stupa ［塔］ ( stūpa; tō): A kind of shrine in India where the relics of Shakyamuni Buddha or other sage monks are housed. Stupas are usually dome- or mound-shaped. The first stupas were built after Shakyamuni’s death, when his ashes were divided into eight parts and eight stupas were erected in eight districts to hold the Buddha’s relics. In the third century b.c.e., King Ashoka of the Maurya dynasty supported and protected Buddhism and erected stupas and stone pillars at sites associated with Shakyamuni Buddha. According to Buddhist legend, Ashoka divided the Buddha’s ashes that were housed by seven of the eight stupas among eighty-four thousand stupas that he erected throughout India. Among the oldest surviving stupas is the one at Sanchi in central India called the Great Stupa. Stupas were made of brick or stone, and their construction and maintenance were considered meritorious deeds that produced benefit.
Lay believers held stupas in deep reverence, and contributed to their construction. According to some scholars, the monks were originally indifferent to such stupa veneration and the Mahayana movement began with a group of Buddhist believers who practiced stupa worship. In the third century b.c.e., Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka along with the practice and techniques of stupa construction. Southern, or Theravāda, Buddhism was first transmitted to Sri Lanka and from there spread to Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar and Thailand. The stupas of these countries are known to Westerners as pagodas, and in Myanmar and Thailand they are bell-shaped. Northern Buddhism made its way into Central Asia, China, and Japan, where stupas, or pagodas, and other types of Buddhist architecture were introduced. The pagodas of China are multi-leveled, towerlike structures, the architectural style of which has been traced to stupas of the Gandharan era of Indian Buddhist art and architecture. Sotoba or tōba, a wooden memorial tablet bearing inscriptions set up at gravesites in Japan to honor the deceased, is the Japanese transliteration of the word stupa. See also pagoda.