Aurel Stein: A hundred years on

Buddhist Stupas

The stupa, originating in India in about the third century B.C., was a funerary mound covering relics of the historical Buddha or his disciples. Its function widened over the following centuries: some house objects used by the Buddha or his disciples, some commemorate actions or events in the life of the Buddha and his disciples, while others symbolize aspects of Buddhist theology or are built as shrines on important places. The stupa was a focus for ritual and worship, including circumambulation.

The original form was a dome on a circular base. As Buddhism spread north then east from India, across the Pamir into the Tarim, the stupa developed into several distinctive and more complex new forms. The base became square and stepped, with staircases on one or all four sides. The dome became elongated and more tower-like.

All these forms are seen in the Taklamakan, the earliest probably dating to the second and third centuries (at Miran and Niya), and continuing throughout the first millennium (at Endere and Rawak). They are evidence of substantial Buddhist communities and considerable wealth.

Plan of Rawak stupa drawn by Stein, showing staircases and boundary wall.
Ancient Khotan, Vol. 2, Plan XL.

Plan and cross section of Niya stupa drawn by Stein, showing the central pillar.
Ancient Khotan, Vol. 2, Plan XXIX

Plan and cross section of Endere stupa drawn by Stein.
Ancient Khotan, Vol. 2, Plan XXXVII

Relief plaque of moulded baked clay with a red wash, showing a seated Buddha. Excavated at Rawak stupa by Stein.
The British Museum, 1907,1111.185

Khotanese manuscript reporting on affairs in the Khotan kingdom, including the destruction of two towns. Excavated by Stein at Rawak, April 1901.
IOL Khot W 04

Plan of Miran stupas M.III. and M.V., drawn by Stein.
Serindia, Vol. 3, Plan XXXII

A model of the Buddhist Sukhāvatī lake, with lotuses set on sticks on a cotton fabric covered with blue plaster, representing the water. Excavated by Stein at Miran stupa M.III.
The British Museum, MAS.629

Wooden model of a stupa. The base still bear traces of a painted quatrefoil decoration. Excavated by Stein at ruin N.V. at Niya.
The British Museum, MAS.527

Remains of textiles, possibly left as an offering. Excavated by Stein at Miran stupa M.III.

Niya stupa with an eroded garden in foreground, October 1906.
Photo 392/26(188)

Packing murals from the stupas at Miran, February 1907.
Photo 392/26(254)

Endere stupa after excavation, February 1901.
The Library and Information Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Stein Photo 8/1(166)

Rawak stupa from above the southwest wall, September 1906.
Photo 392/26(154)

Miran, stupa M.III. from the east showing the outer wall, January 1907.
Photo 392/27(155)

Niya stupa with Dash in foreground, January 1901.
The Library and Information Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Stein Photo 5/2(67)

Endere stupa with Abdul Ghafur on the topmost base, February 1931.
Photo 392/34(190)

Rawak stupa showing the hole in the dome where robbers had previously searched for treasures, September 1906.
Photo 392/27(76)

Miran, faded murals on outer wall of stupa M.V., January 1907.
Photo 392/27(197)

Miran, men removing murals from the walls of stupa M.V., January 1914.
Photo 392/28(362)

Miran, colossal Buddha head from stupa M.II. in original position, January 1907.
Photo 392/26(239)

Miran, northeast corridor of stupa M.II., December 1906.
Photo 392/27(118)

Miran, with Stein's Chinese assistant Mr Li, January 1914.
Photo 392/28(331)

Rawak stupa from above the southwest wall, November 2008
Photo 1125/16(387)

Endere stupa, showing hole in tower made by robbers searching for treasure, November 2008.
Photo 1125/16(272)

Niya stupa showing the eroded garden in foreground, November 2011.
Photo 1235/3(40)

Miran, stupa M.VI., November 2008.
Photo 1187/2(156)

Rawak stupa, gatekeeper at entrance to the site, November 2008.
Photo 1187/2(235)

Rawak stupa showing remains of the outer wall, November 2008.
Photo 1125/16(391)

Endere stupa, November 2008.
Photo 1187/2(172)

Endere stupa details showing construction method using bricks and layers of tamarisk, November 2008.
Photo 1187/2(186)

Endere stupa with IDP and XJIA group, November 2008.
Photo 1187/2(190)

Miran, stupas M.IV. and M.III. from the west, November 2008.
Photo 1187/2(150)

Miran, stupa M.XIII., November 2008.
Photo 1125/16(164)

Niya stupa seen from top of tamarisk cone to the northwest, November 2011.
Photo 1235/1(187)

Niya stupa, detail of the eroded western side, November 2011.
Photo 1235/2(64)

Niya stupa from the southeast, November 2011.
Photo 1235/2(60)