A cradle of Mahayana Buddhism
As an enthusiastic traveller, I had been lucky to have visited many of the significant monuments of Buddhism across India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan,...
As an enthusiastic traveller, I had been lucky to have visited many of the significant monuments of Buddhism across India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Thailand and Bangladesh. These excavated monuments are usually known as ‘Bouddha Stupa’ or ‘Maha Chaitya’ or great sanctuary.
Last year in the middle of February, I was lucky to visit a famous Buddhist heritage site - the great Amaravati stupa at Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh. On the bank of the river Krishna, this town is the seat of the Buddhist renaissance in the south of India. It is the home of Saint Acharya Nagarjuna, one of the disciples of the Lord Buddha, instrumental in the development of the two truths doctrine - the ultimate reality and the conventionally or superficial reality.
A concrete path starting from the main entrance runs through the middle of a garden and leads to the main stupa. One signboard near the stupa displays a brief history of this ancient Maha Chaitya and another board introduces ‘Votive Stupa’, small stupas around the central stupa.
These function as votive offerings (objects that serve as the focal point for acts of devotion) in order to gain merit, to improve one’s karma so that all beings may attain enlightenment. The mound on Maha Chaitya was first discovered in 1796, when the workmen of a local landlord, the Raja of Chintapalli, stumbled upon the ruins. This Buddhist monument was probably built in phases between the third century BCE and about 250 CE. Amaravati continued to be active till about the thirteenth century.
The name Amaravati is relatively modern, having been applied to the town and the site after the Amaresvara Lingaswamin temple was built in the eighteenth century. The oldest maps and plans, drawn by Colin Mackenzie and dated 1816, label the stupa simply as the ‘Deepaldimma’ or ‘The hill of lights’. The foundation of this Maha Stupa must have been laid by the great Mahadeva Bikshu, an emissary of emperor Ashoka.
The ornamental renovations were brought later during the next seven centuries and had received rich patronage. The stupa had received its rich sponsorship from many Kings and Buddhist monks like Acharya Nagarjuna, nuns like Nanda and lay-Devotees like Utara, Khalata, etc. The Chinese traveller Yuan Chwang or Hiuen Tsang (who travelled to India in 629-646 A.D) and the Tibetan historian Taranath glorified in their accounts the greatness of this ancient seat of Buddhism.
Originally this stupa was mounted on a circular drum on which stood a hemispherical dome, crowned by a railed Harmika or box-like structure under the shade of an umbrella. The dome, now missing, appears to have been built solidly of large-sized bricks measuring 57 x 28 x 7.6 c.m. Tall sculptured dome slabs covered the vertical part of the dome. Motifs and floral decorations formed the subject matter of these sculptures carved on the above. The dome was made of locally available pale green limestone which was probably painted with bright colours. Scenes from the life of the Buddha, Jataka stories and animals were the main themes of decorations. The upper part of the dome was probably decorated with plaster garlands. Garlands made of real vines and flowers were used to decorate buildings for festivals and special occasions.
The railing consisted of ‘Urdhvapatas’ or upright pillars, three ‘Suchis’ or cross-bars connecting each pair of upright pillars and ‘Ushnisha’ or coping stone running on top of those pillars. Seated lions stood on pillars guarding either side of the gateways. The stone railing added during later periods was highly ornamental. Currently, at the site, we get to see fragments of granite and limestone uprights. Some, like the massive limestone pillar near the southern Ayaka-platform, are inscribed. Five crystal relic caskets containing bones and gold flowers were discovered from slots made in the bottom slab of the Ayaka-pillars surmounting the southern platform.
The history of the Maha Chaitya extends over a period of about a millennium and a half. Due to the many changes in dynasty rules, it had undergone several major renovations and additions over the times. It survived till about the fourteenth century. History of Amaravati clearly indicates the continuity of the Buddhist establishment there and the Kota chiefs themselves were responsible for more than one donation to the Maha Chaitya. The evidence collected from the inscription of Dharmakirtti at Gadaladeniya, district Kandy, Sri Lanka, dated to 1344 A.D mentions about repairs carried out to the two-storeyed image shrine at the Maha Chaitya site. Vestiges of monastic complexes of later dates are seen on all the sides. A few antiquities, a good number of sculptured and architectural pieces, some surface collections from the ancient mound and the relics recovered in course of various operations primarily at the Maha Chaitya site are kept at Amaravati museum as well as in a number of other museums in India and abroad.
It is calm and quite a solitary area. We encountered many devotees offering their prayers with flowers, garlands or lights and walking around the Maha Chaitya on a circular path, reciting prayers in a hushed voice. Even small children prayed for blessings uttering the great words ‘Buddham saranam gacchami (I go to the Buddha for refuge), Dhammam saranam gacchami (I go to the Dhamma for refuge), Sangham saranam gacchami (I go to the Sangha for refuge). Sculptural arts on broken stone pieces have been placed on all sides of this circular path. Each of them represents a symbolic meaning of Lord Buddha’s life.
Approximately 2 km away from this Maha Chaitya another centre of interest for Buddhists is the 125-foot (38 meters) high white marble ‘Dhyana’ statue of the Meditating Buddha. It is a state of meditation stage where the hands rest on the lap. The Dhyana Buddha statue built on the banks of Krishna river in 4.5 acres land. It has eight pillars on a lotus pedestal. The Dhyana Buddha project was started in the year 2003 and has become a symbol of religion attraction. The complex has really been enriched with natural beauty. The theme park in front of the statue is another attraction for the public. The site has a hall inside it which consists of sculptures depicting Buddhist significance. The eight pillars signify the path for salvation followed by Buddha. The four zones signify the noble truths and the five ‘ayaka’ pillars signify the stages of life. The artists’ skill deserves appreciation for their artistic sense. At the end of the day, we left Amaravati, a cradle of Mahayana Buddhism. But our souls felt immersed in very sweat intonation - ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’. These chants brought us immense mental peace as we proceeded back to home.
As an end note for travellers, it is better to stay at a hotel in Vijayawada, a good commercially busy town with all types of facilities and well connected with the airport, 25 kms away from Amaravati. Here the beautiful golden temple of Goddess Durga with its golden pagoda and intricately carved ‘gopurams’ (entrance gates) and the surroundings can be an additional place to visit. Also, in the outskirts of Vijayawada, one can enjoy the Undavalli Caves featuring several ancient rock-cut caves, carved out of a sandstone hillside and adorned with elaborate statues. Wide and spacious Suryalanka Beach and Haritha Beach Resort is near to this shore. This pristine beach is clean, and the water of the Bay of Bengal is crystal clear.