Paying obeisance to Buddhist heritage
In the middle of Hussain Sagar – a massive lake in the heart of Hyderabad, the capital of India's youngest state, Telangana – stands a Buddha statue. At its impressive height of 58 feet (18 metres), the statue claims to be the tallest monolithic Buddha statue in the world. "This statue was the brainchild of former Chief Minister of Andra Pradesh, N.T. Rama Rao. It was carved out of a single piece of granite as part of the Buddha Purnima Project of Hyderabad," Chief Secretary of Telangana State, Sri Shekhar Prasad Singh said.
Speaking to a group of visiting journalists from Sri Lanka, Singh said the statue was erected to exemplify the rich Buddhist heritage of the region.
N.T. Rama Rao, fondly known as NTR, was fascinated by the beauty of the Statue of Liberty during a visit to New York. According to Arvinder Singh, Director of Protocol, Telangana State Secretariat, once NTR returned to Hyderabad he was inspired to build a similar symbol which would represent the culture and heritage of his region.
He ultimately chose Gautama Buddha as the symbol because "he was a humanitarian who told the whole truth to the people. It is our pride."
It was decided to erect the statue on a platform constructed in the middle of Hussain Sagar, on the heart-shaped lake built by Ibrahim Quli Qutub Shah in 1563.
The next task was to find a suitable piece of granite. After a long search, NTR managed to find a massive slab of solid white granite from a mountainside. The construction work on the statue took a number of years. So, between 1983 and 1989 the statue finally took shape at a cost of US$ 3 million with the participation of nearly 100 sculptors under the guidance of renowned artiste Ganpati Stapati. The finished statue weighed 320 tons. A 15 feet (4.6 metres) concrete platform, now known as the 'Rock of Gibraltar' was constructed in the middle of Hussain Sagar to erect the statue.
The passage of the statue from the construction site to the middle of the lake was no easy task. When the finished statue was being taken on a barge towards the already constructed platform, it slipped and fell into the lake. Ten people were killed in the accident. It took a little over two years for the statue to be salvaged and finally erected on the platform. The Buddha statue was finally consecrated in 2006 by the Dalai Lama.
Although this iconic statue now adorns the city of Hyderabad, more than 85% of the population of Telangana is Hindu. There is also a sizable Muslim population and the Christian population is a mere 1.3%. According to Chief Secretary Singh, the Buddhist population in the state is "negligible."
Yet the region has a rich Buddhist history, evidence of which is still being excavated by archaeologists. According to Telangana Tourism, the advent of Buddhism into Telugu country is traced back to the lifetime of the Buddha himself, that is, the 5th century BCE. Telugu country, which lies between the rivers Godavari and Krishna, was known as Assaka (Asmaka) during the Buddha's time.
Dhulikatta (2nd century BCE): Dhulikatta (Mud Fort) is an early historic site where ruins of stupas, viharas, granaries and guardrooms have been found.
Excavations in this area unearthed a stupa with a dome and sculptural panels depicting naga muchalinda, a bodhi tree and upasakas.
Phanigiri (2-3rd century CE): The Buddhist site at Phanigiri is located on a hilltop. Excavations at this site have brought to light a Mahastupa, apsidal Chityagrihas, platforms with staircases at various levels and a number of limestone sculptural panels depicting the great events of Siddharta Gauthama's life, Jataka Tales and Buddhapada slabs. Buddha and Bodhisatta images were also found on the site.
Nelakondapalli (4-5th century CE): This is an ancient fortified city with numerous ruins inside. Several limestone statues of the standing Buddha, a row of brick water troughs for the treatment of sculptured panels, viharas, a chaithya and a number of terracotta figurines were found inside. The presence of uncarved limestone slabs, chips and flakes suggests that it was a manufacturing centre for Buddhist sculptures and panels. Recently, the fishermen of a nearby village discovered a bronze standing Buddha statue in a small river flowing adjacent to the chaithya. It is dated to the post Gupta times (6th century CE).
Nagarjunakonda (3-4th century CE): Nagarjunakonda (Nagarjuna Hill) is located on the Telangana-Andra Pradesh border. It is considered one of India's richest Buddhist sites, which was known in ancient times as Sriparvata. The area now lies under the Nagarjuna Dam. However, prior to the building of the dam across the Krishna River, the artefacts were excavated and relocated to a hill, now an island in the middle of the reservoir. The site is said to have housed more than 30 Buddhist viharas. The footprint at the Mahaviharavasin monastery site is believed to be that of Gautama Buddha.
Sri Parvata Arama: Sri Parvata Arama or Buddhavanam is a Buddhist Heritage Theme Park which is being developed by the Telangana Tourism Development Corporation. This is a Government of India and State Government of Telangana funded project on a 274-acre land on the northern bank of the river Krishna at Nagarjunakonda. The park comprises eight segments; Buddhacharitavanam (the life of Buddha), Bodhisattva Park (Jataka Park), Dhyanavanam (Meditation Park), Stupa Park, Acharya Nagarjuna International Centre for Higher Buddhist Learning, Krishna Valley Park, Buddhism in Telangana and a Maha Stupa. The Project hopes to attract tourists from the South-East Asian region.
Buddhavanam is supposed to symbolically represent the Noble Eightfold Path or Ariya Atthangika Magga (Arya Ashtangika Marga) propounded by the Buddha. The segments will represent major events from the life of Siddhartha Gautama and his previous birth stories as depicted in the Jataka Tales. At the centre of the Park is a Mahastupa constructed in the Amaravati style with sculptural embellishments.
Avukana replica: Under the Indo-Sri Lanka Cultural Exchange Programme, Sri Lanka has donated a replica of the Avukana Buddha statue, the classic 5th century CE standing Buddha statue on the banks of Kala Wewa in Anuradhapura, to be displayed at the Sri Parvata Arama.
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