Buddhism in Telangana

The Brahmi inscriptions preceding Asoka prove that the State was one of the first places where religion made a mark.

By Mallepalli Laxmaiah   |   Published: 10th Jan 2017   1:30 am Updated: 10th Jan 2017   12:31 am

One may be taken by surprise to learn that more than two millennia ago, Gautama Buddha’s teachings had influenced Telangana. An islet on the river Godavari called Badankurthi — surrounded by the present-day Karimnagar, Adilabad and Nizamabad — was then at the centre of Buddhism. Even today, the islet is a symbol of pride for the Telangana region. Badankurthi also boasts of being one of the first places where Buddhism had reached, though Gautama Buddha had not visited the place.

Buddha’s Suttanipata, a part of the Tripitakas, mentions clearly that at the place where the Godavari splits into two and meets again creating an eyot (islet in a river) lived a Rishi known as Bavari. There is also historical evidence to prove that this place, mentioned in the Suttanipata, is Badankurthi. It is also mentioned that the islet is between Assaka and Mulaka, which are in present-day Telangana and Maharashtra regions. Till a few years ago, the only way to reach Badankurthi, which is in present-day Adilabad, was by boats plied by local fishermen, but now there are two bridges.

Early Buddhist influence
When Bavari heard of Buddha’s teachings, he felt that he was too old to go himself and instead sent 16 pupils to Gautama Buddha. His pupils discussed Bavari’s teachings and asked Buddha several questions, which were recorded in the Suttanipata. Of the 16 pupils, only one, Pingiya, returned to Bavari. On Pingiya’s return, Bavari too started following Buddhist teachings.

After Buddha’s Mahaparinirvanam, Asmaka, ruler of the erstwhile Podali kingdom (now Bodhan in Nizamabad dt), converted to Buddhism. Thereafter, Buddhism not only spread to Telugu regions but also to the rest of Southern India. Over hills and forests in the western part of India, Buddhism spread through the country along the Pranahita and reached the Godavari. Through boats in the monsoon and bullock carts in summer, it crossed the river banks and traversed across Dharmapuri, Kotilingala, Dhoolikatta, Phanigiri, Gajulabanda, Tirumagiri, Nelakondapalli and Jaggaiahpeta. It then crossed the Krishna river and reached Amaravati, according to historians.

Rapid spread
To the north, we know of Nagarjunakonda. As soon as Buddhism set foot in Telangana, it became a part of societal life and attained great importance. It further spread rapidly in the kingdom of the Satavahanas. Along with Kotilingala and Dhoolikatta, various other places in Telangana emerged as Buddhist centres, according to archaeological evidence.

Kotilingala, however, remains the cornerstone in Buddhist history right to this age. Kotilingala was the capital of the Satavahanas. Excavations unravelled Srimukha Satavahanas’s currency at Kotilingala. During the excavations carried out between 1979 and 1984, the historic city of Kotilingala came to light. The excavations also revealed remains of wells, sophisticated drainage systems and brick constructions. Roman currency was also found at the site, which shows that Kotilingala was a centre of trade and commerce.

Unique bricks
The Stupa that was unearthed during the excavations was made of bricks which were unique to the Satavahanas. The inscriptions on the Stupa were written in the ancient Brahmi script. It has been ascertained that these inscriptions dated back to even Asoka’s rule. It can be inferred through this that Buddhism spread in these parts a long time before Asoka’s reign. It is estimated that the Stupa belongs to a period post Buddha and precedes Asoka. It can be deciphered from the script on relics that they are from the 4th century BC. Along with Kotilingala, Pashagam, Dhoolikatta and Meerjampeta are examples of the early Stupas. None of the Stupas hold any physical remains of Buddha, which goes to show that these were some of the first Stupas.

Though not on the banks of the Godavari, Dhoolikatta, which is in Karimnagar and only a short distance away from the river, is home to a Stupa belonging to the age of Asoka (3rd century BC). It is believed that this Stupa belongs to the Dheravada School of Buddhism. This is the first era in Buddhist art and architecture; a five-headed cobra was carved on the walls of the Stupa along with the statues of the Bodhi tree. Mahapadhi Nishkramanam and Buddha’s feet were found here.

Art scholar
It is said that a well-known tarkikavetta, Dinnagudu, belonged to Kotilingala. Apart from being a trakikavetta, he was also an art scholar. He is also known to have written “Kandhamala” and to have developed the Buddhist Tarkika science. The adjoining hills known as Munula gutta was his base of operations. It is believed that the Telangana region has many Buddhist secrets waiting to be unearthed.

Telangana seems to have embraced Buddhism from an early period in time, which can be seen in the way of life here. The revolutionary attributes of fighting against discrimination and inequality can also be seen in Telangana, which created its identity some 2,600 years ago.

Chinese Buddhist scholar Hiuen Tsang had also visited Telangana during his visit to India. This shows that the region had contact with the outside world thousands of years ago. Political revolutions must always assimilate the historic and philosophical attributes of the region to guide the growth of Telangana and inspire the rest of the country.

(The author is special officer, Buddhavanam project)