This type of pagoda belonged to the Esoteric Sect of Buddhism. It was meant to enshrine five Dhyani-Buddhas and symbolize the five peaks of Mount Sumeru. A tablet inscription recording the construction of the pagoda at Zhanjue Temple, completed in 1473, in the suburbs of Beijing says, "[The pagoda] was built according to exact specifications of design and size of vajrasana-style pagodas originating in central India." Di Jing Jing Wu Lüe (Brief Introduction to Scenic Spots of the Capital) also records, "During the reign of Emperor Chengzu the Dalai Lama of Tibet paid a tribute of five gold statues of Buddha, contained in pagodas on a pedestal." The two records confirm that this kind of pagoda imitated Indian Buddh Gaya pagodas on a pedestal. However, the Chinese pagodas were different from their India counterparts in several aspects. The pedestal, or platform, of the Indian pagoda was rather low, while the pagoda platform in China's Zhenjue Temple was large and tall. The middle pagoda on Buddh Gaya pedestal in India was much larger than the ones at the four corners, but in Zhenjue Temple in China the middle pagoda was only a little bigger than the other four. The pagodas also represented traditional Chinese artistic style with their decorative sculptures and architecture. For instance, they had roofs made of glazed tiles, which were typical of Chinese architecture. The brackets, columns, purlins and ridged tiles were also typical of Chinese architecture. The structure of the pedestal also represented traditional Chinese platform architecture in ancient times.
According to the doctrine of Buddhism, such pagoda were used to enshrine the relics of the five most important Buddhas, the First Dhyani Buddha in the middle, the Second Dhyani Buddha on the east, the Third Dhyani Buddha on the south, the Fourth Dhyani Buddha on the west, and the Fifth Dhyani Buddha on the north.
A general survey of existing pagodas in China tells us that most pagodas of the pedestal style were built after the Ming Dynasty, but images of such pagodas appeared much earlier, about a thousand years ago. For instance, the image of five pagodas as a group was depicted in a mural in Cave 428 at the Dunhuang grottoes. The mural is estimated to be a work of the Northern Dynasties. The small carved stone pagodas at Chongfu Temple in Shuoxian County, Shanxi Province, built in 452 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, and those at Nanchan Temple at Wutai, left from the Tang Dynasty, are all arranged with the biggest pagoda in the middle, surrounded by four smaller ones. Though the pedestals were relatively low and the four pagodas smaller than the typical pattern, they represent the beginning of this style.
The carved stone pagoda in the main hall of Nanchan Temple in Wutai is only 51 centimeters tall. Judging by the style of its design, it is a work of the mid-Tang Dynasty, when the temple hall was built. A square multistoreyed structure on a square platform, it has a small round pavilion standing in each corner of the platform. They represent places of self-cultivation for the monks and also indicate the place of death. In this sense, they are also pagodas. This group of pagodas can be included in the pedestal-style category, too.
There are no more than twenty pagodas of the pedestal style still extant in the country. The most famous include those at Zhenjue Temple in Beijing, at Miaozhan Temple in Guandu in Kunming, at Guangde Temple at Xiangfan in Hubei Province, at Yuanzhao Temple in Wutai in Shanxi Province, at Zhangye in Ganso Province, at Biyun Temple and Xihuang Temple in Beijing, and the sarira pagodas at Cideng Temple in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. The five-pagoda style has been adopted in other buildings, such as Wannian Temple on Mount Emei in Sichuan Province and the Dharma-Sakra Hall at Yonghegong Monastery in Beijing. In these cases the pedestal was replaced by another kind of structure. They can be regarded as a changed form of the pedestal category.