Sannathi's smiling Buddha
The conservation of the ancient ‘stupa’ at Sannathi is in progress and pains have been taken to restore it as scientifically as possible. Laksmi Sharath travels to the Buddhist site on the banks of the Bheema.
It is a beautiful morning as the clouds descend close to the horizon and gather around the distant ridges of the mountains and wrap them around in their fold. In the fields below, women pick fresh and fluffy cotton, which looks like it is in close competition with the clouds above. Our car stops behind one of the trucks into which the cotton has been loaded. I take a handful and feel the softness on my skin, as the men grin and watch me.
There is something special about rustic India, where almost every experience is a romance in itself. You never tire of looking at herds of goats, women carrying sacks of groundnuts, a sea of yellow sunflower fields, curious men at local tea shops, the mud roads, the many detours and of course the landscape, stark and endless, stretching out in front of you. The lake then puts a brake on the landscape that seems to stretch forever. The lotuses shelter the birds that are suddenly aflutter and I watch them for a while, before moving on.
I am travelling down from Yadgiri, a small town in North Karnataka, towards Kanaganahalli in Sannathi, a nondescript village on the banks of the River Bheema. You will not find it on any map, let alone a tourist map. However, my interest in the small hamlet is courtesy Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan dynasty, who had left his mark here several centuries ago. It is believed that the king sent his son Mahindra and daughter Sanghamitra as his emissaries to spread Buddhism in this region. The remains of a Buddhist stupa were excavated here by the ASI almost two decades ago.
The story here begins with the discovery of an edict belonging to Ashoka. Kailash Rao, Associate Professor and conservation architect from Manipal University, who is consulting the ASI in restoring the stupa, tells me that the edict was found in the neighbouring Chandralamba temple when the roof collapsed and the old idol of the deity broke. S V P Halakatti, Superintendent Archaeologist of the Dharwad Circle, adds that the inscription slab was used initially as a pedestal for the deity.
I see the edict placed right at the entrance in Sannathi. Written in Brahmi script, the Prakrit language edict speaks about religious tolerance. Looking around, I find many panels of sculptures, carved in limestone, strewn around the place. The sun’s rays fall directly on the drums and the larger-than-life panels are arranged circularly around.
A group of school students are walking around, trying to be disciplined even as the teachers force them to stand in single file. I walk up to the ASI board to get some information. The maha stupa, it says, was referred to as ‘Adholoka Maha Chaitya’ or the ‘Great Stupa of the Netherworlds’ and was dated anywhere between the third century BC and third century AD.
It is fascinating to hear from these historians about how the story unfolded here. Professor Kailash Rao tells me that the discovery of the edict led to further inscriptions that were found in the area, which eventually got the ASI to excavate the mounds here. The site is a treasure trove and the most priceless treasure belongs to Ashoka himself and that is the first piece of carving that I see in Sannathi. I am excited as I see a broken portrait of a king with his queens gently pieced together.
It is slightly far away from the main stupa under the shelter of a tree. This, am told, is the very first inscribed panel of King Ashoka to be discovered in India. “We wouldn’t know if there were any before, but this is the first when we saw something with an inscription that says Ashoka,” says the Professor adding that this would probably help them discover more of his portraits.
I am awe-struck as I see the larger-than-life panels. Stories and events from Buddha’s life, his birth and his first sermon, portraits of more kings and queens from the Shatavahana period, vignettes from Jataka tales, mythical creatures, ancient cities and stupas like Varanasi and Sanchi are carved in both the drum and dome panels made of limestone. Kailash Rao says it was like a jigsaw puzzle, putting them altogether, as more than hundred such slabs were discovered in pieces. Halkatti tells me that several life-size statues of Buddha were discovered, including the four that are normally placed on ayaka platforms and represent the cardinal directions.
I become a student all over again, remembering my class V textbooks that taught me about Hinayana and Mahayana forms of Buddhism. This stupa was built largely in the Mahayana period, where Buddha was depicted in the human form, unlike the Hinayana era, when he was symbolically shown. However, even here, you can see symbolic images such as the Bodhi tree, his feet and an empty throne.
The original stupa, says Halkatti, would have probably been built during the Ashokan period as some pottery shards were discovered here as well. I learn that during his time, stupas were normally built as earthern domes. Some parts of the Ashokan stupa are still intact, while the architecture of the later Shatavahana period stands out distinctly. The Professor explains that the stupa is the missing link connecting all the other stupas, especially with respect to the iconography.
Heaps of discoveries
There is more to this ancient site than just Ashoka. Professor Kailash Rao says that there were several discoveries here dating back to prehistoric times. Besides the stupa, bangles, beads, pottery, bricks, tiles, stone heads and earthen vessels were found here.
Even as the conservation of the stupa is in progress, pains have been taken to restore it as scientifically as possible. The challenge, says the Professor, is to maintain a balance between recreating it and still retain the authenticity. Empirical evidence has been collected to understand the way the stupa would have originally been created.
“Now we have drafted a conservation policy which we will discuss with scholars, conservationists and historians,” says Halakatti. In the meanwhile, a shelter has been proposed to protect these carvings from nature with a multimedia panel that will explain the Jataka tales.
As policies and documentation are being discussed, I stand here and gaze at the peaceful face of a Buddha statue lying in the rubble, smiling at me. I wonder how many more Buddhas are lying under our earth in various parts of the country waiting to be discovered.