When Alexander Rea, Superintending Archaeologist for Madras (Archaeological Survey of India), arrived in the village of Bhattiprolu, in what is today Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, in 1892, he surveyed the mound known as ‘Lanjha Dibba’ just outside the village. Rea realised that he was looking at the collapsed and battered remnant of a massive brick stupa and that the site of Bhattiprolu was an ancient Buddhist monastic location.
What he did not know then was that his work at the site would be path-breaking. Bhattiprolu, as it turned out, is the earliest stupa in South India, predating the reign of Emperor Ashoka by a hundred years. What’s more, the inscriptions here bore the earliest references to the Dravidian script. They have since helped rewrite the history of the Telugu and Kannada scripts, and take back the arrival of Brahmi in a form conducive to writing Dravidian scripts back to the 2nd century BCE, if not the 4th century BCE.
Each of these findings marked a significant milestone in the study of India’s past.
Buddhism in Eastern India
Eastern India, especially the Andhra coast, was a very active, trade-driven coastline between the 4th century BCE and 1st century CE. Right from the inscriptions of Ashoka (3rd-2nd century BCE), we have mention of this region and a large number of Buddhist sites dotting modern Andhra Pradesh. There is an equal number of ports and monastic complexes, often both rolled into one, as seen at Thotalakondam near Vishakapatnam.
The Kuras, Chutus, Andhras, Satavahanas and Ikshavakus were dynasties that ruled this region from the 3rd century BCE to the 4th century CE, and they all appear to have been great patrons of Buddhism. As you can see from the map below, there is a legion of Buddhist monastic centres strewn down the length of Andhra Pradesh.
The first serious archaeological work done anywhere in Southern India followed the surveys of noted cartographer Colin Mackenzie, who first marked and described the site of Amaravati in 1816. This was the site of the first Buddhist stupa recognised in Southern India. Today, it is a world-renowned Buddhist site.
Mackenzie was an officer of the East India Company and became India’s first Surveyor General. His surveys of Southern India used locals, interpreters, scholars and priests to add to his understanding of the toposcape. He was the first person to make detailed maps of Southern India, and his interest in Ancient India led to the careful surveying of thousands of monuments for the first time. His work was an invaluable resource to later historians and archaeologists.
– The archaeological sites of Salihundam, Guntupalli, Gudivada, Ghantasal, Bhattiprolu, Amaravati, Jaggayyapeta and Nagarjunkonda are some of the jewels in the crown of Andhra Pradesh’s Buddhist architectural and sculptural heritage.
These sites form a chain down the length of Andhra Pradesh, from the Odisha border in the north to the Andhra-Telangana border south of Hyderabad. This region boasts rock-cut caves, Buddhist stupas, chaityas, viharas and monastic complexes.
Buddhism had reached this region well before the reign of Ashoka as is evidenced from local texts like the Sutta Nipata (‘collection of suttas’). Buddhist religious texts tell us that Buddhism reached Andhra during the lifetime of the Buddha (5th to 4th century BCE) while this region was ruled by a king called Sujatha. By the time of Ashoka, Buddhism already had a firm foothold in what are now Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
Nagarjuna (150-250 CE), one of the most well-known Buddhist saints/sages, was from Amaravati. He was a great Mahayana proponent and supposedly 14th in a line of monks from the Buddha himself. He articulated the concept of Shunyata and was the chief proponent of the Madhyamika Marga, the Middle Path, which was central to the Mahayana doctrine.
Amaravati, very close to Bhattiprolu, according to the great Buddhist scholar Dr Akira Shimada (of the State University of New York), was built in three phases: first in the 3rd century BCE, then in the 1st-century BCE-CE, and finally in the 2nd and early 3rd century CE. Alexander Rea, the excavator of Bhattiprolu and Ghantasal, was of the opinion that Bhattiprolu was stylistically earlier than Amaravati. This would put it in the 4th-3rd century BCE, thus making it one of the earliest Buddhist sites in all of Dakshinapatha.
Interestingly, the fact that Uttara Andhra was a part of the Kalingan Empire did not in any way hinder the way in which Buddhism spread, and Sri Lankan texts like the Chulavagga often refer to ports on the Andhra coast. Buddhism only declined in the Andhra region after the rise of the Pallava dynasty and their patronage of Shaivism in the late 3rd century CE.
Bhattiprolu Stupa: Damage & Excavation
The stupa at Bhattiprolu once stood at least 30-40 feet high. It had an anda (dome) placed on a drum, which bore a pradakshinapatha (path of circumambulation) and at one time at least the drum if not the whole stupa was clad in marble slabs very much like the maha stupa at Amaravati. Sadly, Alexander Rea arrived at the site well after the stupa had been partially dismantled and the cladding removed, and all we have are the observations of Mr Norris, the Assistant Engineer, to describe the stupa as it appeared in 1870, when he was responsible for damaging it. Norris wanted to reuse the large, well-made bricks for road-building, and the marble slabs were uprooted and used to make an irrigation sluice in the town of Vellatur, now a nearby village.
The digging revealed two stone caskets. One of them contained a terracotta vessel, within which was a smaller, crystal vessel with gold foil, seed pearls and ashes. Sadly, the caskets were broken on site and the terracotta vessel soon followed suit. The crystal vial was taken to London. All seemed to be lost and there seemed to be no need for further intervention. But, in 1892, Alexander Rea, who was a dogged, determined and systematic archaeologist, decided to give it another go.
Rea realised that the most important reliquaries would be at the base of the stupa and the central portion seemed relatively undisturbed. He began clearance activities and realised straightaway that the base of the Bhattiprolu Stupa was larger than the one at Amaravati. The base of the stupa had been raised and 8 feet below was the basement on which once stood a marble rail, of which only a few small fragments had survived. This was a revelation as a vedika (typical railing seen around a Buddhist stupa) was not known to have existed here.
As the excavations continued, more interesting finds were made including fragments of a marble umbrella that would have once topped the stupa. A number of pilaster fragments with low relief sculptures also started appearing. Rea then discovered half of a large panel that would have been seen at the drum of the stupa. Stylistically it was identical to the early stupas seen at Jaggayyapeta (see map) and Ghantasala.
Interestingly, large numbers of railing pillar bases were found and the gap between the pillars is almost half of that seen at Amaravati. Despite this, what could be reconstructed was that the Bhattiprolu Stupa in its heyday was very similar to the Amaravati Stupa, although it was of an earlier design and it had been covered in a veneer of marble slabs (at least around the drum), it had a marble vedika, and a marble umbrella(s).
Bhattiprolu Reliquaries – Buddha’s Mortal Remains
Rea then excavated what appeared to be a central shaft of the Bhattiprolu Stupa. Careful excavation of this shaft revealed three intact additional votive caskets made of stone, each containing an inner casket, within which was seen a crystal reliquary with jewels and relics. The most important of these was a reliquary containing the sharirika-dhatu (bodily remains) of the Buddha himself. That these were relics of the Buddha was clearly stated by an inscription on the casket containing these relics. This was a very remarkable find as actual relics of the Buddha had hitherto never been found this far south.
Rea then spoke to a number of local craftsmen who had helped in reshaping the marble slabs to make the Vellatur sluiceway. Surprisingly, they said there was very little or no sculptural representation on the panels. A number of fragmentary panels, some bearing partial reliefs and a few pillar/rail members, all in marble, were also recovered by Rea during the excavations.
Rea also noticed an archaeological mound to the east of Lanjha Dibba and recorded a Jaina image being worshipped by the local Brahmins as Muneeshawara. He also carried out excavations at the stupa at Ghantasala (see map).
The Bhattiprolu Script
On his discovery of the caskets in Bhattiprolu, Rea did not immediately realise their uniqueness and importance. All the caskets had been inscribed in Brahmi, with inscriptions ranging from the 3rd to the 1st century BCE. These were the oldest, clearly dateable Brahmi inscriptions in Southern India when they were discovered. They are still the earliest with the exception of the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions discovered in Anuradhapura (Sri Lanka) and inscribed potsherds from excavated sites like Kodumanal (Erode District of Tamil Nadu).
The Bhattiprolu script, though, is not the same as the Tamil-Brahmi script but is a variant of northern Brahmi with some parts of Tamil-Brahmi woven into its alphabet. That said, it is not ‘near identical’ to northern or Ashokan Brahmi either. A number of letters of the alphabet in the Bhattiprolu script are radically different, while a couple of others appear to be unique.
This is what noted epigraphist Richard Salomon had to say about the script in his book, Indian Epigraphy (1998):
“This script, found in nine inscriptions on relic caskets from the stupa at Bhattiprolu in Andhra Pradesh, differs from standard, early Brahmi in two important respects. First, the formation of five of the consonantal characters, namely gha, ja, ma, la, and sa (or sa)m, is radically different. The character ‘ma’, for example, is upside-down compared with the standard form of the letter. Particularly interesting is the formation of ‘gha’, which can be seen (El 2, 323-4) as a secondary derivative of the sign for ‘ga’, unlike standard Brahmi ‘gha’, which appears to be a distinct character probably derived directly from Semitic ‘het’.
“The second peculiarity of the Bhattiprolu script is its system for notation of the post-consonantal vowels ‘a’ and ‘aa’. Uniquely, among all the early Indic scripts, at Bhattiprolu the inherent vowel system is discarded and a consonant followed by ‘a’ does have a vowel marker consisting of a short horizontal line at the upper right, similar to the sign for ‘a’ in standard Brahmi.”
The script was found on the stone casket containing the Buddha’s relics, and linguists, epigraphists and palaeographers believe that the Bhattiprolu alphabet evolved very soon after Mauryan Brahmi in the 3rd century BCE itself. According to the very well-known epigraphist Richard Salomon, the Bhattiprolu alphabet was designed specifically to write Dravidian languages and was then redesigned to inscribe in Prakrit. Thus, very much like Tamil-Brahmi, it appears to be a specific series of adjustments to incorporate Dravidian consonants and to make it viable to represent them in a written format.
Renowned Tamil archaeology and history expert, Dr Champakalakshmi, sees the Bhattiprolu script as the single most-important device, a ‘Rosetta Stone’, used to read Tamil-Brahmi as it forms a link between Tamil-Brahmi and Ashokan Brahmi. Most historians are now of the opinion that the Bhattiprolu script ultimately gave rise to the Telugu script used in Andhra Pradesh today and is also the probable precursor of the Kannada script used in Karnataka.
The discovery of the Bhattiprolu Maha Stupa and its relic caskets by Alexander Rea, and their subsequent decipherment and analysis were the backbone of much work done in the fields of Eastern Indian Buddhist studies, and Early Historic Eastern India, Southern and Eastern Indian epigraphy and art. The contribution of early archaeological pioneers like Colin Mackenzie, Alexander Rea, Robert Sewell (historian and keeper of the Madras Records Office in the late 19th century CE) and Georg Buhler (archaeologist, epigraphist, linguist) were enormous and need to be recognised by us even today.
The Bhattiprolu Maha Stupa is a Centrally Protected Monument of the Archaeological Survey of India but the area surrounding it is being steadily encroached, and modern construction techniques are destroying the archaeological deposits. We need to look at these very important Early Buddhist and Early Historic sites in Eastern India and preserve them before it is too late.
The Bhattiprolu caskets are currently housed in the Egmore Museum in Madras along with a number of other artifacts from the site. All this data is in a rather sad condition and the government museum needs to highlight these amazing finds.
Mumbai’s Connection With Bhattiprolu
The city of Mumbai has a little-known but deep connection with the Buddha via the stupa of Bhattiprolu. Inside the dome of the Global Vipassana Pagoda at Gorai in Mumbai are enshrined within the central locking stone of the main dome, the original bone fragment relics of the Buddha found inside the maha stupa at Bhattiprolu. These were donated by the Mahabodhi Society of India and the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, to the Global Vipassana Pagoda and enshrined there in 2006. The pagoda is also the largest Buddhist structure in the world.