Amaravati Art in the Context of Andhra Archaeology

by Sreyashi Ray chowdhuri | 2018 | 90,477 words

This page relates ‘Religious background of early Andhra Pradesh’ of the study on Amaravati Art in the Context of Andhra Archaeology, including museum exhibitions of the major archeological antiquities. These pages show how the Buddhist establishment of Amaravati (Andhra Pradesh) survived from 4th century BCE to 14th century CE. It includes references and translations of episodes of Buddha’s life drawn from the Avadanas and Jatakas which are illustrated in Amaravati art.

Religious background of early Andhra Pradesh

It is undeniable that all the early centres of Andhra culture took a definite shape due to the Buddhist activities in the region. However, prior to Buddhism traces of other religious practices were visible in various archaeological centres of early Andhradeśa. A few words may be stated about the various religious practices prevalent in the region prior to the advent of Buddhism.

It may be mentioned that from Neolithic times several tribes like Nāgas, Mahishkas, Aśvakas and Savaras practiced totemism. Totemism is an aspect of animism, which believes that force pervades the entire world. Around Dhānyakaṭaka lived the Nagās. With time the primitive practice of totemism receded to the background and the worship of Mother Goddess developed. The remains of a number of terracotta female figurines with child give indication of the prevalence of the cult of Mother Goddess in Andhra[1]. The existence of megalithic burials (Pl 13a) in various parts of Andhra signifies the belief in life after death. The belief in life after death and the worship of ancestors led to the cult of Yakṣas. It may be stated that yakṣa was the name of a tribe in Andhra.It was believed that the yakṣas dwelt in trees. The yakṣa tribe believed that the spirits of the deceased resided on trees and hence they started worshipping the trees. Later they became the followers of Buddhism. Brāhmaṇism entered South India. Several literary texts like Suttanipāta and Bhimasena Jātaka throw light on the prevalence of vedic religion in the Andhradeśa. Sutrakāras Baudhāyana and Apastamba lived in Andhra during the 5th -4th centuries B.C.E and framed the rules and regulations regarding the recitation of Vedas and the performance of the vedic rituals.

Buddhism faced the antagonism from the people following the Brahmanical faith. The Brahmanical people called the Buddhist mound in Andhra as. ‘Rākshasagudilu’. This term points to the existence of religious antagonism in the region[2]. The story of Bavari in Suttanipāta gives indication of the entrance of Buddhism during the lifetime of Buddha.The Kathavatthu and Paramarthadipana supports the evidence of Suttanipāta. Archaeological remains endorse the literary evidences. Scholars are of the opinion that due to the untiring efforts of Aśoka Buddhism entered Andhra and enjoyed the position of state religion. The 13th Rock Edict of Aśoka mentions that the Andhras were within the Rāja Visaya and already following Dhamma. But later excavations at Amarāvatī suggests the antiquity of Buddhism to pre-Aśokan period. Similarly the paleography of the inscriptions on the relic casket and solid brick stūpa of Bhaṭṭiprolu is pre-Aśokan. The literary and the traditional accounts give important information regarding the rise and spread of Buddhism in Andhra. In this regard, mention may be made of Hiuen Tsang’s account which gives information of Buddha’s visit to Andhra. In addition to it the Jātaka story relating to Buddha’s previous births as Sumedha mention the city of Śrī Dhānyakaṭaka[3]. Further Padmasambhava mentions that Buddha was born as Padma-Sambhava in Dhānyakaṭaka. On the other hand, a Tibetan tradition mentions Śākyamuni as the promulgater of Kālacakra system in Dhānyakaṭaka.

From literary and archaeological sources, it can be surmised that local kings or chieftains of Andhradeśa patronized Buddhism much before the time of Aśoka. But Aśoka was primarily instrumental in propagating the religion on a large scale as a part of his missionary expedition, that is, Dhamma Vijaya[4].

Coastal Andhra became the hub of Andhra culture and this region became the seat of Buddhist culture in the centuries preceding and following the Christian era. This zone was studded with a number of Buddhist monuments. The Buddhist monasteries became the centres of education and learning[5].This can be understood from Hiuen Tsang’s study of Abhidhamma from Subhuti and Surya and in turn taught them the Mahāyāna principles at Dhānyakaṭaka. Further an inscription of Pallava Simhavarman at Amarāvatī state that the king listened to a discourse in this region.

Amarāvatī Mahāstūpa in coastal Andhra excelled from the rest in magnitude, grandeur and creative genius. The scholars opined that in the neighbouring region of the Mahācaitya of Amarāvatī lived a community of monks and in course of time Amarāvatī became a famous seat of the monastic culture[6]. The archaeological investigations support such an assumption. It can be stated that the earliest levels below the Mahācaitya distinguished as Period IB is represented as an occupational layer with huts on posts. There is the indication of the settlement of monks initially from Eastern epicenters, that is, Vaiśālī, Śrāvastī, Rājagriha and Kuśinagara. Further remains of NBP Ware, bowls and dishes, Black and Red Ware suggests pre-Mauryan strata discovered at the Mahājanapada sites of North.

The Buddhist community mostly belonged to the Mahāsaṅghikā school. In fact, since the breakup of the Saṅgha in the second council of Buddhism Andhra became a strong hold of the Mahāsaṅghikās. Two main divisions that arose in the second council was Thera and Mahāsaṅghikā. The Mahāsaṅghikās were more liberal in their interpretation of Vīṇāya and Dhamma[7]. The Mahāsaṅghikā school had many branches such as the Gokulika, Ekavyavaharikā, Prajnaptivāda, Bahuśrutīya, Lokottaravāda and Caityaka or Cetiyavāda school. N. Dutta opined that probably a section of the Mahāsaṅghikās attached great importance to the worship of stūpa or caitya as is found in the Mahāvastu and got the appellation of Caityaka[8]. During the early centuries of the Christian era, the Caityakas branched off from the Mahāsaṅghikās and became popular in Deccan. Evidence of this is found in inscriptions[9]. During the time of Vasisiṭhīputra Pulumāvi (135-163 CE) an inscription refers to the Mahāstūpa at Amarāvatī as Mahācetiya Chetikiyānam nikāsa parigahe[10]. Apart from the Chaityakas or Chetiyavadakas the inscription from Amarāvatī mention the name of another sect, that is, the Mahāvanaśeliyas which also flourished sometime in 2nd century CE.

However, it was the Caityakas who possibly renovated the stūpa at Amarāvatī in 2nd century CE and also introduced the image of Buddha in a limited scale. Probably the āyaka platforms were also added in the same period. It is assumed that the influence of the Caityakas crossed the limits of Andhradeśa and reached as far as west of Nasik. It is learnt that Mugudasa belonging to the lay community of the Chaityakas donated a cave for the monks. The Mahāvanaśeliyas remained confined to Amarāvatī though their western branch Aparamahāvīṇāśeliyas rose to prominence at Nāgārjunakoṇḍa[11].

In course of time sub-schools like Pūrvaśaila, Aparaśaila, Uttaraśaila, Rājagirika and Siddhārthaka emanated from the Caityakas.[12] Dhānyakaṭaka became the seat of Pūrvaśailas. Hiuen Tsang identified the monastic complex of Amarāvatī as the Pūrvaśaila Sangharāma[13]. Nāgārjunakoṇḍa became the seat of the Aparaśailas. Jaggayyapeta became the main centre of Uttaraśaila. Branches of Aparaśailas had their settlements at Ghaṇṭaśālā and Peddavegi. Like Dhānyakaṭaka, Alluru became the stronghold of Purvaśailas. Siddharthika had their main centre in Guntupalli[14].

However, it should be stated that, along with the Mahāsaṅghikās, Andhradeśa was also inhabited by the Theravādins. Mahiśāśakas, an orthodox sect of the Theravādins had their vihāra in the Nāgārjunakoṇḍa valley.

Archaeological antiquities reveal that Andhradeśa witnessed three phases of Buddhism, that is, Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna. Some of the early Buddhist centres like Vaddamānu, Nandalur, Thoṭlakoṇḍa, Pavurallakoṇḍa, Gopalapaṭnam, Penumaka, Chaṇḍavaram, etc flourished as Theravāda centres until they faded into oblivion. Ghaṇṭaśālā, Buddham, Alluru flourished on the principles of Mahāyānism and continued for a longer period until it ended abruptly uninfluenced by Vajrayānism. Nelakoṇḍapalli, Gummadidurru and Saṅkaram began with the Mahāyāna phase and later passed on to the Vajrayāna phase. Dhānyakaṭaka and Sālihuṇḍam witnessed three phases of Buddhism.

The activities of the Mahāsaṅghikās and Nāgārjuna’s philosophical contribution during the reign of Śrī Yajna Sātakarṇi led Andhradeśa to change to the Mahāyānist phase. This led to the great emphasis on iconic worship of Buddha rather than symbolic worship. In the Mahāyāna doctrine, the historical Buddha represents the nirmānakāyā. He is an embodiment of compassion who always help others to attain their goal[15]. Further, there was infiltration of the Vajrayāna faith in the Andhra country. This led to the emphasis on the female element and large scale practice of tāntric Buddhism.

These doctrinal changes in the Andhra country affected the content of art and architecture. Thus during the 1st century CE the aniconic tradition gave place to the iconic tradition. The excavation by R. Subrahmanyam in and around Amarāvatī in 1958-60 unearthed a bronze icon belonging to the Vajrayāna phase, besides other antiquities. Further excavations by I.K. Sarma (1973-74) in Amarāvatī unearthed the cultural sequence and the chronology of the Mahācaitya of Amarāvatī. According to him Period V spanning from 6th century C.E-11th century C.E is represented by the occurrence of Vajrayāna phase. The occurrence of stone and bronze icons of Maitreya(Pl 13b), Manjuśrī, Lokeśvara, Vajrapāṇi, Tara etc of Vajrayāna faith from Amarāvatī clearly signify the gradual transformation of Mahāyāna Buddhism to tantric Vajrayāna faith[16].

The physical relics of the Master and his disciple is considered as the main focus for Buddhist devotion and the most important symbol of early Buddhism became the stūpa or the relic mound. It acted as the symbol of Buddha’s Parinirvāṇa. According to Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta when Buddha was asked what was to be done with the remains after his death he said that his body should be placed within two iron vessels and it should be cremated. The relics should be placed in a stūpa where four roads meet. The relics of his disciple should be treated likewise. After Buddha’s cremation his relics (Śārīras) were divided into eight portions and each was placed in a stūpa. Later Aśoka opened up the original stūpas and distributed the relics in many stūpas throughout India[17]. However, it should be pointed out that even during the pre-Buddhist times, there was the practice of raising mounds over the remains of great personalities. Thus, earlier it was memorial but later it became an article of veneration and worship for the Buddhists.

The Buddhist stūpas can be broadly divided into four categories- Śārīraka (mounds enshrining the bodily remains of great persons), Pāribhogika (mounds containing objects used by the Master or his disciple), Uddeśika (mounds commemorative of incidents in the Buddha’s life, previous births or spots visited by him) and votive (erected by pilgrims on sacred sites). The Śārīraka stūpas are commonly found in Andhra. Mahāstūpa Dhānyakaṭaka also belonged to the Śārīraka type. Manjuśrī Mūlakalpa refers to the enshrinement of the corporeal relics of Buddha in the Caitya (Śrī Dhānyakaṭaka Chaityaka Caitya Jinadhātudharebhuvi)[18]. Along with Amarāvatī, Mahastūpa of Bhaṭṭiprolu, Ghaṇṭaśālā and Nāgārjunakoṇḍa have yielded relics of the Master or his disciple. In addition to it the tradition points to the incident of Buddha’s visit to Dhānyakaṭaka. Therefore it can be suggested that the mound also falls to the category of the Uddeśika stūpa. Votive stūpas were also found at Amarāvatī[19].

The symbolism associated with the component parts of the stūpa is immense. The dome (Aṇḍa) of the stūpa is called kumbha as it enshrines in its centre the sacred relics. (Bījass eed). The casing of the stūpa dome acts as the outermost container of the relics and symbolically represents the Pūrṇa kumbha or vase of plenty which is one of the eight sacred symbols (Aṣṭamaṅgals) of Buddhism. The dome is surmounted by the parasol. The parasol stands as the emblem of royalty and it signifies the spiritual supremacy of Buddha. The use of parasol might have been derived from the custom of ancient rulers sitting under the shade of the sacred tree while administering justice. Thus the parasol on the stūpa denotes sovereignty and the sacred tree. The parasol is surrounded by the harmikā. The word harmikā might have been derived from harmya which means cooler shade giving place. Around the stūpa upto the vedikā is the circumambulatory (pradaksiṇāpatha) to go round the sacred structure. Pradaksiṇāpatha around the stūpa is one of the main religious practices of the Buddhists[20]. Below the dome is the medhi. The ground plan exhibits the pattern of a wheel with radiating spokes from the central hub. This is a unique construction pattern in Andhra symbolizing universal spiritual sovereignty. The cardinal points of the upper pradaksiṇāpatha were marked by five free standing āyaka pillars. They were probably erected before the middle of 2nd century C.E[21]. These pillars are a special feature in the Andhra Buddhist architecture and are very ornamental[22].

The five āyaka pillars may represent five Buddhas of the present kalpa or the five Dhyāni Buddhas or the five elements[23]. J Fergusson and J. Burgess saw the pillars as “Worshipful columns’. In an article on the architecture of Amarāvatī, G. Jouveau Dubreuil thought that five pillars signify five Buddhas. On the basis of the representation on the pillar A.H longhurst suggested that the five pillars were created to symbolize the five episodes of the life of Buddha (Birth, Great Departure, Enlightenment, First Sermon and Parinirvāṇa)[24]. Mireille Benisti opined that the pillar represent Mahapurusha, that is, Buddha himself[25]. Thus the five Kalpa Buddhas are represented by five pillars at four directions of Andhra stūpa. The five Buddhas of the world (Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, Kasyapa, Sakyamuni and Maityreya) manifested in the form of five pillars was integrated in the Andhra architecture at four cardinal points[26]. Thus the stūpa is not only the symbol of Parinirvana, but represents the Master himself. In some reliefs from Amarāvatī a series of Buddhas are shown alternating with stūpas.

The sculptures of Amarāvatī tell us that the sculptors were familiar with the cycles of Buddhist myths and legends. Thus the stūpas of Amarāvatī were richly decorated with scenes illustrating the Jātaka stories, the Avadānas and the scenes from Buddha’s life stories. Though both the Jātakas and Avadānas, an important section of Buddhist literature, are used for inculcating moral precepts of Buddha, there lies some differences. In Jātakas Bodhisattva is the principle person, while in the Avadāna, this is not so in many cases. While Jātakas always describe Buddha’s previous existence, Avadānas deal not only with Buddha but also saints, Arahāts and many other beings. The Buddhist doctrine of Karma is well illustrated in Jātaka, but in Avadānas bhakti predominates. Jātaka may be called a Avadāna, but not vice-versa. Only when the hero of the past is Bodhisattva, this kind of Avadāna can be called a Jātaka[27]. The Jātaka are legends of Buddhas previous births which he himself and his disciples narrated at various occasions to his followers in support of Buddhist doctrine. In Jātaka stories good actions were highlighted stressing better position in the next birth and bad actions leading to lower positions in the following birth. Though the Jātaka stories were transmitted orally and later codified in various Buddhist texts, visual narratives of the Jātaka first appeared. Since it was recognized as the part and parcel of Buddhist literature it was depicted in various Buddhist art centres and Amarāvatī was no exception to this rule[28]. The Jātakas probably served as instruments for the monks who were spiritual guides in explaining the meaning and morals of the Jātakas to the people who paid homage to the Buddhist relics enshrined in the stūpas.

Footnotes and references:


Das D. Jithendra, 1993, The Buddhist Architecture in Andhra, New Delhi, pp 10-11.


Ramachandran A, 1996, The Cultural History of Lower kṛṣṇa Valley, its contacts with South East Asia, Jaipur, p 34.


Sarma I.K, 1988, Studies in early Buddhist Monuments and Brahmī Inscriptions of Andhradeśa, Nagpur, p 1


Subrahmanyam B, 2005, Jātakas in South Indian Art, Delhi, p 6.


Subrahmaniam K.S , 1981, Buddhist remains in South India Early Andhra History of Andhra. 225 AD to 610 AD, New Delhi, p 27


Dutt Sukumar, Reprinted 1988, Buddhist monks and monasteries of India, The history and their contribution to Indian Culture, London, p 135.


Sivaramamurti C, 1956, Amaravatiī Sculpture in the Madras Government Museum, Madras, pp 15-16.


Datta N, 1931, ‘Notes on the Nagarjunakonda inscriptions’, Indian Historical Quarterly, vol VII, 3, Calcutta, p 648.


Das D. Jithendra, Op.cit, p 13


Sarkar H, 1966, Studies in Early Buddhist Architecture in India, New Delhi, p 101.


Ibid, p 101.


Das D. Jithendra, Op.cit, p 14.


Watters Thomas (tr), reprinted 1905, On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India, AD 629-645, Vol-II, edited by Rhys Davids T.W and Bushell S.W, London, pp 214-218


Das. D. Jithendra, Op.cit, p 14.


Prasad B. Rajendra, 1980, Art of South India, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, p 9.


Subrahmanyam B, Op.cit, p10.


Harvey Peter, 1991, ‘Venerated object and symbols of early Buddhism’ in Werner Karel (ed), Symbols in Art and Religion, The Indian and the Comparative Perspective, Delhi, p 82.


Sivaramamurti C, Op.Cit, p 7


Sivaramamurti C, Op.Cit, p 21


Das D. Jithendra, Op.cit, p 27.


Benisti Mireille, 2003, Stylistics of Buddhist Art in India, Vol 1, New Delhi, p 127.


Ramachandran A, Op.cit, pp 50-51


Mireille Benisti, Op.cit, p 129.


Ibid, p 131


Ibid, p 135


Ibid, p 142


Chattopadhyay Jayanti, 1994, Bodhisattva Avadāna Kalpalatā, Calcutta, pp 56-57.


Ahir D.C, 2000, The Influence of the Jatakas in Art and Literature, Delhi, pp12-19.

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