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Metamorphosis: Stupas and Chorten
in Nepal and Tibet
|by Ashish Nangia|
While the first true stupas were constructed after the reign of Ashoka, still there have been many monuments to Buddhism erected during his rule. Some prominent ones were stone or cast iron pillars (stambhas) which, though architecturally insignificant, play an important role in terms of their symbolism, standing as mid-points between the drawing of a mandala on the ground, and a full-fledged stupa. They also represent a three-pronged approach: the non-existent space within the stone pillar itself, the annular space between the pillar and its railing, and finally the world outside the railing – this triad became one of the key features of the stupa itself.
While the majority of stupas in India consist of a solid hemisphere surrounded by a railing, other stupas such as the great stupa at Borobodur (built a thousand years after the one at Sanchi) are considerably more complex. As opposed to the Sanchi stupa, the one at Borobodur consists of a polygonal base, with steps leading up to the summit and punctuated by as many as 72 smaller stupas along the way.
The chorten in Tibet
After being introduced into Tibet, the Indian stupa underwent inevitable changes in its form and nomenclature. Its form changed, especially with regards to the anda or dome at its summit. While the Indian stupa is a circular dome, the Tibetan chorten is more elliptical, like an oval above a rectangular base. We also find at the summit a series of ring shaped enclosing ‘umbrellas’, topped by a disc. Though this change in form from the Indian stupa is co-terminous with the transformation of the religion itself as it moved northward to Tibet, in no way does the chorten lose any of its powerful imagery and symbolism as the seat of Llama-centered Buddhism.
As opposed to the central Indian stupa, the Tibetan chorten is a fairly complicated form, with 8 or more different ‘models’ being described, perhaps corresponding to the 8 major stages in the life of the Buddha. However, the most common model by far is the one that describes Buddha’s ‘supreme enlightenment’, consisting of a square base with steps above it, which is then topped by the dome – which is really an inverted oval called the bumpa. Above the bumpa rises a spire with the characteristic ‘umbrella’ shaped rings, which is then finally crowned by a ring and a crescent ‘moon’. Apart from this model, there are also examples corresponding to the ‘descent from heaven’, and the ‘many gates’ tradition of Llama Buddhism. This last is the most monumental of the many chorten found in Tibet, of which one example is found at the monastery at Gyantse.
Another form of architecture found in Tibet, and most particularly in the village and bazaar of Namche, is the free-standing gateway. While the origin is most likely Tibetan, some similarity is to be found with the gateways of the Sanchi stupa and other stupas in India in that there are mandalas and images of deities to be found on the underside of the lintel of the gateway. Other examples of similar gateways are to be found in Nepal, for example, at Tsarang. However, in Nepal, the gateways are of a much simpler typology, for example the one at the monastery of Garphu.
Monasteries or Gompas
A singularly large number of monasteries in Nepal, especially in the valley of Khumbu, are influenced by Tibetan architecture. In Tibet, the earliest monasteries date from about the 8th century AD, being patterned very early on in the form of strongholds or fortresses for defense. Apart from this secular role, the monasteries were also centers of learning, with immense work being undertaken in terms of translation of the Buddhist canons, which then enabled the spread of Buddhism as far afield as China under the Mongols in the 13th century.
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