The beginning of Buddhist architecture can be traced to King Ashoka in the third century
The Buddha died somewhere between 483 and 400
When the Buddha was cremated, rulers from various kingdoms came quickly to reclaim the relics of his body. Arguments ensued, but a Brahmin named Dona was quick to quell the disagreement. His clever speech convinced the kings to divide the relics between them and build stupas to honor the holy Buddha.
King Ashoka was thought to have opened up seven of the eight stupas and relocated the relics of the Buddha to structures that he subsequently had built. The Hill of Sanchi, one of the most well known Buddhist stupas, is one of Ashoka's most famous creations.
The Hill of Sanchi is a group of Buddhist monuments. The foundation was laid by Ashoka but was later damaged, rebuilt, and added to over the centuries. When two of the stupas on the Hill of Sanchi were excavated in the nineteenth century several of the relic caskets were recovered. Today, relics of the Buddha are scattered and appear in China, Burma, Sri Lanka, India, and elsewhere — fingers, teeth, hair, and bone have all been preserved. Three stupas at Sanchi have been recovered.
Another of the greatest works of architecture in Buddhist history is the Borobudur Temple, a stonework of wonder standing in Java, Indonesia. The size of the temple is awe-inspiring, with nearly 200,000 square feet of lava rock. The temple is composed of six rectangular terraces. The top of the structure contains three more circular terraces and a spire stupa forms the top. The temple is thought to have been the Buddhist cultural center in the seventh and eighth centuries.
It is a massive structure overlooking the misty mountains and green valleys of Java. The whole structure is in a mandala version of a lotus, a symbol of Buddhism.
It also represents the Buddhist cosmos, with realms of desire, form, and formlessness depicted from bottom to top. The lowest level of the structure has 160 carved panels illustrating the joys and horrors of life in the realm of desire. There are more than 1,400 scenes in all from top to bottom, with ninety-two Buddha statues for each direction. The structure is a marvel of devotion and endurance. Borobudur has been used for devotional practice for centuries — you can walk around the terraces while meditating, walking clockwise until you reach the top.
The Cave Temples of Ajanta
In Western India you can find the cave temples of Ajanta. These “caves” are actually man-made structures carved out of living rock. Hsüan-tsang, the famous Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who traveled in India for sixteen years, first wrote about the Ajanta caves in the eighth century
The Magao Caves of Dunhuang
One of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art is found in China amidst the Magao caves. There are 800 caves, built between the fourth and fourteenth centuries
It is estimated that these murals cover a half-million feet of wall space, forty times larger than the Sistine Chapel. And as for sculptures, there are over 2,000 of them (and this has been reduced from tens of thousands due to plundering).
The oldest printed book was found in cave seventeen at Magao. It is a copy of the Diamond Sutra and was printed with woodblock on a sixteen-foot scroll in 868
These magnificent caves on the Silk Road reflect the great influence that Buddhism had on China, more so than any of the other religions that have appeared in China.
The June 2010 issue of National Geographic featured an article on the caves: “Within the caves, the monochrome and lifelessness of the desert gave way to an exuberance of color and movement. Thousands of Buddhas in every hue radiated across the grotto wall, their robes glinting with imported gold.”
The caves employ a staff of 500 and receive a half million visitors each year. The caves have survived centuries of sandstorms, plundering archeologists, and the Cultural Revolution. Its biggest threat today is the moist breath of its multitude of tourists.