Nagarjunakonda is a historical town located in what is now Guntur district of the south-eastern state of Andhra Pradesh, India. It was a very important Buddhist site and center of learning from the first to the fourth century but now lies almost entirely submerged under the waters of the lake created by the Nagarjuna Sagar Dam on the Krishna River.
A six-year-long archaeological excavation by a team of dedicated archaeologists managed to rescue most of the relics and artifacts when the dam was built. These were shifted to higher ground, a hill of the Nallamal Range, which has now become an island in the lake. This partially submerged hill is now known as Nagarjunakonda or what’s left of the original site that now lies underwater.
Interestingly, Nagarjunakonda is named after the important early Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who has been linked to the site. However, the name is a medieval one and the association with Nagarjuna is not entirely proven. In ancient times, when Nagarjunakonda was active as an important Buddhist learning and monastic center, it was called Vijaypuri.
The early Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who may or may not be directly connected with Nagarjunakonda site, with Thirty of the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas. (Himalayan Art Resources / Public domain )
Nagarjuna and His Tenuous Connections with Nagarjunakonda
Little is known of Nagarjuna’s personal life. According to most historians, he was active in the southern part of India sometime in the second century AD. Buddhist tradition says that he lived 400 years after the Buddha attained Nirvana. However, tradition also says that he lived for 600 years, apparently possibly confusing him with a later Nagarjuna, who wrote esoteric Tantric Buddhist texts.
It was the philosophy of the first Nagarjuna, with whom the Nagarjunakonda site is associated, that was extremely influential and shaped Eastern philosophical discourse for almost a thousand years.
Nagarjuna was a Mahayana Buddhist best known for his madhyamaka (middle way) philosophy of sunyata or emptiness. His writings, particularly the Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way), the most famous of his expositions of the concept of emptiness, inspired many commentaries in Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese and Korean Buddhism. A specific reading of his thought, the Prāsaṅgika-Madhyamaka, is still the official position of the Tibetan school.
Evidently, Nagarjuna existed. But his own philosophy of emptiness would deny his existence while denying his non-existence too! He taught that ignorance is the source of all suffering through their belief in svabhava, which can be “translated” to mean one’s own being, one’s intrinsic existence, or self-nature. It is the belief that things exist autonomously and permanently. To believe in these illusions means one has a fallacious belief in the permanence of things. Equally fallacious is to believe in the opposite extreme of annihilation, which means nothing in fact exists. The true nature of reality is emptiness, which means the absence not of existence but of intrinsic existence.
Scenes from the Buddha’s life carved in greyish limestone during the Ikshvaku dynasty in the 3rd century AD, which was found at the original Nagarjunakonda site. (Rabe! / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Accidental Discovery and Water Rescue of Nagarjunakonda
In 1926, a local schoolteacher stumbled across an ancient pillar at the site in Andhra Pradesh and reported his find to the government, which soon established the archaeological potential of Nagarjunakonda. A French archaeologist made the first discoveries in 1926. A more sustained effort from 1927 to 1931 by a team of English archaeologists uncovered the ruins of several Buddhist stupas and chaityas, as well as other monuments and sculptures. Another excavation in 1938 found more monuments.
In 1954, with the site and its relics threatened by the building of the Nagarjuna Sagar Dam, a six-year-long excavation rescue project dug up and shifted most of the monuments to the current site and to mainland. Almost all the important relics and artifacts were salvaged.
Nagarjunakonda’s Stunning Archaeological Bounty
The current Nagarjunakonda island site in the Krishna River houses some original remains, a few relocated monuments from the flooded valley, an amphitheater, and a museum containing sculptures and inscriptions from the site’s nearly 2,000 years of history.
Although the oldest reconstructed monuments here are megaliths marking burial sites that belong to around 200 BC, most of Nagarjunakonda (then Vijaypuri) is said to have been built in the second century AD.
The site served as the capital for the Buddhist Ishkvaku kings from the third to the fourth century AD.
Nagarjunakonda or Vijaypuri was set in a valley surrounded on three sides by the Nallamalai Range that opened onto the Krishna River which joined with the open sea. This allowed the Ishkvakus to send Buddhist missions to Sri Lanka , Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, and China.
Later, in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Bahmani, Vijayanagara and Gajapati kings took an interest in Nagarjunakonda. The region came under the rule of the Qutb Shahi dynasty and later the Mughals and was gifted in charity to a matha, a Hindu monastery, in the late 16th century. When the archaeological discoveries were made there, Nagarjunakonda was still a secluded valley with a small village.
An elegantly carved Buddha statue (a replica) that is almost a symbol of the rescued Nagarjunakonda site. ( cascoly2 / Adobe Stock)
Buddhist Monuments at Nagarjunakonda
At its peak, Nagarjunakonda had more than 30 monasteries and was the largest Buddhist center in the southern part of India. The site’s great stupa or Maha Chaitya is the first monument with a dated inscription at the site. Originally built in the pre-Ishkvaku period, it was refurbished with public funding in the second century AD by an Ishkvaku king. Remarkably, more than 90 per cent of the donors were women. Tradition has it that the Chaitya holds an original bone fragment of the Buddha. The relic was found inside a gold reliquary placed amid gold flowers in a small silver stupa. It was encased in pottery and was embellished with pearls, garnets, and crystal.
The Swastika Chaitya has bricks arranged in the shape of a swastika. In Buddhism, a swastika symbolizes the footprints of the Buddha. There is also a footprint at the site of the Mahaviharavasin monastery, which is believed to be a reproduction of that of the Buddha.
A replica of a more-than-life-size Buddha statue towers over present-day Nagarjunakonda, with the original placed in the museum. Along with the reliefs at the site depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life, the statue signals the overwhelmingly Buddhist character of the site. The reliefs though are not as fine as the ones at the nearby and slightly earlier Amaravati Stupa.
A relief of the Greek God Dionysus dating to the3rd century AD found at the Nagarjunakonda Dionysus Palace site. (A. H. Longhurst / Public domain )
The Site’s Hindu Ruins and Other Historical Finds
The Hindu temples at Nagarjunakonda are mostly Shaivite and belong to a later period. However, at least one temple, carrying a 278 AD inscription, can be identified as Vaishnavite, based on the image of an eight-armed god. Two temples have statues of Shiva’s elder son Kartikeya (Murugan), and a large sculpture of Devi has also been found.
There are three 15th-century temples, of which the Nageshvaralinga Temple was founded by a Gajapati king. The other two were Jain temples that were later converted to Vaishnavite shrines by the Vijaynagara king Krishnadevaraya.
The palaces of the Ishkavakus have not been unearthed but remains of a citadel, barracks, stables, and cisterns were found. Two of these that have been reconstructed, a plastered brick tank and a tortoise-shaped tank, are believed to have been used for the Ashvamedha ceremony of the first Ikshvaku king Vasishthiputra Chamtamula. The Ashvamedha was a declaration of might by a king in which he allowed his horse to wander for a year, inviting the kings of other territories to either challenge him by stopping the horse or else to accept his authority.
Roman coins found at the site attest to trade with the Roman Empire and some reliefs and sculptures point to Greco-Roman influence. Reliefs and an inscription also show some Scythian influence.
While the jury’s still out on whether Nagarjuna indeed developed, wrote, and taught his philosophy in the monastic universities of Nagarjunakonda or Vijaypuri, the existence of Buddhist learning centers at the site is undeniable. After becoming the capital of the Buddhist Ishkvaku kings in the early third century AD, it continued to flourish until the 16th century.
Top image: An ancient Buddhist statue (a replica) amidst the ruins of a rescued Buddhist monastery at Nagarjunakonda, India. Source: Ms Sarah Welch / CC0
By Sahir Pandey