Buddhist treasure troves of Visakhapatnam

There are around 300 recognised Buddhist sites in the State, but what makes Visakhapatnam unique is that about four major Buddhist settlements are located within a radius of about just 20 km

November 26, 2022 09:51 am | Updated 09:51 am IST - VISAKHAPATNAM

The Viharas and the 64-pillar congregation hall at the 3rd century Buddhist site at Thotlakonda in Visakhapatnam.

The Viharas and the 64-pillar congregation hall at the 3rd century Buddhist site at Thotlakonda in Visakhapatnam. | Photo Credit: V. Raju

There are a number of theories on how the city of Visakhapatnam got its name. One among them suggests that the city was named after the earliest Buddhist woman monk or ‘Bhikkhuni’ by the name ‘Visakha’. Though this is disputed by many, quite a few senior historians, archaeologists and anthropologists from Andhra University support this theory.

It is a well-known fact that this part of the present Andhra Pradesh was then (3rd century BC) part of ‘Dakshina Kalinga’ (southern Kalinga) and was under the ‘Asmaka Janapada’.

Unique to Visakhapatnam

In A.P. itself there are around 300 recognised Buddhist sites, but what makes Visakhapatnam unique is that about four major Buddhist settlements are located within a radius of about just 20 km.

More importantly, unlike in the case of other Buddhist settlements which were located close to rivers, these four sites are located on hillocks close to the sea (Bay of Bengal). From Srikakulam to Visakhapatnam, there are about eight major Buddhist sites and these four sites in Visakhapatnam formed a cluster, said former Head of the Department of Anthropology, AU, Prof. P.D. Satyapal.

The sites have been identified as Thotlakonda, Bavikonda, Pavuralakonda and Panchadarla. While the first three are located close to the seashore, Panchadarla is located in the hinterland but falls within the 20 km radius.

Almost all four sites were monasteries and each accommodated, on average, close to 150 to 170 monks, as the excavation has shown the presence of single-room ‘Viharas’, the resting place for the monks.

Historians suggest that if about 600 monks were present within a radius of about 20 km, then at that time Visakhapatnam must have been a prosperous village or town, with a population of close to 40,000 people.

This theory is based on the fact that Buddhist monks lived by seeking alms and imparting knowledge, from and to the people. “It is only during the monsoon period that the monks cooked for themselves, as they did not come out, as per the old Buddhist texts,” said Prof. Satyapal.

As per the archaeologists of the ASI, all four sites date back to the 3rd century BC and they flourished till the end of the 3rd century AD. Initially, the monks practised the earliest form of Buddhism, the ‘Hinayana’ model of Buddhism.

The ‘Ashoka’ connection

Thotlakonda is unique, as the ancient complex is perched atop a hill at a height of about 128 metres above sea level. It directly overlooks Bay of Bengal and as per the historians, it has derived the local name because of the number of rock-cut cisterns present there, as ‘Thotla’ in Telugu translates to water tanks.

There is clear evidence that this complex was the connecting point to all other complexes, as it was from here that there was sea-borne trade and travel.

According to Prof. Satyapal, there is an ancient map at a Buddhist complex in Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, which suggests that Sangamitra, the daughter of Asoka the emperor, had started her sea-borne travel to Sri Lanka to preach Buddhism from this region, and she had carried the famous Bodhi sapling somewhere from this location. Historians infer that it may be from Thotlakonda.

This site came to light during an aerial survey by the Indian Navy for setting up a signal station. After its discovery, major excavations have been conducted by the Andhra Pradesh State Archaeology Department from 1988 to 1993.

Findings from excavation

“It was during these excavations that silver coins of the Roman empire and lead coins of the Satavahana dynasty were found. Terracotta tiles and pottery, decorative pieces and miniature stupa models in stone and other archaeological artefacts were found. About twelve inscriptions on stone, in Brahmi and Pali scripts, were also found, which indicated that the complex might have been called ‘Senagiri- Sena’ which means elder- superior,” Edward Paul, history chronicler of Visakhapatnam and member of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

In Bavikonda’s excavations, gold caskets were found with the remains of human bones along with charcoal, which indicates that it might belong to a revered monk or to Buddha himself. They are now in the museum in Hyderabad and we demand that they be returned to A.P., post bifurcation of the State, Mr. Paul added.

Though Pavurallakonda and Panchadarla are yet to be fully excavated, all three types of ‘Stupas’ such as ‘Maha Stupa’, ‘Parabhogika Stupa’ and ‘Votive Stupas’ were found at Thotlakonda and Bavikonda.

At Thotlakonda, apart from the ‘stupas’ and ‘viharas’, there is evidence that there existed one large congregation hall, with about 64 pillars.

Neglected sites

Experts and heritage enthusiasts feel that adequate protection is not given to the sites, as the sites, especially Bavikonda and Pavurallakonda are found littered with liquor bottles and other waste material.

Moreover, they also feel that the conservation and preservation of the sites were not done using proper scientific methods. “You either leave such excavated sites as they are or conserve and preserve them scientifically. There is no point using new bricks and other materials to restore the sites, just to attract tourists,” they say.

According to Ms. Rani Sarma, former convenor of INTACH and heritage activist, the previous State government had chosen to subordinate the State Archaeological Department to the State Tourism Department and indiscriminately undertook construction activity, some of which even may have violated the provisions of the A.P. Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1960.

There were also some attempts by the earlier and the present State Governments to take part of the land at Thotlakonda to build some structures, which were opposed by the civil society and the attempts were stalled after a case was filed in the A.P. High Court.

Former bureaucrat EAS Sarma said that all the lands fall under the A.P. Ancient and Historical Monuments, Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1960, and attempting to do so will be illegal.

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