Heritage of Stupa construction
by Prof. W. I. Siriweera
The Stupa , Chaitya or dagoba had a pre-Buddhist origin. Literally Stupa denotes a made up heap of earth or of any other material. The term Chaitya is derived from Prakrit cita, Pali citaka which means a funeral pyre with a wooden post erected in its centre as a memorial. The term dagoba is derived from dhatugarbha, a repository of dhatu or relics. The idea of preserving the mortal remains of a person fully or partially in a structural memorial was based on the age-old belief of inseparability of connections between an organism and its constituents even after the former had become lifeless or detached from its original form.
With the passage of time the Stupas were constructed by the Buddhists not only to deposit bodily relics of the Buddha and Buddhist saints but also to commemorate a particular event or to deposit objects of religious significance associated with the Buddha.
Largest brick structures
The earliest Stupa in India consisted of a solid dome erected on a raised base. On top of the dome was a square enclosure with railings (hermika) containing a centrally placed post (yasti) adorned with a series of umbrellas (chatravali). The base of the Stupa was surrounded by one or two enclosed circumambulatories (pradakshinapathas). This structural model underwent gradual transformations in various regions of India itself but more in Sri lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and in central Asian and South East Asian countries. The major factors which contributed to these modifications were local requirements, beliefs, tastes, architectonic skills of the inhabitants and the change in the socio-economic milieu in different regions and countries.
The Sri Lankan Stupas were constructed to fit into one of the several shapes namely; bell, bubble, heap of paddy, lotus and the nelli fruit. Of these most common were the bell, bubble and heap of paddy shapes. Whichever the shape, the builders of these monuments had to have a thorough understanding of principles of soil mechanics, geometry, compression, pressure, stress, brick-bonding and damp-proofing. Built mostly with burnt clay bricks, some of these Sri Lakan Stupas were the largest brick structures in the ancient world. Almost all these Stupas had certain basic characteristics namely; three basal platforms built one over the other (pesavalalu), the dome (gaba), the square enclosure (hataras kotuva), spire (kota) and the topmost crystal or the ring of crystals.
All the Stupas are surrounded by one or two circumambulatories (salapathala maluva). Some of these were paved with stone slabs. Some had sandy surfaces. There were also flights of steps to reach the circumambulatories.
Selecting the sites and laying foundations for the Stupas had been meticulously done by the ancient construction workers. To prevent sinking and cracks most Stupas had been founded on rocks. These foundations extend to a considerable distance and depth from the base of the Stupa. For instance the foundation of the Jetavana Stupa had gone into a depth of eight metres.
According to legends, the thupa at Mahiyangana and Girihandu Saya at Tiriyaya are considered the earliest Stupas in the island. But there is no specific evidence on the origins of these monuments. In fact, more certain archaeological evidence points to the fact that the construction of the Stupas in the island started only after the official introduction of Buddhism in the third century B.C. The Thuparama situated in a monastic complex which covers an area of three and half acres is one of the first Stupas built in the island in the reign of Devanampiya Tissa (250-210B.C.) enshrining the right collar-bone relic of the Buddha.
Whether the original form has been retained in the present Stupa is doubtful as several new features have been added to the monument by successive monarchs. From the time of Vasabha (67-111) it has taken the shape of a cetiyaghara or vatadage as he had constructed a roof surrounding the thupa on stone columns of receding heights. The Kanthaka Cetiya at Mihintale also had its origins probably during the reign of Devanampiya Tissa. Its original form has not changed much and four frontispieces or Vahalkada (literally meaning entrance to the palace) of this Stupa are the oldest frontispieces in the island.
The construction of the bubble-shaped Mirisavatiya and the Ruvanvali Saya by Dutthagamani(161-137 B.C.) heralded a new era in the building of the large Stupas. According to the Mahavamsa, Dutthagamani started work on the Mahathupa after he completed the Mirisavatiya and the Lohapasada. The circumference of the base of the Ruvanvali Saya is 298 feet and the height from the ground level to the pinnacle is about 300 feet. As in many other monuments, several new features have been added to this Stupa in the course of time.
The paddy heap shaped Abhayagiri Stupa is the main attraction in the Abhayagiri monastic complex which originated during the reign of Vattagamani (89-77 B.C.). It is second in size only to the Jetavana Stupa of the same shape and its original height had been about 350 feet. Vattagamani also constructed the Silasobhakandaka Cetiya to the South-West of the Abhayagiri Stupa in the same monastic complex. Presently it is known as the Lankarama Stupa.
The Jetavana monastery was originally constructed by Mahasena (274-301) and was so named as it was built in the park known as the Jotivana. The Stupa in this large complex is the tallest monument constructed during the glorious days of the Rajarata civilization. Some of the stone slabs in its pavement or the Salapatala maluva contain short inscriptions datable to the eighth and ninth centuries A.D. They record the fact that those slabs were donated by devotees.
Of the Stupas built during the Polonnaruva period, the most important are the Kirivehera, the Damila Thupa, the Rankotvehera and the Sathmahal Pasadaya. The Kirivehera was caused to be constructed by Subhadra, one of the Queens of Parakramabahu I (1153 – 1186). This Stupa, earlier known as the Rupavati Thupa is the best preserved Stupa at Polonnaruva with the major part of the original plaster coating still intact. At present the height of the monument is 80 feet. The Damila Thupa situated to the North of the Galviharaya was built by Parakramabahu I either by utilizing the labours of South Indian prisoners of war or in commemoration of his South Indian campaigns. The Rankot Vehera or the Golden Pinnacled dagoba was built by Nissankamalla (1187- 1196). It has a diametre of 186 feet at the base and its original height was 200 feet. In fact, it is the tallest Stupa constructed during the Polonnaruva period. The Satmahal Pasada resembles a similar dagoba at Lamphun or ancient Haripunjaya in Thailand. It is an unusual Stupa in the form of a stepped pyramid.
The golden era of construction activity came to an end with the Polonnaruva period. The Stupas built thereafter were small in size which indicates the decline of material wealth in the country and transformation of the socio-political system.
The surplus of grain and income from foreign trade provided material resources to kings for their construction activity in the days of the Rajarata civilization. The labour was voluntary and not forced, irrespective of the fact that the dominant ruling group controlled and dominated the vast number of peasants and craftsmen. Here, religion provided an ideology which maintained that social position and political power were the results of good deeds in previous births. For the dominated group religion played a compensatory role by offering them a better life in the next world provided they led pious and righteous lives. Expending labour on religious structures was an act which brought merit to ensure a better rebirth.