Packages for pilgrims

Print edition : December 16, 2005

Visitors at the Borra Caves. - K.R. DEEPAK

TEMPLE tourism is the latest buzz word in Andhra Pradesh. The State Endowments Department, in association with the Andhra Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation, is making every effort to include a package tour of the much-frequented Hindu shrines and Buddhist sites located in and around Visakhapatnam as part of its drive to attract itinerant pilgrims.

The temple tour package includes visits to the Sri Varaha Lakshminarasimha Swami temple located on a hilltop at Simhachalam amid dense forests, the Sri Kanaka Mahalakshmi temple and the Kali temple in Visakhapatnam and the Buddhist sites at Thotlakonda, Bavikonda and Sankaram.

"Of late, the number of domestic and foreign tourists coming to Visakhapatnam with a keen interest in the Vaishnava shrine at Simhachalam and the Buddhist sites on the outskirts of the city, is increasing," State Tourism Divisional Manager Jeevan Prasad said.

Simhachalam is located 18 kilometres from the city. The temple there has a beautifully sculpted Natya mantapam (dance hall), a 97-pillared Kalyana mantapam (marriage hall) with bas reliefs depicting the incarnations of Vishnu, and some exquisitely carved shrines that combine the architectural brilliance of the Chalukya and Orissan styles

The presiding deity combines the iconographic features of Narasimha and Varaha and the image is covered in sandalwood paste all through the year. At the time of the annual Chandana Visarjana festival, which falls in the month of May, the layers of sandal paste are removed to reveal the original image. Pilgrims, including those from Orissa and Chhattisgarh, throng Simhachalam during this festival. The Devasthanam authorities have drawn up an action plan to convert the pilgrim town into a divyakshetram on the lines of Tirumala. They plan to provide, after clearing the settlements near the temple, amenities such as drinking water, a 24-hour cafeteria, cottages and choultries (resting places) for pilgrims.

The temple dedicated to Kali on the Ramakrishana beach has a unique architecture. It combines the styles of temple, mosque and church architectures in order to symbolise India's secularism.

The temple proposed to be built by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in Sagarnagar, which includes an underwater meditation centre, will become a major attraction once the construction is over.

Ever since the first Buddhist site was excavated in 1907, the Department of Archaeology has stumbled upon several Buddhist sites in the region. The complex located at Thotlakonda and Bavikonda, which were neglected for many years, got a facelift when the State government created the necessary facilities for their upkeep.

Buddhists from Japan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia and other Asian countries are regular visitors to these sites. The Thotlakonda Buddhist complex is located 128 metres above sea level, 15 km from the city on the Visakhapatnam-Bheemali road. The place derives its name from the Telugu "Thotla" meaning trough and `konda' meaning hill, as it has a number of troughs hewn in the bedrock. The excavation of the mounds in the area threw up a number of stupas, chatyagrihas and congregation halls. Bavikonda is also located atop a hill lying between Visakhapatnam and Bheemunipatnam along the Bay of Bengal. Here, ruins of a Buddhist complex comprising 26 structures, belonging to the three phases of Buddhism - Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana - can be found. The Buddhist ruins at Sankaram, located on the contiguous hills locally known as Bojjanakonda and Lingalametta, 40 km away from the city, have numerous monolithic votive stupas, rock-cut caves and viharas, dating back to the 7th century. The Buddhist site at Pavuralakonda, also known as the `Hill of Pigeons', exists, as the name suggests, on a hillock to the west of Bheemunipatnam. Sixteen rock-cut cisterns, perhaps meant for impounding rainwater, can be found on this hillock, which gives a panoramic view of the coast. Stupas and viharas built with brick can also been seen at Gopalapatnam village, located on the left bank of the Tandava.

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