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     Stupas and temples
     The pagoda
     Excavated interiors
     Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta

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Stupas and temples: from the 1st century BC

The most significant architectural feature of southeast Asia is the Buddhist stupa, known in India from the 1st century BC but no doubt dating from earlier. An architectural descendant of the burial mound, the stupa is a brick and plaster hemisphere with a pointed superstructure (seen as an image of the cosmos). Enshrining a relic of the Buddha, it serves as the sacred centre around which ritual occurs in an open-air setting.

The earliest surviving example is the Great Stupa at Sanchi, from the 1st century BC. Hinduism and Buddhism are closely interconnected at this stage. The stupa provides the architectural model for Hindu temples in India, for Buddhist temples in southeast Asia and for pagodas in China and Japan.

Within India the simple shape of the early stupa evolves into the complex superstructure of later Hindu temples - rich in architectural ornament and often encrusted with teeming sculptures of deities and devils. Sometimes they are brightly painted to add to the sense of tumult.

Unlike the solid stupa, these structures rise above interior spaces which are used for worship. They are like steeples above churches, whereas the stupa is a massive inert reliquary at the centre of a temple complex.

Buddhism and Hinduism spread together into southeast Asia, often to the same places at the same time. Both the solid stupa and the open temple can be found throughout the region.

The famous temples of Angkor Wat and Pagan in Cambodia and Burma, dating from around the 12th century, are in the open Hindu style. The massively tall gilded stupa at the centre of the Shwe Dagon temple in Rangoon (built as recently as the 19th century), is by contrast a solid structure in the original stupa tradition. Its interior chamber is designed only to house eight hairs of the Buddha.

The pagoda: from the 2nd century AD

With the arrival of Buddhism in China, and subsequently Japan, the Indian architectural tradition undergoes another transformation. In the 2nd century Kanishka, a ruler in northwest India, builds a stupa in the form of a masonry tower to house some Buddhist relics. From this region Buddhism makes its way towards China along the Silk Road. Kanishka's tower proves a fruitful model.

In the hands of Chinese and Japanese carpenters, this type of stupa evolves into the tall and slender wooden pagoda. A superb example, from as early as AD 607, survives in Japan in the Horyuji temple at Nara.

At much the same time as the wooden Japanese pagoda in the Horyuji temple, a stone version is created in northwest China. It is excavated and carved, on all four sides, from the solid rock of a cave at Yün-kang.

In achieving this laborious feat, the Chinese sculptors are following another ancient architectural tradition of India - that of enlarging natural caves into elaborately sculpted temples.

Excavated interiors: from the 1st century BC

Just as human beings have always sheltered in caves, so they have often hollowed out more comfortable or impressive chambers where the rock is sufficiently soft. There are many examples of work of this kind, often done on a grand scale and involving intensive labour - though none has ever matched the earliest and most impressive of all, at Abu Simbel.

Religious devotion has been the main motive. Hindu, Buddhist and Christian communities have created temples or churches within the surrounding fabric of solid rock. They have even carved them with conventional architectural details, making them look as much as possible as if they have been built up in the normal way in stone.

Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta: 1st c. BC - 13th c. AD

India is the country with the greatest tradition of rock-cut temples, and all the region's three indigenous religions are involved. The earliest site is Ajanta, where elaborate pillared halls are carved into the rock - from an almost vertical cliff face - from about the 1st century BC to the 8th century AD.

The Ajanta caves are chiefly famous for their Buddhist murals, surviving from at least the 5th century AD. But the chaityas or meeting places are equally impressive, with their rows of carved columns and vaulted ceilings. Apart from the lack of any normal light (arriving, as it does, only from one end), the effect is that of a normal building.

Ajanta is entirely Buddhist. The great columned cave temple of Elephanta, on an island near Bombay and dating from the 5th to 8th century AD, is exclusively Hindu - devoted to Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. But the many cave temples of Ellora, spanning a longer period (from the 4th to 13th century), include shrines sacred to Buddhists, to Hindus and to Jains.

Ellora is a sloping site, which offers the opportunity for another architectural element. Open forecourts are carved here from the rock, with gateways and stone elephants and free-standing temples of two or three storeys in addition to the enclosed inner shrines.