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Structures of Pagodas
Different structures have been used in the building of pagodas, depending on the building materials. The structure and method of construction of a wooden pagoda are similar to those of a palace, temple, multistoreyed building or pavilion made of wood, i.e., the traditional beam or bracket system. It is usually composed of a frame, rafters, sheathing, eaves and roof. A pagoda made of bricks and stones, like other brick and stone buildings, is constructed by methods such as piling up bricks or stone blocks and making archways. Metal pagodas are made by moulding and casting metals. Though the building materials and methods of construction differ, the basic structure does not change drastically. A pagoda is composed of the following major parts:

Underground Palace

Most ancient buildings in China were built on solid ground. Usually nothing was built underground. The pagoda, however, was unique in having an underground palace, called the dragon palace or the dragon cave. This special structure is not found in other buildings, such as palaces, temples or multistoreyed buildings. It was added to a Buddhist pagoda to preserve Buddhist relics. According to a survey, Buddhist relics were not buried underground in India, but kept inside the pagodas. When the pagoda was introduced to China, it was combined with China's traditional burial system. Whenever a pagoda was built, an underground palace was constructed first to preserve the relics and other objects to be buried with the dead. This underground palace was similar to the underground palaces of the mausoleums of emperors and kings in ancient China, but it was usually much smaller and contained fewer funerary objects. The most important thing in an underground palace of a pagoda is a stone container with layer upon layer of cases made of stone, gold, silver, jade and other materials. The innermost case contains the Buddhist relics. The funerary objects in the palace may include copies of Buddhist scriptures and statues of Buddha. Underground palaces were usually built of brick and stone in square, hexagonal, octagonal or round shapes. Occasionally such a structure was built inside the pagoda or semiunderground.

In olden times some superstitious people believed that certain pagodas had been built on "sea holes" to prevent sea water from surging out. If the pagoda fell, the place would be submerged by the sea. The myth came from ignorance of the structure of underground palaces. Sometimes when an underground palace became damaged over the years, underground water would seep into it, and people would mistake it for a "sea hole." Since Liberation in 1949 thorough investigations have been made of the underground palaces in many important pagodas in Beijing, Hebei, Jiangsu, Hubei and other parts of the country.

For a general understanding of underground pagoda palaces in China let's look at the underground palace of the sarira pagoda at Jingzhi Temple in Dingzhou, Hebei Province. The name of this particular underground palace was the sarira cabinet, which was inscribed on the wall of the palace, located in the middle of the pagoda's foundation. A stone shaped like a roof, 60 centimeters deep in the ground, was placed on top of a square hole leading down to the underground palace. The palace room is not an exact square, its east wall being 2.2 meters, west wall 2.1 meters, north wall 2.17 meters and south wall 2.2 meters wide. An arched door is on the south wall. The walls, 2.34 meters high, are joined to the ceiling interlocking brackets. All four walls have murals depicting heavenly kings, Indra, Brahma, boys and maidservants. On the north wall characters read "True Relics of Sakyamuni", and on both sides are paintings of his ten great disciples. The most incredible thing is that the colors of the columns, brackets, beams and murals are as fresh and bright as if new. Such completely fresh mural paintings of the Song Dynasty cannot be found in buildings aboveground.

A great number of cultural relics were also excavated from this underground palace, including gold and silver ware, porcelain, glassware and wood carvings. Since this pagoda was reconstructed during the Song Dynasty and many funerary objects from deteriorated sites of the Sui and Tang dynasties were also buried in the palace, a few gilded bronze cases of the Sui Dynasty and two stone coffins containing relics of the Tang Dynasty were also unearthed. The large stone case in the middle of the underground palace had been in the basement of the Sui Dynasty pagoda and was replaced after the pagoda was reconstructed. The inscriptions on the stone case indicated its contents and date of burial. Inside were three carved gold coffins, four silver pagodas and a lot of gold and silver ware, porcelain, glazed objects, pearls and other relics.

The underground pagoda palaces resulted from combining the Indian system of burying Buddhist relics in pagodas with the traditional Chinese system of tomb burial.

In cleaning out and repairing old pagodas, many underground palaces and Buddhist and cultural relics buried in them were discovered. Objects found in the Iron Pagoda at Ganlu Temple in Zhenjiang and Huqiu Pagoda in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, Qianshengxiang Pagoda at Yellow Crane Tower in Wuchang, Hubei Province, the Twin Pagodas at Qingshou Temple in Beijing, Wanjin Pagoda in Nong'an, Jilin Province, and Qianxun Pagoda at Chongsheng Temple in Dali, Yunnan Province, have all provided valuable data for the study of underground pagoda palaces.


The base, on top of the underground palace, supports the whole superstructure. In early times most pagodas had relatively low bases. For instance, the two oldest pagodas in China the pagoda at Songyue Temple of the Northern Wei Dynasty and the Four-Door Pagoda in Licheng of the Sui Dynasty both have very simple, low bases made of brick and stone. Some bases are only ten or twenty centimeters high. They soon become indistinct and even unrecognizable from the ground after being damaged over the years. The base of Xuanzang Pagoda at Xingjiao Temple in Xi'an has become so undistinguishable that the pagoda seems to have been built right on the ground. During the Tang Dynasty, in order to make pagodas such as the Big and Small Wild Goose Pagodas in Xi'an look magnificent, huge bases were built under them. Large bases were also added to pavilion-style pagodas during the Tang Dynasty, for example, the Pagoda of Monk Fanzhou in Anyi of Shanxi Province and the Dragon and Tiger Pagoda at Shentong Temple in Licheng near Jinan.

After the Tang Dynasty the pagodas' substructure developed into two parts by adding a pedestal to the original base. The effect was a loftier and more majestic pagoda. The lower part of the substructure--the platform --is usually low and without much decoration. The pedestal, in contrast, became the most prominent part of the pagoda with gorgeous decorations. In the process of development the pedestal construction of the multi-eaved pagodas of the Liao and Kin dynasties was most out-standing.

This part of the substructure of pagodas from the Liao and Kin dynasties was called the Sumeru pedestal. According to Buddhist literature, Sumeru is the largest mountain in the world and the home of Buddha and bodhisattvas. To call the pedestal of a pagoda by the name of Sumeru meant that it was a most stable foundation. The supports of palaces, temples, statues of Buddha and other objects were also called Sumeru pedestals. At Tianning Temple in Beijing the pedestal of the pagoda is an octagonal structure on a platform of medium height. The pedestal is divided into two levels. On the first level there are six niches on each side with lion heads carved inside. Carved columns separate the niches. On the lower part of the second level there are five small niches, each with a statue of Buddha inside. On the columns between the niches are images of heavenly guardians in relief sculpture. The brackets on the upper part of the pedestal are decorated with finely carved brick banisters. The banisters are joined to the first storey of the pagoda by a lotus-petal capital. The whole Sumeru pedestal is about one fifth the height of the pagoda.

Later, huge and gorgeous pedestals became very common for other types of pagodas. For a Lamaist pagoda the pedestal, as a major part of the entire structure, often makes one third of its total height. The pedestals of pagodas on vajrasanas, the bulk of the structure, are much bigger than the small pagodas on top of them. Pagodas across streets also have pedestals higher than the pagodas they support. Adopting large pedestals in pagoda construction is closely connected with the traditional Chinese architecture, which always sets great store by the role of base platforms. A large base platform not only provides the building above with a solid and firm foundation but also makes it look majestic and powerful.


The body, or main part, of a pagoda varies depending on the style of architecture. The classification of pagodas was based on the style of the body of the pagoda. Since we have already discussed the outer forms and structures of the pagoda, we are going to concentrate on the inner structure of the pagoda body.

A pagoda may be solid or hollow. Solid pagodas are filled with bricks, stones or rammed earth. Occasionally, a wooden framework is installed inside a solid pagoda to strengthen the bearing capacity of outreaching parts of the pagoda. On the whole, however, the inner structure of a solid pagoda is relatively simple. The following section will focus on hollow pagodas.

1. Wooden pagodas. Wooden pagodas of many storeys were popular during the later years of the Han Dynasty and the Wei, Jin and Northern and Southern dynasties. Most of them have four sides. From historical accounts and existing examples in Japan we have learned that wooden pagodas of this type were composed of the following parts--columns around each level of the pagoda, three rooms on each of the four sides on each level, beams and brackets on the capital of the columns to join with the upper storey, and verandas with banisters around each storey. Eaves stretch out above each of the storeys. As in other multistoreyed buildings, there are stairs for people to climb up and down.

The wooden pagoda in Yingxian County, Shanxi Province, is the best preserved of its kind in China today. It has five levels of eaves on the exterior and five levels of balconies, but there are also five mezzanines in between the main storeys, making it a ten-storey building. The pagoda is octagonal with three rooms and four columns on each side of each exterior storeyed, and the landing are quite spacious. The balconies have protecting banisters so that people can walk around the pagoda freely and enjoy the view. In the middle of the pagoda a huge statue of Buddha was installed. In order to strengthen the structure, double-layer walls were built with post trusses and struts in between to prop up the framework. Spiral stairs lead to each level. Since the pagoda is such a huge and complex structure, the components vary greatly in size and form. For instance, there are more than sixty different kinds of brackets. However, the method of construction was the same as for other wooden buildings.

2. Pagodas with brick exteriors and wooden interiors. The brick walls form the body of the pagoda like a hollow tube, so it is also called a tube-style structure. This structure was used in the construction of both multistoreyed and multi-eaved pagodas during early periods. According to the design for the height of each storey and the positions of doors and windows, holes were left when the brick walls were built for placing the floor slabs and putting up door and window frames. Sometimes pillars were erected at the corners to support the floor above. In most cases spiral stairs were built along the walls.

The number of storeys in a pagoda of this type usually corresponded to the positions of doors and windows and levels of eaves on the outside, and people could ascend them to enjoy the view around. The Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an, Gongchen Pagoda at Lin'an near Hangzhou and the Twin Pagodas at Luohanyuan Temple in Suzhou are examples of this category. The actual number of storeys in a multi-eaved pagoda, however, usually did not correspond to the positions of doors, windows and eaves, because the eaves were built so close to each other above ground level that there was not enough space for a complete storey in the interior. The pagoda at Songyue Temple, the Small Wild Goose Pagoda and Qianxun Pagoda at Dali's Chongsheng Temple are typical of this category.

3. Pagodas with a central wooden pillar. Most early wooden pagodas had a central pillar as the mainstay of the structure. A huge pillar, erected right in the middle of the pagoda, propped up the frame from the ground to the top. Descriptions of this construction have been found in historical accounts. A five-storeyed pagoda at Falong Temple in Japan is an existing example of this type. The central pillar helps stabilize the structure. The only extant example of this type in China is the wooden pagoda at Tianning Temple in Zhengding. Since the pagoda is a mixture of wood and brick, the pillar was erected in the upper half of the pagoda, not on the bottom floor, but the central-pillar structure is quite obvious. It is a valuable example in the study of this type of pagoda.

4. Pagodas made of both wood and brick. This type of pagoda was a transition from wooden pagodas to pagodas made of bricks and stones. The body of the pagoda was made of bricks; the eaves, verandas and banisters were made of timber. Wooden columns, beams and eaves were joined to the brick walls for interior framework. This structure was popular during the Song Dynasty. The square pagoda at Songjiang in Shanghai, the Pagoda of Six Harmonies in Hangzhou, Ruiguang Pagoda and Beisi Pagoda in Suzhou are typical of this type.

5. Pagodas with a brick pillar as the mainstay. These were products of China's traditional brick and stone architecture at its highest development. The main body of the pagoda is completely brick. The stairs, floors, verandas and eaves are all built of brick or stone as integral parts of a complex whole. In the middle of the pagoda a huge brick pillar props up the roof. Every floor level is connected to the central pillar and the walls to form an integrated whole. The floors are built by means of arch bonding and stacking bricks around the central pillar. There are two forms of stairs: One is built along the walls of the central pillar in a "z' shape; the other winds through the hollow space in the central pillar. In the former case there is a landing around the pillar on every level. Examples of the first structure include the pagoda at Youguo Temple in Kaifeng, Henan Province, the pagoda at Lingyun Temple in Leshan, Sichuan Province, and the one at Famen Temple in Fufeng, Shaanxi Province. The second form is represented by Baodingshan Pagoda in Dazu, Sichuan Province, Liaodi Pagoda at Kaiyuan Temple in Dingzhou and the sarira pagoda in Jingxian County, Hebei Province. Most were built during the Song and Ming dynasties and reached advanced levels in brick and stone architecture.

6. Pagodas build on high platforms. The vajrasanastyle pagodas are pagodas with a huge platform as the main body. Brick or stone staircases were built inside the hollow platform for people to ascend the building. In the pedestal under the pagoda at Zhenjue Temple in Beijing there is a central pillar, and the room around it has a vault roof that serves as the exterior terrace on which small pagodas were erected. The pagodas at Beijing's Biyun Temple and Hohhot's Cideng Temple were both built in this style. Some other pagodas have staircases on the outside of the platforms, such as Qingjinhuayu Pagoda in Beijing's Xihuang Temple and the pagoda at Yuanzhao Temple on Mount Wutai in Shanxi Province.

7. Other types of pagodas. The Lamaist pagoda, for instance, has a round, inverted-bowl-shaped body. During the Ming and Qing dynasties a recess called the yanguang gate was built on the front of the round structure. Sometimes a wooden framework was installed inside the inverted-bowl body to strengthen its stability. Sometimes the inverted-bowl style was combined with a multistoreyed pagoda, such as building a multistoreyed pagoda on top of an inverted-bowl structure, or with a tube-shaped pagoda, or others.


Every pagoda is surmounted by a steeple, sometimes pointed and sometimes ball-shaped. They vary greatly in style and building materials. The most commonly used building materials for steeples are bricks, stones and metals.

The steeple, as the tallest part of the pagoda, is extremely important. In Chinese it is called cha, meaning land or territory representing "the country of Buddha." Therefore, a Buddhist temple is also called cha in China. The lake to the north of Beihai Park in Beijing is called Shi Cha Hai, meaning the Lake of Ten Temples, because there used to be ten great Buddhist temples by the lake.

The steeple is also very important in the architectural structure, because it is the tip of the building. No matter whether the pagoda's roof is square, hexagonal, octagonal or round, the rafters, sheathing and tile ridges all come to one point, where a component should be fixed to stabilize the roof structure and prevent rain from leaking into the building. The steeple performs these functions.

From the aesthetic point of view, the steeple, surmounting the whole structure of the pagoda, was the crowning image of the building. Therefore, great efforts were made to create a steeple that was exquisite, lofty and graceful.

Early stupas in India also had steeples, but they were not so tall and complex. For instance, a famous Indian stupa built around the first century has only a spire and three layers of umbrella-shaped decorations. After stupas were introduced to China, however, and combined with traditional architectural styles, the steeple of the pagoda, as the emblem of Buddhism, became more and more important and conspicuous. In Stories About Buddhist Temples in Luoyang the steeple of the pagoda at Yongning Temple was said to be as tall as "ten zhang" (33 meters), which may be an exaggeration, but it must have been quite tall. The decorative precious bottle on top of the steeple allegedly could hold 25 dan (2,500 liters) of grain. We can imagine how big it was. Below the precious golden bottle there were thirty tiers of gilded dew basins and many golden bells hanging around them. Since the steeple was very tall, four iron chains linked the steeple with the four comers of the pagoda roof to stabilize the structure. The iron chains were also ornamented with little golden bells.

Many pagoda steeples were built like small Lamaist dagobas. A typical example is the pagoda at Tianning Temple in Anyang, Henan Province. The five-storeyed pagoda is surmounted by a smaller Lamaist dagoba. In Miaoying Temple in Beijing the White Dagoba is composed of a small Lamaist dagoba on top of a larger dagoba. Some Buddhist scriptures say that Buddhist relics are placed in the tip of a pagoda steeple, but no such case has ever been discovered. Researchers believe this was a mistake and that the bottom of the steeple was intended.

The steeple of a pagoda is itself a small dagoba, composed of bottom, body and top with a pole in the middle. Sometimes there is a small cabinet at the bottom of the steeple to hold Buddhist relics, Buddhist sutras or gold, silver, jade and other valuable objects. Such hiding places were found in recent years when repairing old pagodas. At Qianxun Pagoda at Chongsheng Temple in Dali, Yunnan Province, Buddhist relics, scriptures and statues of Buddha were found in a hiding place at the bottom of the pagoda's steeple, while nothing was found in the underground palace of the pagoda. Whether the underground palace had been robbed of its treasure or it was a mere symbolic form when the real relics and funerary objects had been hidden in the steeple remains an open question.

The base of the steeple was built on the roof of the pagoda, pressing on the rafters, sheathing, corner columns and tile ridges, with the steeple pole planted right in the middle. Steeple bases varied from one another; most were shaped like the Sumeru pedestal, or blooming lotus petals. Some were just plain square platforms. Many had carved patterns of lotus petals or honeysuckle leaves.

The most outstanding characteristic of the steeple was the discs around the pole of the steeple. They were called xianglun (wheel or disc) or golden basins or dew basins, as a symbol of honor or respect for the Buddha. Generally, the bigger the pagoda, the more and bigger the discs. In the early period there were no regulations as to the number of such discs on a particular pagoda. Some had as many as several dozen; others had three or five. Originally, the great wooden pagoda at Yongning Temple ha Luoyang, for instance, had thirty tiers of discs. The Four-Door Pagoda has five and Songyue Temple Pagoda has seven. In later times pagodas were built with one, three, five, seven, nine, eleven or thirteen discs. Most Lamaist dagobas have thirteen discs, which are therefore called "thirteen skies." An umbrellalike canopy is usually built above the discs as part of the pagoda's ornaments.

The top of the steeple is also the top of the pagoda. It was usually put above the canopy and consisted of a crescent moon and a precious bead. Sometimes the bead was put above or in the middle of a flame ornament. To avoid any indication of fire, the flame-shaped ornament was called "water smoke."

The pole of the steeple was the central axle. All the components of a metal steeple were fastened to the pole, which supported the different parts of the steeple. Even small brick pagodas had a wooden or metal pole in the middle of the steeple. According to Buddhist literature, the pole was also called chazhu (steeple pillar) or jincha (golden steeple) or biaocha (symbolic steeple). It was usually made of wood or iron and placed on the roof of the pagoda.

These were the most representative steeple structures. Changes were made in different eras, areas and on different types of pagodas built of different materials. For instance, sometimes three, five, seven or nine metal balls were part of the spire of a pagoda, as in the Twin Pagodas of Chongxing Temple in Beizhen, Liaoning Province. Sometimes a huge canopy was put on top of the pagoda's steeple, as in the Tianning Temple Pagoda in Beijing. The canopies had different shapes--round, square or octagonal. The spire of Haibao Pagoda in Yinchuan consisted of an onion-shaped ornament, possibly influenced by Islamic architecture. Guang Pagoda at Huaisheng Temple in Guangzhou is unique, since the steeple is a weather vane, completely different from an ordinary Buddhist pagoda.

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