Miniature Votive Stupa

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One enigmatic artifact combines so many of my favorite things:  Dunhuang, Yi jing, Buddhism, cosmic symbols (e.g., Kunlun)….

[For an enlargement, click on the photograph to go to the thread, then click on the photograph again. It will be large enough to make the inscription legible.]

But what is a "stupa"? This is our first language lesson for today.

A stupa (Sanskrit: स्तूप, lit.'heap', IAST: stūpa) is a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics (such as śarīra – typically the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns) that is used as a place of meditation. A related architectural term is a chaitya, which is a prayer hall or temple containing a stupa.


From Sanskrit स्तूप (stūpa). Doublet of tope.


Chinese transcriptions (MSM only):  sūdǔpō 窣堵坡, zútǎpó 卒塔婆, sūdōupó 窣都婆, sūdǔbō 窣堵波, sītōubǒ 私偷簸, tǎpó 塔婆, lǜdōupó 率都婆, sùdǔbō 素覩波, sǒudòupó 藪斗婆, etc.   

Reduction to monosyllable:  tǎ

Pali thūpa


Sanskrit stūpaḥ, tuft of hair, crown of the head, summit, stupa.

(American Heritage Dictionary, 5th ed.]

A closing observation, which others may not have noted, but which Geoff Wade mentioned in calling Jin Xu's tweet to my attention, namely, the shape of such votive stupas must have derived from Shaivite linga form (images here).  And this leads to our second language lesson for today, which explains the derivation and meaning of "linga".

A lingam (Sanskrit: लिङ्ग IAST: liṅga, lit. "sign, symbol or mark"), sometimes referred to as linga or Shiva linga, is an abstract or aniconic representation of the Hindu god Shiva in Shaivism. The original meaning of lingam as "sign" is used in Shvetashvatara Upanishad, which says "Shiva, the Supreme Lord, has no liūga", liuga (Sanskrit: लिūग IAST: liūga) meaning he is transcendental, beyond any characteristic and, specifically the sign of gender. Lingam is regarded as the "outward symbol" of the "formless Reality", the symbolization of merging of the 'primordial matter' (Prakṛti) with the 'pure consciousness' (Purusha) in transcendental context. It is typically the primary murti or devotional image in Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva, also found in smaller shrines, or as self-manifested natural objects. It is often represented within a disc-shaped platform. It is usually shown with yoni – its feminine counterpart. Together, they symbolize the merging of microcosmos and macrocosmos, the divine eternal process of creation and regeneration, and the union of the feminine and the masculine that recreates all of existence. The lingam is conceptualized both as an emblem of generative and destructive power, particularly in the esoteric Kaula and Tantra practices, as well as the Shaivism and Shaktism traditions of Hinduism.

The metaphorical creative principle of lingam-yoni, the union of the feminine and the masculine, the eternal cosmological process of creation is also depicted in Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang, where etymologically and semantically Yin represents the feminine, half-unity of consciousness and Yang denotes the masculine, the other half, together symbolizing the entirety or unity-consciousness in the creation.

"Lingam" is additionally found in Sanskrit texts, such as Shvetashvatara Upanishad, Samkhya, Vaisheshika and others texts with the meaning of "evidence, proof" of God and God's existence, or existence of formless Brahman. Lingam iconography found at archaeological sites of the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia includes simple cylinders set inside a yoni; mukhalinga rounded pillars with carvings such as of one or more mukha (faces); and anatomically realistic representations of a phallus such as at Gudimallam. In the Shaiva traditions, the lingam is regarded as a form of spiritual iconography


[VHM:  See especially the tripundra (three horizontal lines) on the side of the lingam illustrated in the above text.]

Lingam from the medieval period were found in the area around Quanzhou (southern Fujian Province), when Hinduism was practiced by Indians living there.  Later, with the disappearance of the South Asian communities and the demise of the religion, the stones were still worshipped, after a fashion, by the local people, but without an understanding of what they represented.


Selected readings

  • "The Bèn school of translation" (5/30/11) — the Five-pagoda Gate at Chengde (formerly Jehol), 109 miles / 176 kilometers to the northeast of Beijing
  • "Acquiring literacy in medieval Dunhuang" (2/20/21)
  • "slip(per)" (7/22/14) — especially this comment on the name "Dunhuang".
  • Victor Mair, "Reflections on the Origins of the Modern Standard Mandarin Place-Name 'Dunhuang' — With an Added Note on the Identity of the Modern Uighur Place-Name 'Turpan'", in Li Zheng, et al., eds., Ji Xianlin Jiaoshou bashi huadan jinian lunwenji (Papers in Honour of Prof. Dr. Ji Xianlin on the Occasion of His 80th Birthday) (Nanchang: Jiangxi People's Press, 1991), vol. 2, pp. 901-954 (very long and detailed study).
  • Victor H. Mair, "Lay Students and the Making of Written Vernacular Narrative: An Inventory of Tun-huang Manuscripts", Chinoperl Papers 10 (1981), 5–96.


  1. Denis Mair said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 10:59 pm

    I have seen many pictures of lingams marked with three horizontal lines that look exactly like the Heaven trigram of the Yijing. On many lingams, a red bindi dot or simply an empty spot appears at the center of the middle line. Seen from a distance, the bindi breaks the continuity of the middle line, so the whole symbol looks like a Fire trigram. It seems beyond coincidental that this symbol of three horizontal lines, carrying a meaning of protean creative force, would appear in two separate cultures.
    It is also remarkable that this stone stupa bears symbols of the trigrams. It is as if the artist recognized the lingam-like qualities of the stupa and wanted to complete them with a yoni-like circle of symbols. Perhaps this shows the artist's fascination with juxtapositions of symbols across cultures.

  2. AG said,

    February 26, 2022 @ 2:47 am

    I see several sets of three broken and unbroken lines on a band about halfway down the object… what are they and what connection do they have to the six lines in the second picture?

  3. He ZHANG said,

    February 27, 2022 @ 8:46 pm

    Where is the six double lines 坤 on this small stupa?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    February 28, 2022 @ 1:39 pm

    Now, you really have to look and think hard about the votive stupa pictured here (from the same time period and area as the one in the o.p):

    Article in Chinese.

    Courtesy of ZHANG He.

  5. Jonathan Silk said,

    March 2, 2022 @ 4:19 am

    Victor, I cannot for the life of me imagine why you would think that the shape must (the "must" is yours) be derived from a liṅga. Why on earth would you think this? Just as stūpas in China are well understood to combine the more Indic egg-shaped pattern with old Chinese tower architecture, I think the most economical and culturally sensitive expectation is that you have precisely the same process here–tower stūpa realized in stone in a solid form. Of course, I am not an art historian, and neither are you, so perhaps we should ask an expert like Kim Minku, but please think of the dictum: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Shaiva influence on Buddhist architecture (in China!) at this period would fall into that category, in my opinion.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2022 @ 9:53 am

    Actually, the "must" and the thought about the resemblance to a lingam comes from the correspondent who supplied the tweet.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2022 @ 9:54 am

    From Dan Boucher:


    Hubert Durt, Krishna Riboud, and Lai Tung-Hung, "A propos de 'Stupa Miniatures' Votifs du Ve siècle decouverts à Tourfan et au Gansu," Arts Asiatique, 40 (1985), 92-106, published on these votive stupas from Dunhuang quite some time ago, and I published on the use of the pratītyasamutpāda* on them in my very first article (published during my first year at Penn):


    Daniel Boucher, "The Pratītyasamutpādagāthā and Its Role in the Medieval Cult of the Relics", The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 14.1 (1991), 1-27.


    I really don’t think these have anything to do with lingams. This looks to me like a stylized version of the chattra that traditionally tops stupas in India.

    *"dependent origination", or "dependent arising"


    VHM: I have a pdf of Dan's article.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2022 @ 10:14 am

    I would suggest that everyone read the o.p. and all subsequent comments carefully before making categorical, immoderate replies.

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