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What is a Pagoda?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2014
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Developed from the ancient Indian stupa, the pagoda is a multi-storied stone, brick, or wood structure that is towerlike. In Buddhist practice, this form came to be considered as an appropriate repository for sacred relics, and it spread across East and Southeast Asia.

Buddhist pagodas can be found with pyramid or cone shapes in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand, while the diminishing tower built of identical units that diminish in size is found in China, Korea, and Japan. This latter type of pagoda is the type with the distinctive extended roof element at each level, and it functions more like a monument, characteristically having little, if any, space inside.

Many pagodas are famous for both their historical importance and their beauty. Some of the most notable pagodas include the following.

China has many famous pagodas. The fifteen hundred year old Shaolin Temple complex is famed as China’s birthplace for martial arts and for its numerous pagodas. With even more recognition coming after the Jet Li movie Shaolin Temple of 1982, the temple complex was opened to tourists in 1988. A broken water pipe in 2006 damaged more than 20 pagodas there, including the oldest.

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The Haibao Pagoda, Sea Treasure Pagoda in English, in Yinchuan City, China, is noted for its incredible view of the Yellow River to the east and the Helan Mountain to the west. The Haibao Pagoda is at least 1500 years old. Though its origins are lost to memory, it is known to have been rebuilt multiple times, having collapsed due to earthquakes. It was last rebuilt during the Qing Dynasty in 1788, and currently stands about 177 feet (53.9 m) high, with nine tiers.

Tiger Hill Pagoda — known as “China’s Leaning Tower;” in reference to its northwesterly tilt and the Leaning Tower of Pisa — is a symbol of the city of Suzhou, China. Dating from the Northern Song Dynasty in the tenth century, it is an octahedron with seven stories, and is 158 feet (48 m) high.

There are 14,000 pagodas in Vietnam, of which 45 are particularly famous. Of the six hundred pagodas in and around Hanoi, Chua Huong — the Perfume Pagoda, One Pillar Pagoda, Tran Quoc Pagoda, and Quan Su Pagoda are the most well known.

Japan is the home of the oldest wooden pagoda in the world, Pagoda of Horyuji, which is five stories high and dates from the 600's. It can be found in Nara.

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