Although a stupa might not be considered a building in the same way as a monastery, we included the stupa at Harewood House in our research as an example of the different types of structures that are important to Buddhists. A stupa is a repository for relics and sacred items, and is a focus for veneration, respect, and meditation across the Buddhist world. Whilst stupas in all shapes and sizes are a common feature in Buddhist countries from Thailand to Tibet, they are far less common in England. Indeed, the stupa at Harewood House is likely to be the only Bhutanese stupa in the UK at present and is therefore worthy of focused attention.
Harewood House is a Grade I listed stately home between Leeds and Harrogate, and is the seat of the Earl of Harewood, David Lascelles. The Earl of Harewood had been interested, and involved with Buddhism for a number of years, and although he had considered building a stupa since the 1980s, it was not until he first visited Bhutan in 2002 when the idea became a reality. There he met a Bhutanese skilled craftsman, in his 70s, who he invited to come to the UK and build a stupa in the grounds of Harewood House. A team came from Butan and building work on the stupa commenced in April 2004, and was completed by the end of the summer in the same year.
The stupa at Harewood House was constructed in a traditional Bhutanese style although using English materials, notably Yorkshire stone, despite the reservations of the Butanese builders who felt it should be whitewashed and made out of concrete, as in Bhutan. It was decided that, in keeping with the environment, the stone used would be kept unpainted. Nonetheless, in all other senses it is the ‘real thing’ as explained to us by the Earl of Harewood: ‘somebody asked me about the process, to describe it. And they said, ‘oh so you mean that it’s like a folly?’ And I said ‘well actually, no. I may be foolish doing it, but it’s not a folly, because it is the real thing.’ It’s absolutely done as it would be.’
Its construction consists of a series of five built-up sealed chambers, within which are placed statues, images and other blessed items, including small relics, in this case some bone fragments. Many of these items were purchased in Bhutan and Nepal, and shipped to the UK for the purpose. These ritual objects, we were told ‘empower the stupa’ and allow the benefits of the blessings to multiply and ‘radiate out into the world’. Whilst the design was Bhutanese, the physical building work was completed by local builders. Running through the middle of the stupa is the wooden trunk of juniper tree, referred to as the ‘life tree’, which connects all the sealed chambers together. The stupa itself is located in an area of the grounds out of view of the house, which housed a number of plants native to the Himalayan region, and is called the Himalayan Garden. Indeed, the stupa itself, which has now been standing for 10 years, looks very much a part of the landscape.
We were told that the stupa is used by Buddhists, who will make circumambulations, but is also enjoyed by non-Buddhists who visit the house and the gardens and learn something of the teachings of the Buddha. The stupa is significant, we were told, because it ‘embodies the enlightened mind of the Buddha…What all Buddhists aspire to’.