Stupas represent memorials to enlightenment that meld the physical and the sacred, the representational and the symbolic. When the historical Buddha Shakyamuni (circa 563-483 B.C.) approached the end of his life, he asked that his remains be cremated. His relics were divided and interred in eight burial mounds spread across the eight kingdoms of his followers in India and Nepal. They took on the form of a stupa and for centuries the Buddha was not depicted in any naturalistic form but revered as an abstract concept - whether as a footprint, carved in stone to mark the place he walked, a bodhi tree, under which he achieved enlightenment, or most importantly the stupa to denote his once earthly presence. It was not until around the 1st century, more than half a millennium after his death, before an attempt was made to conceive an idealized figure of him - the task had appeared too daunting before then, particularly in light of the stupa representing this perfection in abstraction.
Varying in size from a bronze model to a large architectural structure, the stupa is at once a reliquary, a receptacle for offerings and an abstraction of the Buddha himself. As Buddhism spread throughout Asia, the form of the stupa evolved, adapting with regional architectural styles and ornamentation. As a pure, abstract, divine form, the celestial structure serves as a microcosm for the universe. The basic structure comprises a square base (representing earth), a dome (water), a tiered triangular section (fire), a spire (air), and a finial of the moon and sun (space) - the 'five elements'. They may be combined in the stupa in various ways, but are always intended to represent understanding, wholeness, wisdom, and the overcoming of suffering, which is inflicted by ignorance.