Spectrum: On a Buddhist trail

File photo of the slabs that once decorated the stupa at Sannati. DH PHOTO

The Government of India promotes a Buddhist Circuit which encourages and facilitates tourism in some important Buddhist sites. The 450 – 480 million Buddhists worldwide are the main target audience for this circuit which focusses on the places where the Buddha lived, preached and attained nirvana. Other sites like Sanchi and Ajanta where the Buddha never visited but which were important places of pilgrimage for Buddhists hundreds of years ago are also part of this circuit. Karnataka does not figure in this circuit, but perhaps it should. Not only are there several ancient Buddhist sites here, there is also a strong and unique association between the State and the most famous Buddhist king in history, Emperor Ashoka. 

There are nine places in northern Karnataka where Ashoka’s edicts are found — the highest concentration of Ashokan edicts in any state. Two of his most important edicts in Karnataka were found literally by accident. In 1986, the roof of the Chandralamba Temple in Sannati, near Kalaburagi, collapsed. Three years later, during the repair work, archaeologists discovered that a slab that had been used to support an idol of the goddess actually had Ashoka’s edicts carved on both sides of it. This was the first time an edict was found inscribed on a slab, rather than on a pillar or on a rock. And interestingly, two of the four edicts inscribed on the slab were the so-called Kalinga edicts that until then had been known only from Odisha.

The Ashokan Edict at Sannati
The Ashokan Edict at Sannati

Remains of a stupa

That was only the beginning of Sannati’s fount of fantastic archaeological finds. A few years later, when the government wanted to build a dam across River Bhima next to Sannati, the Archaeological Survey of India was first called in to conduct excavations at the site. It was during these and subsequent excavations that archaeologists found the remains of a unique stupa just over a kilometre from the Chandralamba Temple. The stupa, which inscriptions refer to as the Adholoka Maha Chaitya, the Stupa of the Netherworld, dates from around the 2nd century BCE, with additions made till the 3rd century AD. 

Today, you can only see remains of the once-grand stupa. The footprint of the stupa remains as does most of the circumambulatory path, so you can walk around it. You can still see portions of the Sanchi-like railings that enclosed the stupa. You can also see the limestone panels that once covered both the drum and the dome. Some still stand where they were found. Many others have been exhibited in a shed near the stupa. But the centuries have not been kind to the core of the stupa which was made of rubble and mud. This means that the drum has mostly to be imagined as it must have once been: majestic, rising to about five storeys high, covered in lustrous white limestone panels that would have gleamed in sunlight.

Each of the 60 beautifully sculpted dome slabs had carvings that depicted Jataka stories, events in Buddha’s life, or had portraits of various rulers. And among these was one of Emperor Ashoka. The portrait, labelled ‘Raya Asoka’ (King Ashoka) in Brahmi, shows him flanked by female attendants holding a parasol and a flywhisk, both symbols of royalty.

For history buffs like me, the ability to gaze at this ancient stone carving of one of India’s greatest kings is nothing short of thrilling. The knowledge that the only other sculptural representation of Ashoka, in Sanchi, is a few inches high, makes this life-size image all the more precious. 

Of course, as at Sanchi, there are several other stunning carvings to admire. Though many of the limestone panels are cracked or otherwise damaged, they are still worth lingering over. There are lively scenes from the Jataka tales and of episodes from Buddha’s life. One panel endearingly depicts the legend of the baby Buddha walking seven steps as soon as he was born with a series of seven small footprints walking across a part of the panel. 

The Buddha also figures in many of the 72 slabs that once covered the drum. As elsewhere in the early phase of Buddhist art, the enlightened one is represented not in human form but symbolically, by an empty throne, his footprints, a stupa or a dharmachakra

Ashoka’s portrait and the clear importance of the stupa led some Buddhists to believe that Sannati may be the last resting place of the Emperor. Some years ago, the monk Bhante Tissavro from Bodh Gaya came to Sannati looking for the royal grave or tomb. While we currently know nothing about where Ashoka’s remains are, some scholars speculate that he might indeed have visited Sannati. 

Archaeological finds

File photo of panels at Sannati
File photo of panels at Sannati

About 130 km from Sannati is another clutch of unusual Ashokan sites. Apart from the unusually large number of edicts found here, these sites are also unusual in that three edicts here mention the king by name. In Maski, near Raichur, for example, his edict begins, “Devanama piyasa Asokasa…” This is unlike almost all his other edicts where Ashoka famously refers to himself only as Devanama piyadasi, Beloved of the Gods. 

Apart from these places where the stamp of Ashoka is evident, Karnataka has other sites that speak clearly of a Buddhist past. Prime among them is Banavasi, near Sirsi.

According to literary sources, the senior-most monk during Ashoka’s reign, Moggaliputta, sent missionaries to various places to spread the teachings of Buddha. A monk named Rakhita was sent to Banavasi where it is said that he established several viharas and converted many people to Buddhism. He must have been successful because a few years later, 80,000 monks from Banavasi are said to have attended a function in Sri Lanka! Meanwhile, in a 2,000-year-old chaitya in Karle, near Pune, we find a record which states that the chaitya was thanks to a donation by a merchant from Banavasi. This suggests that the Banavasi of yore had a thriving and prosperous Buddhist community. 

But little remains of all these ancient viharas in Banavasi, apart from a mention in a beautifully-carved 2nd century Naga stone with a Brahmi inscription carved on it which talks of a tank, the Naga image itself and a vihara. Excavations that have been carried out here have revealed traces of ancient structures and there are mounds around the area that appear tantalisingly stupa-like. Banavasi is a must-see for any traveller, Buddhist or otherwise, but for now, its Buddhist links remain buried. 

Thriving centres

A panel depicting Emperor Ashoka
A panel depicting Emperor Ashoka

If you are on a Buddhist trail of your own in Karnataka, a good place to end your journey would be at Bylakuppe near Mysuru and Mundgod in Uttara Kannada. In both these places, you can experience living and breathing Buddhism, though of the Vajrayana or Tibetan kind. 

Bylakuppe, established in 1961, was the first settlement for Tibetan exiles in India and is country’s second-largest Tibetan settlement. The settlement at Mundgod, near Hubballi, was established five years later. Bylakuppe’s Namdroling monastery, also known as the Golden Temple, is the largest teaching centre for the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism and houses 5,000 monks and nuns. Mundgod’s Drepung Loseling Monastery draws its lineage from the Drepung Loseling Monastery that was established in Tibet in the 1400s.  

Places like Aihole, Badami and Mangaluru once had thriving Buddhist populations but have few vestiges of Buddhism left today. The ancient monasteries in Banavasi, Maski and Sannati fell silent aeons ago and are long buried and forgotten. But in Bylakuppe and Mudgod, you can still hear discussions and debates on some tenets of Buddhism, and the walls still reverberate with the low-pitched chanting of hundreds of monks. 

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