By Peter Romaskiewicz

[Click here for the previous post on pagoda history]

Architecturally, East Asian pagodas are far more diverse than one might assume. Because of this diversity, Chinese art historians have developed several typologies to sort the varied pagoda structures. One categorization, based on architectural style, includes the following six types [depicted left to right below]:

  • Overturned Bowl Style Pagoda 覆缽式塔
  • Multistory Pavilion Style Pagoda 樓閣式塔
  • Tiered Eave Style Pagoda 簷式塔
  • Single Story Style Pagoda 單層式塔 [=亭閣式塔?]
  • Tibetan Style Pagoda 藏式塔
  • Vajra Throne Style Pagoda 金剛寶座式塔[1]
Illustrations of the Six-fold typology of Chinese pagodas (from FGS Encyclopedia of Buddhist Arts)

Of these, the first is the classical Indian stūpa, whose round body appears as if a begging bowl has been overturned. The next two have the iconic pagoda profile of a multistory tower accentuated by jutting eaves. The distinction is that the latter is not a true multistory structure because it cannot be ascended via an internal stairway. The fourth type consists of just a single story, while the fifth type is a later evolution of the Indic style, with a elevated and smaller circumference of the dome element. The last type, the Vajra Throne Style Pagoda, is a stylized version of the Mahābodhi Temple constructed on the site of Buddha’s enlightenment (i.e the Vajra seat or throne) in Bodh Gāya, India. This post will focus on this last type of pagoda which is arguably the most distinctive of the six types noted above, being comprised of five spires atop a square foundation.

HDRtist HDR -
Vajra Throne Pagoda 金剛寶座塔 at Zhenjue Temple 真覺寺 in Beijing

The Mahābodhi Temple in India was likely constructed in the late sixth or early seventh century. This dating is suggested based on the reports of two Chinese pilgrims who visited the site. Faxian 法顯 (337-c. 422), who visited Bodh Gāya in the early fifth century, made no mention of the large structure, while Xuanzang 玄奘 (602-664), who travelled in the middle of the seventh century, comments on the precise measurements of the temple he found which coincides with the temple that remains there today.[2] An early Chinese representation of the Mahābodhi Temple is found in the murals of the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang 敦煌 in western China.[3] Eventually, several Mahābodhi Temple-inspired buildings were constructed in China, mostly during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).[4] The most important, completed in 1473, was built at Zhenjue Temple 真覺寺 in Beijing.

HDRtist HDR -
Vajra Throne Pagoda 金剛寶座塔 at Zhenjue Temple 真覺寺 in Beijing

This last site is also called the Temple of the Five Pagodas 五塔寺 due to the appearance of the Mahābodhi Temple-inspired building which incorporates five pagodas into its architecture. The Chinese pagoda is named the Vajra Throne Pagoda 金剛寶座塔 after the traditional site where the Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gāya, called the vajrāsana (Vajra Throne). Construction of the pagoda at Zhenjue Temple began during the reign of the Ming Emperor Yongle (r.1402-24) when a Buddhist monk named *Paṇḍita [?] 班迪達 from the “Western Regions” donated five Buddhist statues which the emperor instructed were to be housed in a special structure. He ordered that a pagoda be built that matched the architectural plans of the building found at the site of the vajrāsana. A horizontal plaque above the main entrance still reads “Imperially Constructed Vajra Throne Pagoda” 敕建金剛寶座塔. The pagoda was renovated during the Qing Dynasty, but is believed to retain some of the original structural elements. The square base of the Vajra Throne Pagoda is approximately 19 meters by 16 meters, and is about 8 meters high. This functions as a pedestal for five pagoda structures, each for one of the donated statues, of which the tallest central pagoda adds another 10 meters to the total height. These individual pagodas are each of the square, multi-eaved type. In addition a round terrace is placed in the center front, covering the top of a stairway that grants access to the top of the structure.

The sides of the main structure are ornately decorated with Buddhist images and symbols. Most of the space is covered by five horizontal registers which depict various  buddhas.

* This post was written as an addendum to the lecture I gave on Sacred Buddhist Architecture at the 2018 Woodenfish.


[1] This is based on the Encyclopedia of Buddhist Arts published by Foguang Shan, found here. Other typologies may include the Road Spanning Style Pagoda 過街式塔, Sutra Pillar Style Pagoda 經幢式塔, and Flower Pagoda 華塔, among others. Some consider the Tibetan Style Pagoda a subtype of the Overturned Bowl Style Pagoda. Moreover, it seems the Pavillion Style Pagoda 亭閣式塔 is another name for the Single Story Style Pagoda, though I need to revisit this.

[2] Faxian arrived in Bodh Gāya in 409 and noted that a stūpa was found there, presumably an early structure built on the site. Xuanzang arrived in 637 and his descriptions and measurements match the building that remains today. See the comments in Cunningham 1892: 17-8.

[3] Found on the western wall of Cave 428.

[4] These include the pagodas of Biyun Temple 碧雲寺 in Beijing (completed in 1747), Xihuang Temple 西黃寺 in Beijing, Miaozhan Temple 妙湛寺 in Yunnan (built in 1458), Cideng Temple 慈燈寺 in Inner Mongolia (completed in 1732), and Zhenjue Temple discussed here. To this list can be added the Miaogao Pagoda 妙高塔 on Mt. Yuquan 玉泉山 in Beijing. It is worth noting that the famed Chinese architect Liang Sicheng, considered the Flower Pagoda to be a architectural precusor to the Vajra Throne Pagoda.

  • Abe, Stanley K. 2002. Ordinary Images. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Pres. [see esp. pp. 103-06, 123-66]
  • Di Luo. 2017. “A Grain of Sand: Miniatures as Sacred Repositories, Part I: The Longxingsi Sutra Case,” []
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  • Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman. 1994. “Liao: An Architectural Tradition in the Making,” Artibus Asiae, Vol. 54, No. 1/2, pp. 5-39.
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  • Steinhardt, Nancy S. 2014. Chinese Architecture in an Age of Turmoil, 200-600. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

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