Benita Fernando · Apr 12, 2015 · 09:00 am
Andhra’s new capital has an old heritage of co-existence but can ancient be turned into contemporary?
When Andhra Pradesh parted with its discontented districts in June 2014, the big question was which of its cities would inherit the hallowed place that was once reserved for Hyderabad. Last week, top guesses such as Visakhapatnam, Vijayawada, Guntur and Tirupati were brushed aside for a small temple village on the banks of the river Krishna. Amaravathi, it was revealed, will be the truncated state’s capital city.
Deciding on a capital is never easy and it is tougher still when the population of the top pick is just a little more than 13,000, or one-five hundredth of Hyderabad’s. Complicating the matters are issues other than scale and development. Most of the unified Andhra’s cultural symbols have got bequeathed to Telangana: whether it is the relics of the old Nizam culture, the world’s biggest film studio and theme park (Ramoji), Jain temples or established museums, they are all secure in Hyderabad. Coastal Andhra’s only cultural and heritage sites are Amaravathi, Vijayawada and Visakhapatnam. A tiny stone against the gems of Telangana, can Amaravathi then be the new culture capital for Andhra Pradesh?
Established as the capital of the expansive Satavahana Empire, which ruled most parts of central and southern Indian from 230 BCE to 220 CE, Amaravathi was once a prosperous centre. The Satavahana kings built several marbles stupas along the banks of Krishna inscribed with scenes from Buddha’s life.
“The Satavahana rulers made their mark and developed an identity for the Deccan with their capital as Amaravathi,” said Dr AP Jamkhedkar, former director of the Maharashtra State Department of Archaeology and Museums. An expert in Buddhist art and architecture, Jamkhedkar says the elegant art of the Satavahanas travelled to other parts of India, such as Vidharbha, and even overseas through the principles of Nagarjuna, founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism. (In fact, the Cham people of Vietnam mimicked the glory of the Satavahana capital by having their own Amaravathi, now in the Quảng Nam province.)
An important place for Buddhism, Amaravathi was the site of the “Kalachakra Initiation” programme performed by the Dalai Lama in 2006 to commemorate 2,550 years of the Buddha’s birth.
Witness to many conquests
One of the Satavahana stupas still survived in Amaravathi, but it has seen demolition and repair over the years, mostly because of careless archaeological surveys in the 19th century. Whatever Amaravathi sculptures and marbles survive are now housed at a site museum of the Archaeological Survey of India, the Asahi Shimbum Gallery at the British Museum in London, and the Government Museum in Chennai. This scattering of Amaravathi’s sculptural art is proof of its much-ravaged history. It witnessed conquests by the Ikshvakus, the Pallavas, the Chalukyas and the Kotas. Then came the Delhi Sultanate, the Musunuri Nayaks, the Bahmanis, the Vijayanagara Empire, the Sultanate of Golconda and finally the Nizam of Hyderbad in 1724. The French and the British briefly fought over it as well.
“Amaravathi is not just a Buddhist site,” said Jamkhedkar. “It had its own school of art and architecture, which influenced the Deccan. If present-day Andhra has one principle to imbibe from Amaravathi, it would be co-existence, such as those practiced by the Ishvakus. The Ikshvakus followed the Vedic religion but patronised Buddhist art as well. Not just tolerance, but coexistence of cultures, away from pride and struggle.”
Since the state’s major museums are now in Hyderabad, there will be a need to set up a regional museum in coastal Andhra that will reflect an “Andhra” culture, however they define it. “But going back to ancient Indian history to establish cultural associations is a bad trend,” said Dr Sudeshna Guha, associate researcher of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge. The choice of Amaravathi and its temple tourism, he says, threaten to negate the Muslim presence that dominated Hyderabadi culture.
Guha warns of the dangers of chauvinistic cultural thought in a post-colonial situation. “While Amaravathi relates to a magnificent side of India, it was never really ruled by a single empire,” he added. “In situ, there is very little in Amaravathi. Culture is what you make of it.”
Start from scratch
The amount of historical value attached to Amaravathi makes it a favourite among historians and archaeologists. But what about those looking to forge a contemporary culture? The master plan for Andhra Pradesh proposes to develop Guntur, Nandigama and Gudivada into pharma, textile and agro centres, while pitching Amaravathi as the culture figurehead.
“Amaravathi has got more of a historical legacy and less of a living cultural legacy,” said Batul Raaj Mehta, Principal Consultant – South Asia, Lord Cultural Resources. “To match up to Hyderabad’s living culture, it will have to deal first with infrastructural issues.” Mehta, an active cultural planner for cities, feels Amaravathi holds much potential, just as Chandigarh and Gandhinagar, which were developed as capital cities. Setting up a museum, he says, will lead to more tourist inflow and development.
“The reason for choosing Amaravathi was a practical one, given how land is cheaper here,” Guha continued. “Andhra has the freedom to create something completely new, something contemporary, even with history as a reference.” Andhra’s cultural strategy should embrace both history and contemporaneity to fill the hollow it gained when it lost Hyderabad and Telangana. This could be Andhra’s chance to include rather than exclude.