Buddhism was founded in Majjhimadesa. It was here that Prince Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha. It was in the cities, towns and villages of this part of South Asia that he went around propagating the principles of Buddhism. Majjhimadesa (literally the Middle Country) was made up of a number of kingdoms and oligarchies, what were known to the ancients as the Mahajanapadas (a term that translates as the Great Footholds of Tribes). These included Anga, Magadha, Vajji, Malla, Kosala, Kasi, Vamsa, Chetiya, Surasena, Panchala, Kuru, Maccha, Avanti and Assaka. Out of these Magadha, Vajji, Malla, Kosala and Kasi figure most prominently in the Buddha’s life. One must also include the tribes (or tribal oligarchies) of the Shakyas and Koliyas who lived (on what is the present day Indo-Nepal frontier) in the foothills of the Himalayas. The Buddha was born among the Shakyas and married a Koliya princess.
If one were to trace Majjhimadesa on the map of South Asia, it would be confined to North India and Nepal. It was only much later that Buddhism spread to South India (credit for which should go to the great dynasties of the kingdom of Magadha in general, and the Mauryan emperors in particular). However, once it had reached the peninsula, it became very popular among South Indians. Rulers of the Deccan embraced the faith and established numerous monasteries, stupas and chaityas. Proof for the presence of Buddhism in South India (after its displacement by Hinduism) can be inferred from the remains of these structures. They keep popping up all over the place. I am a native Telugu speaker, and the two Telugu-speaking states (Andhra Pradesh on the coast, and Telangana in the interior) are dotted with Buddhist sites. Several monarchs of Telugu country patronized the faith, donating generously to the Sangha. Archaeologists, amateur and professional, keep reporting the discovery of Buddhist ruins at regular intervals.
Given below is a report from ‘The News Minute’ describing the latest discovery from Putlagudem Village in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur District (dating back to the 1st century CE) in August 2017:
Archaeologists in Andhra Pradesh have discovered an ancient Buddhist site that dates back to 1st century AD. The site was discovered atop a hill in Guntur district, in Putlagudem village of Achampet mandal. A team headed by senior archaeologist and CEO of Culture Centre of Vijayawada and Amaravati (CCVA), Dr E Sivanagi Reddy found the site.
“We found the Buddhist site atop a hill, locally called Bhairava Gutta. The area was dotted with broken pillars of Silamandapa in front of the dilapidated Venkateswara temple.The structures date back to the Satavahana rule,” Reddy told TOI. The Deccan Chronicle reported that the site had six limestone pillars with half lotus medallions and depicted animals and patterns. Andhra Pradesh is home to several Buddhist sites, that date back to several centuries ago.
Just last week, one of the prime Buddhist tourist spots in the state in Ghantasala village in Krishna district, was all set to receive a boost, with a Rs 1,500 crore project. “The new facility will be themed on the Mahaparinirvana of the Buddha. A two-storied structure in Buddhist architecture resembling a pedestal with a 100-ft wide and 70-ft high Buddha in the Mahaparinirvana posture will be a major highlight,” Executive Director of the AP Tourism Development Corporation Mallikarjuna Rao told The Hindu.
There are also plans for a ‘Buddhist circuit’ being drafted by the AP Tourism and Culture department. “Under Swadesh Darshan scheme, the state government will develop five places including Amaravati, where the government will construct tourism amenities centre, parking slots, Dhyana Buddha vanam (meditation halls) and more. The tourism department is taking utmost care on the new constructions and we are ensuring that these constructions should replicate the original Buddhist structures,” secretary for tourism and culture Mukesh Kumar Meena told media persons.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a map of India, showing the principal Buddhist (red) and Jaina (blue) localities dating back to 1891. It has been taken from the Scottish architectural historian James Fergusson’s ‘The History of Indian and Eastern Architecture’ (published in 1876). He played a key role in the rediscovery of several Indian monuments. In the map, written in red, is the name of Andhra Pradesh’s greatest Buddhist site – Amaravati, with its Great Stupa (the Amaravati Mahachaitya). It dates back to the 3rd century BCE (when the Mauryas ruled much of South Asia) and is located in the same district (Guntur) as Putlagudem Village.