Amaravati is a great center of Buddhist architecture in Southern India from 200 B.C.E. to 4th century C.E. Buddhism was communicated to the people of the South by Ashoka’s zeal but it remained confined to the lower reaches of Krishna and Godavari rivers. Here we have both rock-cut and structural Buddhist sanctuaries. A few Buddhist sanctuaries in the South are a combination of both rock-cut and structural forms. The real activities in the field of Buddhist architecture began in South India during the supremacy of the Satavahanas approximately in circa 200 B.C.E. Buddhism flourished on the banks of Krishna at Dhanyakataka (Amaravati). Buddhism made a lasting impression in the Krishna river region and at a short distance along the sea coast to its north.
The most notable Buddhist remains in South India are those found at Jaggayapeta, Bhattiprolu, Ghantasala and Amaravati. They belong to the beginning of the Christian era. The stupas of the South have a grand towering dome and most of them were constructed with an exterior surface of soft white marble which was richly carved in bas-relief. The plan and general composition of the Stupas of the South were nearly the same although they were of varying dimensions. The finest of these monuments was that of Amaravati. The Amaravati stupa in its earliest form may have been built about 200 B.C.E. It was the largest of all stupas in size.
The Amaravati stupa was outstanding for its sculptured enrichment. The Southern Indian stupa did not have a long life. Buddhism began to decline in South India in the fourth century C.E. Hiuen Tsiang remarked in 636 C.E. that monasteries had been numerous but were mostly deserted and ruined.
Amaravati is located 32 km. from Guntur and 39 km. from Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh. It is also popular by the name Amareswaram for the famous Amareswara temple dedicated to Lord Shiva.
There are evidences of the Amaravati Stupa being used as a place for worship up until certainly 1344 C.E
By the end of the 1700 C.E., all that could be seen of the structure was a mound of rubble and some pieces of sculpture on the ground in 1797 C.E., a British colonel named Collin Mackenzie heard of Amaravati and visited the site and reported the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Mackenzie returned to Amaravati in 1816 C.E. to find that many pieces of the sculpture had been carted away and reused in local building projects. Mackenzie began to remain at the site. He sent some of the sculptures to the museum at Calcutta.
In 1840, sir Walter Elliot began excavating at the site. All that remains of his work at Amaravati are a few sketches and the sculptures that he dug up. In 1880. Robert Sewell excavated at Amaravati. Sewell’s team made many notes and sketches and a report was later written about the excavation. Early excavations give us some information about the state of the Amaravati site during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, archaeologists at this time did not record the location of the sculptures and objects they found in the way modern archaeologists where most of the sculptures were found.
Although of varying dimensions, the plan and general composition of the stupas of the south were approximately the same, and the description of one will suffice for all. Undoubtedly the finest of these monuments was that at Amaravati, which occupied an elevated site on the south bank of the Krishna river, there was also situated Dhanyakataka, the later capital of the Andhras. In the early years of the Christian era this city was a place of great importance, and towards the east of it was a large area containing the Buddhist sanctuary with the stupa, its dominating feature. Of the Andhra capital nothing now remains, and of the towering white monument which was undoubtedly its chief glory, little more than an irregular trench now marks its original position, while much of its marble covering that has survived, has been transferred to museum.
Records of its plan together with fragmentary accounts of its dimensions have been preserved, but of its shape, proportions, and composition as a whole, little evidence of a material nature exists. From such meagre data it would seem almost a hopeless task to attempt to recreate the appearance of this monument, and thus recapture some of its former physical and spiritual splendor, were it not for one remarkable fact. It was the practice to include in the carved decorations of the stupa, small duplicate copies of itself in bas-relief, showing clearly and in full detail exactly what the main structure was like. Certain portions of the ornamental scheme consisted of a series of panels in the form of a frieze or dado, each panel containing a conventional but quite definite representation of the stupa, the intention being to combine an appropriate design with the merit of endless repetitions of the same immaculate symbol. With these a guide, a fairly accurate conjectural restoration of the building becomes possible.
From inscriptions, as well as from the character of some of the sculptural fragments, it is inferred that the Amaravati stupa in its earliest form, may have been built about 200 B.C.E. Later, a very complete reconstruction of the monument took place, and much of its final effect may be assigned to the half-century between C.E. 150 and 200. Certain of the sculptures indicate that it was begun during the Hinayana period of Buddhism, gradually changing during the progress of the work into the Mahayana form of the belief, as the introduction of numerous representations of the Buddha himself proves.
In size, it was the largest of all stupas, as the base of the dome on the ground was 162 feet across, while outside and concentric with it was a railing enclosing the pradaksina patha, the entire monument thus measuring 192 feet in diameter. Various calculations have been made as to the height, but to be in reasonable proportion with its width, this would be from 90 to 100 feet. Around the dome, some 20 feet from the ground, there was an upper processional path, with the offsets previously mentioned projecting from it opposite each of the entrances, and each displaying the five prominent aryaka pillars. There was a balustrade about eight feet high around the terraced path, a feature which probably led early writers to assume incorrectly that there were two railings, an inner and an outer one. This balustrade to the terrace appears to have consisted of uprights which, instead of being joined by bars had a rectangular slab morticed between, on the same principle as a railing excavated on the site of the Vishnu shrine at Besnagar (c. 140. B.C.E.).
It was probably on the inner side of these panels that the reproductions of the stupa already mentioned were sculptured in bas-relief, as although at least a score of copies have been preserved, on none of them is this emblem to be seen. It is safe, therefore, to presume that, if they were not visible in a general view, they must have formed the inner ornamentation of the terrace balustrade.
Elaborate as were the carvings on the stupa itself, this decoration was excelled by the richness of the accessories surrounding its base. These consisted of the ground balustrade, the processional path which is enclosed, and the four entrances. The outer railing was about thirteen feet high and composed of the usual arrangement of uprights, connected by three bars, and surmounted by a massive coping, but the entire scheme was so overlaid with ornamentation that its structural framework is hardly recognizable.
Here it may be noted that a discrepancy occurs between the carved copies and the monument itself. For, curiously enough, in all the examples of the former, the sculptor probably with an artist’s license, has depicted four bars, while the actual remains show the traditional, number of three only. Within the ground balustrades was the ambulator, a corridor fifteen feet wide with free-standing pillars placed at intervals, each bearing a small or similar sacred insignia.
To enter this passage, in place of the Torana of the northern type, another kitacl of the portal was devised, in which the railing, where it was interrupted by the opening, was projected so to form an open portico fronted with pillars, and with two pairs of sedan lions on its coping. As with all ‘, inklings of a like nature, the Amaravati stupa did not stand alone but was surrounded by a courtyard which, in course of time, became filled with an aggregation of votive stupas of varying sizes. Towards the western ..id there are the foundations of a structure which may have been a monastery or even some form of prayer hall but as with several other remains of a somewhat similar order, it is too fragmentary to be identified.
As already stated this monument to the Buddhist faith has now completely disappeared from the site it occupied, while the surviving marble bas-reliefs have been transferred to the museums of Madras and Calcutta, and also to adorn the main staircase of the British Museum, London. But in its day there could have been few structures in southern India more inspiring or impressive. When it is understood that the whole of its marble surfaces was carved in relief with a fineness approaching that of ivory, some idea of the richness and pulsating effect of the conception as a whole may be realized. In the design and treatment, particularly of the figure compositions depicting incidents in the life of the Buddha, there is expressed a verve and abandon which is inimitable.
Each scene mirrors some touching manifestation of emotion, while the exquisite subtlety of the modelling is reminiscent of that on an Athenia stele. So vividly poignant are many of the groups they seem to imply that the sculptor was communicating some of his soul into the people he portrayed as if his chisel and mallet were not mere tools but for the time being formed part of himself. If its architectural appearance was in any degree equal to its plastic embellishment then the Amaravati stupa was indeed a superb achievement.
Yet the question then arises was this great marble production, with all its refinement ever a convincing of the building art, in a word, was it truly and objectively architectural? By its very nature, the tubular formation on which it is founded unless it departs materially from its original intention can never attain that elegance of proportion or grace of form which are the essentials of a finished work of art. In its globular mass, there could have been little that was rhythmic, or that could arise real aesthetic satisfaction. It contained no interior hall so it served no special functional purpose, it merely formed a grand structural foundation on which to picture in form and color the story of the Great Teacher. The Amaravati stupas could not stand high, therefore, as an architectural accomplishment, but there is little doubt that for the sheer beauty of its sculptured enrichment, in which aesthetic excellence, dramatic quality, and religious significance where it was unrivalled.
Many Archaeologists excavated the Amaravati site in the twentieth century. Although most of the major pieces of sculpture are gone from the site, many important pieces remain.
Archaeologists have made some interesting finds which help us understand what the site may have originally been like.