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The Coming of Buddhism – Buddhism in Andhra Pradesh

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.

These are the earliest historical monuments of Andhra. Most of them date to the Ashokan period, 4th – 3rd century B.C. This does not mean that Buddhism came to Andhra only with or after Emperor Ashoka. When Emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism he spread the message of the religion as far and wide in the country as possible. There is, however, doubt whether Buddha Himself visited Andhra Pradesh. But there is mention of the land in early Buddhist literature and stories like the laws of Baudhayana and so, historians are as sure as reconstruction can be, the Buddhism came to Andhra almost as soon as it was born. Many of the stupas that remain in Andhra are those that were erected by Emperor Ashoka. It is said that the emperor sent special missions to erect stups all over the country. In the most ancient of monuments, at Bhattiprolu, may be seen inscriptions of a southern variation of the Ashokan Brahmi alphabet, the parent of the later Andhra script. This is, in fact, the first evidence of the language of Telugu. At that time, scholars say, it had many Prakrit words, gradually it came to incorporate many Sanskrit words and adopt the present day script known as the Vengi-Chalukya script. There is a school of thought which says that because Andhra was exposed to so many varying influences early in its history, the people learnt to absorb words from other languages and enrich their own. Words from Pali, Sanskrit, Greek are some examples. Telugu language has probably the largest number of alphabets: 56!

The end of the Ashokan period came with the beginning of the rule of a dynasty called the Satavahanas. The Satavahanas ruled from 225 B.C. to 225 A.D. Their rule is famous for their patronage of the arts. Into the period was packed tremendous growth of Buddhism and Buddhist art in the region.

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!

In architecture, there are scholars who say it is the pattern of the viharas and the chaityas that has formed the basis of South Indian temple architecture. Whether this can be taken as the whole truth or not, an influence cannot be ruled out. In fact there is no chasm between Buddhist and Hindu art and so tradition continued – one weaving into another.

The Satavahana period is significant for its contribution to the history of art. The earliest historical paintings in India, that can still be viewed, belong to this period. Some of the most glorious Buddhist caves were excavated out of living rock along the north-western route from Vengi. Paintings closely resembling the ones at Amaravati are found in the famous Ajanta caves. These paintings are concentrated in caves 9 and 10.

The art of paintings grew even when Buddhism had waned. A fascinating example of continuity in tradition can be seen in the adaptation of rock cut structures for Hindu temples. In and around Bezawada a number of rock cut temples may be seen housing Hindu gods.

All the earlier culture of the Deccan came into a definite shape under Buddhist stimulus out of which emerged the new Brahminical culture of the post-Satavahana period. The third century A.D. was thus culmination of one epoch and the beginning of another political and cultural history. The waning of Buddhist culture was gradual, so much so that in the 7th century A.D. when Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang visited India, he counted 50 monasteries and 4500 monks in the area. He also noted that simultaneously there were other regions where Jainism and Brahminical order had replaced Buddhism.