The sculptures from the Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda stupas in Andhra Pradesh are considered wonders of ancient Indian art. However, around 70 kms north-west from Amaravathi , lies the remains of one of the oldest stupas of Andhra Pradesh, at Jaggayyapeta. This too would have been a celebrated marvel, had its slabs and sculptures, not been burned in kilns to make limestone!
Dhanyakakata or the ‘abode of grains’ attracted merchants from around the world
The great Buddhist stupas of Andhra Pradesh date back to the time when the region was at the heart of the flourishing Satavahana empire, from 2nd century BCE to 2nd century CE. The growth of this Empire was fed by the gold from Rome, thanks to flourishing trade. The Satavahana rulers were great patrons of Buddhism, along with Hinduism.
Around the late 1st century CE, the Satavahana capital was shifted from Paithan in Maharashtra to Dhanyakakata, present day Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh. Dhanyakakata or the ‘abode of grains’ attracted merchants from around the world. They, in turn, patronized Buddhist establishments.
The sheer number of stupas in the region are a testament to the fact that Buddhism flourished here for hundreds of years. Historians believe that the Jaggayyapeta Stupa, is one of the oldest stupas in the region, dating back to 2nd century BCE. Known in Satavahana times as Velagiri, Jaggayyapeta Stupa was an important Buddhist establishment for monks, and over time, thanks to donations from various rulers and merchants, it became very grand and ornate.
The Jaggayyapeta Stupa is one of the oldest stupas in the region, dating back to 2nd century BCE
The Jaggayyapeta was just one among the network of great stupas of Andhra, such as Amaravathi, Bhattiprolu, Nagarajunakonda and Dantapuram. These emerged as centers of learning, art and culture. It is from the stupa at Dantapuram, in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh, that the Buddha’s tooth, a prized relic, is said to have moved to Kandy.
However, as centuries passed, trade collapsed and the Satavahanas fell Buddhism too went into decline. The stupas were abandoned and forgotten. Over time, the Jaggayyapeta stupa too turned into a mound, which the locals called ‘Dhana Bodu’ or the ‘Hill of Wealth’. The Trigonometric Survey of India, in its survey between 1802 - 1841, used this mound as one of its stations without realizing what lay underneath!
In the 18th century, tragedy struck. After surviving for 2000 years, the stupas in the Krishna-Godavari delta area could not withstand the greed and ambition of a man. The local zamindar or land lord of the area of Chintapalli, Vasireddy Venkatadri Naidu (1783-1816). By the end of the 18th century, he grew extremely powerful and wealthy and wanted to show it off. A prolific builder, he built the new township at Amaravati, as his capital in 1792 CE. He also renovated a number of temples in the region, such as the Kanakadurga at Vijaywada, the temples at Mangalagiri, and the Amaralingeswar at Amaravati. He also established the town of Jaggayyapeta, in honour of his father Jaggaya.
The valuable fragments from the Amaravati, Jaggayyapeta and other stupas were used to build temples or palaces
However, as he built his new capital, to save costs, his men also stripped the nearby ‘mounds’ (under which lay the old stupas) for slabs, stones and marble - which were reused! This meant that valuable fragments from the Amaravati, Jaggayyapeta and other stupas were used either to build houses or palaces. For example, the beautiful marble from Amaravati stupa was used to make the steps at the Amarlingeshwar temple. Meanwhile the slabs and sculptures from the Jaggayyapeta stupa were burnt in kilns, as the stone they were made from, when burnt, could be transformed into high-quality limestone. This has been mentioned by the British archaeologist James Burgess, in his excavation report ‘The Buddhist Stupas of Amaravathi and Jaggayyapeta’, published in 1886.
To be fair, even the British agreed that Raja Vasireddy Venkatadri Naidu was not a vandal, but an exceptionally enlightened and cultured ruler. It was a very common practice, till the late 19th century to erect new buildings, taking material from the old ruins. Perhaps the Raja’s men were simply following a precedent.
It was James Burgess who first excavated the mount at Jaggayyapeta in 1882. In his findings, he concluded that there were a number of small stupas and other buildings, which stood on the site, along with the main stupa, but most had been vandalized and destroyed for bricks and slabs. The main stupa was about 30 ft in diameter and the carved railing that surrounded it, had completely disappeared. Burgess found the stupa to be stylistically quiet similar to the Sanchi stupa.
Interestingly, the few surviving carvings, especially of doubled winged animals, were very similar to those at Pitalkhora caves near Aurangabad in Maharashtra dating back to the Satavahana period. The most important of the marbles, found at Jaggayyapeta, is the slab relief of a Chakravartin Mandhata, a character in Buddhist mythology, with his seven jewels – queen, prince, minister, wheel, elephant, horse and the gems. The relief is presently in the Government Museum in Chennai. Interestingly, the Mandhata relief is also found at the Bhaja Caves, near Mumbai, dating to the same period. It is really surprising that there has been almost no academic research on the linkages between the Buddhist sites in Western Ghats and those in Andhra Pradesh.
The most important of the marbles is the slab relief of a Chakravartin with his seven jewels
Thanks to the intervention of James Burgess in 1882 and then the Archaeological Survey of India, the destruction of the stupas stopped. But what had been already lost was unimaginable.
Today, the Jaggayyapeta Stupa, along with the other great stupas are being promoted by Government of Andhra Pradesh as tourist attractions. Hopefully this will help develop them and also encourage research on them and the period they were at their prime, so that we can celebrate Andhra Pradesh’s great Buddhist past.