Pagoda Primer

One of the words relating to Japanese or Asian architecture in general that gets misused a lot is pagoda. A lot of people seem to term any roof with upturned corners at the hips a ‘pagoda roof’, when in fact this form of roof is hardly exclusive to pagodas at all.

The word in Japanese for pagoda is : ‘塔’ This is a character worth taking a closer look at, so please enjoy the excursion…

‘塔’ comprises earth on the left, ‘土’, a character we looked at in an earlier post, and the following element on the right: ‘荅’. That element, a kanji all by itself (albeit not commonly used) means the azuki bean plant, and breaks further down into ‘合’ on the bottom and an abbreviated rendering of ‘艸’ on the top. Let’s take those pieces one at a time:

‘合’ is comprised of hole ‘口’, with a cover on top. The core meaning of this element, a character in its own right, is “press/fit a cover upon and object so that it covers precisely”, which has led by extension to modern meaning like fit, join, put together, meet. Here are a few kanji compounds taking that character:

合一 unification, union

合力 cooperation, resultant force, assistance

連合 league, federation, alliance

‘艸’ is comprised of a pictograph of a grass shoot (屮) doubled up, and means grass. The character ‘艸’ is a very common radical element, always found on top of a character, and whenever you see it you can assume the character means something to do with small plants and grasses. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

葉 leaf

菜 vegetables

菊 Chrysanthemum

花 flower

Okay, so ‘艸’ + ‘合’ gives ‘荅’, that is, press/fit together grass plants, which is a reference to the azuki bean plant. Let’s take a look at a picture of an azuki bean plant to see how it compares to the etymological meaning of it’s character:

Well, jury is out on that one for the time being I guess….

In the character for pagoda, ‘塔’, the element for earth, ‘土’ is added to the side of ‘荅’, and becomes the principal radical suggestive of the character’s meaning- this kanji ‘塔’ has something to do with earth – in fact, the original meaning is something built with one layer of earth pressed upon the other. A ‘tower of earth‘ in other words. That is a reference to the stupa. What is a stupa?

Stupa is a sanskrit word literally meaning ‘heap’, and is a mound-like structure which contains Buddhist relics, typically the remains of a Buddha or other saint. Originally it was a simple mound of mud or clay, but over time the stupa became more elaborated and developed in various ways, culminating in their modern classification into eight different types, each symbolic of a particular stage of Buddha’s life. In terms of the elements that go to make up the classic Indian form of the stupa, there are five distinct parts:

1) a square base (representing earth)
2) a hemispherical dome (representing water)
3) a conical spire (represents fire)
4) a crescent moon or lotus parasol (represents air)
5) a circular disc (representing space, the void)

The stupa is an artifact that traveled along with the spread of Buddhism from India through to other parts of Asia. When Buddhism was introduced to Japan around the 6th century, the stupa came in too, however by this stage and through transmutation through cultures, the stupa came to have a different form. Actually, the stupa came to have two principal forms in Japan. One of these is the gorintō (五輪塔), “the five-ring-tower”; these are made of stone and look somewhat like this example (right side of photo):

Looking closely, one can observe the 5 elements present – here’s a picture showing the breakdown a bit more clearly:

Moving from bottom to top, we have earthwaterfireairspace.

The other form of stupa is called the sō-rin 相輪. It may, rarely, take the form of an independent structure, like this:

Or this:

But much more commonly, the sō-rin (相輪) is located on top of the pagoda itself, like this:

Sō-rin are made often from bronze, but also examples in iron exist. Unlike the classic 5 parts of the original stupa, the sō-rin is a more complex item, having 7 parts. Referring to the picture immediately above, and taken from the bottom, here are the seven parts:

1) Ro-ban (露盤), a box like structure covering the roof peak
2) Fuku-bachi (伏鉢), the small inverted bowl atop the ro-ban
3) Uke-bana (受花), an open upturned lotus flower, usually with eight petals
4) Ku-rin (九輪), nine metal rings attached to the tubular sheathing which covers the central pillar of the pagoda (there are examples with 7 or 8 rings, but 9 is standard)
5) Sui-en (水煙), combines characters for water (水) and fire (煙) and is often flame-shaped; this like the ku-rin, is attached to metal sheathing on the central pillar
6) Ryū-sha (竜車), lit. means ‘dragon vehicle’
7) Hō-jū (宝珠), a sacred gem in the shape of a ball or tear drop, believed to have the power to cleanse corruption, fulfill wishes, and expel evil. Often these are decorated with flame designs.

A pagoda typically has an uneven number of floors, often three or five, though examples exist with nine and even thirteen floors. While the pagoda is essentially a highly decorated pole marking the grave of Buddha, it is not always the case that there are actual Buddhist relics buried below, as in an Indian stupa. In other words, they are more symbolic. The English word for a structure that contain sacred relics, is reliquary. Some pagodas are reliquary structures, and some are not. In fact, there is an entire class of pagodas in Japan that are associated to esoteric Shingon Buddhism and have no reliquary function whatsoever – these are called tahōtō (多宝塔). Tahōtō are a two story type of pagoda characterized by a square first story surrounded by a peripheral roof (mokoshi), and supplanted by a cylindrical form above which is covered by a pyramidal or hōgyō (方形) roof. There are many examples of tahōtō in Japan – here are a couple:

Now that we’ve looked over some of the basics about pagodas, in future postings I look forward to delving into some really neat examples that I have come across in my studies. I have been spending time over past months compiling a photo database of the more than 100 pagodas to be found today in Japan, and this has now amounted to over 1000 pictures, so I have lots of interesting stuff to share. I think pagodas are very intriguing structures, and a good place to study Japanese framing methods for supporting deep eave structures.

A final note: there used to be a theory that the central pillar in a pagoda served like a kind of spinal column or dampening rod and this is what helps pagodas withstand earthquakes so well. As it turns out, this theory is completely erroneous – I will explain why in a future posting.

Anything to add?