Heaven is a path on Earth: Buddhist sites at Sankaram
Vast stretches of verdure spread before us as we head towards a cluster of monuments along the banks of the Sarada River in Sankaram, a village near Anakapalle in Visakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh.
Maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the site’s name is a version of ‘Sangharama’, the appellation for the Buddhist establishments, in the midst of which lies a Buddhist site that dates back to between the 4th and 9th centuries.
Going by a proposal submitted earlier this March, these Buddhist heritage sites, along with similar ones at Salihundam (Srikakulam district) in addition to Lepakshi (Anantapur district) and the Nagarjunakonda International Museum (Guntur district) are likely to find a place in the list of Unesco World Heritage Sites.
The nondescript, sleepy village, 40 km from Visakhapatnam, that had gone into oblivion several centuries ago, pulsated to life in 1906 when Alexander Rim, a British archaeologist discovered the ruins
on its twin hillocks, Bhojjannakonda and Lingalakonda. Excavations carried out at the sites yielded several antiquities including inscribed tablets, Samudragupta gold coins, Chalukyan-era copper coins, pots, seals and such other objects.
A figure of ‘Kalabhairava' with the head of Lord Ganesha sporting conch shells was also unearthed at this site.
Buddhism emerged in Andhra following Ashoka’s conquest of Kalinga in 262 BCE, and flourished in the region for nearly a millennium before it declined, having been obliterated by Saivism, which surfaced and established itself firmly in the 7th century CE. Various stupas and other Buddhist sites came into existence prior to this period, chiefly on agricultural lands, in fertile terrains, on river banks and ports of the region.
On a high note
Visakhapatnam was then, one of the major centres of Buddhist learning from where knowledge was disseminated to Sri Lanka, Myanmar (then Burma), Thailand, and beyond.
The eastern hill Bhojjannakonda, a corruption of ‘Buddhunikonda’ (Buddha’s hill) is on a higher elevation than Lingalakonda (the hill of lingams), the western hill. The lingams here are actually rock-cut stupas which the locals mistook for Shivalingams.
The twin hills served as important seats of Buddhism when Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana, the
three phases of the faith were at their zenith in the region. The sites are replete with ruins of rock-cut stupas, dagabas, caves, chaityas, viharas and votive stupas in various states of preserve.
We climb a railed-off stairway comprising two hundred plus stone steps of uneven breadth and steepness, to reach the two-tiered rock-cut cave structures of Bhojja-nnakonda. The view from the hilltop, of the sprawling plains below is magical. The lush environs blanketed by vast emerald fields and palm groves, complement the serene tranquillity of our surrounds, which has a mystic aura about it.
Bhojjannakonda enjoys a unique feature in that it bears testimony to
all the three phases of the Buddhist faith. It comprises the Hinayana-style rock-cum-brick mahastupa, the Mahayana-style tiered rock-cut caves and the Vajrayana-influenced Mahakala image. The entire western slope of the hill is strewn with Buddhist monuments including monolithic stupas that stand on rock cut terraces that converge to a mammoth stupa on the peak, partly built of bricks and partly rock-cut.
The main attraction here is the imposing figures of the Buddha, seated in a meditation posture, and the main stupa, which was first carved out of rock and then encased in bricks. The rock face of the caves have several images of the Buddha sculpted on them in various postures.
In an idol situation
A sculpture of the Buddha in meditative posture in an arched niche, sits above the entrance of the lower cave. At the centre of the rectangular cave in the lower level, the entrance pillars of which are adorned with images of dwarapalakas or guards, is a rock-cut stupa on a raised platform.
The second-tier caves are adorned with several images of the Buddha and Bodhisatvas, few of which are defaced, a result perhaps, of the saline atmosphere of its surrounds, and vagaries of weather. Most predominant amongst these idols are those of the Buddha in padmasana, sitting with hands crossed and palms upwards. The walls and ceiling of the cave are also richly decked with sculptures of the Buddha.
Stupa, look and listen
A number of votive stupas in stone are scattered as we climb further up to the second level of the hillock. On this hilltop lie ruins of stupas, viharas, chaityas and water cisterns. A prominent feature is the Mahastupa, which stands on a rectangular stone plinth and has a rocky core sheathed by bricks. The view from the hilltop is verdant and breathtaking, blanketed by paddy fields and palm groves.
A stairway from the Bhojja-nnakonda hilltop leads to Lingalakonda. The hummock is home to a plethora of massive monolithic cylinders topped by domes. It is believed that these brick-encased stupas contained relics of Buddha. Further up the hill are hundreds of rock-cut votive stupas of all sizes, resembling lingas. A unique feature of Lingalakonda is its matsyakaram shape, which cannot not seen
anywhere else in the world.
An idol of Hariti once adorned the surrounds of a tree in the lawns at the foothills. Legend has it that she was a demon who whisked away kids and made herself a meal of them! Buddha took her to task by kidnapping her son. The lesson went home and Hariti turned over a new leaf. Buddha made her a goddess responsible for the welfare of women and children.
In contemporary times, an outbreak of plague led to the death of several children in the region. The irate villagers surrounding Sankaram pinned the blame on Hariti and began to stone her idol. The ASI subsequently removed the severely disfigured and damaged idol from the garden and stashed it away in a museum for display.
Chants of a lifetime
The hillocks reverberate with the chants, Buddham saranam gacchami, Sangham saranam gacchami, Dharmam saranam gacchami… on the occasion of the annual Bouddha Mela organised by the Visakha Bouddha Sanghala Samakhya. The festival held on the day following the Sankranti festival attracts Buddhist monks from various parts of India.Bhojjannakonda-Lingalakonda is the site of the annual Jatara that is held during Kanuma celebrations, a day after Sankranti, and attracts tens of hundreds of devotees.
Unfortunately, however, while Sankaram with its ancient ruins is visited by Buddhist tourists from far off shores, Indians, even those in and around Vizag are barely aware of its existence.