Make your way to the exquisite rock-cut caves of Undavalli with the spectacular 5-meter long reclining statue of Vishnu as Padmanabha in the outskirts of Vijayawada, and you will get a sense of the religious history of the region. The last layer, in this complex that started off as a Buddhist shrine, was added by the Vishnukundin kings of Andhra Pradesh. While you may not have heard of this dynasty, they played a significant role. Their reign marked the beginning of a Hindu revival in Andhra Pradesh. Evidence of which can be seen at the Hindu cave temples of Undavalli, Vijayawada, Bhairavakonda and Mogalarajapuram in Krishna, Guntur and Nellore districts of Andhra Pradesh are a testimony to their rule.
Outside the clutch of these temples, most of what we know of this dynasty, which ruled between 5th to 7th centuries CE, is through their coins and inscriptions.
Historians believe that Vishnukundin dynasty gets its name from the place where they originated, from the Vinukonda in Guntur district of present-day Andhra Pradesh. Vassals of the Vakatakas of Vidarbha who ruled between the 3rd to 6th centuries CE, the Vishnukundins declared their independence around 420 CE, setting their capital at Amarapur, present-day Amaravathi in Andhra Pradesh. Later the capital was shifted to Bezawada present-day Vijayawada.
Before the rise of the Vishnukundins in Andhra, the Satavahanas of Amaravathi and queens of the Ikshvakus of Vijayapuri were principally patrons of Buddhism. It was the Vishnukundin kings, especially King Madhav Varman I who ruled between 461 CE and 508 CE, who heralded a great revival of Hinduism in the region. In this period, Shaivism and Vaishnavism thrived in the region, and Sanskrit replaced Prakrit as the language of state patronage.
This period also marked the beginning of construction of Hindu temples and ritual worship. It began with the creation of rock-cut temples, such as the ones seen today at Undavalli and Mogalrajapuram near Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh. These also inspired other kings across South India. Professor G. J. Dubreuil in his book titled ‘The Pallavas’, published in 1917, mentions that the Pallava king Mahendravarman I was so inspired by these Vishnukundin cave temples that he commissioned similar rock-cut shrines across his kingdom, including those in Mahabalipuram.
Visnhukundin kings were also unique in the way they minted their coins. In those times, coins were produced by pouring molten metal in a mould known as casting technique, or by striking the metal piece with a seal. The Vishnukundin kings did both. The circular coin flan was produced by pouring it into a mould and then later designs and symbols were stamped on to them.
Even the symbolism on these coins is interesting. The earlier coins of Vishnukundin seem to have been inspired by the Satavahana coinage featuring humped bull. However, later coins portray a lion standing with open mouth, a twisted tail and uplifted paw on the front side and a vase or a lamp on the reverse side. The lion is the symbol of royal power while the vase represented prosperity.
Scholars like K. Ramamohan Rao in his ‘Perspectives of archaeology, art, and culture in early Andhra Desa’ have connected the Vishnukundin symbol of the lion with the rise of worship of Narasimha avatar of Vishnu in Andhra. The book ‘History of the Cult of Narasimha in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh’ states that Narasimha worship in coastal Andhra started around the 4th century CE and then spread across South India.
By the beginning of the 7th century CE, however, the dynasty began to decline. By 624 CE, Vishnukundin king Madhavarma IV was defeated by the Chalukyas of Vengi under king Pulakesin II.
Even though the Vishnukundin dynasty came to an end, its cultural legacy carried on. While Pallavas of Kanchi were influenced by their rock-cut temples, the Chalukyas of Vengi and Badami were influenced by their coins. The characteristic lion type Vishnukundin coins influenced other contemporary coinage of central and western Deccan. The Chalukya king Pulakesin II copied the lion type coin and added his title ‘Sri Satya’ in the Brahmi script, to his coins. Later, this went on to become a proto-type coin of the Eastern Chalukyan dynasty.
Numerous hoards of Vishnukundin coins have been found across coastal Andhra and Telangana. Also, the fact that these coins have been found as far as Nagpur, Wardha, Ahmadnagar and Nashik, tells us that trade and commerce thrived during their reign.
Today you can find the Vishnukundin coins at the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, the British Museum and the Indian Institute of Research in Numismatic Studies (IIRNS) in Nasik. Some of these coins are also in private collections. Vishnukundin coins often surface in auction houses for sale and depending on the quality of the coin they are sold anywhere between Rs 2000 to Rs 40,000.
That’s not much of a price to pay to capture a leaf from a forgotten chapter of Indian history - the story of the Vishnukundin Dynasty. An interlude, that clearly had a lasting impact on South Indian history.
Cover Pic: Undavalli Caves
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