Discovered in 1942 and rediscovered in 2003, the Phanigiri Buddhist site is considered one of the most important finds in Buddhist iconography in this millennium. Nearly 20 years after the fantastic find of the Phanigiri artefacts, they are wowing another part of the world at the art collection of the Tree and Serpent exhibition, which began at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (popularly known as The Met) in July. The exhibition has 125 objects between 200BCE and 400 CE.
Phanigiri (meaning hillock of snake hood) in Suryapet district is a small village of about 4,000 residents, about 150 km from Hyderabad. The Phanigiri Gutta, where most of the discoveries of the early Buddhist era were made, is considered a narrative-changing find.
“The thoranas discovered at Phanigiri are very important as they are among the first found south of Sanchi. The same thorana has a panel that shows both Mahayana and Hinayana school of thought, which shows that despite philosophical differences, both the sects co-existed in Phanigiri,” says a scholar who researched the place.
“Then there is evidence from Phanigiri that shows the deification of Buddha, and we can date this change. From a historical and spiritual identity there is a transition to canonisation and ritual. This change is evident in Phanigiri,” she says.
The importance of the Phanigiri find can be seen from the fact that the monograph of the event has the image of the Buddha, wearing what looks like a Roman toga with folds, carved in limestone. It used to be at the entrance of the Buddhist gallery at the State Museum in Hyderabad.
Speaking about the exhibition, author William Dalrymple posted on X (formerly Twitter), “The show is surprising and hugely original for several reasons. Firstly, it focuses on the early Buddhist art of Southern India, and borrows newly discovered masterpieces from recently excavated sites such as Phanigiri. Much of this has not been seen yet even in India, as the artefacts remain in storage in a local godown awaiting the building of a site museum by the ASI.”
Ironically, while the exhibition has helped spotlight the Buddhist history from southern India, in Hyderabad, the exhibits were just corner pieces. At the museum, a small brick pedestal from which the sculpture of the Buddha was removed has a small label: “Sent for display in Metropolitan International Exhibition at New York & National Museum Korea— 2024-25. Acc no:- 2004-111.”
The staff at the State museum could not recall when the building was last painted. There is no focussed lighting to highlight the importance of the exhibits and make the visit worthwhile. “You have to see them like this; I cannot switch on any other lights,” said one of the caretakers on the ground floor of the gallery. The only concession to show the spiritual quality of the exhibits is that visitors have to remove their footwear while entering the inner chamber of the museum, which has relics and reliquaries believed to have belonged to the Buddha.
The exhibition at The Met is on till November 13, 2023. The display pieces from Hyderabad will return by 2025, hopefully, to a better display and a spotlight of their own.