By P. R. RAMACHANDRA RAO, M.A., B.L.
If the Krishna river valley project at Nandikonda goes through, in another five years, the subject of this article will have been irretrievably lost to the world. Because, the project, in its fulfillment, will completely inundate the valley of Nagarjunikonda, and the most extensive remains anywhere of the international heritage of Buddhism will have become one hopeless reservoir of water, a three-mile stretch from hill to hill.
For, Nagarjunikonda is not merely the treasure-trove of our national culture; it was the focus, in its time, of the pursuit of Buddhism of the entire arc of countries from Ceylon through Burma, the East Indian Archipelago, Thailand and Indo-China to China. The art of Nagarjunikonda was the farthest amplitude in India of the art of Amaravati, and it was from Nagarjunikonda that this gloriously indigenous art sailed forth to inspire the national arts of East Asia. We are therefore, as regards Nagarjunikonda, custodians of an international trust in very much the same way as towards Ajanta, Sanchi, Sarnath and Buddha Gaya.
In the lengthening shadow of the threatened submergence, Dr. R. Subrahmanyam of the Archaeological Survey of India and his willing band of workers are striving against odds to salvage what they can of this priceless heritage against the deadline of five years. It seems to have been assumed by the Government of India that within these five years (the time-limit set for the Nandikonda project) the remaining monuments of Nagarjunikonda may be dug up and stowed away in some museum of antiquities. Unfortunately, this assumption is thoroughly wrong.
Because, the previous excavations from 1926 to 1931 of A. H. Longhurst (handicapped by paucity of funds) and, from 1938 to 1940 of T. N. Ramachandran (cut short by the second World War) touched only the fringe of the exploration, of which the most part yet remains to be done. Those pioneer excavations were largely experimental and informed by an obvious readiness to achieve results and establish hypotheses. Funerary mounds (stupas) were assiduously sought and central shafts driven through them to probe lurking reliquaries of Buddhism. And, in the process, monasteries (viharas) were ripped up and very tentative conclusions drawn from naturally limited discoveries.
At every fresh discovery, even since the present phase of exploration which is hardly four months old, the theories of yesterday come toppling down. And, there is the vast charted city of Vijayapuri, the capital of the regnant Ikshvaku dynasty, which has yet to be excavated, not to speak of countless uncharted mounds, the debris of some seventeen hundred years, encrusting a buried civilisation. Assuredly, this can be no task of five years, nor can it indeed be set to any time-schedule. And how can any one think that the monuments of Nagarjunikonda, the chaityas and viharas can be transported? Can you transport Sanchi or the Taj Mahal and stow them away?
Unfortunately for Nagarjunikonda, it has become mixed up in the public mind with the Nandikonda project, with the politics and the economics of the Andhra State. The Andhras, normally a people with a tremendous pride in their past, have been sedulously misled by the politicians to set the heritage of Nagarjunikonda against the contingent benefits of the Nandikonda project, and a plea for the preservation of Nagarjunikonda has, by a strange perversity of logic, been equated to an act of hostility towards the Andhra State. This is, of course, ridiculous, for Nagarjunikonda can certainly co-exist with a beneficent project of the Krishna valley, and there can be no implied antagonism between the two, involving a sacrifice of the welfare of the Andhra State.
The obvious solution to the problem lies in an alternative site to Nandikonda: I am told that one certainly exists at Dommarlagondi, further up the stream, although it may involve a further (but in the supreme context, a very justifiable) charge on the national budget. For instance, the defence of culture is, in the perspective of history, not the less important than the defence of national territory. No people in the present can plan for the future without an awareness of the measure of their past and the irreverent present will itself soon pass by, a mockery of its hopes, unhonoured by tomorrow.
It is, therefore, the imperative responsibility of the Government of India to preserve Nagarjunikonda for posterity, to employ the ingenuity of their engineers towards this end. It is a great pity that neither Pandit Nehru nor Maulana Azad, the Minister for Culture, has yet come by the way of Nagarjunikonda to realise its tremendous import to Indian history. This history was not until long ago written up entirely from upwards of the Vindhyas, of the rise and fall of the empires around Delhi; that the Deccan enshrines a more ancient culture, with important consequences to the civilisation of Asia, has been a very much later dawning.
And incidentally, some one in the Government of India has, I hope, figured out the consequences to the lower Krishna region from a river valley project around Nandikonda. Since the Tungabhadra project dammed up the outflow of its water, the Krishna has been so far depleted that the second crop in the Krishna District has had to be watered by the release of the storage water in the Tungabhadra dam. The projected harnessing of the Krishna water about Nandikonda may very nearly dry up the now prosperous area in the reaches of the lower Krishna.
The river Krishna, in its passage to the sea, drops into a magnificent bowl of hills at Nagarjunikonda; an offshoot of the Nallamala range of the Eastern Ghats, they enclose the valley in a formidable natural fortification. And, in this fastness flourished in the third century after Christ, the city of Vijayapuri, capital of the Ikshvaku Kings, feudatories first and then successors to the Satavahanas (225 A. D.) The city, contemporaneous with Amaravati by its inscriptions, lay to the west of the hill Sri Parvata (known to Hiuen-Tsang) but which Fa hien, by a mishearing of the component as par (a) vata, curiously rendered into a pigeon!
It is from this hill that the puranic synonym Sri-parvatiyas for the Ikshvakus, is derived; but the hill is also renowned in history, for it was here in a monastery, by an ancient Tibetan tradition, that Acharya Nagarjuna, the celebrated founder of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism, lived toward the evening of his life and was interred. (This Nagarjuna is not to be confounded with his namesake of three centuries later, the Tantric Siddha and master of “Mayuri-vidya”, who, to add to the confusion, also gravitated to Sri Parvata from Jaggayyapeta, another Buddhist settlement by the river).
By the Tibetan tradition, Acharya Nagarjuna ruled the Buddhist church for some fifty-seven years after 137 A.D. and may, therefore, have been contemporaneous with five successive Satavahanas, Vasishtiputra Pulomavi II (123), Sivasri Pulomavi III (156), Siva Skanda Satakarni (163), Yajnasri Satakarni (166) and Vijaya (195). But, the indigenous Lilavati-katha would make him minister to the earlier Hala Satavahana, the famous compiler of the “Gatha-sapta-sati”. Nagarjuna is credited by Taranatha, the Tibetan historian, with procuring the erection of the sculptured inner rail at Amaravati, and his royal benefactor is very likely, by Hiuen Tsang’s account, to have built a “sangharama” for Nagarjuna, tunnelling Sri Parvata, although the Chinese pilgrim makes the Satavahana the king of Dakshina Kosala (Chattisgarh today), which also undoubtedly he was.
Hiuen-Tsang’s description of the monastery is memorable: “In the midst of long galleries with caves for walking under and high towers, the storeyed building reaches to the height of five stages, each stage with four halls and viharas enclosed. In each vihara was a statue of the Buddha cast in gold, of the size of life, wrought with consummate art and singularly adorned.”
The Ikshvakus, a dynasty of great antiquity (mentioned in the Rig and Atharva Veda and the “Satapatha Brahmana”) claimed descent from the royal house of Kosala (Ayodhya) and probably originated from the region of the upper Indus or even further eastwards. The puranic accounts make forty-eight out of the hundred apocryphal sons of Ikshvaku rulers of Dakshina (Deccan), and their southerly progress was doubtless influenced by the rising empire of Magadha, under Bimbisara, overshadowing Kosala: Although, of the two sons of Sri Rama, Lava remained to rule Uttara Kosala from Sravasti, the other, Kusa, by the “Padmapurana” moved southwards to establish Kusasthalipura, named after him, at the foot of the Vindhyas and reigned over Dakshina Kosala. And. it was two Ikshvaku princes, Asmaka and Mulaka, who founded the two contiguous kingdoms, bearing their names, on the Godavari, corresponding to the Aurangabad and Nizamabad districts of the Hyderabad State today.
At any rate, the inscriptions of the Ikshvakus, discovered at Nagarjunikonda, seem to suggest a south-westerly direction in their migration to the Krishna valley; the language of the inscriptions, described archaically as “a normalised semi-literary Prakrit” was probably used by a people whose home-tongue was Dravidian. These inscriptional finds, limited as yet to Nagarjunikonda, Jaggayyapeta, Ramireddipalli, Goli and Gurazala, have spelled out a very tentative table of the Ikshvaku dynasty at Vijayapuri, liable to be upset by any chance epigraphic discovery yielding another king. The established kings are in the line of succession, Rudrapurushadatta, Vasishtiputra Sri Kshantimula, Mathariputra Sri Virapurushadatta and Vasishtiputra Sri Bahubala (preferably to Dr. Vogel’s “Ehuvula”) Kshantimula. Their matronymic prefixes are clearly modelled on the practice of the Satavahanas, to whose political and religious traditions the Ikshvakus were the natural successors.
Of these, the second “Ikshvaku-svami” Vasishtiputra Sri Kshantimula would seem to have risen to sovereign power eclipsing the effete Satavahana, Pulomavi IV, at Amaravati, less than sixty miles by a crow’s flight from the Ikshvaku capital. The aspiring Ikshvaku promptly affirmed his overlordship of his outlying domains by the Agnihotra, Agnishtoma, Vajapeya and Asvamedha sacrifices, which he revived after more than a century of disuse. He was by the inscriptions “Savathesu apatihata sampakasa,” (Sarvartheshu apratihata samkalpa) a man of unconquerable will and of unimpeded purpose; “hirana-koti go-sata-sa-hasa hala-sata-sahasa padayisa,” the giver of crores of gold, of a hundred thousand cows and a hundred thousand ploughshare worthy lands, signifying an unprecedented reclamation of cultivable land. He was, importantly, “Virupakshapati-Mahaseha-parigahatasa,” (Virupakshapati Mahasena parigrahita), a devotee of Skanda.
The successors of Vasishtiputra Sri Kshantimula were, like him, protagonists of Vedic Brahmanism; but, such was the spacious catholicity of the times that the royal ladies were, surprisingly, very devout votaries of the Buddhist faith. To their munificence and especially to that of another outstanding benefactress, not of ruling house, Bodhi Sri, the shining monuments of Nagarjunikonda are almost entirely due.
Mathariputra Sri Virapurushadatta succeeded to an established, and obviously prosperous empire; he further consolidated it by regions of influence, promoted by matrimonial alliances. He married the Ujanika-maharajabalika, Rudradharabtrattarika, daughter of the Scythian ruler (Rudrasena I?) of Ujjain; his own daughter, Kodabali Siri (Kundavalli Sri), Virapurushadatta married to the Maharaja of Vanavasa (Banavasi). He forestalled domestic rivalries to the throne; his sister Prithvi (preferably to Adavi) Kshanti Sri, became the wife of the commander of the imperial forces. “Mahadandanayaka” Skanda Visakha Naga of the Dhanakas (just as a sister of Vasishtiputra Sri Kshantimula, Kshanti Sri, had married Mahasenapati Mahatalavara Maha Skanda Sri of the Pugiyas).
Of the five queens of Virapurushadatta, the chief, Mahadevi Bhattideva, a Vasishti princess, was the mother of his successor, Vasishtiputra Sri Bahubala Kshantimula; three were his own cousins, daughters of his father’s sisters; Kshanti Sri, the Pugiya princess, daughter of Brahma Sri, and Rudradharabhattarika, the Scythian princess.
The imperial consorts achieved renown by their monumental benefactions to the Buddhist church, and a fanciful attempt has been made to credit them, from a misreading or isolated sculptures at Nagarjunikonda, with converting their Brahmanical lord to the Buddhist faith. These sculptures undoubtedly represent the “Mandhatu Jataka” and not, as incorrectly surmised, the king Virapurushadatta stamping out the Brahmanical “linga” in the bigotry of the new convert to Buddhism, or attaining the wishful finale of the rununciation of worldly dominion.
Of the royal benefactresses, the foremost was Mahatalavari Mahasenapatni Kshanti Sri, sister to Vasishtiputra Sri Kshantimula; in the panegyric of the inscription, “she was the great mistress of munificence, devoted to all the virtuous,” and out of compassion for sramanas, Brahmanas and the miserable and the constitute, she bestowed on them a matchless flow of gifts towards the welfare and happiness of all the world. She established chaitya-grihas (temples), viharas, sila-mantapas (stone-halls) and chatusalas (cloisters) for the benefit, especially of the Aparpamaha-vinaya-sailiya sect of Buddhism, to which she was obviously affined. But, most important of all, she reconstructed the Maha chaityas (the great stupa) and the Maha-vihara, embellishing them further with ayaku-kambhas (votive pillars), in groups of five at the four cardinal directions. It is on these pillars that the inscriptions are chiefly engraved; they constitute the principal source book on Nagarjunikonda.
Other royal votaries were Rudradharabhattarika who gave, to raise a votive pillar, gold “dinarimasakas” (the cameos of which probably inspired the so-called Scythian warrior with the Roman helmet in a Nagarjunikonda sculpture); Prithvi Kshanti Sri, Kshudra Kshanti Sri, Bapi Sri, Sashti Sri and Vishnu Sri who set up each an ayaka-kambha to the Mahachaitya for their “welfare and happiness in both the worlds”.
But, the most memorable of all the benefactions at Nagarjunikonda were by the upasika, Bodhi Sri, kinswoman of the royal treasurer, For the acharyas and sthaviras (religious fraternities), among others, of Tambraparna (Ceylon), Kashmira, Gandhara, China, Chilata (Kirata), Tosali (Dhauli), Aparanta (North Konkan), Vanga, Vanavasa, Yavana, Damila (Tamila) and Palura (Dantapura?), she provided a chaitya-griha on the Kshudra Dharmagiri, another at the Kulaha-vihara, and a shrine for the Bodhi tree at the Simhala-vihara. She made other endowments of pillars and prayer-halls at Maha Dharmagiri, Devagiri, Purvasaila, Kantakasaila (Ghantasala), Hirumuthuva and Pushpagiri.
These names are important, for Nagarjunikonda had become the focus not only of the votaries of Buddhism from every part of India, but such was its vast renown as a kshetra of enlightenment that acharyas and fraternities of monks were drawn to it all the way from Ceylon, Burma, the countries of the East Indian Archipelago, Thailand and Indo-China to China. Because, the streams of the culture of Amaravati had voyaged, with the flourishing foreign trade of the Satavahanas, to the countries to the west and east; the prosperous commercial class, turned Buddhist, had helped raise the stupendous monuments of Buddhism; and in going forth, sometimes to settle, they truly laid the foundations of art in Farher India.
The river Krishna, known to the Greek geographer Ptolemy as Maisols (a name probably preserved in the town of Masulipatam), was certainly navigable, at high tide, a long way inland, as the Buddhist settlements by the river, Nagarjunikonda, Goli, Amaravati, Jaggayyapeta, Ghantasala, Gummadidurru, Alluru and Bezwada, show. The river was the main artery of this foreign trade; its principal emporium was Ghantasala (Ptolemy’s “Konta- Kossyla”), and the earliest Andhra settlers chiefly took off from Guduru (“Kodduta” to Ptolemy) at ‘the mouth of the Krishna, although alternative points of departure may also have existed at the estuaries of the Godavari and the Vamsadhara (at Salihundam).
The region of the Krishna was, as Joveau-Dubreuil has pointed out, certainly fortunate in the confluence of the highways of Andhra history at Vengi, the meeting-place of the ancient roads from the kingdoms of Dravida, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Kosala and Kalinga. The early settlers, taking off from the Andhra coast, would seem to have landed at the port of Martban in Burma and settled, at first, in the region of Thaton and then in the deltas of the Salwin and Irawady rivers about Pegu; later, pushing south, they probably arrived in Siam and fanned out into the kingdoms of modern Indo-China, and thence onwards into China.
The two other routes of emigration were later; one from the port of Tamralipti (Tamluk) on the river Hoogly in Gupta times, and another, in Pallava times, from Mamallapuram to Mergui off the Burma coast, and southwards, by Tennasserim, through the straits of Malacca, to Malaya, Sumatra, Java and Borneo.
In time, the voyages had been reversed and, with the rise of Nagarjunikonda as an international seat of Buddhist culture, the fraternities of monks from Ceylon to China had taken up their abode at Sri Parvata, seeking light. The heritage of Amaravati, broadcast from Nagarjunikonda in the Mahayana phase of Buddhism, passed into the national cultures of those countries, especially manifested in their nascent styles of art: from Dong-duong (very significantly called Amaravati) in Champa, present-day Annam; from the village of Pong Tuk in the province of Ratburi and Srideb in the valley of the Nam Sak in Siam; from South Djember in Java, Sikendung in Celebes, Palembang in Sumatra and Kota Bangoen in Borneo, has issued Buddhist statuary which is indelibly impressed with the sculptural style of Amaravati.
The architecture of Nagarjunikonda is really in a process of unfoldment; but the discovered remains fall into typical structures, of which the evolution has been uncovered by the excavations in progress. Of these, the chaityas are oblong apsidal temples, with a brick-roof, shaped like a barrel-vault, which runs the whole length from the apse to the entrance, embellished by an ornamental step of semi-circular stone which was to attain in the dagahas of Anuradhapura and Polonnuruva in Ceylon further decorative refinements. In the apse was a stupa, usually of stone for worship, but, statues of the Buddha, reflecting the revolution in iconography, were not uncommon.
The chaityas, like the Maha-chaitya enshrining the relic of the Buddha, probably stood by themselves for the worship of vast congregations, but a chaitya was also an invariable component of each monastic establishment. This was conceived with a rare economy of religious purpose; in the forefront was a chaitya, and sometimes two, with a circumambulatory passage, and then a prayer-hall of stone-columns, flanked by a rectangular court-yard, of which the enclosing wall of brick had built into it rows of cells, dormitories for the resident monks, stores and refectories.
The most significant of the establishments at Nagarjunikonda was what was undoubtedly its University, imposing even in its ruined state. In its department of arts, which has yielded glyptic stone of stages from the skeleton drawing to the finished design, were probably carved the sculptures of Nagarjunikonda.
The stupas were not all of one design, as deduced by Longhurst and Ramachandran, following him–in horizontal section, a wheel of standardised bricks, with spokes radiating from a central hub, filled in with earth, to make up an umbrella of a dome; and, at the four cardinal points, projecting altars, buttressed, in the more outstanding stupas with ayaka-kambhas in groups of five. That his design was not invariable the present excavations have shown; indeed, stupas, have been discovered of superimposed constructions, evidencing different periods in designing, involving outright destruction of existing stupas and their reconstruction in more elaborate patterns. One remain, especially, may prove invaluable, as the missing link in the history of South Indian temple architecture, because the site has uncovered what were perhaps, in embryo, the four directional towers of the future temple, the origins of which now remain purely conjectural.
From the absence of any remains, it has been surmised that the railing of the Maha-chaitya may have been of carved wood, lost to us by the ravages of climate. But, it is difficult to think that the mature architecture of Nagarjunikonda should have reverted to wood as a decorative medium when, in point of sculptural evolution, stone had long ago supplanted wood. It is more probable that the stone railing (evidenced by socketed pillars from the site), as the outermost member, was the first target for iconoclasm or depradation, and has been irrecoverably lost.
The ornamentation of the stupa was in stone and stucco; the sculptured stone encased the brickwork, firmly fixed to it in mortar. This supremely glyptic stone of greenish grey (which also composed the carvings at Amaravati) was quarried from the vicinity of Dachepalli and transported to Nagarjunikonda by the river. The stone was of exquisite texture, susceptible to rendering the delicate inflexions of life, as well as the patterns of intricate forms. The sculpturing was in bas-relief, on the several members of the architecture, on pillars and beams and cornices, in panels of illustration of incidents from the life of the Buddha, or synoptic renderings of tales from the “Jatakas”.
From the references in the inscriptions to Gandhara and the finds of Roman coins (of Hadrian especially), Greco-Roman influences in the sculptures of Nagarjunikonda have been too readily inferred, but there is little of Gandhara in them except it be the apparent consonance in the drapery of the Buddhist “sanghati” or monastic robe, in its design of incised lines and overlapping ridges; but even their lines are organised into a perfect rhythm, attuned to the movement of the body beneath, a refinement to which the Kushan Bodhisattvas did not attain.
For, the art of Nagarjunikonda was the final extension in India of the art of Amaravati, which was indeed a truly national expression, affected little by the precedent Greco-Roman or Perse-politan influences of Indian sculpture. A purely indigenous art was in process at Amaravati and Nagarjunikonda; the art, reflecting the contemporary religious transition, enlisted the masses in an identity with popular traditions, leading incidentally to the beginnings of an ingenuous folk art.
This, in the sum, is Nagarjunikonda, the priceless treasure India bequeathed to the world, revealed as yet in a broken arc of its magnificent conception, and its wanton submersion would be a vandalism unparalleled, in peace time, in the annals of history.