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History in stone

The Amaravati Gallery at the Madras Museum houses some priceless pieces of Indian art. With the renovation of this part of the museum, visitors will get an opportunity to catch glimpses of a glorious era in history.

THE GOVERNMENT Museum at Egmore, popularly known as the Madras Museum, is one of the oldest and largest museums in South Asia. It recently celebrated its post-centenary golden jubilee with seminars and exhibitions.

Visitors to the Madras Museum would be familiar with its `Amaravati gallery' housing the ancient Buddhist sculptures from Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh. Few of these visitors would, however, be aware that the sculptures in the gallery form a small fraction of the finds from Amaravati - many are housed in the British Museum in London and the Archaeological Site Museum at Amaravati itself.

As on date, Amaravati, locally known as Dipaldinne or `Hill of Lamps', is a tiny town 35 km north of Guntur in Andhra Pradesh. Its antiquity dates back to the time when man was in a primitive stage of existence. Stone Age tools such as handaxes, cleavers, discoids and scrapers have been discovered in the region.

The recorded history of Amaravati begins from the time of Asoka, the famous Mauryan emperor who ruled from 272 to 235 B.C. The site has yielded a quartzite pillar bearing an inscription of Asoka. After the decline of the Mauryas, the later Satavahanas chose Dharanikota or Dhanyakataka near Amaravati as their capital. The Satavahanas were eventually replaced by the Ikshvaku rulers. At a much later date, the Pallava kings had their capital at Dharanikota before they migrated to Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu.

The stupa at Amaravati is one of the biggest in South India. The ancient inscriptions refer to it as the Mahachaitya. It was originally built during the time of Asoka but was extensively enlarged and embellished by later rulers. It consisted of a solid central dome of bricks mounted on a drum-like platform. The dome was nearly 50m in diameter. The entire monument was covered with sculptured panels made of limestone or `Palnad marble' found in the neighbourhood. The sculptures mostly portrayed scenes from Buddhist mythology.

The stupa was surrounded by a fence or railing, pierced by four gateways, one in each of four cardinal directions.

With the decline of Buddhism in the medieval period, the Amaravati stupa, like many other stupas in Andhra and elsewhere, began to be neglected. It finally collapsed and some of its sculptures were buried in the rubble. An interesting 14th Century inscription from Gadaladeniya near Kandy in Sri Lanka, mentions the repairs made to the stupa.

After this, we hear nothing about the site or the stupa for the next 500 years. The stupa gradually became a forgotten piece of history till treasure-diggers and archaeologists began to unearth the various sculptures, unfolding thus the history of the site and its monument.

If the early history of Amaravati and its stupa is dramatic and intriguing, its chance re-discovery by the archaeologists is more so. Around the year 1796, an enterprising zamindar shifted his residence from crowded Chintapalli to deserted Amaravati. He soon invited other people to settle in Amaravati. This led to the construction of roads and houses in the area. In the course of construction, the workers often found large bricks and carved limestone slabs below the ground. The news soon reached the ears of Colonel Colin Mackenzie, who visited the site twice (in 1787 and 1818) and prepared drawings and sketches of the relics in the area. Eventually, several European scholars like Sir Walter Smith, Robert Sewell, James Burgess and Alexander Rea excavated the site and unearthed many sculptures that once adorned the stupa. In recent decades, the Archaeological Survey of India has conducted further excavations in the area.

Art historians regard the Amaravati art as one of the three major styles or schools of ancient Indian art, the other two being the Gandhara style and the Mathura style. Some of the Buddhist sculptures of Amaravati betray a Greco-Roman influence that was the direct result of the close trade and diplomatic contacts between South India and the ancient Romans. Indeed, Amaravati has itself yielded a few Roman coins. For many years, the Amaravati sculptures in the British Museum were not on display but were stored in the museum's basement. A few years ago, the museum constructed a new gallery for these sculptures. In an attempt to convey the significance of these sculptures and how they originally looked, a section of the stupa has been recreated by arranging the sculptures on the gallery wall up to height of 15 feet. A portion of the railing or fence has also been reconstructed in front of the gallery. As the sculptures are extremely sensitive to air pollution and changes in temperature, the gallery has been de-humidified and air-conditioned and is enclosed by a glass wall. The Madras Museum has now announced its plans to refurbish its Amaravati Gallery. One hopes that the authorities will effectively re-create the ambience of Amaravati, on the lines of the British Museum gallery.

S. SURESH

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