwelisaya, the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, Bodhnath and Swayambhunath, Abhayagiri and Shwedagon Phaya.