Buddhist sites of importance in Andhr a Pradesh continue to remain unknown to much of the world. With close to 150 Buddhist heritage and pilgrimage sites present in the state, let’s explore these archeological gems which had a profound influence on the region during ancient times.
While one would normally associate Buddhist pilgrimage sites with Sarnath, Kushinagar or Bodh Gaya, history reveals that Buddhism flourished in several parts of India since its origin in the 5th century BC. A visit to the southern state of Andhra Pradesh reveals an extremely significant and deep-rooted Buddhist influence. There are several such Buddhist heritage sites in the state and new sites are being discovered constantly with the latest one being unearthed in the Guntur district. The Buddhist site at Putlagudem discovered this year dates back to the 1st century AD. These fascinating sites are not only of historical and archaeological importance but are also symbols of the profound influence the religion had on the state during the ancient times.
History of Buddhism in Andhra Pradesh
There are several theories that suggest that Lord Buddha himself visited Andhra Pradesh when he gave the first Kalachakra tantra initiation and teachings at Amaravati during the reign of King Suchandra. Buddhism in the state is also traced to the famous emperor Ashoka and several relics found here date to the Ashokan era. However, the religion and its practices thrived in a big way under the dynasty f the Satavahanas who rose to power shortly after Ashoka’s death. By the first century AD, these rulers who were Brahmanical Hindus of Dravidian origin, had consolidated their power over regions of Krishna and Godavari, the present-day Andhra Pradesh with Dhanyakataka as their capital. Known to be one of the greatest supporters of the Buddhist community, they advocated the practise of the religion which is believed to have flourished in the all three forms, i.e. Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana in the state.
It was at this time that the tradition of building stupas passed on from the North of the Vindhyas and spread to the southern parts of the peninsula. With tremendous patronage from rich mercantile communities, numerous stupas were built that were more or less similar but with minor architectural variances like the addition of projecting platforms at the base. Amaravati, a town close to the capital Dhanyakataka became a key centre of Buddhism. Apart from Amaravati, there are several other towns in the state that show evidence of a distinct influence of Buddhism and several relics in the form of stupas, chaitya and viharas unearthed here.
Mahachaitya of Amaravati: a great trans Vindhyan centre of Buddhism
Arguably the most famous Buddhist site in the state, Amaravati is located in Guntur district on the banks of the Krishna River. It is synonymous with the magnificent Buddhist monument or the Mahachaitya. This stunning relic, whose foundation is believed to have been laid by Mahadeva Bikshu, an emissary of emperor Ashoka has a history of about 1700 years. With a whopping diameter of about 50 meters, it is one of the largest stupas of the country. While the initial construction was plain and modest, several ornamental modifications were carried out subsequently under rich patronage from several
dynasties like Satavahanas, Ikshvakus, Chalukyas, Pallavas etc. The stupa has a welldefined dome and a distinct circumambulatory path that is about four meters wide.The entire structure was known to have been adorned by ornate sculptures, carved railings, ayaka pillars, friezes, coping stones and other coverings. The main elements of the Amravati sculptures were scenes from Buddha’s life, Jataka tales and other religious and secular depictions. The mahachaitya was a great seat of worship and received attention from prominent saints like Acharya Nagarjuna.
The mahachaitya in its present form is plain and devoid of all sculptural artefacts, most of which are displayed as exhibits in the Amravati museum as well as the museums of New Delhi, Chennai and even London.
The city of Amaravati has two museums, one simply called the Amravati Museum that houses several statues, relics, artefacts and objects related to Buddhism. Prominent amongst these are the stupa slabs depicting the Dharma chakra, pillar fragments, inscribed pillars and life size sculptures of Lord Buddha. There are also several pots, beads, ornaments, terracotta figurines and limestone sculptures depicting the life and times of the Buddhism in that age. The highlight of the museum is the model of the “Purnakumbha”, a prominent Buddhist relic casket in the centre.
The Amaravati Heritage Centre and Museum located close to the bus stand in the city is an eye opener into the origin, history and evolution of Buddhism in the state. Starting with the details on the life of Gautama Buddha and spread of Buddhism in the state, the museum is a treasure house of information on the various Buddhist sites in Andhra Pradesh. It is also a revelation into the various schools of art associated with Buddhism and has some invaluable details on the Amravati style of sculpting, paintings and art. There are several statues, torsos and pada (feet) of Lord Buddha in addition to intricate slabs depicting Samkhapala and Sibi Jataka.
In line with the rich heritage of Buddhism in the city and with a view to promote tourism, the government has completed the Dhyana Buddha Project which houses a stellar 125 feet statue of Buddha in a meditative pose along with a museum like hall that is replete with several detailed Buddhist sculptures including depictions of the four noble truths, eight-fold path and important scenes from the life of Buddha.
A quaint almost nondescript town 11 km east of river Krishna and 60 km away from Vijayawada is Ghantasala which is a rare yet significant Buddhist site. The massive stupa made completely of bricks measuring 112 feet in diameter and 23 feet in height is the key attraction of the town. Uniquely designed it has the carvings of all 12 zodiac constellations and is believed to have been covered by close to 47 intricately carved slabs. These relics were discovered in this trading town as recently as the later part of the 19th and early 20th century. With a serene statue of Buddha and ample greenery including a Bodhi tree, it is a place that exudes tranquillity.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) museum here has several exhibits in the form of limestone sculptures, pillars, pillar fragments and stupa slabs.
One of the finest examples of rock cut architecture, these are a set of cave temples located about 6 km from Vijayawada. While the main shrine of the temple is Vishnu in the form of Anantapadmanabha, it is believed that the caves were used as rest houses by Buddhist monks. There are several sculptures and figurines associated with Buddhism on the first floor whose design and structure also resembles a Buddhist monastery or ‘vihara’. The caves were converted to a Hindu temple replete with Hindu shrines after the decline of Buddhism close to the 15th century.
Words & Images: RASHMI GOPAL RAO