In 1796 a certain Raja decided to build a new capital at a place called Amareswaram. While workers were busy digging at this place, their spades hit some bricks and some white stone pieces which had carvings on them. They had accidentally hit on an ancient Buddhist stupa, the great stupa of Amaravati. The site of Amaravati lies in the valley of the Krishna river in the modern state of Andhra Pradesh.
Stupa were part of the Buddhist religion. They consisted of a dome, usually shaped like a semi-circle or hemisphere. The structure was not hollow like a dome. It was solid, either filled with brick or mud. Very often relics of important monks were put into boxes and placed in the middle of these structures. The stupas were surrounded by railings and four gateways. People came here to pray and worship. As Buddhism became more and more popular, many stupas were built all over India. The emperor Ashoka, how had deep faith in the teaching of Gautama Buddha, played an important role in building many stupas and monasteries. A broken part of a stone inscription which may belong to the time of the Mauryan king Ashoka has also been found at Amaravati. This suggests that the stupa was there as early as the third century B.C.. Maybe Ashoka was responsible for having it built in the first place.
Most of the grandest stupas were located outside big cities. This allowed the monks enough peace and privacy, and at the same time did not cut them off completely from the people who lived in the cities. The site of Amaravati is just next door to a place called Dharanikota. Dharanikota is the site of ancient Dhanyakataka which was the capital of the kingdom of the Satavahana lings who ruled in the Deccan around the 1st to 3rd centuries A.D.. It also seems to have been an important place before and long after the Satavahana kings. "Dhanyakataka' means town of rice or paddy. In fact, the Krishna valley in which it was located was a very important rice producing area. It was also an important center of trade with other parts of India and foreign countries. The Amaravati stupa and monastery seem to have lasted until the 14th century A.D..
Like other important stupa sites, Amaravati also grew and changed. This is in a way similar to the way in which people sometimes repair and renovate their houses or larger buildings today. In the beginning, the stupa must have been quite plain and simple. Over time, stone pillars and railings were added. Eventually, the surface of the stupa was covered with beautifully carved white limestone slabs, which looked just like marble. The railing around the stupa and the four gateways were also decorated with carved limestone slabs. Some of the carvings and sculptures were purely decorative. Others had a deeper meaning and tried to tell the story of the Buddha's life. The railings and gateways of the stupa had many inscriptions carved on them.
What do the railing and the gateway inscriptions of the Amaravati stupa tell us about?
These inscriptions give us the names of the many people who gave the money for this stupa-monastery complex to be built. These included whole villages, landowners, craftsmen, traders, and members of royal families. It is interesting to note that a lot of the gifts to the stupa were made women.
The Amaravati stupa must have been a magnificent site in ancient times, when monks lived and studied here. Many people came here to pray or worship, sometimes traveling long distances from different parts of the country. If you visit some ancient stupa sites like Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh you can get an idea of what the place must have been like in the olden days. But you visit Amaravati today, you will be disappointed. The reason for this is that over the years after this site was discovered in the 18th century, most of the beautiful carved stones of the Amaravati stupa steadily disappeared from the site. Some of the stones were used up in the making of newer buildings. But as more and more beautiful sculpted stones were discovered by archaeologists in excavations, many of them were taken away to be displayed in museums in India and abroad. Sometimes when sites are discovered, people take steps to take care of them and to preserve what is there on the spot. But sometimes, the discovery of a site can lead to its destruction and virtual disappearance. This is what happened at Amaravati.