Nagarjunakonda was a highly cultured civilization along the Krishna River during the reign of Andhra’s Satavahanas, who had their seat at Amravati. It became the centre for extraordinary artistic activity under the Ikshvaku rulers of the 3rd century AD. After the Ikshvakus were defeated by the Pallavas from Tamilnadu, the site went into decline. The opposite bank, though, became the centre of Shiva worship during the reign of the Chalukyas from the 7th to the 12th century. The Nagarjunakonda fort was renovated by the Vijayanagar dynasty but soon went into decline after the empire fell.
The site remain hidden until it was rediscovered in 1926 by A.R.Saraswati in the Nallamalai or “black hills” beside the river of Krishna, where prehistoric remains and Buddhist monuments remain undisturbed for over 1600 years. The original site is now buried under the reservoir created by the Nagarjunasagar Dam and the relics are now relocated to an island on the artificial lake.
I started from Hyderabad and set off to Nagarjunasagar dam. It is one of the world’s highest masonry dam, Nagarjunasagar has walls about 124 metres high and a Km long and the torrential water flushed through its 26 flood gates produces electricity and irrigates 800 sq Km of land. One of the largest dam of its time in Asia, Nagarjunasagar was built on the Narmada river during 1950’s and 60’s.
A jetty is present from Nagarjunasagar dam and from 9 am onwards boats are available for the island on which Nagarjunakonda’s remains have been assembled. On eastern dam embarkment Anupu site is present which is where an ancient amphiteatre was reconstructed. It could seat about 1000 people and had superb acoustics suggesting an interest in music and performing arts and even connection with Rome. Anupu has stupas and Viharas that is believed to have been part of a Buddhist university dating back to 2nd century AD, at the time of Buddhist philosopher, Acharya Nagarjuna.
The ride to the island was pleasant and we arrived at the gates of the fort built in the 14th century. The fort once crowned a hill about 200 meters above the floor of the valley, and at a few places the wall still stands high with bastions and gateways, the path led up to a patch of well kept lawns before bringing us to the museum.
A model at the museum offers an insight into how Nagarjunakonda must have looked in the 3rd century AD. The area had a 3rd century Vishnu temple with beautifully carved columns, of which two have been recovered. There were temples dedicated to karthikeya and shiva and Buddhist monuments as well.
The highlight of the museum is the three metre high standing Buddha. The columns are richly carved with Buddhist scenes, elephants and lotus motifs, and there are also memorial columns with secular themes dedicated to rulers, artisans and religious leaders. The museum also exhibits Neolithic tools, metal axes and knives, beads, coins, caskets, ritual utensils and ornaments found at the site. More recent exhibits include 13th century Jain sculptures and 17th century idols of Shiva, Nandi and Ganesha.
Inscriptions suggest that the Ikshvaku ruler, Chamtamulka, was a Kartikeya devotee, while his sister Chamsatri was a believer in Buddhism and commissioned the Mahachaitya complex, the earliest of the Buddhist monuments found at the site. The patronage of Hinduism and Buddhism at the same site encourages the exceptional development of art at Nagarjunakonda from the third century.
The site went into decline after the Pallavas from the Tamil lands took over much of the region reducing the power of Ikshvaku rulers but the Chalukyas ushered in another important period between 7th and the 12th century by creating a Shaivite center on the Krishna. The fort of Nagarjunakonda was restored when the Vijayanagar dynasty was at its peak in Deccan but after the fall of this empire the area lost its importance.
The rest of the island contains various Buddhist monuments, found at different sites in the valley have been reconstructed. The first was Simha Vihara, which comprises a stupa on a platform with adjoining prayer halls. A towering statue of a robed Buddha stands over the remains of a monastery foundation with a small stupa. Opposite is the Bodhishri Cahita, with a raised stupa in a semi-circular brick structure. To the west is the Mahachaitya Stupa, probably the oldest of the structures, built in the 3rd century AD believed to house relics of Buddha.
The rebuilding of monuments at Nagarjunakonda during the 1950’s and 60’s offered a lot of similarities of Egypt’s effort in the same period when they relocated its Abu Simbel site temples to avoid their destruction during the creation of Lake Nasser.
How to get there:
Hyderabad is the nearest city with airport. From there rental cars and bikes are available. It’s a 3 hour drive from Hyderabad covering almost 150 Km.