Chorten: the landmark of Ladakh Its evolution from a mound of dirt to a king’s burial tomb, to a religious monument

By Tenzin Menkyi Leh, Oct 17, 2014
Leh :
He had build 207 Stupas or chortens in Ladakh. When asked how many more he intended to build, he said: " I don’t have a target. But I can't build it alone anymore without other's help, I am too old to climb the top of  a Stupa to carve it". Well, to Ladakh's dismay, those were the last words Tsering Tundup Tsamskhangpa, Ladakh's stupa connoisseur, spoke on stupa. He passed away recently at the age of 90.
It is told that, building a chorten is a very powerful way to purify negative karma and obscuration, and to accumulate extensive merit. May he continue accomplishing merits unto the Buddha hood and his endeavours last throughout the future generation of Ladakh.

Ladakh is ornamented with Stupas. Every other miles in Ladakh lies a Stupa. Ever wonder how they come into existence? Why were they build? Each one of us has some idea about what it symbolise, but care to know more? Lets dig deeper then.

During Namgyal dynasty, the punishment to the convicted were given in the forms of building Stupa as a penance for their wrong doings.  The large Stupas and mani-walls found in Ladakh were built by the dharma kings of Ladakh. The remnant of such large and small Stupas alongside mani walls were still found in abundance in almost every nook and corner of Ladakh.


A stupa is a Buddhist monument usually housing sacred relics associated with the Buddha. It symbolizes the Buddha's mind and each part of the Stupa shows the path to Enlightenment. The shape of the stupa represents the Buddha, crowned and sitting in meditation posture on a lion throne. His crown is the top of the spire; his head is the square at the spire's base; his body is the vase shape; his legs are the four steps of the lower terrace; and the base is his throne.


The stupa is the oldest Buddhist religious monument. In prehistoric times, stupas were simply mounds of earth and stones  places to bury important kings away from the village. Twenty-five-hundred years ago, at the time of Shakyamuni Buddha’s death, a change came about in the way stupas were regarded.
The Buddha requested that his relics be placed in a familiar stupa, but with a shift in emphasis. Instead of being just a place of honor where the bones or relics of a cremated king were placed, the stupa was to be located at four corners, to remind people of the awakened state of mind. So, the stupa evolved from a mound of dirt to a king’s burial tomb, to a religious monument.
After the Buddha’s death, stupas evolved from being used as shrines to the dead and into places to honor the living. They were erected to remind people far into the future that they, while living, had the seed of enlightenment.


A stupa is intended to stop you in your tracks. It is an architectural representation of the entire Buddhist path. The body, speech and mind of an enlightened teacher is contained therein – a reminder of a timeless quality which one senses in old monuments. The Tibetan word for “stupa” is choten, meaning a receptacle for offerings and implying support for lay people to express devotion and connection to the Buddha mind.
There are three basic reasons for building stupas. Burial stupas hold relics from the funeral pyre. Commemorative stupas mark the place of an event or occasion in the Buddha’s life. And, votive stupas are erected to make a dedication of good will or to accumulate merit. The latter type is a perfect outlet for lay people to connect with the Buddhadharma; in the past, it was primarily the laity who were involved in constructing stupas.


According to Tibetan Buddhism, eight types of Chortens are build to symbolise the eight major event occurred in the life of Buddha. The eight types are: Lotus Blossom Stupa which symbolises to the birth of the Buddha, Stupa of Enlightenment symbolizes the 35-year-old Buddha's attainment of enlightenment under the bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, Stupa of Many Gates represents the teaching of Buddha, Stupa of Descent from the God Realm symbolizes repaying the kindness to Budhha's mother, Stupa of Great Miracles represents the miracles performed by him, Stupa of Reconciliation correspond to his resolution of a dispute among the sangha, Stupa of Complete Victory signify the successful prolonging of his life by three months, Stupa of Nirvana symbolizes the parinirvana of the Buddha and his complete absorption into the highest state of mind.


Tsering Tundup in his last recorded interview to Himalayan Culture Heritage Foundation (HCHF), Leh says, when the then administration had to demolish some of the old Chortens to construct government office on the same premises, new Chortens were build to compensate for it. They don’t realise the values of old.  In last few years, Ladakhis realised the importance of restoring and conserving historical Chortens of Ladakh."It is Dr. Sonam Wangchuk and his HCHF who has initiated the trainings for building and restoring Chorten, which is much need and is one of its kind training" said the connoisseur of Chorten appreciating HCHF's endeavours.

HCHF works for promotion and preservation of  culture heritages of Ladakh. They organises workshop on various subjects related to Ladakh's culture, one of which was the nine-day trainings on Stupa building and restoration. The foundation also came up with a film on Choten filmed during the workshop.


There are various kinds and types of Chorten in the Buddhist world , however, no comprehensive research has been done till date to uncover each of their structures and its significance.