Terms and Definitions

Defining all the recurring themes in one place.


1. Stupas

These are hemispherical dome structures originally built over the relics of Buddha after his death. There were 8 of them in distributed in places where Buddha seemed to have lived – Rajagraha, Vaishali, Kapilvastu, Allakapa, Ramagrama, Vethadipa, Pava, Kushinagar. We see stupas being built for the first time during the time of Ashoka. He is believed to have commissioned the construction of 84000 stupas.

The components of a Stupa are shown in the diagram below



For the uninitiated, the practitioner does not enter the stupa, it is a solid object. Instead, the practitioner circumambulates (walks around) it on the pradakshina path (refer above) as a meditational practice focusing on the Buddha’s teachings.

The following video of circumambulation will give you some idea.



2. Chaityas and Viharas

Buddhist rock-cut architecture was primarily Chaityas or Viharas. Chaityas were congregational prayer halls while viharas were places for monks to rest.

The video explains them in considerable depth.


Further, students can refer to this presentation for an in-depth analysis.


3. Pillars

During the reign of Ashoka many monolithic stone pillars were built to preach his Dhamma. Each pillar has 3 components – the prop (which is buried under the ground), the shaft – the straight column and the capital – which has the seated animal. Watch this video to understand in detail the components of the Sarnath Pillar.



Characteristics of the pillars are as follows

  • Monolithic meaning carved out of one stone.
  • 2 kinds of stones used – Chunar sandstone, Varanasi and Spotted-red sandstone, Mathura
  • Highly polished surfaces – known as Mauryan polish.
  • These pillars are plain and undecorated.
  • Capitals – Capitals are the crowning element atop the pillar. This capital is also termed as the ‘bell capital’ which resembles an inverted lotus.
  • Abacus – Platform over which the seated animal rests.
  • Crowning animal – The topmost portion contains a crowning animal. Various animals are used on different pillars.


These pillars were inspired from Achaemenid pillars of middle-east.

  • It has been suggested that Ashoka got the idea of inscribing proclamations on pillars from the achaemenids.
  • The polished surface.
  • Capital design including motifs like inverted lotus and the animals.
  • The stiff heraldic pose of the lions is seen as further evidence of western influence.

However they significantly differed from them in many ways. They were monolithic pillars carved out of a single stone while Achaemenian pillars were made by placing bounders one on top of the other.



4. Bodhisattva

Related to the Mahayana sect, Bodhisattva is buddha in his previous birth. It has all the qualities to enable him attain nirvana but sacrifices doing so by choice to let his disciples have a chance at attaining it.

The Jataka tales contain a vast body of folklore in which the Bodhisattva, whether in human or animal form makes great sacrifices in order to help others. These are represented across different buddhist architectures.

The most common Bodhisattavas are Avalokiteshvara & Vajrapani found in Ajanta cave paintings. You can read about various boddhisattavas in our Ajanta and Ellora Case study.

An exhaustive list of various Bodhisattvas and where they belong can be found here – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_bodhisattvas

A must-watch video for more on Bodhisattavas.


5. Mudras of Buddha

Buddhas and Bodhisattavas are shown with their hands forming a number of different ritualized and stylized poses (Mudrâs). Each by itself and in combination with others have specific meanings. Abhayamudrâ is the most common mudra.

An exhaustive list of mudras can be found here – http://www.buddhas-online.com/mudras.html



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