Phanigiri: Interpreting an Ancient Buddhist Site in Telangana review: Echoes from the past

In 1953, Marg, under the dynamic leadership of its founder-editor Mulk Raj Anand, published a special issue on Nagarjunakonda against the glowing backdrop of an independent India with its diverse regions waiting to bloom. The issue carried a wonderful fictional piece by him, ‘Conversations at Nagarjunakonda’, that creatively brought to the fore social interactions around Buddhist monasteries, conversations between travellers, arguments and debates on philosophical discourses, and last, but not least, discussions on the art that should adorn the viharas and stupas that had mushroomed at innumerable places all over the Deccan. Poignantly, Mulk Raj Anand does not leave out the Chenchus, an indigenous people, inhabiting the surrounding Nallamala hills from this imaginative account.

Last year, Naman Ahuja collaborated with a galaxy of art historians and scholars of Buddhism to present us with a well-crafted book on Phanigiri built around extant material — remains of viharas, sculptures, coins, inscriptions — that brings to life a well-planned Buddhist monastic habitation on a hilltop shaped in the form of a ‘Phani’ or a ‘naga hood.’ In fact, the imaginative here is hidden behind the incisive endeavours of each of the six contributing scholars who give us insightful descriptions and details of exquisite art and architectural remnants of the past that must draw our enthusiasm and admiration all at once.

Meticulous account

Marg has thus continued this long tradition that discovers, describes, analyses, critiques all that art in its full blown essence can reveal to a contemporary society. The fictional story by Mulk Raj Anand had ended with the Andhra artist ( shilpakara) telling the visiting Roman traveller to visit other such places like Ajanta, Karle, Bedsa, Sanchi, Barhut to get a fuller picture of a thriving society of the times smitten with the new ethic of Buddhism and its way of life. Phanigiri, like many other Buddhist sites was unknown at that time and not on this list. It took a good half century after that for Phanigiri to emerge on the Deccan landscape as a significant Buddhist site, thanks to the efforts of the then Department of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Andhra Pradesh (before 2014) that first brought to light the activities and memories of human populations inhabiting what we today call Telangana during the early centuries of the Common Era and, which in our present, we desire to preserve and conserve as heritage. Indeed, the excavation work for the last six years has continued at Phanigiri by the Department of Heritage of Telangana and its former Director, N.R. Visalatchy, a bureaucrat by profession, has contributed to the volume to give us a detailed meticulous account of the excavated material found at the site.

It is an erroneous but common belief that books on art are only about beauty and aesthetics of the visuals. In part, the way visuals are presented in such books is very important but, it’s the unravelling of the many layers of their meaning and how they are contextually located that becomes critical for attracting any readership/viewership. Scholars contributing to this book have deftly managed to do both and thus present the materiality of the rich Buddhist heritage at Phanigiri and its amazing art for both lay readers and scholars.

While Akira Shimada’s deep insights on the region enable him to chronologically place many sculptural features found at Phanigiri within the larger subcontinental tradition of Buddhist artistic trends by even showing similarities with the Gandharan art, John Guy sensitively pieces together intricate details to focus on the Yashtis and Yakshas articulating for us their rich meanings. Peter Skilling’s imaginative gaze turns to textual allusions to highlight ‘memories’ encased in the material remains so as to eruditely share with us his intuitive faith that this hill must have ‘echoed with melodious sounds of Prakrit and Sanskrit liturgies...’. Art historians Parul Pandya Dhar and Naman Ahuja bring their best skills forward to suggest some innovative interpretations of two unique aspects of the artistic finds at the site. Dhar details how a torana could be ‘reconstructed’ by examining the architectural design alongside the ‘iconography... of narratives on its architraves’. Ahuja elaborates on what he calls ‘a jewel in the crown’, that is, the many manifestations of a ‘turban relief’ with its multiple meanings ending with some innovative suggestions on its purpose.

Focus on the local

While introducing the book, Ahuja refers to Mulk Raj Anand’s vision, and in his own words he “hopes to keep alive that original spirit of Marg with its primary goal of documenting and bringing attention to Phanigiri through knowledge that will be useful to those who live there and work for its benefit.”

If Mulk Raj Anand’s relentless aim during the hey days of Indian independence was to celebrate India’s plurality, Ahuja and his colleagues bring into focus the local so that their endeavours that showcase Phanigiri’s heritage would hope to revitalise these localities and perhaps lead to the revival of traditional crafts that must now have to swim alongside the rising tides of globalisation. To my mind, the book in hand is not only an illustration of the ‘finest sculptures’ crafted in the region but also about how monks on the hilltop managed their water resources and engaged with the other natural environment around them.

Phanigiri: Interpreting an Ancient Buddhist Site in Telangana; Edited by Naman P. Ahuja, Marg Publications, Mumbai & Department of Heritage, Telangana, ₹1800.

The reviewer is Professor Emerita, Department of Sanskrit Studies, School of Humanities, University of Hyderabad.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2022 7:58:44 pm |