An ancient myth, a powerful kingdom, a grand city, an important legacy- all sacrificed at the altar of a mega infrastructural project. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) aptly described the disappearance of the 3rd-4th century CE Ikshvaku capital of Vijayapuri, under the waters of the Nagarjuna Sagar Dam, 50 years back, as an ‘Archaeological tragedy’. And it was.
Thanks to popular writer Amish Tripathy’s work the 'Scion of Ikshvaku', the term Ikshvaku is familiar to many. In Hindu mythology, Lord Ram is said to a descendant of King Ikshvaku, the grandson of Surya, the Sun God. But, leaving mythology and fantasy aside, the fact is that there was a historic Ikshvaku dynasty, which ruled large parts of Andhra Pradesh between the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.
While they ruled for a short period of time, they established a magnificent city, the remains of which were easily comparable to great cities of the world, at that time.
Vasisthiputra Chamtamula was the founder of the Ikshvaku dynasty, and he seems to have carved out his kingdom from the tattered remains of the collapsing Satavahana Empire around the second quarter of the 3rd century CE. Historians believe that the family took the name of Ikshvaku, to trace their lineage to Lord Ram and so raise their status.
The area of present day Nagarjuna Sagar Lake was the capital of the Ikshvaku Kingdom
The Ikshvakus controlled large parts of the Guntur, Krishna and Nalgonda regions of present day Andhra Pradesh and Telangana between 225 CE to around 325 CE. The area of present day Nagarjuna Sagar Lake, in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, seems to have been the capital and hence the heart of the Ikshvaku Kingdom. Mostly immersed in the great lake formed by the great Nagarjuna Sagar Dam today, all that remains of the Ikshvaku capital is the small island of Nagarjunakonda, in the middle of the lake.
What we know about it has been painfully pieced together by archaeologists. The ancient name of Nagarjunakonda was Vijayapuri and it flourished between the 3rd and 4th century CE. This city was on the right bank of the river Krishna. It was well-planned and had an inner citadel where the king resided. Beyond that were residential buildings, stables, water cisterns, baths and square wells with two ornamental tanks. Archaeologists have even found traces of an underground drainage system.
Archeological excavations in the area also unearthed residential houses with rooms and verandahs. An amphitheatre like structure, probably inspired by contemporary Rome, was also found. That apart, there were remains of shops and workshops and a hoard of gold ornaments comprising earrings and a necklace with a Roman coin as a pendant.
In fact coins from much earlier were also found at the site indicating that the site was much older than the 3rd century CE. Roman coins dating to the time of Emperor Tiberius (16-37 CE) and Empress Faustina, the elder, issued sometime after 141 CE were found. Also, a pillar with a sculpture of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and theatre has been found here.
The Ikshvakus were Shaivites and worshippers of Lord Kartikeya
The city of Vijayapuri also had thriving religious establishments patronized by the royal court and the wealthy merchants. The Ikshvaku dynasty were Shaivites and worshippers of Lord Kartikeya. There were at least 18 temples situated along the Krishna River and around the citadel area. Of these, most were dedicated to the Shaiva sect; four temples dedicated to the Warrior God, Kartikeya and one to Devasena his consort or wife. There was only one Vaishnava temple.
The city also had more than 30 Buddhist establishments belonging to various sects. Archaeologists found remains of Chaityagrihas (place of worship) and Viharas (monasteries). Most of the Stupas had a wheel shaped plan, and this was a stand out as the wheel is the sacred symbol in Buddhism and it was a great architectural feat to use it on a ground plan.
The city also had more than 30 Buddhist establishments
The little surviving evidence of the Ikshvaku rulers comes from inscriptions and coins found in the region. We know that there were four ruling kings - Vasisthiputra Chamtamula, Mathriputra Virapurushadatta, Vasisthiputra Ehuvala Chamtamula and Vasisthiputra Rudrapurushadatta. And then, the dynasty disappears in history.
But, the tragedy is that while all of the evidence mentioned above, helped archaeologists piece together the basic story of the Ikshvakus and Vijayapuri, very little is known about what happened to the dynasty and kingdom. Sadly, there is no way to find out either.
For centuries, Nagarjunakonda had been a secluded valley deep in the forest, surrounded by high hills on three sides and the river Krishna on the fourth. The site was rediscovered in 1926 and some minor excavations were conducted from 1927 to 1931 by AH Longhurst, Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India, in the Southern Circle of India.
It was the impending destruction of this site that spurred massive excavations here. In the early 1950s, it was decided that this site would be where the great dam, the Nagarjuna Sagar, would be built. It was one of the most ambitious and massive infrastructure projects of independent India and it had a transformational impact on the region.
Faced with a catastrophe, a special ASI project group was formed in 1954, under R Subramanyam for ‘salvage archaeology’. In a short span of 6 years, the ASI excavated and found more than a hundred sites ranging from Early Stone Age (3rd millennium BCE) to Late Medieval period (16th century CE).
However, the frenzied archaeological work and the bounty it found, did little to deter the Government’s plans. The dam was built and this rich site was submerged under its waters, forever. All that remain are nine monuments which the ASI rebuilt in their original form on the island that was formed by the reservoir.
The official ASI guidebook on Nagarjunakonda calls what happened here, an ‘Archeological tragedy’.
Today, the island of Nagarjunakonda houses remains of the 14th century fort, few reconstructed monuments, remains of medieval temples and a museum built in the shape of a Buddhist Vihara. The museum focuses mostly on the Buddhist heritage and houses relics and works on Buddhist art.
Even today it is impossible to quantify what has been lost. In hindsight, the grand Nagarjuna Sagar Dam and the irrigation network that developed around it, has transformed the land. But it has also destroyed evidence of a whole chapter in the region’s history! Now, exactly 50 years after the dam was opened, it might be a good time to capitalize on the latest high end technology, marine archaeologists use to go deeper within the waters. And continue the search for the lost city, kingdom… and God knows what more we will find there!