A campaign to save Visakhapatnam’s 2000-year-old Buddhist site of Thotlakonda

Historians and biologists campaign to protect the ancient Buddhist site of Thotlakonda in Visakhapatnam, which is home to an estimated 90 species of birds

Updated - April 22, 2021 12:13 pm IST

Published - April 20, 2021 07:43 pm IST

It was a sultry summer morning at the ancient Buddhist site of Thotlakonda in Visakhapatnam where a group of heritage enthusiasts recently gathered, to celebrate World Heritage Day.

Amidst the meditative silence of the space, historian Jayshree Hatangadi took a small group of people on a journey through the 2,000-year-old past of the site that dates back to 2nd Century BC. At the end, a question remained — will this ancient site survive?

Heritage activists are up in arms against a recent Government Order (GO) Rt. No. 21 that notified only 120 acres of the site as “protected area”. Earlier, the Buddhist site under the State Department of Archeology housed 3,143 acres. Historians fear that the GO may lead to commercial exploitation of the heritage site.

What is the significance of this Buddhist site? In 1976, during a helicopter survey of the hills by the Indian Navy to set up a naval facility, ruins of the Buddhist site were spotted. Subsequently the entire hill (GO Rt. No. 2069, dated 17.12.1976) of Mangamaripeta Village, Bheemunipatnam Taluka of Visakhapatnam District, was declared as an area comprising a protected monument under the Andhra Pradesh Ancient and Historical Monument and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1960.

Subsequently, a partial excavation of the site by the State Archaeology Department (1988-1992) found ancient pottery such as tan ware, black red ware, coins from the Satavahana period and Roman coins, labels with Brahmi inscriptions, inscribed Chhatra pieces, terracotta and glass beads, bangles, stuccos and stone sculptural remains at the site.

“It gave a clear indication that the area housed remnants of a flourishing monastery, practising Hinayana Buddhism, which was most active for 400 years from 200 BCE to 200 CE,” says Jayshree, who has been conducting heritage walks in Visakhapatnam and is at the forefront of the campaign to save Thotlakonda from commercial exploitation.

Home to many species

“The site has been left undisturbed for more than 2,000 years since it was last inhabited and this allowed the flora and fauna of this area to develop naturally. It is a living laboratory for biologists, archaeologists, geologists and other scientists,” she adds.

The site is home to birds and raptors like the white-bellied sea eagle, Indian rock eagle, Indian spotted eagle, black-shouldered kite, and common kestrel. According to the global bird repository eBird, which pools data submitted by various bird watchers and biologists across the globe, there are an estimated 90 species of birds found in the vicinity.

VISAKHAPATNAM, ANDHRA PRADESH, 24/07/2018: Konda Appa Rao, security guard at Thotlakonda Buddhist site explaining about the history of the heritage place in Visakhapatnam on July 24,2017. Photo : K.R. Deepak

VISAKHAPATNAM, ANDHRA PRADESH, 24/07/2018: Konda Appa Rao, security guard at Thotlakonda Buddhist site explaining about the history of the heritage place in Visakhapatnam on July 24,2017. Photo : K.R. Deepak

INTACH Convenor (Visakhapatnam chapter), Mayank Deo, has filed an objection requesting for considering at least 600 acres as protected area. They suggest that the decision on the protected area should be taken after a complete survey by experts from Archaeological Society of India.

In a letter addressed to the Special Chief Secretary, Youth Advancement, Tourism and Culture (Tourism) Department, Andhra Pradesh Secretariat, the Visakhapatnam chapter of INTACH presented their views that “the excavations at the entire historical site of Thotlakonda are far from complete. Researches into the history of the place have hinted that there is still a lot of evidence from the Buddhist period that is yet to be excavated on date.”

“Internationally, archeological sites are well funded and excavations are done by expert teams making heritage management a positive, long-term revenue model. Unfortunately, most Indian heritage sites lack interpretation centres and basic amenities or even an accredited professional guide,” says Sohan Hatangadi, a heritage activist. Pointing out the possibility of ancient ruins being spread across other parts of Thotlakonda, he says, “Unless we join hands and actively protect our heritage sites, these precious parts of history will be long forgotten.”

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