The Great City of Amaravati has a storied history not only in Andhra and India, but in the rest of Asia as well.
Those of you following us on twitter would have read our tweets (storified for your convenience) giving snapshots of the glories of this once flowering capital of Dharma. This post will not only expand upon this, but explore new, especially visual, areas as well.
Amaravati’s name comes from the presiding deity himself, Amareshwara, which is another name for Lord Shiva. Legend has it that the shivalinga fell from Heaven. As it began growing towards the sky, Indra, the King of the Devas, hammered a nail into it to stop it from increasing. As a result it is said to have bled, creating the red naama. As one of the five Pancharama Temples, Amaravati thus has a long history as a center of both Hinduism and Buddhism.
Also known as Dhanyakataka or Dharanikota (appellation of the present town), it is Amaravati that remains the immortal title of this “Abode of Immortals“. The Buddha himself is recorded by Vajrayana texts to have preached at Dhanyakataka/Dharanikota, establishing the importance of this town for the followers of Siddhartha Gautama. While the famous Buddhist stupa is said to have Pre-Mauryan origins, it is typically dated to the Maurya era. It was under the Satavahanas of Andhra, however, that Amaravati made its true mark. It is for this reason it is called the “Andhra nagari” of the Ancient period (Warangal taking that title in the Medieval era).
The modern city itself is 39km from Vijayawada and 32km from Guntur, and is on the southern bank of the Krishna river. It is also very near the ancient town of Bhattiprolu (Pratipalapura), which was the capital of the Andhra Ikshvakus, as well as the famous town of Mangalagiri, known for its sarees (and which will be featured here, soon).
Described as “a new canon of beauty and tranquility” and “the aesthetic ideal of India“, the Amaravati artistic style remains one of the three most prominent from Ancient India. The other two were Gandhara (notable in the northwest) and Mathura (in the Gangetic Plains), and did not have as wide a reach as this “Immortal” aesthetic.
The Amaravati School of Art is notable for its influence not only in India (as seen in Ajanta), but in South East Asia as well.
The Ajanta Cave Paintings are said to be extensions of the Amaravati School. This is apparent in the supple yet playful nature of the figures. Noted for its sophistication and curvaceous forms, this style of art projected the occasionally transcendental nature of the subject matter, frequently from Buddhist Mythology (i.e. Avalokitesvara).
The influence on South East Asia however is obvious not only through their native Art, but also in actual copies of Amaravati reliefs found in Thailand to this day:
While subject matter for the various stone friezes and bas-reliefs vary, they range from the mythological (typically stories from the life of the Buddha)
to the everyday (seen below)
To the Royal (seen below)
When it comes to architecture, the name Amaravati at once recalls the splendors of the massive Buddhist stupa. With a diameter of 51 meters, a height of 31 meters, and an outer railing that was 15 meters wide, it was, and still is, magnificent to behold.
While only the ruins of the stupa can be seen, the basic structure recalls the glory of what once existed. Most of the artwork has been carried off to the British Museum in London, though some sculpture and various stone friezes can be found in the nearby Amaravati Museum as well as in Chennai.
Another notable aspect about it is how a bas relief of the stupa itself was chiseled into the actual structure.
Among the most prominent remaining features of the Stupa is the massive railing. Unlike other stupas, Amaravati is known for its grand use of marble rather than brick.
Other than the stupa, Amaravati’s architecture is also famously expressed in the Amareshwara Temple. The colorful gopuram in particular remains its most prominent feature.
The famous shivalinga is reputed to measure 15 feet in height and the abhishekam itself has to be done from the second level of the temple.
The nearby town of Mangalagiri is also famous for its Lakshmi Narasimhaswamy Temple and its imposing gopuram. The uppermost levels were added by Amaravati’s Vasireddy clan.
The Single-most prominent motif of Amaravati and its art is Dharma. Dharmachakras, the Buddha, and of course Lord Shiva himself dot the once great city and its statuary.
From the “Conception & Birth of the Buddha” to the “Departure of the Bodhisattva”, the importance of Buddhism to Amaravati and Amaravati to Buddhism remains undeniable.
The famous Chinese traveler to India, Xuanzang, wrote at great length about the city in his account. Many chaitya halls, monasteries and viharas dotted the once resplendent landscape. Through successive patronage from not only Indian kings, but from pious donors as far as Sri Lanka and South East Asia, it’s clear this once great city was a capital of Dharma.
While the Amareshwara Temple remains in disrepair (one of the gopurams was recently demolished), and the Buddha Statue a work in progress, the prominence of this once great Dharmic city may again flower as it once did.
The “Abode of Immortals” has had many great rulers over millennia. In fact, a Maurya-era inscription associates the stupa itself with Ashoka. Amaravati (and the rest of the Andhra province) had been under Mauryan suzerainty. The Emperor himself had remarked in his edicts that he had been spreading the message of the Buddha in Andhra. Amaravati would naturally have featured in these efforts, as evidenced by the rock edict of nearby Maski. The Andhras are thought to have declared independence from Pataliputra some time after.
The Satavahanas were the first great Andhra dynasty. Their rule extend over not only the entire Andhra region (across the trilingas) but to Southern Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and even the great capital of Pataliputra. It was from Amaravati, or what is now known as Dharanikota, that these Andhra emperors left a nation-wide shadow.
Indeed, their wealth and prosperity from international trade and tribute was poured into this capital of Dharma. Commercial activity with both the Roman world and East Asia was thought to be massive and is evidenced by plentiful coins and accounts from travelers. Sopara, Kalyana, and Bharukaccha (in Gujarat) were important west coast ports and Corinka and Guduru in the east. Dhulikota near Elagandala was an important Satavahana inland market town in Telangana. Exports included textiles, silks, gems, ivory, pepper, and high quality wootz steel produced at Konasamudram and Elangandala. At the heart of it all, however, was the political, commercial, and religious center of Amaravati.
Gautamiputra Satakarni was the greatest ruler, having beaten back the tide of foreign invaders (Sakas and Parthians) back to the Northwestern corner of the Subcontinent. The army of this mighty king is reckoned to have numbered at least 100,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, and 1,000 elephants. Despite being an orthodox Hindu, Gautamiputra was known to be a munificent patron of Buddhism as well. The religious life of the city boomed under various sampradayas. Indeed, it is likely that the importance of this Abode of Immortals to Global Buddhism was secured under either his reign or those of his successors and their building programs. Certainly, Yajnasri, the last great Satavahana, was known to have honored and retained the famed Buddhist Philosopher and Chemist Nagarjuna, at his royal court.
The Satavahana rulers were great patrons of Maharashtri Prakrit and Sanskrit, from both capitals of Pratishtana (Paithan in Maharashtra) and Amaravati. King Hala wrote the Prakrit poetic Anthology Sattasai (700 sringara verses). Gunadhya‘s famous Brihat Katha (originally composed in Paisachi, a lesser Prakrit) is also linked to the Satavahana Kings. Five hundred years of this dynasty’s glorious rule left a significant impact on the culture not only of Andhra, but also India and much of Asia.
It was during the reign of the Ikshvakus, however, that Amaravati reached its high point. The dynasty began with the Suryvanshi King Yashodhara. According to tradition, his family is said to have left the Kosala (after the Nanda Empire’s conquest) of his ancestors to found Dakshina Kosala south of the Vindhyas. He was remarked to have marveled at the richness of the soil, and founded Pratipalapura (Bhattiprolu, also near Amaravati) as his capital. Vashishtiputra Santamula is earliest known of the major rulers. While he was a staunch follower of the Vedas, his sisters favored Buddhism, which eventual eclipsed Hinduism. This king’s descendants eventually became formal Buddhists and the capital shifted to Vijayapuri (Nagarjunakonda), where their contributions to art and architecture remain today. This also marked the beginning of Amaravati’s decline in importance.
While the later dynasties of the Vishnukundins, Chalukyas, Cholas, and Kakatiyas all expanded into Amaravati, the city’s splendor was no longer the same. Both the political and religious fulcrum of Buddhism had shifted to other centers. While it is not known if Amaravati’s present decrepit state and collapsed stupa was due to medieval Turkic pillage or native disrepair, the once great skyline of stupas, monasteries, and viharas no longer remains.
Amaravati had a brief, if slight, renaissance under the Vasireddy clan, which ruled the region for around one hundred or so years. It was the last ruler, Venkatadri Naidu, who escaped to the then crumbling town and engaged in a large building program of not only the town layout itself, but also its temples.
Aside from the Amareshwara temple, the nearby Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy mandir is also credited to the renovation efforts of the Vasireddys. While the majority of the structure was constructed under the Vijayanagara Emperors, the Vasireddys added additional layers at the top.
With speculation rife that Amaravati has been tapped as the new capital for Andhra Pradesh state, the future holds much promise for this once splendid spoke of international trade and commerce. Despite its current state of neglect, it remains a great center of pilgrimage for Buddhists around the globe, and small monasteries remain to this day. As the home of a Pancharama Kshetra, its significance to Hindus cannot be denied either.
One thing is certain, from location to history to art & architecture to Dharma itself, Amaravati is an excellent choice for a capital in any Era.
- Sen, Sailendra Nath. Ancient Indian History and Civilization
- Rao, P.R. History and Culture of Andhra Pradesh. New Delhi. Sterling Publishers. 1994
- Ramaswami, N. S. Amaravati, the art and history of the stupa and the temple.Govt. of Andhra Pradesh, 1975
- Ramaswami, N. S. Indian Monuments. New Delhi: Shakti Malik. 1979