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The ruins of Bavikonda, Andhra Pradesh, India.

The Sacred Bavikonda Monastery: Vestiges of the Buddhist Golden Age in India

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Of all the countries in the world, India has some of the finest examples of Buddhist history and heritage. One of the noteworthy sites is the sacred monastery of Bavikonda in Andhra Pradesh . It is one of the oldest and most sacred Buddhist sites in all of the subcontinent. Authorities are now taking steps to preserve Bavikonda and other ancient Buddhist monuments and sites, realizing the cultural wealth they hold for generations to come.

How Buddhism Was Almost Pushed Out of India

For centuries, Buddhism was one of the major faiths in India and before the advent of Christianity, it slowly spread throughout much of northern India. Ashoka, the famous Mauryan Emperor, adopted the faith and did much to promote its popularity. Bactrian and Indo-Greeks also played a role in its development.

Ashoka, the Mauryan Emperor, 1st century BC/AD, Indian relief. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Ashoka, the Mauryan Emperor, 1st century BC/AD, Indian relief.  (CC BY SA 3.0 )

Buddhist schools flourished in India for hundreds of years. After the 9th century AD, however, Buddhism began to decline while Hinduism gained a larger following. Furthermore, the Muslim invasions of India that began in the 11th century AD saw a rapid decline to the numbers of Buddhists, especially in Northern India.

Many Turkish Sultans regarded Buddhists as atheists simply because they misunderstood their faith and followers of Buddhism fled south or survived in remote areas of the Himalayas. Today, Buddhists are a minority in India, but many Dalits have converted to the religion in recent decades.

The Bavikonda Economic Hub and Place Of Learning

The Bavikonda complex dates from the 3rd century BC, the golden age of Buddhism in India. It was a monastery and a place of pilgrimage. It was also home to many monks (and possibly nuns) and was at one time a wealthy economic hub.

One theory states that the site was associated with the Mahayana school of Buddhism. Some of the major thinkers associated with the development of this school, such as Nāgārjuna, are believed to have lived in communities in Andhra Pradesh and the region played crucial role in the development of this form of Buddhism.

It is possible that the monastery was one of the sites that contributed to the development of the Mahayana school which is still influential in Tibet, Mongolia, and China.

Possibly due to pressure from Muslim invaders and a decline in the numbers of devout Buddhists, the site was abandoned, although no one is sure of the exact date. In 1906 British archaeologists found the complex already excavated.

Bavikonda Buddhist Archaeological Site. (Public Domain)

Bavikonda Buddhist Archaeological Site. (Public Domain )

The Bavikonda Buddhist Complex – Hill of Wells

The Bavikonda complex is one of the oldest and most sacred Buddhist sites in all of the subcontinent. The name is a reference to the numerous wells found on the hill. The site extends over a large area as well as several adjoining hills and consists of a number of stupas. Shrines, temples, halls, galleries, a refractory, and platforms adorn the land.

The ruins of Bavikonda, Andhra Pradesh, India. (Chatterjee, S / CC BY 2.0)

The ruins of Bavikonda, Andhra Pradesh, India. (Chatterjee, S / CC BY 2.0 )

In total, there are 26 structures in the complex and the styles of architecture shows that the complex was developed over three distinct stages. The main Bavikonda stupa ( Mahastupa), or shrine, is circular and is still in remarkable condition. There are also remains of kitchens and stores.

On the eastern hill are a number of rock-cut caves with stupas. In one of these is a Dagoba, a stupa that is often associated with the earthly remains of the Buddha, and one cave that was hollowed out of the rock and had housed a large statue of the Enlightened One. A stairway leads to the location and to the 24 compartments and pillars in the cave.

Archaeological Exploration at Bavikonda

Many monks lived in the complex and they appear to have been self-sufficient. Large amounts of ash, charcoal, and pottery shards have been found, as well as many coins, some from as far away as Rome, and these could have been offerings made by pilgrims or Buddhist kings. Some tiles, pottery, and molded bricks were also unearthed by British and Indian excavations.

Urns containing ashes have been discovered at the site, which indicates that devout Buddhists and monks are buried in the complex, but the most important find was a relic of the Buddha.

Buddhist statue at nearby Bojjannakonda, Andhra Pradesh. (Public Domain)

Buddhist statue at nearby Bojjannakonda, Andhra Pradesh. (Public Domain )

The complex is located near the modern metropolis of Visakhapatnam. If you are considering embarking on a Bavikonda trek, there are buses to the area, and it is possible to hire a local guide. There are few choices for accommodation near the complex, but there is plenty in Visakhapatnam.

Top image: The ruins of Bavikonda, Andhra Pradesh, India. Source: Namaste Vizag

By Ed Whelan

References

Foegel, J (2004). Sacred architecture, scared landscape: early Buddhism in North Coastal Andhra Pradesh. Available at: https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/34188228/Fogelin_2004_Sacred.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A&Expires=1554656013&Signature=9JXiGpIR0PnM2VSMKn21xRtQptk%3D

Giduthuri, V. K. (2013). Heritage Sites in Visakhapatnam City: Typologies, Architectural Styles and Status . European Scientific Journal, ESJ, 9(30) Available at: http://eujournal.org/index.php/esj/article/view/1961

Smith, M. L. (2016). Historical and Medieval Period Archaeology . A Companion to South Asia in the Past, 332-343. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/9781119055280#page=360

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