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    Buddhist Architecture

    Buddhist Architecture in India

    The Buddhist architecture is related to different aspects of Buddha’s life, symbols

    representing Buddha and tales and stories associated with him. Ashoka the

    Mauryan King was the greatest patron of Buddist architecture. During his reign,

    several stupas and mounds of bricks commemorative of the Buddha were

    constructed. The three key element of Buddhist architecture is Stupa, Chaityas,

    and Viharas. However, Under Mauryan rule, several pillars were also constructed

    to commemorate Buddha.

    Types of Buddhist architecture

    The distinctive structures and sculptures have been associated with early

    Buddhist religious architecture such as

     Stupas,

     Viharas (Monasteries) and

     Chaityas (Prayer halls), which later came to be called temples in some places.

     Stambhas (Pillars)

    The details of these structures are discussed below


    The Stupas holds the most important place among all the earliest Buddhist

    architecture. They offer the earliest sculptural representations of important

    episodes in the Buddha’s life and of the Jataka stories. A Stupa is a dome-shaped

    sacred burial mound of brick which was used to house Buddha’s relics or to

    commemorate significant facts and events related to Buddhism.


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    The earliest archaeological evidence for the presence of Buddhist stupas dates

    back to the late 4th century BCE. In

    India, Sanchi, Sarnath, Amaravati and Bharhut are among the oldest known


    Characteristics of Stupas

    Initially, mounds of Earth are taken to form the core of the stupa. In due course of

    time, the earthen mound is encased in bricks. The brick encasing is sometimes

    superimposed by a cover of stones.

     Stupas are usually built on a foundation laid with blocks of stone or bricks. On

    this foundation, a hemispherical dome (anda) was raised.

     In later years, the drum of the stupa became more elongated and elevated.

    Almost it took the form of a cylindrical vessel.

     On the truncated top of the hemisphere, a harmika is placed, surrounded by a


     The stupa is enclosed by a vedika. At Barhut, Sanchi and Amaravati the vedika

    consisted of upright pillars with three transverse bars known as the suchi. The

    railing is provided with four gateways.

     A path of circumambulation (Pradakshinapath) runs around the stupa at the

    ground level within the railing.

     Toranas were ceremonial gateways around the stupas.


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    The Great Stupa (Sanchi)

     The Great Stupa at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh is one of the oldest structures in


     It is built of large burnt bricks and mud mortar.

     The stupa was built by Ashoka and was damaged during the break-up of the

    Maurya Empire. In the 2nd century B.C., during the rule of the Shungas, it was

    completely reconstructed.

     The Great stupa has a large hemispherical dome which is flat at the top and

    crowned by a triple umbrella or Chattra on a pedestal surrounded by a square


     Its nucleus was a simple hemispherical brick structure built over the relics of

    the Buddha.


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     Stupa at Sanchi has upper as well as lower Pradakshinapath or

    circumambulatory path. It has four beautifully decorated toranas depicting

    various events from the life of the Buddha and the Jatakas.

    Dhamek Stupa (Sarnath)

     The Dhamek Stupa at Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh is believed to have been built by

    Ashoka and later rebuilt in the Gupta period to commemorate the Buddha’s

    activities in this location.

     This stupa contains the relics of Buddha and is, therefore, an important place of

    Buddhist pilgrimage.

     The Dhamek Stupa is said to mark the spot where the Buddha gave the first

    sermon to his first five Brahmin disciples after attaining

    enlightenment, “revealing his Eightfold Path leading to nirvana”.

     In its current shape, the stupa is a solid cylinder of bricks and stone.

     The stone basement has eight projecting faces with niches in them. Delicately

    carved with beautiful floral and geometrical patterns, it is believed to have been

    put up in the Gupta period.


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    Bharhut Stupa

     The Bharhut stupa may have been built originally by Ashoka in the 3rd century

    BCE, but many works of art, particularly the gateway and railings, were

    apparently added during the Shunga period in the 2nd century BCE.

     It has been largely destroyed, and most of the existing remains—railings and

    entrance gateways—are now in the Indian Museum in Kolkata.

     The central stupa was surrounded by a stone railing and four Torana gates, in an

    arrangement similar to that of Sanchi.

     The railings of the stupa are carved and have numerous images of the yakshas

    and yakshinis on it.

     The pillars at Bharhut also depict various Jataka stories associated with

    Buddha’s life.


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    Amaravati Stupa

     The Amaravati stupa was the largest in the Andhra region and is referred to in

    ancient inscriptions as a Mahachaitya.

     It is a ruined Buddhist monument, probably built in phases between the 3rd

    century BCE and about 250 CE, at Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh

     The stupa at Amaravati was initially encased in bricks and later on covered by

    carved limestone slabs. The railing and the gateways were built around the

    principal structure in due course of time as in the case of Sanchi.

     The dome, railings and gateways of the Amaravati stupa were profusely

    ornamented with beautiful relief carvings.

    Rock cut architecture

    Rock-cut architecture occupies a significant place in the history of Indian

    architecture. Earliest known examples of rock-cut architecture belong to

    Buddhism. Numerous caves were excavated by the Buddhist monks for prayer

    and residence purposes.

    The caves were cut out of solid rocks and were in two parts, one called the hall of

    worship or chaitya and the other the monastery or vihara. The Jain and Buddhist

    monks lived in these caves and meditated. About 1200 Jain and Buddhist cave

    structures have been found in India. The most famous among them are at Ajanta,

    Ellora, Nasik and Karle etc.

    The Barabar caves in Bihar, built in the third century BCE and credited to Emperor

    Ashoka, are the oldest example of rock-cut architecture. Many Buddhist caves of

    the subsequent periods were excavated in eastern and western India.

    Chaityas (Prayer Hall)

    A chaitya is a Buddhist shrine or prayer hall with a stupa at one end for

    congregational worship by the monks. The chaitya is entered from one end, and

    at the other end, a small stupa is situated. Chaityas were commonly part of a

    monastic complex, the vihara.


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    Structures like Chaitya were common in Jainism and Hinduism as well. However,

    many early examples of chaitya that survive in India belong to Buddhist rock-cut


    These early chaityas are apsidal in the plan. At the centre of the apse was a rock

    stupa or a large figure of Buddha, sitting or standing. The later Buddhist temples

    at Buddhagaya (Bodhgaya), Nalanda, Ellora, Ajanta, Kuda, Shelarwadi, Karad etc.,

    consist of a square or oblong ground plan. To provide sufficient light for the

    interior of the cave a chaitya window was pierced in the facade. In due course of

    time, the chaitya window had become an ornament to the facade.

    Some of the most beautiful Chaitya caves are those at Ajanta, Ellora, Bhaja, Karle,

    Bagh, Nasik and Kanheri etc.

    Viharas (Monasteries)

    Viharas or monasteries were dwelling place for Buddhist monks. The term is also

    found in Ajivika, Hindu and Jain monastic literature, usually referring to a

    temporary refuge for wandering monks during the rainy season. These monastic

    buildings carved out of rocks or built of bricks were self-contained units and had a

    Chaitya hall attached to it with a stupa – the chief object of worship.