Academic journal article Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific

Ritual and Presentation in Early Buddhist Religious Architecture

Academic journal article Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific

Ritual and Presentation in Early Buddhist Religious Architecture

Article excerpt

FROM THE FIRST CENTURY B.C. THROUGH THE SECOND CENTURY A.D., South Asian Buddhists focused much of their ritual and worship upon stone or brick mounds, stupas, containing the relics of the Buddha. Some stupas were found in large, open-air complexes that were the focus of pilgrimage by the Buddhist laity. Other smaller stupas were located within the worship halls, chaityas, of Buddhist monasteries carved into the sides of cliffs. In each case, the people who created these temples had to decide how to present the stupa for worship. In both cases, the designers had to accommodate the highly individualistic nature of Buddhist worship while attempting to provide mechanisms to foster group cohesion within the developing Buddhist community. Monks designed their own ritual spaces with the goal of allowing for the mediation of worship by ritual specialists. In contrast, stupa complexes frequented by the laity were designed in a way that effectively limited the potential for ritual leaders and promoted a more egalitarian, spontaneous form of group worship. Further, the architectural layout of the different stupa complexes suggests that the laity, not the monks, were most interested in individual, meditative ritual. These conclusions stand in marked contrast to traditional discussions of early Buddhism derived from textual sources, which date from later periods.

In this paper, the architectural plans of 13 Buddhist stupa complexes of the first century B.C. through the second century A.D. are examined in order to assess the nature of ritual presentation in two forms of ritual architecture, one focusing on the Buddhist laity and the other dominated by the clergy. This analysis presents a new theoretical and methodological tool for archaeological studies of ritual architecture, while exploring an issue central to contemporary Buddhist studies--ritual practice and the relations between monks and laity. Before turning to the specifics of this analysis, I first provide some background on early Buddhist history and thought, focusing on specific rituals and on the role of the stupa in Buddhist worship. This is followed by a brief summary of previous anthropological approaches to ritual and ritual architecture before discussing the architectural methodology used in this paper. The locations of the 13 complexes are indicated on Figure 1.


This paper introduces a method, derived from theater and set design, for investigating religious ideology through architectural forms of presentation. Specifically, analyzing how someone or something is shown to an audience illuminates the goals of that presentation. This is accomplished by studying what is seen, how it is seen, and perhaps most importantly, what is hidden. In the case of early Buddhism, the architectural forms of presentation illustrate underlying tensions between the individual and group and between the clergy and the laity. While this paper presents an archaeological methodology for the examination of ritual architecture, it is strongly situated within the specific context of early historic South Asia. Applications in other social contexts are possible, but must be situated within their own specific social and historical contexts.


Until recently, a general abstract of early Buddhist history was largely accepted by most scholars (Barnes 1995; Basham 1967; Chakrabarti 1995; Lamotte 1988). The Buddha lived from 563 to 483 B.C. Over the succeeding centuries Buddhism was accepted by growing numbers of followers, and religious sites were established at locales associated with the Buddha's life. In the third century B.C., the Mauryan emperor Asoka adopted Buddhism as a result of his remorse over the loss of life resulting from his conquest of the Kalinga on the eastern coast of India. After this, Asoka promoted Buddhism throughout South Asia through inscriptions proclaiming Buddhist doctrine and the support of Buddhist institutions. …

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