- Sinhala Vihare found in Nagarjunakonda
- If not for invasions, some sites would have become the biggest Buddhist centres in the world
- Bodh Gaya was controlled by Sri Lankan Buddhist monks at one time
Dr. D. Dayalan, Director (Monuments) Archaeological Survey, India, has been instrumental in the recent explorations of the rich Buddhist historical remains of India after extensive excavations. In his archaeological exploration, he has found Buddhist monuments, bespeaking of a rich history, even in Southern Indian states such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and in the Western Indian state of Gujarat. In fact, he has even found inscriptional evidence of a monastery called ‘Sinhala Vihare’ in Nagarjunakonda, built for the Buddhist monks visiting India from Sri Lanka even at that period of history. Details about his latest findings are recounted in his book ‘Buddhist Remains of India.’ It was released to the general public recently in Sri Lanka. In an interview with the Dailymirror , he requested the Buddhists to visit the new sites as well apart from the traditionally known places. Excerpts of the interview:
QWhat motivated you to compile this book?
When I made a presentation at a conference in India, the attendees did not believe India was a country rich in Buddhism. They were uncertain about my findings. I took it up as a challenge and proceeded with further exploration. This book is an outcome of that. I compiled it in a scientific way. I have covered Tamil Nadu and Kerala in my work, and now am taking up Andhra Pradesh as it is very rich compared with Tamil Nadu. I have already made a preliminary study in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
QHow do you describe the latest findings of Buddhist remains of India and their cultural richness?
It is evident that the Buddha was born in India. All major events related to the Buddha’s life took place in India - the birth, the great departure from Kapilavastu, enlightenment and Parinibbana in Kushinagar. Apart from all these activities, he had travelled to a lot of places in India, particularly the Northern and Eastern parts. These archeological sites are vital to the Buddhist community. There is a lot of material evidence in terms of stupas, cetiyas, vihares, and also in the form of inscriptions. After Parinibbana at Kushinagar, his mortal remains have been distributed to eight stupas, which means eight stupas came up in India at the beginning. However, Emperor Asoka is said to have opened up seven stupas out of the eight. Then, he redistributed the relics to 84,000 other stupas he built. That is the traditional story. However, Emperor Asoka has constructed hundreds of stupas all over India. Some of them including Amarawati, Sanchi and Kushinagar still exist. All these are sacred places. Asoka championed the propagation of Buddhism all over India, and the world as a whole. He sent emissaries to every corner of the world. One of them was Arahat Mahinda. It is believed that when Arahat Mahinda was directed to visit Sri Lanka, he had gone to Sanchi, and from there, visited Sri Lanka. This is the reason for Sanchi to be associated with Sri Lankan Buddhism. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, there are a lot of Buddhist relics in the form of stupas and monasteries. Then, it has gradually been spread to Western India, particularly to Maharashtra and Gujarat. There are more than 1,200 Buddhist rock caves there. This is well known to the public and the Buddhist world. When I attended some conferences in India, I heard people say there was nothing much about Buddhism in South India. I took up the challenge to find if there were any archaeological remains of Buddhism in this territory. There were a few places people know about here like Amarawati and Nagarjunkunda. When I took up the preliminary survey, mainly in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, I found more than 200 Buddhist sites. Most of them are gigantic stupas. Amarawathi is one of the biggest of the lot. Then there are Nagarjunakonda, Bhattiprolu and Gantasala. We extended our exploration further. That is in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. People tend to believe there is nothing about Buddhism in these states. But, to our surprise, we found more than 100 sacred sites. They may not be big stupas, but we found a lot of bronzes - Buddhist sculptures, paintings, inscriptions. Kavaripurmpatinam is often referred to as an important centre. It is a Buddhist site. It also happened to be a maritime trade centre. Trade was from South-East Asian parts of the world like Sri Lanka and China. They came there. Along with the traders were Buddhist monks who joined in the expedition. There was a big stupa and monastery constructed at Kavaripurmpatinam. There are many literary references about that. During our excavations there, we visited a huge vihare meant for Buddhist monks. Nagapattinam is also a main Buddhist site. When archaeologists and the common man excavated certain portions of the site, they found more than 800 Buddhist bronzes. I reckon this is one of the biggest hauls of Buddhist icons found in India, or even in the world for that matter.
Another noteworthy finding is the inscription that states Nagapatnam was a trade centre. Merchants from many Buddhist countries had come in and actively engaged in trade. Kancipuram is also yet another important site as many of the Buddhist monks who were scholars had been born there. Some of them headed the Nalanda University. I could get a lot of Buddhist material there. The book is actually an outcome of that.
QAccording to history, a number of Buddhist sites in India remain destroyed due to various invasions. If not for them, how rich would the Buddhist heritage be in your perspective?
As seen in Amarawati, we get only the base of a stupa. Had it remained there, it would have been bigger than Sanchi. One would have been able to see hundreds of Buddhist sculptures. You could say thousands of Buddhist panels depicting various stories of the Buddha, Jataka stories and the life of the Buddha. All the things were embellished on the main stupa. Only the base is found now. Suppose it is full, it would have been one of the greatest Buddhist centres in the whole world. Even in Nagarjunakonda or Saligundam, we only find the remains. If they were in full, they would definitely be very big centres. The stupas had been destroyed from time-to-time.
QWhat were the measures taken by the British, when they ruled India, to preserve these
When Alexander Cunningham was in charge of the Indian Archaeology Department, it was an undivided India including Afghanistan. In fact, he wanted to explore the Buddhist sites. He explored on the basis of records available, and identified the Buddhist centres in India. He started clearing the areas sometimes covered with debris or jungle. That way, he started covering the maximum number of sites.
Post independence, this became the entity that attended to the upkeep of monuments of national and international importance. All Buddhist sites in India happened to be the nationally important sites. It is the responsibility of the department to preserve these monuments. Originally, Sanchi was gone to wrack and ruin. The Indian Government had taken up conservation of it. However, Sanchi is protected today. The government has also taken effective steps to preserve beautiful Ajantha paintings from various forms of vandalism. In Kanaganhallai, there was nothing visible on the ground. When we explored that area, we found the remains of a stupa. Currently, we have made arrangements to preserve the stupa that consists of hundreds of Buddhist panels.
QOften, we learn about Buddhist remains in India from British oriental studies. How do you compare and contrast them with the studies done by you and other Indian scholars?
The British initiated excavations. Today, every science, including archaeology, has its own development. There is the basis. We do not follow what they did. We are adopting modern trends. In my project, we are doing the digital documentation of Buddhist sites. We are not just going randomly. We are putting everything in GPS.
Western and Southern parts of India are areas where the Buddha had not frequented much. But, in Western India, we get more than 1,200 Buddhist caves. Buddhism has stemmed from Western India, and also Andhra Pradesh, where there are more than 200 sacred sites. In Tamil Nadu too, there are over 100 sites. In Nagapatnam, there is a vihare. Whenever we find Buddhist remains, we give due respect. People even garland and conduct Poojas.
QIn your view, what is the reason for the disappearance of Buddhism from India despite such rich heritage?
We cannot point out an exact reason. Basically, it is patronisation. During the time of Asoka, there was strong patronisation by the kings. Then, there was King Yasawardana, the royal family and people. Later, Buddhism was patronised by traders. Patronisation is vital. When there is no patronisation, it will have its end. Even today, Buddhism is a living tradition in India. In view of the Buddha Purnima, there was a huge gathering at Sanchi.
QHow do you trace the historical link between India and
Basically, there has been a link from the very beginning. It is manifest with the arrival of Arahat Mahinda. The linkage is even older than that. During excavations in Anuradhapura, they have found some pottery that dates back to the epoch of the Buddha. Henceforth, there have been continuous links. Buddhist monks commuted to Southern India along with traders. Even Bodh Gaya was controlled by Sri Lankan Buddhist monks at one time. There is a vihare in Nagarjunakonda known as ‘Sinhala vihare,’it has been inscribed so in Prakrit. In essence, Sri Lankan pilgrims toured this place, probably for its facilities. They had put up a vihare there. Also, a tale tells us that a Sri Lankan king sent a missionary to Bodh Gaya in fourth century AD. It is recorded in inscriptions that his request to the king to construct a monastery was accepted. In the fourth century AD itself, a Buddhist community from Sri Lanka visited there.
QWhat is your message to the majority who are only aware of Bodh Gaya and a few other Buddhist sites in India?
There are a number of Buddhist sites like Amarawathi, Nagarjunakonda, Nagapattinam, Kavaripurmpattinam, Kancipuram and Saligundam. If you go to Western India, you will come across Ajantha. All these are very important, sacred sites. If you really want to discover the Buddhist heritage of India, you should travel the whole country.
QThe Indian state Bihar derived its name from vihare. The state has been full of Vihares. What is
Actually, Bihar was the nuclear centre of Buddhist activities. It is Bihar and surrounding states. There remained maximum Buddhist activities. From there, it spread to other parts of India.