Hilltop monasteries on the seaside

She was like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously. All of these had existed in our conscious or subconscious selves, though we may not have been aware of them. And they have gone to build up the complex mysterious personality of India…  from “The Discovery of India” by Jawaharlal Nehru

What Nehru had said so elegantly about India is equally applicable to my hometown, Visakhapatnam, better known as Vizag. It is a young city with a history that goes back to the prehistoric period. For nearly a millennium, if not more, Vizag was a major centre for the study and dissemination of Buddhism.  In this series, I shall revisit the footprints left by the early Buddhists on the sands of time in and around Vizag.

We commence our quest at Thotlakonda, a 130 metre high hillock overlooking the famed beaches of Vizag. The Buddhist settlement was accidentally discovered in 1988 by Naval personnel who were carrying out an aerial survey for setting up a defence installation. They alerted the Archaeological Survey of India who carried out excavations in the early 90’s and unearthed the ruins of a huge Buddhist monastery dating back to the third century B.C.E. (before the Christian Era).

The gateway to Thotlakonda on the Vizag beach road

There is a Buddhist style gateway on the beach road on which the words Thotlakonda are emblazoned in chrome letters, some of which are missing. Beyond this gateway is a beautiful statue of a beatific Gautama Buddha under a tree, seated in the padmasana with eyes closed and hands resting on his lap in the dhyana mudra. Surrounding this statue is a small park where there are several stone panels embossed with bas reliefs of scenes from Buddhist mythology. They look like replicas of sculpted panels discovered in this site but nobody seems to know where the originals are.

A beautiful statue of a meditating Buddha in the dhyana mudra near the entrance

According to legend, Queen Maya dreamt of four angels carrying her to heaven, where she is bathed, anointed and dressed in fine clothes. A magnificent white elephant approaches her, holding a lotus with his trunk. The elephant walks around her three times before touching her on her right side and disappearing into her womb. The queen narrates the dream to her husband, King Shuddhodana who orders the royal priests to interpret it. They declare that the dream portends the birth of either a great conqueror or a great sage.

A sculpted panel depicting the conception of Buddha.

The panel below illustrates the Buddha’s birth. While the queen was travelling to her parents’ home for the delivery, her entourage decided to rest in a garden at Lumbini. This where the Buddha took birth, emerging from the right side of his mother, who was standing under a sal tree. He walked seven steps and declared his Buddhahood. Queen Maya died a week after Prince Siddhartha is born.

This sculpted panel depicts the birth of Buddha.

There are many such panels scattered around but since my knowledge of Buddhist lore is sketchy, I could not relate to them. The absence of boards describing the scenes does not help, either.

Beyond this park, the road gently ramps its way up, past the landscaped hillside all the way to the top, which is about 130 metres above sea level. Spread over a wide area, one has a commanding view of the beautifully curved of shoreline of the Bay of Bengal. A pleasant breezes wafts across from the sea, heightening the ambience.  No wonder the ancient Buddhists chose this site for setting up an important base here.

A cistern cut into the rock for storing rain water

This place was originally known as Senagiri. Today, it is called Thotlakonda, which means the hills of cisterns in Telugu. It acquired this name because of the presence of several cisterns cut into the granite rock for storing rainwater.  As the monastery was located on a hilltop, it was essential to have sufficient water storage to support the needs of a hundred monks., if not more.

A view of the ruins of the Buddhist monastery

The focal point of a monastry is the Mahastupa,  a circular building topped by a hemispherical dome. It usually contained the relics of the Buddha or one of his important disciples. For the monks, it represented the invisible presence of the Buddha.

The focal point of the monastery, the Mahastupa, contained the relics of the Buddha

It is said that the mahastupa was encased in white plaster. At day time, it was visible to ships far from the coast. At night,  an array of oil lamps adorned the stupa and it served the function of a lighthouse. It must have been an amazing sight to behold.

Adjacent to the mahastupa are several smaller votive stupas

Votive stupas are smaller in scale but similar in shape to the mahastupa. They were built by devotees in fulfillment of their spiritual desires. The offerings were placed by the devotees inside the votive stupas, typically coins, beads, gems and images of the Buddha. There are 16 such votive stupas here,

A circular Chaitya Griha

Chaityas or chaitya grihas are prayer halls. They are either circular or apsidal (rectangular with one of the shorter sides curved outwards like the English letter ‘D’). The periphery had columns for supporting a roof and in the centre there usually was a stupa. Worshipers used to walk around the chaitya while praying.

Monks lived in cells like the one above. A block of cells is called a Vihara

Thotlakonda served as a seminary for Buddhist monks, not just from within India but from overseas too, from places like Sri Lanka, Tibet, South East Asia and beyond. They were housed in Viharas, accommodation blocks comprising several rectangular cells. There are also pillared congregational halls, kitchens and dining halls.

Just a stone’s throw away, on an adjoining hillock of the same height, is another another monastery called Bavikonda, literally the hill of wells (Baavi is the Telugu word for well).

A rock-cut well for storing water

Though it is under the care of the ASI, it is poorly maintained. There is nobody manning the main gate and though there is a good motorable ghat road, the foliage is badly in need of a trim. Halfway up the hill, I found a group of revellers sitting under the shade of a tree, enjoying cold beers.

The mahastupa on Bavikonda hill

At the main entrance to this heritage site, there was a lone watchman sleeping some distance away. When he saw my car, he woke up but promptly went back to sleep on seeing my camera, concluding rightly that I was just another tourist.

One of the many viharas at Bavikonda. Bricks from that era were typically long and wide but thin.

Bavikonda is contemporaneous to and served the same function as Thotlakonda. Both were important centres of Theravada Buddhism and hosted international scholars. Proximity to the sea and maritime routes played a big part in the selection of the location of these monasteries.

A circular chaitya in Bavikonda

A lot of artifacts were discovered during excavations. Within the mahachaitya  were found caskets containing a bone relic of the Buddha and a considerable amount of ash. Roman and Satavahana coins were found as were some gold and stone artifacts. There is no museum at the site to showcase them and remind us of tour glorious heritage. I suspect that all of them might be lying neglected and uncared for in some dingy storehouse. I do not know why they cannot have a common museum for Thotlakonda and Bavikonda.

A massive pillared congregation hall. All that remains is the plinth of this structure

One gets the overall impression that there is a lack of proper supervision and financial constraints too. However, it does not cost a fortune to trim the lawns and keep an eye on visitors to ensure that they do not vandalise the place. Bavikonda is as important as Thotlakonda is, but obviously, most of the available funds are being utilised on developing Thotlakonda as a tourist destination.
Some local NGO’s are campaigning for declaring both of them as UNESCO world heritage sites. If they are succesful, it will ensure better funding and more professionalism in the conservation of our invaluable heritage. They have survived the ravages of time for 23 centuries; let us hope that they can survive the neglect and destructive greed of the modern man.

28 Comments

  • Praveen Wadhwa says:

    D. L. Ji

    You wrote another great marvel. Not many people know anything about Vishakhapatnam or Viraz except that it is a shipping focal point. From your posts I came to know about the richness of this area or rather the splendor of Eastern Ghat area around Viraz.

    I only wonder that this monastery stood when Alexander the Great was walking on this earth but it was re-discovered only in 1988.

    Thanks for sharing it.

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Dear Praveen ji, thanks for going through my post and for your encouraging comments. There are places in India which were once as important in those days as New York is today from the point of view of commerce and education. Today, they are forgotten. I have been to one such place last Sunday. I shall be writing about it soon.

  • Vipin says:

    Thank you very much DL Ji for unearthing and sharing this hidden gem. Lovely captures! It’s really amazing to know that such ancient site is such a recent discovery & am sure there are many such hidden treasures lying here & there across the nation, just waiting to be unearthed sooner or later…

    Though it feels sad to see such apathy of the administration towards such a heritage of ancient India that has stories to tell about our past and lessons for our future generations…May the authorities take some early constructive measures to maintain these souvenirs from the past before they turn into haven for revellers!

    Waiting for the further exploration…

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Thanks, Vipin jee, for your kind words. You are absolutely right when you say that there are many such places in India waiting to be discovered. One can see how protective western nations are about their heritage which is just a few centuries old. We have tens of thousands of such heritage sites, if not more, which are badly neglected. Hopefully with greater awareness and better financing, the situation should improve before it is too late.

  • Dear DL,

    It is indeed gratifying to be told about such places in our very own country which not many people are aware of. It becomes a case of ???? ??? ?????? if the narrator is DL because in that case, we are reading a piece of literature fit to be included in a text book.

    BTW, do you photoshop your pics to make them so appealing or are you a great photographer by birth? Your pics stand out from others in most of the cases. However, I wanted to have an idea of the size of these structures. The best thing that can be done to give an idea to the viewer of the size of some inanimate object is to include in the frame some object which everyone knows about. Say, a vehicle, a newspaper, a magazine, a cap, or even a brick of 9″x4.5″ allows comparison. I once used a single business card to let the viewer have an idea of the size of leaves from different trees. Anything that complements can be used for this purpose. The relative size of the main object can instantly be guessed in this way.

    As regards the apathy of the ASI which all of us are too much aware about, we don’t chose our leaders for their knowledge or wisdom. We chose them for their caste or community. Even to become a peon, we need to have some wisdom and practical knowledge but to become a leader in our country, the only required skill is ability to befool the voters. With such kind of contemptible masters, what the bureaucracy would do? They also pass their time sitting in their offices doing almost nothing.

    Sushant

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Sushant ji, thanks for going through the post, for the effusive praise and for the constructive suggestions.

      Since I went there alone and there was hardly anyone around, I could not include people to give a sense of scale. The only things I included were trees and signposts. The height of a signpost is about 5 feet so that should give you an idea of size. In my next post, which will be out on the 20th, I have included my wife in one of the images for that very purpose.

      Regarding digital photography, the fact is the images definitely, without exception, need to be corrected for white balance, brightness-contrast and colour. Digital sensors are colour-blind and the images are converted into colour images electronically (using beam splitters to create colours). For this reason, there is a huge difference in the image seen in the viewfinder and the image that the camera produces. Another reason is that the quality of the image depends on the position of the sun and the time we of our visit may not be ideal for photographing it. It is not always possible to wait for the right lighting conditions.

      My Nikon DSLR comes with a built in software tool called D-Lighting which enables us to improve the exposure quality with the click of a button. For those taken with cheaper digital cameras, one can use image editors for enhancing the images. Photoshop is way too expensive. Free software like GIMP, Photoscape or Photo! Editor are almost as good for amateurs. However, one should be careful to avoid overdoing it.

      • Dear DL,

        Thanks a lot for enlightening me about some aspects of digital imaging mechanism. I had read somewhere that the CCD / CMOS sensors are in fact, three layered-sensors – Red (R), Green(G) and Blue(B) which receive their respective colours from the electromagnetic spectrum. Anyway, which Nikon DSLR you own these days? I have been using D40 and then D5000 frequently but always felt that I needed to fine-tune the colours and contrast through photoshop. However, Canon D550 and above hardly need this exercise. Their colour / brightness / contrast reproduction is magnificent. You can certainly customize your camera according to your taste.

        By the way, I find that when you took photos of sculpted panels, they were kept on the grass. If this is the way they are lying there, how come they are so spotlessly clean?

        • D.L.Narayan says:

          Dear Sushant, it is a pleasure to discuss finer aspects of photography with someone as knowledgeable as you. There are many ways of creating colour images in digital cameras; the higher end ones boast of sophisticated systems like triple sensors each of which gets light from a prism which splits the incoming beam. The lower end cameras use a Bayer sensor, which has an array of R, G and B filters over a single sensor. Since the way human eye perceives colour is different from cameras, 50 % of the sensors are green; red and blue account for 25% each. However, unless the conditions are ideal, the results are far from satisfactory so built in software tries to adjust the colour to match what the human eye sees. Obviously, such systems cannot produce realistic results which is why knowledge of image enhancing software is essential for those who are serious about learning digital photography. My camera is the D3100, which is an entry level camera but has many features found in more expensive cameras. The Canon D550 belongs to the same bracket and is an excellent camera.

          Regarding the sculpted panels, they are replicas made using synthetic materials, which is why they are weather proof. The originals are probably lying in some dusty storeroom of the ASI in Hyderabad. It would have been great if they built a small museum near the site for the benefit of visitors.

  • Surinder Sharma says:

    DL,

    Very nice writing, photos so good. Bricks looks wider there. In north its size is very small in old building. Thanks a lot share your journey.

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Thanks a lot, Surinder, for your appreciation. Yes, as you have observed, the bricks used by the early Buddhists were large (typically 12″ x 8″ x 3″). It is amazing that those bricks have remained intact after 2,300 years!

  • Surinder Sharma Ji,

    In Saharanpur also, I find that buildings constructed 200 or more years before have used very high quality bricks of small size. Compared with those, today’s bricks look vulgar. It was not at all necessary to plaster those walls of bygone era for aesthetic purposes. They looked beautiful even without plaster and paints. Some people say that once a wall is painted with acrylic paint, it can’t breathe and starts decaying at much faster rate. Bricks should be allowed to breathe to keep them healthy. Even if a wall is to be plastered and painted, lime based colours should be used so that air may pass through pores. But we are after ‘beauty’ these days. Modern buildings topple down whenever there is an earthquake while ancient ‘dilapidated’ structures like village temples remain unaffected.

    Sushant Singhal

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Sushant, I totally agree with you. Plastering of walls is unnecessary. The famous British architect, Laurie Baker, who became a naturalised India and settled in Kerala, always designed his buildings using locally available materials and never plastered the walls of his buildings.

  • SilentSoul says:

    DL Bhai… tks for sharing about this unique place. The post is full of information and is made interesting by your beautiful style of writing.

    hope one day you will write about Vizag too, so that we know more about your wonderful home-town.

    I came back yesterday nite and would be reading pending blogs one by one

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      SS bhai, it is great to see you back on ghumakkar. We missed your presence here immensely and were eagerly looking forward to your return. While you were away, a lot of talented people have started writing here but I would recommend that you read the blogs by Sushant Singhal first. I am sure that you too will find him as amazing as the rest of the ghumakkar family.

      Yes, I have been planning to write about my hometown for quite some time. I am currently writing about its Buddhist past. There are so many things about Andhra in general and Vizag in particular, which most people are unaware of and I shall be touching all those aspects in future posts.

  • Very beautiful place DL ,

    It is indeed a hidden treasure. No one seems to be around these excursions. I remembered my trip to Sarnath when I saw these pictures. Thanks for sharing.

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Thanks Vishal for your kind comments. Earlier, you wrote about where the Godavari originates and I wrote about where its journey ends. Now, you have written about where Buddhism started and I have written about where it flourished and from where it was exported to countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand and other South East Asian countries. We seem to be writing about the same topics.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    @ All – It is DL and no DL-Jee. DL Bhai is probably Ok :-)

    @ DL – You mentioned about this in another post and I was looking forward to read about it. I have been to Kushinagar (Gorahpur, UP) and a lot of structures are common as what I saw there. The Mahastupas and votive sputas are probably the common thing for any structured dating to Buddhist era.

    It is sad to know about Bavikonda. Hopefully experiences like these would travel and might reach the right ears for a corrective action. Many thanks for writing candidly about it.

    @ Sushant, DL – The discussion about digital imaging is captivating. For software, I would recommend using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. PS is more for compositing whereas LR is the right software for ‘developing’. The modern sensors are pretty smart. A lot of research is going on and you see a new generation change, every few years.

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Thanks Nandan, I got tired of telling people not to jee me. I guess that is something that older guys like me should get used to.

      Kushinagar is where the Buddha breathed his last. It is one of the four important places for Buddhists, others being Lumbini (where he was born), Bodh Gaya (where he got enlightened) and Sarnath (where he preached his first sermon). All Indian Buddhist shrines had identical architecture in that era. Later distinctive schools emerged in Tibet, Thailand, Myanmar and other places.

  • Ritesh Gupta says:

    Hi D.L.

    Such a wonderful post. Nice to know about Hilltop Monasteries Thotlakonda which is new for me. Thanks for given the story of Buddha’s Born and detail about it.

    About picture that picture are so awesome and detailed.

    Visakhapatnam is a very beautiful city of seaside. One thing in my mind that why does Visakhapatnam called to Vizag?

    Thanks ….

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Thanks Ritesh for going through my post. Visakhapatnam’s original name was Vaishakhapatnam, or the city of Vishakha, the God of Valour (another name of Skanda, the son of Lord Shiva). The British changed Vaishakhapatnam to Vizagapatam and then shortened it to Vizag. Most people call it Vizag as it is more convenient.

      • Britishers re-christened many names. They were terrified of Bandopadhyay, Mukhopadhyay, Chattopadhyay and converted them to Banerjee, Mukherjee and Chatterjee.

        As regarding jee’ing you, dear DL, it is much safer to be called jee than belonging to Zee these days. hahahaha.

        • D.L.Narayan says:

          Gangopadhyaya became for some inexplicable reason Ganguli..I wonder why it did not metamorphose into Gannerjee; Bhattacharya (Bhattacharjee in Bengali) somehow escaped becoming Batterjee. Thank Bhagwan jee for the small mercies!

          Regarding a choice between Jee Zee and G, Jee is definitely the better alternative to Zee and Gee …2G. 3G, CWG and various other G’s.

  • Stone says:

    Brilliant post DL.
    It was like ‘post-in-motion’ accompanied by your voice-over :-)

    I thoroughly enjoyed the post, and the comments by Sushant Singhal ji, Nandan and you.

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Thanks, Sandeep. As always, you convey a lot in so few words.

      While writing, I do not refer to notes; I usually type out the text while looking at the pictures which seem to trigger off memories and impressions of the place I am writing about. Maybe that is the reason why it sounds like a voice-over. I have re-read the post and I have to admit that it does feel more like a documentary and less like a travelogue. I guess I have to focus on the text and let the visuals talk for themselves.

  • Stone says:

    Thanks for the reply sir.
    And sir it was supposed to be compliment, your words & pictures flowed so gracefully and spontaneously that I felt as if Im watching a well edited movie.
    Of course, needless to say, please dont change anything about your narration style.

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Sandeep jee, I know that you meant it as a compliment and I am grateful for your kindness. When discerning readers like you praise us, it is a source of great joy and encouragement.

      However, excellence in any endeavour is a constant pursuit and one should constantly try to improve. I too felt that I wrote too little and should have employed more words instead of letting the pictures do the talking. I always like to think that my best is yet to come :-)

  • Amitava Chatterjee says:

    I always wonder why I am so hooked to this site now.
    There are many travel sites, blogs available…but probably, this post is one such example to my answer. Even one can learn a lot if he/she goes through the discussions in detail…

    starting from the size of the bricks, how to enhance the quality of pictures, which software can be used, Vaishakhapatnam to Vizagapatam and then shortened it to Vizag and finally ‘Bandopadhyay to Banerjee’….who can know the difficulty better than me in convincing everyone from Bank to mobile operators to applying Gas connection (just to name a few) that ‘Chatterjee’ is the anglosized version of Chattopadhyay since in all my documents my name is ‘Amitava Chattopadhyay’ however, as usual I use ‘Chatterjee’ as well as my email ID (personal/official) / business cards etc….so, a man with two identity.

    I have nothing to say about the post – you can combine everyone’s words as my remarks…Brillant. I visited Budh Gaya & Nalanda during my school days with parents and will visit them again with my son in few years’ time…Thank you for sharing

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Amitava, you must have been terribly busy these days. Thanks for taking the time out and reading my blog. I agree with you that the healthy interaction between ghumakkars makes us aware of many new things. It also develops bonds between us. Which is why I like to give feedback to authors. They must have put in a lot of effort to post their story and the least one can do is to acknowledge it and give them constructive feedback. Great to see that you, in spite of being quite busy with your professional work, take the time out to read and give your inputs. Loved your story on Ellora and looking forward to more such illuminating stories from you.

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