The influence of Buddhism is subtle but deep-rooted in the land of Andhra. Dating to the pre-Christian era, Andhra Pradesh has some of the most fascinating archaeological monuments that tell the story of Buddhism in the region and the legacy it left behind.
As Buddhist monks walked the countryside, their chants reverberated in the air, the people of Andhra woke to the clanging of cymbals and the prayers of these monks. They grew around them a sensitive and enduring culture. Even today their influence remains. The links with the past can be seen in the monuments in a magnificent state of ruination while the more lasting influence can be felt in the softness and gentle nature of the people of Andhra. Andhra Pradesh is known to the present generation as the land of the ancient sites of Buddhist learning. Even as you read about the ruins of Nagarjunakonda or Amaravati, let alone visit them, the question that comes naturally to mind is – when did Buddhism come to Andhra? History is not so kind as to just hand over a date and say, “Now you know when.” Instead it tells us many stories spread across centuries in time.
In the pre-Christian ear, there seems to have been a lot of communication between the people across the length and breadth of the sub continent. No, there were no satellites or indigenous versions of them. They were people who traveled back and forth with messages. The means of travel were varied. Andhra was famous for some of the greatest ports and through the waters the culture of Andhra influenced the civilization of Burma, Malaysia and Indo-China.
Within the country, caravans of people – merchants, traders and religious preachers used to travel by road with musicians, astrologers, artists…accompanied by lots of other people. They were the ones who carried cultural values, thoughts and symbolism from one area to another creating the indomitable Indianness that defines Indians even today. Andhra Pradesh was situated at a very central place in terms of the routes the caravans took. At a place called Vengi, five such routes converged. It’s importance was recognized very early in history and later Andhra kings even set up their capital at Vengi. In fact, Andhra Pradesh itself was often known as Vengi and the Andhra kings as Vengi kings.
The road to Kalinga, led to the north-eastern part of India. The road to Dravida or the south was different from the road to the south-west, which led to Karnataka. Similarly there were two paths, one leading to the north (to the city of Kosala) and the other to the north-west, that is the modern day state of Maharashtra. It was along these paths that Buddhist monks traveled and brought with them ideas and influences just as they took back bits of Andhra culture. Interestingly the famous Buddhist sites of Andhra Pradesh are all found along these routes. Nagarjunakonda and Amaravati lie on the south-western road to Karnataka while Ghantasala lies along the road to the south. To enumerate all the Buddhist sites in the land of Andhra would be to fill pages and pages of just names. There are a large number of Buddhist monuments like stupas, chaityas and viharas are both monasteries and temples where an assembly of monks and nuns takes place. In becoming a religion, Buddhism followed and adopted much from various beliefs of the time. Its simple rituals were based on the cult of chaityas or sacred spots. These were often groves of trees or a single sacred tree on the outskirts of a village which was the abode of earth-spirits. They may or may not include a stupa which is a mound that contains relics of locally revered monks and ascetics. Gradually it has come to house other holy objects like statues. Most of these monuments were constructed near water points and so today we can locate them along the banks of River Krishna.
The influence of Buddhism is not always so easily discernible. It mingles so well with the local culture that the Buddhist elements are often not separable. The art of toy making, for instance, which flourishes in Andhra, could well have been influenced by the bright woodwork patronized by the Buddhist. In literature, one finds many works influenced by Buddhism. The great Buddhist saint Nagarjuna himself has contributed a corpus. The influence of Buddhism was deep rooted and subtle. Here is an example of how it has influenced the writers of Andhra. During the National Movement and the struggle for a separate province for Andhra many poets awoke to the call of their state and motherland and wrote some good poetry. One pair were called Pingali and Kasturi. These poets saw in Mahatma Gandhi a likeness to Buddha. Their poems, therefore, centered on the spirit of patriotism but with Buddha or his disciples as the heroes!
Important Buddhist sites in Andhra Pradesh
Amaravati in the Guntur District of Andhra Pradesh is a site of Buddhist Stupas. The Stupas were built during the reign of emperor Ashoka. The Stupas have carved on them the story of Buddha's life.
Bavikonda which is situated on a hill is a Buddhist site. The Buddhist monks used to collect rain water in the trenches they dug here. The name Bavikonda if deciphered means 'hill of wells' and thus the name. The Bavikonda Monastery is very old and is said to date back to 3rd century BC.
Bojjankonda is located on a hill near the village of Sankaram. The hill is covered with a group of monolithic Stupas. There are six rock cut caves here each having a sculptured panel.
Nagarjunakonda is a historical Buddhist site in the Guntur District of Andhra Pradesh. It was a centre of Buddhist universities where students from China, Ghandhara, Bengal and Sri Lanka came. Tourist can see the ruins of these universities and other structures at the site. Other attractions here include the Ethipothala Falls which is a breeding place for crocodiles and the Srisailam Wildlife Sanctuary.
Pavurallakonda is a hill located near Beemunipatnam and is about 150 mts above the sea level. The hill top consists of a ruined Buddhist Monastic Complex which once used to house Buddhist monks. Visitors can enjoy the panoramic view of the coastline from here.
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