A rich legacy

Print edition : January 13, 2006

Andhra Pradesh's association with Buddhism is as old as the religion itself and the State is a treasure trove of Buddhist sites.


The remains of Nagarjuna's monastery at Anupu.-T. VIJAYA KUMAR

THE Krishna valley region has a rich cultural heritage. It has many places of Buddhist interest that remain unknown to the outer world. According to Suttanipata, identified as one of the older parts of Tripitaka (the complete scripture collection of the Theravada school), Buddhism came to Assaka country (today's Nizamabad in Andhra Pradesh) during the Buddha's lifetime. Bavari, an ascetic who set up his ashram on the banks of the Godavari river, came to know that a Buddha had arisen in the north and sent his disciples to meet him and engage him in a spiritual dialogue.

The dialogue of the Buddha with the disciples of Bavari at Vaishali is recorded in Suttanipata, which says that Bavari's disciples were converted to Buddhism and later brought dhamma to the Telugu country, Andhradesa. Literary, epigraphical and archaeological accounts confirm that almost all schools of Buddhism flourished in Andhra Pradesh for over 2,000 years

Andhra Pradesh has 140 listed Buddhist sites, which provide a rich history of Buddhism from the third century B.C. to the 14th century A.D. More than 500 inscriptions, on various objects such as copper plates, crystals, pots and conches, have been discovered.

Even though the traditional accounts of the Buddha's visit to Andhra Pradesh are discounted, the literary evidence, as recorded by the Chinese traveller Hiuen-Tsang, shows that Buddhism entered Andhradesa by circa 400 B.C. It was only during the reign of Asoka that the Buddhist establishment at Dhanyakataka (today's Dharanikota) attained great recognition. Asoka raised the dhamma thambani and enlarged the stupa, enshrining in it the relics of the Buddha and providing the granite railing. The historian B.S.L. Hanumantha Rao said: "Asoka bestowed special attention on Andhradesa as he found out the preference of Andhras for Buddhism."

Being an urban centre with access to the Bay of Bengal coast, Dhanyakataka grew as the focal point of Buddhism in Andhradesa. Its importance grew further when it became the capital of the Satavahanas. The Satavahana expansion over coastal Andhra and the shift of the capital to Dhanyakataka was a notable change in the first century A.D. As a result, the Andhra coastline became the hub of trade with the Romans. These changes fostered prosperity, and Buddhist establishments came up with the support of local chieftains along the trade routes in the hinterland.

The monuments built by the Satavahanas were primarily Buddhist. They were stupas (tombs erected by Buddhists over the remains of the Buddha), viharas (places where Buddhist monks lived) and chaityas (combination of a stupa and a vihara and also a place of worship). The stupas of Andhra are different from the stupas of Sanchi. They are of varying dimensions: from the small stupa of Goli to the big stupas of Bhattiprolu and Amaravati. The Ayaka pillars found at the four cardinal points and close to the stupas are a peculiar feature of the stupas of Amaravati, which is not seen in the stupas of Sanchi. The foundations of the stupas in the State also looked like radiating and concentric brick walls, which are absent in stupas of northern India.

The casing slabs of stupas are decorated with sculptures. The female figures shown are slim and curvy. There is movement, dynamism and pulsating life in both the female and male figures. Vajrayana, the third major school of Indian Buddhism, with its manifestations born out of Mahayana, was practised at Dharanikota. According to L.M. Joshi, Andhradesa was an ancient and popular home of Vajrayana. Dhanyakataka was the centre of Vajrayana where the Kalachakra system was expounded by the Buddha.

The Ikshvaku period in Andhradesa witnessed the capital, Vijayapuri, emerging as the nerve centre of Buddhist activity. Various sects such as Aparaseliyas, Chetiyas, Bahusanitiyas, Mahishaslakas and Sthaviras set up base here. Acharya Nagarjuna's earlier association with Siriparvata and the popularity of Mahayana were notable factors behind the prolific activity of Buddhist schools at Vijayapuri, Goli and so on.

Royal support, especially Ikshvaku princesses such as Chamtisiri, Kodabalisri and others, contributed to the vibrant Buddhist activity at Vijayapuri. During the post-Ikshvaku period, from the fourth century A.D., factors such as the rise of Vishnukundi power to the north of Krishna river and the Pallavas in the southern region and in the north coastal tracts, the resurgence of the Brahmanical religion, lack of royal support and the decline of Indo-Roman trade contributed to the stagnation of the Buddhist centres.

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