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Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi/ Photo: Thierry Ollivier

Reliquary in the Form of a Stupa, and its Contents

ca. 20-30 CE

Despite stylistic differences and theological variations, Buddhist architecture is generally organised around the veneration of relics contained in a round building called a stupa. The circular form derives from the mound structure of pre-Buddhist monuments that covered the remains of an eminent individual. The importance given to the stupa in Buddhist art and practices is explained by the Buddha’s wholly uncommon experience of bodhi or enlightenment and hence liberation from the cycle of rebirth. For him, this was marked by the end of physical existence and entrance into the state of nirvana, which literally means “extinction”. The spherical and centred form of the construction indicates its cosmogonic function, while the display of parasols, a royal attribute, attests to the importance of the individual honoured. The parasols, symbols of protection and power, are attached to a central mast that symbolically constitutes a kind of axis mundi or cosmic axis.

The stupa is a solid monument and the chamber housing the relics is not accessible. It is surrounded at ground level by an open-air walkway with a balustrade for the ritual of clockwise circumambulation. In some cases, the balustrade has sculpted porches facing the four main points of the compass and affording access to the stupa, which is encircled by another enclosure. Discovered early in the 19th century, the most famous site, with the oldest stone stupa in India, is Sanchi in the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh. Several buildings, including the tumulus of the Great Stupa, were built during the period of the Maurya empire, probably during the reign of Ashoka (v. 304-242 AEC).

Artwork Details

Title: Reliquary in the Form of a Stupa, and its Contents
Geography: Swat Valley (?), Gandhara, Pakistan
Date: ca. 20-30

Medium: gilded schist, gold, crystal, coral, glass and organic materials

Classification: religious item
Dimensions: 78 cm (height)
Inventory number: LAD 2009.021
Contact for images : [email protected]
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