Stupas have become a distinctive building style in not just India and China, but all over the world. The word stupa, derived from Sanskrit, actually means "to worship" or "to praise."
Stupas were originally used as a burial mounds, which were built to enshrine body relics, often bones. While, recent evidence indictates that some stupas were built as early as 2000 BCE, stupas were common during the lifetime of Buddha. They were built for great kings, heroes and sages. After his death, his students felt that it was only fair that they construct a stupa in his honor. The stupa is believed to allow the worshiper to think of Buddha as an eternal force in life, and to summarize his enlightenment and nirvana.
The structure of the stupa itself is symbolic, as well as the way it is constructed. The base consists of a square foundation which symbolizes the earth, a dome which symbolizes water, and thirteen steps which symbolizing enlightenment and the element of fire.
There are eight basic stupa designs, all which tell parts of the story of the Buddha's life.