Key Elements of Buddhist Architecture

The three key elements of Buddhist architecture are Stupas, Viharas and Chaityas.


A stupa refers to a mound-like structure that contains some  relic of Buddha or Buddhist monks. The origin of Stupas is considered to be from the Shramana tradition in which the Shramana monks were buried in seated position. When Buddha died, his remains were cremated and the ashes were divided and buried in eight mounds.

The foundation of Buddhist stupas was mainly laid by Asoka. He is said to have built over 84,000 stupas, most of which are not extant today. The earliest and largest stupa found in Sanchi is ascribed to Asoka.

The best examples of Buddhist stupas are found at Amaravati, Sanchi, Barhut and Gaya.

Three Types of Stupas

The Saririka Stupa, Paribhogika stupa and Uddeshika stupa were three Major types of Buddhist stupas. Out of them, the Sariraka Stupa contained the buried bodily remains of the Buddha, while Paribhogika stupa contained buried belongings of Buddha. The Uddeshika Stupa were created as memorials.

The Bharhut Stupa

Around 100 B.C., a great stupa was made at Bharhut, in the eastern part of present-day Madhya Pradesh (in Satna District). Bharhut stupa was initially built by Asoka and was later improvised by the Sungas. The railings of the stupa and its one surviving gate are at the Indian Museum in Kolkata. This is the earliest stupa railing to have survived. Unlike the imperial art of the Mauryas, the inscriptions on railings of Bharhut stupa show that the reliefs and figures were donated by lay people, monks and nuns. Thus, it is one of the earliest examples of Maurya popular art.  The railings contain numerous birth stories of the Buddha’s previous lives, or Jataka tales.The Bharhut stupa represents the aniconic phase of Buddhist art. Buddha has been represented in the form of symbols.

Sanchi Stupa

Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh is a site of three stupas out of which the first and the oldest Great Stupa was originally commissioned by Asoka. The ‘Great Stupa’ at Sanchi is the oldest stone structure of India and was originally commissioned by the Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, vandalized by Pushyamitra Sunga and rebuilt by his son Agnimitra and again improvised by Saatavahana kings. Thus, this stupa represents a testimony to the Maurya, Sunga as well as Saatavahana art in India.

Its nucleus was a hemispherical brick structure built over the relics of the Buddha. It has upper as well as lower pradakshinapatha or circumambulatory path. It has four beautifully decorated toranas depicting various events from the life of the Buddha and the Jatakas. Figure compositions are in high relief, filling up the entire space, thus showing remarkable improvement from the Bharhut.

The narration in the inscriptions which was concise in the Bharhut has got elaborated at Sanchi. However, the Symbols continue to be used representing the Buddha. The historical narratives such as the siege of Kushinagara, Buddha’s visit to Kapilavastu, visit of Ashoka to the Ramgrama Stupa are carved with great details.

Dhamekha Stupa

The Dhamekha stupa is located at Sarnath, 13 km away from Varanasi. It marks the deer park or Rishipattana where Buddha gave his first sermon.  As per an inscription dated 1026 AD, recovered from the site, its older name is Dharmachakra Stupa. Archeologist, Alexander Cunningham in search of a relic casket bored a vertical shaft through it center down to the foundation and at a depth of around 91 centimeter he found a slab with an inscription…..Ye Dharma Hetu Prabhava Hetu…..written in Brahmi script. This inscription is of 6th or 7th century. Below this, one more stupa made of mauryan bricks has been found which gives in indication that Asoka might have commissioned it.

Chaityas and Viharas

Both early Chaityas and Viharas were made by woods and later stone cut Chaityas and Viharas were made. A Chaitya was a rectangular prayer hall with a stupa placed in the centre, the purpose was prayer. The Chaitya was divided into three parts, and had an apsidal ending i.e. a semicircular rear end, the central part of the hall (also called the nave) was separated from the two aisles by two rows of pillars, Chaityas also had polished interior walls, semicircular roofs and horse-shoe shaped windows called the Chaitya windows. Viharas were the residences of the monks.