In Buddhist India the bodies of kings, chiefs, or saints were cremated and the ashes buried under earthen mounds. When the Buddha died his ashes were divided into eight portions and buried under mounds raised in his home town and at seven other locations. An umbrella, the symbol of royalty, was placed on the top of each mound.These first stupas were seen as symbols of the Buddha’s presence and soon came to be objects of devotion. Legend says that King Asoka opened these stupas, further broke the ashes into 84,000 parts and built a stupa over each part. Although 84,000 parts is an obvious exaggeration, archaeologists have confirmed that many of India’s numerous stupas were first constructed during the Asokan period. From the early prototype the stupa soon developed, the mound into a solid dome and the umbrella into a spire and in later ages were enlarged, sometimes to enormous dimensions, and decorated with sculptures and paintings.
There are four types of stupas, those built over relics of the Buddha or a saint, those containing an object used by the Buddha or a saint, those commemorating an important event in religious history and those built as an act of devotion. Today, along with the Buddha statues and Bodhi trees stupas are the primary objects of popular devotion and at least one can be found in every Buddhist temple.
P. Harvey, ” The Symbolism of the early Stupa” in Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 7, 1984;
A. Snodgrass, The Symbolism of the Stupa, New York, 1985;
S. Paranavitana, The Stupa in Ceylon, Colombo, 1947.