Buddhism came to the Andhra region after the Mauryan Emperor conquered Kalinga in 262 BC. Kalinga covered the modern day southern Odisha and northern Andhra. It spread rapidly and over 140 Buddhist sites have beeen found dating back to this era. Vizag was a major centre of learning and for the dissemination of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and beyond. The Buddhist phase lasted for nearly a thousand years till the rise of Shaivism in the 7th century CE obliterated Buddhism from this region. In this series, I am retracing the footsteps of those distant ancestors of mine.
Thirty kilometres west of Vizag, not far from the steel plant, is the sleepy village of Sankaram. It was just another village till, in 1906, a British archaeologist called Alexander Rim uncovered the ruins of a magnificent Buddhist centre atop two hillocks in its vicinity.
Sankaram is a corruption of Sangharama (संघारामा), which is what Buddhist monasteries were called. The hillocks are called Bojjannakonda (बोज्जन्ना कोंडा), a corruption of Buddhunikonda (Buddha’s hill) and Lingalakonda (लिंगाला कोंडा), the hill of lingams. The lingams here are actually rock-cut stupas which the locals mistook for shivalingams.
An approach road was built a few years ago but it is in a bad state right now. At the entrance, a small sign on the gate informs that there is no entrance fee. It is obvious that the ASI has put in an effort to develop the site. The area has been fenced off and neatly landscaped. The stairways have been provided with railings and some effort at conservation is obvious. However, few people, even in Vizag city itself are aware of these places. Unless the ASI staff went to the schools and invited them to visit these places, they will remain little known. People come here from places as far away as Sri Lanka and Cambodia, but there is hardly any domestic tourism.
After a short climb, we reach the first level where there is a double decked cave shrine. Above the entrance of the lower cave is a sculpture of a meditating Buddha inside an arched niche. My uneducated guess is that the arch is a representation of a stupa and the image of the Buddha is symbolic of his relics within the stupa. Under this niche is the entrance to a large rectangular cave in the centre of which is a rock cut stupa on a rectangular platform. Rim, the archaeologist found a lot of artifacts including coinage from the Satavahana, Gupta and Chalukyan periods.
Above the entrance to the upper deck, there must have been three carved niches (from the point of view of symmetry) but one of the niches must have fallen off. The central niche houses a beautiful idol of the Buddha in meditation, surrounded by various demigods. Two millennia of exposure to a saline atmosphere has taken its toll yet, the Buddha is radiantly serene and looks unaffected by the elements.
There are several images of the Buddha, all of them showing him sitting in padmasana, his hands crossed with palms upwards in the dhyana mudra. I wonder whether the profusion of these images is to underline the omnipresence of divinity or to remind the monks that they are all potential Buddhas.
The entrance opening is flanked by two niches, one of which is empty and the other contains yet another yet another statue of the Buddha. Entering the cave, I find myself in a large rectangular hall, the roof of which is supported by several richly carved pillars. In the centre of this hall is a rock stupa. On the walls are several bas relief images of the Buddha.
While leaving the cave, the guide told me that he was going to show me an image of a dinosaur. I was sceptical; dinosaurs went extinct some 65 million years ago while the humans arrived about half a million years ago. Scientific study of dinosaur fossils started only in the 19th century. So how did our ancestors sculpt the likeness of a tyrannosaurus rex more than 20 centuries ago? The similarities are incredible; the disproportionately large head, the chunky tapering tail, powerful lower limbs and weak, arm-like upper limbs. I wonder why archaeologists didn’t give this find the kind of publicity it deserves.
While proceeding up the hill, I came across a tall rock pillar, the kind of pillar on which edicts are inscribed. There are no inscriptions on this pillar as the outer layer has peeled off and all the ancient inscriptions have been irretrievably lost. Sad. Scattered around at random are several stone votive stupas. One also comes across caverns which served as water cisterns and shallow caves where monks probably meditated.
I also came across an artificial cave cut into the rock face in which there is a stone stupa. The absence of signboards is a major hurdle in knowing about the importance of this stupa. How can we know more about our heritage if the archaeologists prefer to keep their knowledge with themselves instead of sharing it with the lay public? Can’t they publish booklets and sell it for the benefit of visitors? Even the information the ASI makes available on their website is sketchy at best.
Once we reach the top of the hillock, we are greeted with the view of the mahastupa. It stands on a rectangular stone plinth and the stupa has a rocky core which was encased by bricks. It is not difficult to visualise this building dominating the landscape around it. Beside the stupa is a vihara consisting of many cells in a single row. However, the vihara is almost completely covered by grass and weeds. It speaks of a lack of proper supervision of the ASI staff.
From here, there is a stairway leading to Lingalakonda. It is not a steep climb but one should be really fit physically otherwise one has to huff and puff their way up like I did. What I came across first were massive monolithic cylinders topped by hemispheres. I am told that these stupas were encased in brick and contained relics. What I could not comprehend was the profusion of stupas. This place was a Buddhist monastery for nearly a thousand years and was a centre of all three forms of Buddhism – Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. It is probable that with he change in ideology, old structures were abandoned and new structures came up.
After climbing up a bit more, one comes across a spectacular scene that is totally unexpected. Literally hundreds of rock-cut votive stupas, some of them in a neat array and the rest in a disorderly manner, probably springing wherever there was some place. There is hardly any place to place a foot in between them. No wonder the locals mistook them for shivlingam and called the hill Lingalakonda.
Under a tree in one of the manicured lawns is an idol of Hariti. According to mythology, she was an ogress who kidnapped children and then ate them. Buddha kidnapped her son and Hariti was extremely upset. Then Buddha asked her to think of all the parents of those children devoured by her and asked her to repent and reform. A contrite Hariti agrees to give up her wicked ways. Buddha restores her son to her and makes her a Goddess and gives her the responsibility for welfare of women and children.
A few years ago, there was an outbreak of plague and many children died. The local villagers started stoning the idol of Hariti, accusing her for the deaths. The ASI had to lock up the statue in one of their stores for a number of years and then put it back on display. As is visible, the sculpture is in a bad shape after that assault.
15 km southeast of Bojjannakonda, on the banks of the river Sharada, is the village of Kotturu. Adjacent to this village is another ancient Buddhist site under the protection of the ASI. Other then putting up a fence, they have hardly done anything. When we went there, we saw a few cows grazing by the ruins of a stupa.
The maha stupa, shaped like a giant wheel, consists of two circular walls, the outer one being shorter than the inner. The annular space is divided into cells by radial walls. Within the central hub, several antiquities were discovered including coins, pearls and gems. The mounds here were known locally as dhana dibbalu or mounds of wealth. The site has been vandalised for looting its wealth and its ancient bricks were carried away as construction material. Excavations are still going on. In spite of it, construction of buildings is taking place nearby almost encroaching on the ASI land. I wonder who has given permission for such activities.
After a short climb, we come across a cave known as Pandava Guhalu (caves of the Pandavas). These caves were probably used for meditation by Buddhist monks and there is no apparent connection with the Pandavas. The cave probably was named after the Pandavas because there are 5 small cells within the cave.
The most important discovery at Kotturu is a rock inscription dating back to the 2nd century BCE. On this rock are inscriptions written in Telugu using the Brahmi script. They say that a nobleman called Tambayya donated some gold and gems to Buddhist monks. This discovery has pushed back the age of Telugu by 8 centuries as prior to this, the oldest inscription is from the 7th century CE. While it was known that Telugu was spoken for a very long time in this region, this is the first archaeological evidence to corroborate this fact.
The Vizag region was a bastion of Buddhism for at least a thousand years. It was a centre of learning and Buddhism spread out to Sri Lanka and South East Asia through its ports. The stupas and monasteries provided the architectural models for the more famous Buddhist shrines in the rest of the world like the famous Borobodur in Indonesia. It is sad that while these places attract visitors from all over the Buddhist world, there is practically no domestic tourism. Most Indians are not aware of the existence of these places. India is losing a great opportunity by not properly marketing these heritage sites in the Buddhist world. Tourism will ensure a steady flow of funds required to finance the conservation of these ancient monuments.