The creation of stupa or reliquaries as a means to preserve and glorify the remains of important religious figures is a common historical practice throughout the Buddhist (and pre-Buddhist) world, as architectural monuments and later, as portable shrines. Stupa derive from ancient Indian burial mounds and were incorporated into Buddhism as containers of the relics of the Buddha and other holy figures, as a reminder of his enlightenment and symbolic of his physical body and teachings. They portray cosmological representations of the Buddhist universe, and their forms are doctrinally regulated—the stepped plinths represent the stepped form of Mount Meru, the centre of the Buddhist cosmos, while the layers of the tall conical spire symbolise the states of enlightenment.
This distinctive form of square Buddhist reliquary is known as an Ashoka Stupa, called Ayuwangta in China. The name refers to an important early royal patron of Buddhism, the Indian King Ashoka (r. 272-231 B.C.) of the Maurya Dynasty who, according to legend, commissioned 84,000 monasteries and stupas for Buddhist scriptures and relics. The design of a stupa, such as the current work, is based upon the three-dimensional mandala corresponding image depicting the Guardians of the Four Directions. Above the square stupa base are niches on each face of the stupa with a Dhritarashtra (East), Vaishravana (North), Virupaksha (West) and Virudhaka (South). The Four Guardians protect the four torana or gates of the outer level of the stupa as mandala, each with a circular medallion enclosing Shakyamuni Buddha, Samantabhadra on an elephant, Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri. Prototypes of the current stupa include a repousse silver votive stupa from the Northern Song dynasty, dated by inscription to A.D. 986, formerly in the collection of J.T. Tai, included in the exhibition J.J. Lally & Co., Silver and Gold in Ancient China, New York, 2012, cat. no. 21. For other stupas of similar form from the period, see two examples assigned to the 17th/18th century, one from the collection of Avery Brundage, now housed in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, object number B61B13, and another formerly in the collection of Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, sold in our London rooms, 26th November 1984, lot 17.
The current stupa is preserved in unusually good condition, with the original sutras intact. The twenty-character inscription inscribed in gilt around the top of the stupa is an excerpt from a Buddhist sutra concerning Nidana doctrines. The incised inscription around the base relates to a disciple monk, alongside a companion, who had this dedicated in Dongguan, to be consecrated for eternity, in the Kangxi gengshu year (1670). The temple had been built by two abbots named Kongyin and Tianran.
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