Yupa in a Buddhist Stupa
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
Since the Department of Archaeology began exploration and excavation work in the Northern areas of the island, it has been the talk of the town. There were some incidents which stirred up some controversy, starting from arguments about the identity of these ancient monasteries and the true inheritance of them. One such highly controversial place was Mullaitivu. Despite the archaeological and historical evidence, there were disputes about the place’s history. Therefore, Ceylon Today took you on a voyage to the past of Mullaitvu in one of our previous heritage articles.
As a stone element was unearthed at one of the ancient stupas at Mullaitivu, things were steamed up once again. The ancient stupa at Kuruindi Vihara was excavated. Then a stone architectural feature, which is known as a yupa gala was discovered. As soon as it was unearthed, photographs and various interpretations began circling in social media, print media, and the electronic media. While the monolith could be instantly and clearly identified as a yupa gala, certain groups all of a sudden claimed it to be a Siva Linga. As the monolith had eight faces, the term Ashta-Thara was added by these groups.
Siva Lingas are not uncommon or new to us. We have discovered a considerable number of ancient Siva Lingas as well as yoni symbols, which were highly venerated sacred objects of the Hindus. Thus, our scholars are not unable to identify a Siva Linga if one was discovered. Also all of these discovered Siva Lingas, Siva sculptures and all other Hindu veneration objects are well preserved and loved by all of us and they are considered a part of ‘our’ proud heritage by Sri Lankan scholars and the public. If such an object was discovered, there is no reason to not admit it and distort its’ identity.
Moreover, a Siva Linga cannot be discovered in the centre of an ancient stupa mound. This has never happened before. Yet we have found a number of yupa stones in ancient stupa sites. Today we at Ceylon Today will present to you the story of the Buddhist architectural feature yupa gala and its evolution. Well known Sri Lankan senior archaeologist, Professor emeritus T.G. Kulatunga who has done extensive research on the Stupa and Buddhist art and architecture joined us to share his knowledge about the yupa gala.
What is a yupa stone?
“A yupa stone is an architectural feature of early Buddhist stupas. In the ancient text Manjushriwasthavidya, this is called the Gajasthambha. Gaja-padaka is also an ancient name for the yupa stone,” said Prof. Kulatunga.
Prof. Kulatunga explained that according to the Divyavadana, once the dome of the stupa is built, the yupaya was fixed on it. This was fixed on the top of the ceiling of the topmost relic chamber.
“The yupaya was always an octagon-shaped pillar. The top was curved, the bottom half which is buried beneath the surface has four sides.”
Prof. Chandra Wikramagamage in his scholarly work, Stupa, says that the yupaya was an architectural feature of the stupas belonging to the Abhayagiri sect. “This is because we do not see a yupa stone in every stupa in Sri Lanka,” explained Prof. Kulatunga.
“The antiquity of the concept of the yupa stone goes back to pre-Buddhist times in India. It was an object used for veneration by Vedic Brahmin priests; it was a sacrificial pillar. Animals who were supposed to be sacrificed were tied on to this pillar. Therefore, the yupaya was a pillar dedicated to the gods.”
Although scholars believe that the yupa could be having a pre-Buddhist origin in India, in his scholarly work The Ceylon Stupa, Prof. Senarath Paranavithana says that there is no evidence to say the Sanchi had a yupaya, nor at stupas in Amravati and Nagarjunakonda. Therefore, he says that the yupaya may not have been a common feature among all Buddhist stupas.
He further says that an octagon pillar similar to the one we know as yupaya today was placed on the top of the ancient stupas in Java. He also says that yupaya could be the stone pillar known as the Indra-Kilaya by today’s Buddhist monks.
Dr. Roland Silva in his highly acclaimed work, Thupa, Thupaghara and Thupa-Pasada, says that, “Basing himself on a passage in the Divyavadana, Paranavithana uses the term yupa - a Vedic sacrificial pillar - for the stone inside the devathakotuwa, which is also called the danda or chattra-danda, the equivalent of which is the yasti.”
According to Prof. Wickramagamage, the yupa was visible between the chathra and the harmika. When the chathra evolved into the koth karalla, the yupaya became the devathakotuwa. In ancient dewathakotuwa there can be seen eight deities who are to be known as the ashta-dik-pala. He further states that the yupaya was a symbol of Buddha.
What was this called in ancient times?
“An inscription at Vessagiriya mentions the term karawidaka. The inscription is as follows; Mahanaka raja pitanika chethehi karawidaka kotawaya chatha aruwaya… which means King Ila-Naga (38 - 44 CE) built the koth karalla and the chathras of Pitanika Stupa. This is how Prof. Paranavithana translates this. According to him, karawidaka means karali,” explained prof. Kulatunga.
“That cannot be accepted. At the terrace of Ruwanweliseya, remains of a yupa stone, was found. It is the bottom half of the pillar. There is an inscription on it which says that the pillar is a karawidaka tabi. Tabi means tamba or pillar. Thus, if we compare the Vessagiriya inscription and this, the term karavidaka, hints that it means the stone pillar or the yasti which we know as the yupa stone today. So we can assume that during that time this stone pillar was known as karawidaka,” Prof. Kulatunga enlightened us.
Why does yupa stone have eight sides?
Prof. Kulatunga explained to us that various pre-Buddhist deities were adopted into the Buddhist culture and some of them were considered as guardian gods of Buddhism.
“We have ashtadikpala deities; which means, deities representing each eight direction. So the pillar had eight faces. Each side represents each deity. The yupa stone was dedicated to these gods, who were considered as protectors of Buddhism and the stupa.”
After the yupa stone was not in use...
“The Stupa style evolved with time. Many of its early architectural features changed into new features. So did the yupa stone,” said Prof. Kulatunga.
“In this process of evolution, the upper half of the stupa changed and instead of the yupa gala, devathakotuwa was developed. In the devathakotuwa there are eight deities facing the eight directions.”
When did koth karalla evolve?
“Based on archaeological evidence we believe that it was king Kanitta-Thissa (164 – 192 CE) who was the one who first added a koth karalla to a stupa.
“Our assumption is based on an inscription we found at Deegavapi. A golden casket was discovered here and it had a koth karalla and also the name of the king,” said the professor. “We have evidence to believe that small stupas developed the koth karalla, while larger stupas still had yupa stones on them. Later they evolved into the dewathakotuwa.”
Other evidences of yupa stones
- Two massive yupa stones at Abayagiriya.
- Mihindu Seya - a casket was found by Prof. Paranavithana in 1951. This has a yupaya.
- Daliwalakota Vehera - hundreds of caskets were found here. They all have yupayas. These were found by then Commissioner of Archaeology Dr. Godakumbura
Prof. Paranavithana says that the remains of yupas found at Abhayagiri and Mirisveti are massive in size and that they would have weighed more than twenty tons at their fullest.
Apart from these examples there are yupa stones at Lahugala, Manikdena, Yatala, and many other ancient Buddhist stupa sites.
Sri Lanka is a country that practiced religious harmony for more than 15 centuries. These are not just words. Archaeological and historical evidence proves this. Yet, due to some unfortunate recent incidents and well-planned political stunts, starting from the shrewd British rule, ethnic and religious harmony of the island is destroyed. ‘Divide and Rule’ was their strategy. And we were fools to fall into their traps. We still are in it.
Fighting over the identity of cultural heritage is also a result of games played by politicians for their own good. Once the dispute between the two main ethnicities of the island is over, once understanding and harmony bonds these two communities, politicians and their manipulators will be deprived of their power. Therefore, it is the responsibility of us to act wisely. Scholars, media and the public should act wisely and sensibly.
Let’s not allow ‘them’ to distort our cultural heritage and to nourish ‘their’ vicious existence. Let us not fall into prey. Scholars, please step forward and share your knowledge and enlighten the public. Media, be responsible, ethical, and wise. Use words carefully as words can be very dangerous. Public, be wise and rational.
“A concerted effort to preserve our heritage is a vital link to our cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, and economic legacies - all of the things that quite literally make us who we are.”
– Steve Berry