The Buddha has awakened once again in Andhra Pradesh

The abandonment of Amaravati as the capital city had stifled the interest in Andhra Pradesh's Buddhist heritage.

ByRamesh Kandula

Published Jun 14, 2024 | 2:29 PM Updated Jun 14, 2024 | 3:41 PM

Chandrababu Naidu at Buddha portrait in the Secretariat in Amaravati. (supplied)

The newly anointed Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, N Chandrababu Naidu, seeking the blessings of the Buddha by paying obeisance to his portrait hung on the walls of the Secretariat, might not have attracted much public attention. However, the symbolism carries significant meaning for Amaravati and Andhra Pradesh.

During Chandrababu Naidu’s first stint as Chief Minister of the residual state between 2014-19, the Andhra Pradesh CM’s office was awash with replicas of the beautiful lotus medallion from the ancient Amaravati stupa and the stunning Buddhist jali art.

The first government of the newly formed Andhra Pradesh made a conscious decision to reflect the region’s lost Buddhist connection and build a brand around it, especially for the new capital, Amaravati, the seat of Buddhism in ancient times.
This was part of Chandrababu Naidu’s strategy to brand the upcoming capital city to attract international, specifically Japanese and Chinese, investment and use it as a cultural attraction.

However, the Buddhist accent of Andhra Pradesh’s past, emphasized by Naidu, was abandoned by the successor government under YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, who attempted to consign Amaravati to the dustbin of history.

The YSRCP government challenged the fate of Amaravati as the proposed capital city with the three-capital proposal.  Reddy remained firm on making Visakhapatnam the capital of Andhra Pradesh for all practical purposes. However, legal hurdles impeded his plans.

As part of efforts to rediscover the cultural moorings of the Telugu people in the residuary Andhra Pradesh post-bifurcation in 2014, Chandrababu Naidu highlighted the Buddhist heritage of the new capital region.

Also read: Amaravati is sole capital, says Naidu

Andhra’s Buddhist past

The region’s great Buddhist past is widely known. Amaravati was a seat of Buddhism before the rise of the Satavahanas in the second century AD. A great stupa and monastery were built there during the reign of Emperor Ashoka (269-232 BCE), and the place is known as the cradle of Mahayana Buddhism.

The Amaravati stupa was one of the largest in India, said to be much bigger and more ornate than its counterpart at Sanchi. The British rulers took it away in the early 19th century, along with many other Buddhist artefacts. They are presently housed in the Amaravati gallery of the British Museum, which offers a virtual tour of the great Buddhist shrine that once existed in Amaravati.

The former magnificence of Amaravati can now be glimpsed at the Madras Museum in Chennai, the small museum at Amaravati itself, and the British Museum in London.

According to Akira Shimoda, a scholar of Buddhist art, more than a hundred Buddhist sites and remains exist in Andhra, particularly in the lower Krishna river valley, and of all these, the Great Stupa is “undoubtedly the most outstanding.”
Historians note that the Great Stupa stood until the 1600s, though Buddhism in the region died out much earlier due to the emergence of various Hindu sects. The Great Stupa reportedly contained a relic of the Buddha himself.

The Amaravati school of art, which developed in the region, occupies a preeminent position in the history of Indian art and influences art in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

The name ‘Amaravati’ resonates so much with Buddhists that a Thai Theravada Buddhist monastery by this name is situated in southeast England, near the Hertfordshire village of Great Gaddesden.

The teachings of Nagarjuna, the great Buddhist philosopher from the Amaravati region, profoundly influenced East Asian countries. Speaking at the foundation ceremony of the new capital of Amaravati on October 22, 2015, Japan’s state minister of economy, trade, and industry (METI), Yosuke Takagi, said: “We in Japan from our young days have learned that this great land of Amaravati was a great seat of learning for Buddhism right from [the] 3rd century [BCE], and here is where the seed of [the] Japanese nation’s culture and values have emerged.”

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Saluting Buddhist culture

NT Rama Rao, the actor-turned-chief minister of united Andhra Pradesh, drew from Andhra’s heritage when he erected a giant Buddha statue in Hussain Sagar in Hyderabad in the late 1980s. Researcher Catherine Becker, in her book on Buddhist sculptures in AP (Shifting Stones, Shaping the Past: Sculpture from the Buddhist Stupas of Andhra Pradesh), pointed out that the Hussain Sagar Buddha “evokes the state’s contribution to a global Buddhist visual culture.”

Some might remember Amravati Ki Kathayein by Shyam Benegal, which aired on Doordarshan in 1995 and later in 2005. The series was based on the Telugu short story collection “Amaravati Kathalu” by Satyam Sankaramanchi, who captured slices of contemporary life in the historic town.

The now-shelved capital region called Amaravati includes the old town of Amaravathi. Due to its significant cultural and historical heritage, the old town entered the list of 12 Heritage Cities under the HRIDAY Scheme (Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana) of the Ministry of Urban Development. The PRASAD scheme (National Mission on Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive) of the Ministry of Tourism also identified Amaravati as a potential tourist and religious destination.

Tibetan Buddhists believe that Lord Buddha initiated the first Kalachakra in the old town of Amaravathi, on the banks of the River Krishna. Following this tradition, the Dalai Lama led the 30th Kalachakra Initiation at Amaravathi in 2006, attended by thousands of Buddhists worldwide.

In tune with his wish to impart a Buddhist strain to the new capital, former CM Chandrababu Naidu ensured prominent displays of Amaravati art, including the meditative Buddha and the Buddhist jali art, in his office at the Secretariat. The invitation card for the capital foundation proudly sported the Lotus Medallion of Amaravati Stupa.

CM Naidu, who visited the Amaravati Gallery of the British Museum in 2016, changed the state icon Poorna Kumbham of the Hindu tradition in 2018 to Puna Ghataka (Vase of Plenty), inspired by the Amaravati School of Art.

To give a Buddhist look to the city of Vijayawada, close to Amaravati, a massive Buddha Dhamma Chakra rising 53 feet high in pink stone, resembling the one on Amaravati Stupa, came up at Varadhi Junction during the TDP regime. Authorities finalised a plan in 2017 to erect a 40-meter-tall statue of the Buddha opposite the Indrakeeladri Hill in Vijayawada. The state tourism department had drawn plans to develop Bojjannakonda, Thotlakonda, and Bavikonda in Visakhapatnam district and Salihundam in Srikakulam district under the Buddhist circuit.

Related: Where is the capital?

A victim of political neglect

However, the Chandrababu government’s initial fervour for flaunting the Buddhist past seemed to have waned towards the end of his rule. This was probably because it was afraid that sections of the state’s population might not welcome too much promotion of the Buddhist past.

In fact, some Hindu traditionalists attributed Chandrababu Naidu’s crushing defeat in the 2019 polls to his government’s attempt to promote Buddhism. They also attributed TDP founder NTR’s rather tragic end to his installation of the giant Buddha statue in Hussain Sagar Lake in Hyderabad as chief minister.

Not for the same reasons, but the regime of the YSR Congress Party, which came into power in 2019, abandoned the construction of Amaravati and, along with it, stifled the revival of interest in Andhra’s Buddhist heritage.

As Andhra’s capital dreams temporarily died with Amaravati, the invocation to the Buddhist past also took a backseat. The Jagan government showed no interest in continuing with the Buddhist motif that was once prominent in government activities.

A plain whiteboard with the official emblem of Andhra Pradesh replaced the bright gold-coloured lotus wheel that adorned the wall behind the CM’s chair at Jagan Mohan Reddy’s camp office at Tadepalli.

The golden lotus chakra behind the CM’s seat was a representation of the aerial view of Puna Ghataka of Amaravati. The same backdrop adorned the CM’s chambers at the camp office at Undavalli and the secretariat in Amaravati during Naidu’s administration. Reddy ensured that no remnants of Buddhist motifs remained in his government during his tenure.

Rekindling Amaravati’s former glory for the last five years looked difficult. Chandrababu Naidu’s newfound enthusiasm for the legacy of Buddhism as a cultural identifier for Andhra displayed against the backdrop of the contentious division of the state, appeared to have lost steam under Jagan Reddy.

The return of Chandrababu Naidu to power has turned the wheels back again. The Buddha seems to have awakened once more in Andhra.

(Ramesh Kandula is a journalist and author based in Hyderabad. Penguin published his recent political biography of NT Rama Rao, ‘Maverick Messiah.’ Views are personal.)

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