The incomparable Amaravati Art

Ceylon Today
Story and pix by Dilrukshi Handunnetti
13 May 2013

Recognized as one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in India, for those who are on a spiritual quest or seeking insights into Buddhist settlements, the historical site of Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh provides the answer.

Well-known for its world famous Buddhist sculptures and the Lord Amareshvara Temple, dedicated to Lord Siva, Amaravati is of immense historical and archaeological value.

Formerly known as Dhyanakataka and Andhranagari, the city of Amaravati is located on the right bank of the Krishna River, about 65-km from Vijayawada. The onetime erstwhile capital is Satavahan Dynasty, it came under the influence of Buddhism through the Kushanans of Mathura. The undisputed major attraction of Amravati is the famous remains of a 2000-year- old Buddhist settlement, along with the Amaravati Maha Stupa.

It is believed that Acharya Nagarjuna built India’s largest stupa here, some 2,000 years back. The stupa at Dhyanakataka has been enlarged and embellished several times over the centuries and is still known as the Amaravati Maha Stupa.

In the history of Indian Art, Amaravati occupies a pre-eminent position. With its beginning in the 3 Century BC, the School of Amaravati Art unfolds its chapters through the galaxy of sculpted wealth that adorned the Maha Chaitya, a majestic monument with a history spanning over a period of one millennia and a half.

The main symbols of Amaravati is the famous Barbhagriha, is a long vertical marble cylinder that have been used extensively in the Buddhist monuments and the white marble lotus medallion bearing detailed, delicate Buddhist designs. They are also symbols typically of the early Buddhist sculptural style.

Though steeped in history and architectural finesse, the site today is abandoned, except for art historians and students of architecture. Situated in the remote district of Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, the best place to learn about the site’s significance is the Amaravati Museum, located nearby.

At the key gallery, there are selected examples representing the era. The lotus and the purnakumbha motifs are typical of Amaravati Art, expressing through detailed and intricate designs, both auspiciousness and abundance. The two drum slabs, according to art historians, denote the science of religious understanding.

Early depictions
In the early stages of Amaravati Art, Buddha was depicted in the decorated panels in symbolic form – in the form of Svastika or a flaming pillar (agni skanda). They are found in this gallery where there are exhibits of dome depictions of Jataka stories and a standing Buddha statue, secured from Gummadidurru which dates back to 8 Century AD.

The second gallery at the Amaravati Museum holds a life- size standing Buddha image in super human form, bearing the physical symbols of a great man, referred to as the Maha Purusha Lakshana.

The third gallery comprises a few sculptures belonging to the 2 Century BC, including a Yaksha of Bharrhut tradition, a stele with labelled panels, and a fragmented pillar edict of Asoka. Images of Buddha from Allur, Dharma Chakra from Lingaraja Palli, Bodhisatvas and a dome slab depicting the jewels of the Buddhist order are on display here.

The Great Stupa of Amaravati was constructed approximately 2000 years ago and stands taller than the stupa at Sanchi, founded by an emissary of Emperor Asoka. It is also known as Massa stupa and Dhipala Dhinne (the Mound of Lamps). The stupa is made of brick with a circular vedika and depicts Lord Buddha in human form, subduing an elephant. It is adorned with 95-feet- high platforms, protruding in four cardinal directions.

The best pieces of these refined limestone sculptures recovered at the site were taken away to British Museum, London, while the bulk of the artifacts were shifted and housed at the Government Museum in Chennai.

For those who wish to learn about the evolution of Indian Art and specially, Buddhist Art, Amaravati is a tremendous source of information and learning.

The Amaravati School of Dravidian Art had great influence on art in Sri Lanka and South-East Asia, as products from here were carried to those countries.
Andhra –Jaffna links

Sculptures such as the Vallipuram Buddha reveal a period of influence between Andhra and Jaffna at this time. In a pioneering study and meticulous documentation of the Buddhist sculptures of Sri Lanka, Dr. Ulrich Von Schroeder had listed up with measurements, several lime stone sculptures, both round and in relief, from the Sri Lankan sites. The chapters in the work clearly go with a heading Imported Sculptures from Early Amaravati School, and Imported Sculptures from Late Amaravati (Nagarjunakonda). It is clear that the artist guilds in Amaravati-Nagarjunakonda were engaged in the large scale supply of Buddhist sculptures, as also Brahmanical, to Sri Lanka and other South-Asian countries.

Religious ideology was a potent force providing cohesion and identity to trading communities and it was perhaps through these channels that the early Buddhist/ Brahmanical images found their way into South-East Asia and Sri Lanka.

At Sempaga in Celebes, a bronze image of Buddha of the Amaravati School was found. The earliest sculptures from Dong-Duong and Dong Tuk in ancient Siam (now Thailand), exhibit Amaravati style. A bronze Buddha from South Djember and Sikendeng on the west coast of Celebes, and the colossal statue at Bukit are all in characteristic Amaravati style. It is quite likely that these images were brought from Andhra by the colonists.

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