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5. Stupa
17th-18th c.
gilded copper
10 1/4 in

The structure of this stupa follows a model that developed in Tibet, Mongolia and Manchuria under Mongol patronage. One of the earliest examples of this type of bulb-shaped stupa was the Baita or White Pagoda of the Miaoying monastery in Beijing. Designed by the Newar artist Anige and dedicated in 1271, it had a tremendous influence on the stupas of seventeenth and eighteenth century Mongolia.

Anige was the official court artist of the Mongol Khans during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368); he became Khubilai Khan’s Director-General for Management of Artisans. He brought Newar artistic influence to the Mongol court, and Newar sculptural styles and artists subsequently enjoyed significant patronage in both Tibet and China. Very little Mongolian art preceding Zanabazar now remains. However, though we cannot be sure Zanabazar ever saw works created by Anige himself, works in Anige’s Newar style certainly still held currency. Also, we do know Zanabazar and his advisors were familiar with the history of the Mongolia Empire under Khubilai Khan and his political and religious advisor, the Tibetan Sakya hierarch Phagspa. It is therefore highly likely Zanabazar was aware of Phagspa’s patronage of Anige and sought inspiration in the earlier Newar aesthetic.

The history of Erdeni Zuu records that Zanabazar cast eight silver stupas in 1683. The number eight refers to the traditional group of eight, each with a specific form, built to mark the most important events in Shakyamuni’s life. This stupa probably is the fifth one, commemorating the Buddha’s victory over the evil forces that tried to prevent his enlightenment. It would have housed a now missing image of the Buddha Shakyamuni, seated in a niche surrounded by a lotus petal torana, and facing east above a multileveled platform, each side of which is marked by the animal vehicle of the Buddha of each of the four quarters. Depicted to the east is Akshobya’s elephant, west is Amitabha’s peacock, south Ratnasambhava’s horse and north Amoghasiddi’s garuda. Each animal vehicle is flanked by lions and the sides of the base are supported by columns. The top and bottom tier of the platform are decorated with circular – possibly stylised floral – patterns. Long ornate garlands cover the dome and top of the stupa. The decoration of this stupa is engraved in a somewhat stylised manner; a similar piece by Zanabazar himself shows the designs cast into the stupa with opulent and fine detail. The base plate is incised with a gilded double dorje, a feature unique to Zanabazar and his atelier.

All stupas, being Buddhist reliquaries and symbols of the enlightened mind of the Buddha, observe an essential basic structure and encompass a multitude of symbolic meanings. The basic structure consists of a square foundation – the lion throne – that symbolises the earth and a dome that symbolises water. The conical spire of thirteen umbrellas represents the thirteen circles of Buddhist teaching and the element of fire; the upper lotus parasol and crescent moon stand for the element of air, and the sun (here topped with a jewel) symbolises the element of space.
The stupa is a representation of the Buddha’s body and is measured to the same iconographic proportions. The three parts of the stupa – the throne base, dome (anda) with square harmika and spire (chhatraveli) – also symbolise the body, speech and mind of the Buddha.

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