This is the story of how South India's grandest Buddhist monument was built: the story of a time when Buddhism dominated the Indian subcontinent, and South Indian Buddhism reached out to shape the art and religion of millions.
Episode 5 of Echoes of India moves further South to the fertile coastal lands of Andhra, where Buddhism flourished in the first two centuries CE, interacting with local and foreign art styles to create the gorgeous Amaravati school of art, resulting in the crowdfunding of an immense white stupa that would stand for nearly 1400 years. Hear the chanting of monks, the clear bells of a great monastic complex, and the awestruck words of the Chinese monk Xuanzang, who made a pilgrimage to the site in the 7th century.
Transcript and Sources Below.
Voice Credits (In Order of Appearance)
Xuanzang - Manoj Kewalramani
Mr Kanha - Pranay Kotasthane
Mudukutala - Ganesh Chakravarti
Mrs Sudatha - Sowmya Nandan
Chhadakicha - Yazad Jal
It is a cold morning in January, 170 CE. We've spent the night in a monastery on a hill called Aparasila, the Western mountain. We arrived late the previous evening and trekked up, with a band of other exhausted pilgrims. After a simple meal of lentils and rice, the babble of languages, in various Prakrits, faded. Most other pilgrims were from this land, along the coast of the Bay of Bengal, dusky and curly-haired, though some pale Northerners were with us, as were strange-looking Yavanas, with exciting stories to tell in their strange dialect from the farthest North-West of Jambudvipa, the land that would one day be called India.
Now, a rosy pink spreads through the skies, and the brilliant stars of the Ganga in the Sky, the Milky way, are fading as the sun burns away the darkness of the night. The pilgrims perform their ablutions and leave the monastery, crowding together with their belongings. Some of them are complaining about their sore feet while the others joke about what they will do once they've fulfilled their sacred vows.
And then, they see it. They fall silent.
In the distance, the blue curve of the River Krishna spreads itself like a lazy serpent across the golden earth, the sunlight rippling off its scale-like waves. A flock of geese fly across the water, their shadows the sole patches of darkness on the tranquil surface. A magnificent city hugs its side, its proud ramparts waving with banners of all the colours of the rainbow, as ships dart like so many bright fish to and from its docks. But, gorgeous as the city is, it pales in comparison to the object of all the pilgrims' eyes.
Like the laughter of the bodhisattvas, like the snow-crested Himalayas, a Great white Stupa curves against the sapphire sky. It is capped with a spire of pure gold, like sun reflecting off a cloud come to rest on the earth, and bedecked with great garlands and parasols, like a flock of colourful birds Its overlay of precious metals and gold leaf glitters in the sunlight. The clear ringing of bells echoes like crystal bubbles in the pilgrims' ears, as they gaze with wonder at the prayer halls, temples, paths, platforms, wells, and channels that dot the vast, perfect gardens around the mighty building. The Mahachaitya, the Great Hall of the Fortunate One, the Amaravati Stupa, the site where the relics of the Buddha himself are interred, here in a city named after the capital of the god Indra, brings tears to their eyes. A well of devotion brims, and cries and songs break out as the monks of the monastery begin their early morning prayer.
By midday, we reach the Mahachaitya, joining bands of other pilgrims coming to it like rivers flowing to the sea. In the peaceful gardens of this great complex, groups of laymen, led by monks, chant sutras in all the diverse languages of the Indian subcontinent. Some offer flowers and incense at temples to Buddhist saints nearby, others watch as monks perform rituals.
We enter the stupa through one of its four massive gates that represent the cardinal directions as well as the great events of the life of the Buddha, profusely decked with yakshis, nagas, trees, and stories from myth and history. We turn and circle the vast dome, gazing with wonder at the gorgeous railings sponsored by donors who maintain the stupa, carved with unbelievable intricacy and detail with throngs of joyful, dancing men and women, gods and demons, animals and birds and monsters. Lost in a throng of pilgrims who have come here from across South Asia, and even across the seas, we can be forgiven for believing that this stupa, here, sanctified by the sacred power of the remains of enlightened beings, is a source of religious merit and peace for all. As we circle the Great Stupa at Amaravati, whose layers represent the universe itself, we circle no less than the very axis of the cosmos.
I'm Anirudh Kanisetti, and this is Echoes.
Buddhism in the modern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana is almost as old as Buddhism itself. The ruins of dozens of monasteries dot the landscape, the oldest of them being 2300 years old. And though barely any Telugu-speaking Buddhists survive, it would not be too far-fetched to say that most ancestors of modern Telugus, at least when the first North Indian empires were forming in the 5th century BCE, would have been Buddhists.
Indeed, the early history of Buddhism is deeply intertwined with the early history of Andhra, like the roots of a great tree. I use the term Andhra here to refer primarily to the coastal belt of the modern state, since that's where most Buddhist sites are concentrated, and from where Andhra's distinctive Buddhism poured into the rest of the world. To understand that, though, we're gonna have to go a little further back into the past, into the Megalithic Age of South India, roughly when the first kingdoms of the North were emerging.
What is a megalith? Simply put, it means "big rock". That's not to say that Megalithic South India was still in the stone age, or, as many used to assume in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that South India was "primitive" or "tribal" or a "backwater". That idea is, to put it simply, nonsense. Was India in the 17th century a primitive backwater, just because we didn’t use the same technology as Europeans? Were Indians any more stupid or intelligent because the socio-politico-economic circumstances for the evolution of that technology didn't exist? No.
Same applies to South India in the Megalithic Age. It had its own distinctive culture and society, though, as we'll see, that will soon become drastically more complex as new forces are introduced.
In this time, South Indians had a distinctive tradition of ancestor worship, of the veneration of the dead. Those who had passed away were carefully buried in elaborate urns or stone structures, perhaps pointing to a belief in the afterlife. Barely any remains of villages or towns survive but plenty of these rock "tombs" are still around, maybe because taking care of those who had gone was believed to be a source of good fortune, or at least as a way of averting bad fortune. Why's that important, you ask? Tell me, what is a stupa? An elaborate structure where people pray to deceased saints, because that worship is a source of good fortune. Sound familiar?
And on top of it, South Indian religious practices had some similarities with North Indian ones already. Perhaps this reflects an ongoing dialogue, or perhaps they both originated from similar common ancestors, or maybe it just so happened that since the ecology of these regions is not drastically different, they worshipped similar nature deities. Sacred trees, for example, or sacred snakes. So when Buddhism eventually came to South India, perhaps with wandering monks, it would have found a populace that would simply have seen stupa worship as a continuation of their own religious practices and happily adopted it. Plus, we also need to remember that Buddhism wasn't all about meditation and stupas and enlightenment. It also had a distinctive pop culture flavour, incorporating local gods and river serpents into its pantheon, as we've seen. It was the perfect ideological foundation for another process that was taking off in South India, which I mentioned in the episode "Gautami's Son": urbanisation.
The spread of iron technology and more productive agriculture brought the South Indian Megalithic Age to a gradual close. But with productive agriculture come surpluses, and with surpluses come elites who capture and concentrate resources, leading to the formation of urban and political centres. With new elites come new economic forces, leading to the production of culture and luxury items. Wealthy merchant classes would not have had much room in a Brahminical system, and Buddhism, with its popularity and ideas that donations could lead to merit for all, would have been very appealing to South Indians. Especially so since, as I said, stupa worship was a continuation of what they already believed.
And so patronage from wide sections of society came to flow to monastic orders. And monastic orders, in turn, built reservoirs, created employment, and might even have provided loans to merchants. This, fuelled with the image culture of the Andhra land, the creativity of its artisans, and trade routes to North India and the North-West, led to a burst of innovation. I paraphrase the scholar Shree Padma, who says that "the Buddhism that spread among the Andhra folk expressed itself using the local genius and popular belief system as though the religion itself was the local religion." On the slabs that remain of the Amaravati stupa, we see yakshas, sacred trees, and sacred snakes - all elements of pre-Buddhist religion, which the locals now infused into their Buddhism. And thus the Great Stupa, perhaps one of the most extraordinary buildings ever seen in South India, rose out of the fertile soil of the Krishna River Valley. And with it rose with lush detail in cool limestone the joy and splendour of the people of Andhra emerging onto the historical scene for the first time - with their processions and their devotion, their ceremonies and their hopes. Little did they know what a mark they would make on the history of Buddhism, and how soon it would be forgotten.
The Great Stupa would stand till the 1600s, gradually being forgotten and plundered as Buddhism died out in Andhra. The Chinese monk Xuanzang showed up a thousand years before that, though, when Buddhism was still sort of around, but not that popular, in the 600s CE.
The Valley was hollowed, a road was made, and galleries and pavilions constructed. Wide chambers supported the heights and connected the caverns. The divine spirits respectfully defended this place; both saints and sages wandered here and reposed. During the thousand years following the Nirvana of Buddha, every year there were a thousand laymen and priests who dwelt here together during the rainy season. When the time was expired, all who had reached the condition of Arhats mounted into the air and fled away.
In the first century CE, though, Buddhism was on the ascendant, and Amaravati only one of its crowning glories. It had already split into multiple distinct sects with their own scriptures and rules, such as the Bahushrutiiyas, Caitikas, Puurvashailas, Aparashailas, which derived, it turn, from even older sects such as the Mahasamghikas, with doctrinal issues and debates stemming from even the Second and Third Buddhist Councils held in North India after the death of the Buddha. According to texts of the time, monks from Andhra actually participated in these councils. You don't have to remember all these names. But it brings me to another theme - what is "true" Buddhism?
The general belief, of course, is that the school of Buddhism which is closest to what the Buddha taught is the version that survives in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, the Theravada school. Sri Lankan scriptures are preserved in Pali and claim to be the authentic words of the Buddha, and most scholars until recently believed in that claim. BUT Theravada Buddhism itself derives from an even older school called the Staviravadins, who were the rivals of the sects of Andhra, who as I said, were derived from the Mahasanghikas. If you had asked a Mahasanghika monk, he'd give you a long lecture on why the Staviravadins are heretics and it's actually the Mahasanghikas who are, like, totally legit, man.
The Mahasanghikas aren't around anymore to tell their side of the story, and their scriptures aren't around. All that survives of them is traces in the Mahayana Buddhism of China and Japan. In fact, none of the dozens upon dozens of thriving Indian schools of Buddhism, all arguing in local languages and chanting in regional dialects with their own distincitive local mythologies, are around to tell their stories. We can’t be sure which, if any, is "authentic" and we can’t disentangle the branches of this vast tree of Buddhism and figure out what led to what, how Indian schools influenced the rest of the world, how the rest of the world influenced Indian schools. But, nationalist history aside, does it really matter what came first? To paraphrase the Latin poet Horace, Nothing that is Indian is alien to me, nothing that is South Asian is alien to us, nothing that is human is alien to any of us.
But, philosophising aside. How did Buddhism spread? Through trade and dialogue, though of course like later Christians, Buddhist schools had quite a habit of sending their members to other parts of their world to their "true doctrine". Except that they didn't colonise and conquer but that's another story. No single "school" was ever dominant. Every now and then one school would capture elite patronage, then another bunch would show up and capture popular patronage, and a bunch of others would show up and they would all squabble and conduct public debates. And this whole time there would have been a bunch of other philosophical and religious schools arguing with them too, which would have been quite a sight to see!
Keep in mind that we're talking about a time before nationalism, so aside from the doctrinal issues, Buddhists living in Sri Lanka, for example, would have seen nothing wrong with importing the gorgeous art of Amaravati and using it to form their own distinctive religious practices, without feeling any less distinct. There was, generally, much interaction and innovation.
And indeed, this art of Amaravati, along with the art of Mathura and Gandhara which I'll get to in a later episode, is the perfect example of that. The unknown masters who plied their trade in that city created one of the most influential schools of art that the world has ever seen. In it we see kings and queens, handmaidens and warriors, altars and snakes, lions and Buddhas. Frozen in the limestone are the detailed, vibrant lives of our ancestors, perfectly rendered for us to stare at and be stirred by milennia later. The art itself shows not only distinct Andhra and Buddhist influences but also elements and poses from the trading partners of ancient Andhra. We see Romanesque altars, which some maestro may have picked from a golden coin that an awestruck foreigner used to buy some trinket. We see horses exactly like those that Roman emperors rode on their coins. We see rosettes with compositions like Gandharan plates. Buddha leaves his home again and again on the railings of the great Stupa, again and again he sits under the Bodhi tree and gains enlightenment, again and again he gives his first sermon. In each of them a different influence, a different interpretation, the devotion of a different sponsor, seeking merit and blessings. The sheer life of the images, the inventiveness of their composition, the play of perspective, is awe-inspiring. Like always, India took ideas, mixed them up, and made them its own. Politics and religion and economics make for an intoxicating combination, when they align, that is.
What great King or Queen was responsible for this? None of 'em. And that is what is most striking about Buddhism in Andhra. It was ideally suited for the urbanisation and new elites of the time, who used their wealth to leave a mark on history unlike any that came before. Most later Indian religious buildings were commissioned by small groups of elite individuals, reflecting an increasingly centralised state. But the Mahachaitya at Amaravati is the product of the collective throngs of the times, of hundreds of little pilgrims and workmen, merchants and householders.
This tablet, at the foot of the Mahachaitya, is a gift of Mr. Kanha from Damila and his brother Mr. Little Kanha, and their sister Nakha.
Success! By the god Khanaa, Mrs. Sudatha of the Jadikiya family, with her mother, sons, brothers and daughters, donates this lamp to the great Chaitya of the Holy One.
This is the pure gift of Chhadakicha, the chief of the merchants, the pious trader.
I, General Mudukutala, donated this pillar.
Buddhist monks needed their communities and performed educational, religious, and celebratory functions. Through their involvement in great pilgrimage centers such as Amaravati, they were intimately tied to society at every level.
If any of the Mahachaitya was left and not plundered by British "archaeologists" and people in search of building material, this great building would have been the most powerful link that any Indian could feel to his or her ancestors, and not to those who ruled over them. Barely two inscriptions on the stupa refer to royalty, and rest are all commoners.
But, as always in history, we cannot separate the actions of the rulers from the conditions in which the ruled lived. So, in all seriousness, who maintained the conditions that allowed these vast throngs of devotees to coordinate with Buddhists to create this? Some credit goes to the Satavahanas, whom I've discussed earlier. Wait, what were the Satavahanas doing in Andhra? Last we saw them, they were busy bragging about how they defeated the Shakas in northern Maharasthra, far to the west. Well, it turns out that unfortunately for the Satavahanas, the Shakas soon fought back, and how! A new conflict was beginning to erupt, not just political, but a war of languages. And the consequences of that will echo down to the languages that you and I speak at home today. But that's a story for a later episode.
Notes and Sources:
I highly recommend Akira Shimada's excellent work on Amaravati - see Shimada, Akira. Early Buddhist Architecture in Context: The Great Stūpa at Amarāvatī (ca. 300 BCE-300 CE). Brill, 2012.
On Amaravati art - especially the re-adaptation of Roman motifs acquired through trade - see Willis, Michael, and Shimada, Akira ed. Amaravati-the Art of an Early Buddhist Monument in Context. British Museum Press, 2017. This delightful work is available online at https://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/207_Amaravati.pdf
I am obviously very irritated that the British Museum STILL has the Amaravati sculptures but even I will admit that they're doing a fantastic job studying and making it accessible to everyone who goes to London (which excludes most Indians, sigh).
Check out these interesting pieces on Amaravati: https://blog.britishmuseum.org/the-power-of-patronage/ https://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/past_exhibitions/2017/virtual_pilgrimage.aspx?_ga=2.54255336.1790316404.1543233103-1595284720.1542640275
For Buddhism in Andhra and its influence on the rest of the world, see Padma, Sree, ed. Buddhism in the Krishna River Valley of Andhra. SUNY Press, 2008.
The Xuanzang quotation is from Beal, Samuel. Si-Yu-Ki Buddhist Records of the Western World: Translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsiang (AD 629) Vol II. It's available for free on archive.org.
Other quotations by ancient Indians are from Burgess, James. Notes on the Amaravati Stupa. Prithivi Prakashan, 1972.
I use the term "Mr" and "Mrs" in place of "grihasta" and "wife of the grihasta" because, well, that's the closest modern equivalent and why use fancy ancient terms to make perfectly workaday concepts seem needlessly enigmatic?