An island museum

Print edition : January 13, 2006

The remains of the Simhala Vihara at Nagarjunakonda. - T. VIJAYA KUMAR

THE Nagarjuna Sagar project on the Krishna river houses in the centre of its reservoir the world's only dedicated Buddhist island museum. The island is actually a hill that was submerged when the reservoir was built.

The masonry dam across the Nandikonda (konda means hill in Telugu) was a gift of visionaries such as Jawarharlal Nehru and the great engineer K.L. Rao to Andhrites, but it submerged 30 international Buddhist heritage sites of the 2nd century A.D. that were scattered all over the Nagarjuna valley around the hill in Guntur district. The site was discovered in 1926. Before the entire valley got submerged in 1961, the majority of the sculptures in moonstone, limestone and bricks of the stupas and monasteries were shifted to Anupu and Nagarjunakonda. They were painstakingly put together and are being maintained by the Archeological Survey of India

The Nagarjuna valley, situated in the Nallamala range of Eastern Ghats, was the place from where Buddhist ideology and art spread to South-East Asian countries. It is considered to be the birthplace of the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, which became popular in northern India during the rule of Kanishka.

Mahayana Buddhism blossomed in full glory under the care of Acharya Nagarjuna, who spent the evening of his life in the valley. He was instrumental in making it the religion of millions of people from China to Ceylon (today's Sri Lanka).

According to Tibetan tradition, Acharya Nagarjuna influenced Buddhist thought and propagated it for 57 years from A.D. 137, which makes him the contemporary of five successive Satavahana rulers. His name finds mention even in the writings of the Chinese traveller Hiuen-Tsang, who made a trip to Dhanyakataka (present-day Dharanikota, where Kalachakra 2006 will be organised) in A.D. 639.

Amaravati and Dharanikota, twin villages, were the centres of development of a unique form of sculpture, on green moonstones quarried in Dachepalli in Guntur district. In all the major Buddhist sites on both sides of the Krishna river these moonstone sculptures find a place as decorative/ornamental pieces around stupas and monasteries.

The Buddhist structures here bear witness to the evolution of this Buddhist art form, which was supported by the Satavahanas and their successors, the Ikshvakus, until the end of the third century A.D.

A motorised launch takes tourists and pilgrims to Nagarjunakonda twice or thrice a day from Vijayapuri South (the dam site), wading though serene dark-green waters for 45 minutes, providing a full view of the picturesque mountains with a thick cover of vegetation. A quick view of the entire island and the artefacts in the museum could take about two hours, as one has to walk two to three kilometres to visit all the sites on the hill.

The Simhala Vihara built in the third century A.D. for Buddhist monks from Ceylon, with a statue of the Buddha in one of the chaityas juxtaposed to another with a small stupa, attracts the attention of visitors to the hill. A second century A.D. burial ground, part of the open museum, is worth visiting.

The greatest find of the Nagarjuna valley excavations was a university that had a statue of the Buddha made of limestone in one of the chaityas. Two relics of tooth were also found, believed to be that of Nagarjuna. Bone ash and pearls were found encased in a gold tube at the foot of the statue. The whole university can now be seen in Anupu.

The Temple of Hariti, the Buddhist mother goddess, was one of the important finds during the excavations. The path to the temple leads through a large quadrangular stadium made of bricks. The highest point of the stadium is the broken statue of the mother goddess in a sitting posture, which has been preserved at the ASI site on the 80 hectare Anupu Buddhist site, five km from Vijayapuri South.

Historians divide the monasteries at Nagarjunakonda into five types influenced by different sects of Buddhism. The style of art and sculpture also changed with the passage of time. The earliest monastic units had only a plain stupa with a monastery and there was no central hall or pillared mandapa. The second type consisted of a stupa, a monastery and a chaitya graha, where the stupa was cylindrical, capped with a hemispherical dome.

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