In ancient India, a stupa is a mound-like or hemispherical tomb. After the parinirvana of Sakyamuni Buddha, his body was cremated and the remains or relics were divided and buried under eight stupas with two extra stupas encasing the urn and the embers. After that, Asian Buddhists began building numerous stupas with multiple materials such as wood, stone, brick and clay to bury the so-called Buddha’s relics. They also worshiped the stupas which symbolized the existence of the Buddha. Ultimately, these Indian-originated tombs became the holy structure of the Buddha, and the Buddhists also continued to build stupas as the tombs of monks and nuns to commemorate their achievements.
During the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911), the development of these Buddhist artworks made of gold, silver, and jade was influenced by a multi-ethnic climate and the adoption of a hybrid Sino-Tibetan style. This style appealed to both imperial tastes as well as to China’s many Buddhist communities.
This jade stupa (pictured) is an example of a composite Sino-Tibetan form that follows a precise formula of construction—it contains a pedestal, the central body, and a top tower. The elaborately decorated base with the inlay of heavy gemstones represents a strong Chinese influence with the enclosed fence. The Tibetan-style lotus symbolizes the purity of Buddhism. The shape of the pedestal itself imitates Sumeru, the holy mountain of deities, and the top of the base reveals water patterns, all of which symbolize the Buddhist world. The central body of the stupa imitates an ancient Indian burial mound, with a mandorla-shaped door and three carved Chinese shou characters, both conveying longevity.
Between those four elements are four pairs of Tibetan auspicious signs, including a Vase, Lotus, Victory Banner, Wheel, Parasol, Double Fishes, Conch, and an Endless Knot. All of these Tibetan signs symbolize health, purity, Buddha’s victory and teachings, royalty, freedom of practice, as well as Buddha’s sound and union of wisdom. On the top of the stupa’s body are eight Buddhist masters or arhats—enlightened beings—seated on the cloudy pattern and teaching Buddhist laws in the four directions. Above the central body is a high, conical tower of thirteen umbrellas ascending to the heavens, which are topped with a composition of the moon, sun, and a flaming pearl, revealing Buddhist royalty, spiritual power, and cosmos.
Originally, inside the door of the stupa’s central body, was a sacred Buddhist figure or relic, for the worship and practice of its owner. During the late Qing period (1835-1908), Dowager Empress Cixi, who ruled China from 1861 until her death in 1908, used to store her falling hairs in a golden stupa for the good wish of her long life. Universally appreciated by Lamaist practitioners, it is likely that this elaborate jade stupa might have an unknown religious function to provide the patron auspicious meaning or events during his or her lifetime and in the next world.
Dr. Qing Chang
This stupa is currently on view as part of Sculpting Nature: Jade from the Collection in Gallery II Jade Room.