Sannati: The Buddhist site of Karnataka

GS Paper I

News Excerpt:

Left largely in the lurch for 20 years after it came to light through the ASI excavations in the 1990s, the ancient Buddhist site on the bank of the Bhima River got a restoration project in 2022.

The discovery of Sannati:

  • The site was accidentally discovered in 1986 when some villagers found a stone slab with Prakrit inscription in Brahmi script.
  • Sannati, besides its Buddhist association, is presently known for Sri Chandralaparameshwari, a Shakta deity in a 9th century CE temple.

Location of Sannati:

  • It is located on the bank of Bhima river near Kanaganahalli (forming part of Sannati site) in Kalaburagi district of Karnataka.

Major findings from the site:

  • The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) began excavating the area in 1994 hoping to unearth more material of historical importance.
  • Abandoned Well: 
    • The study of the material found in the excavation firmly established that the “abandoned well” was indeed the site of Adholoka Maha Chaitya [the Great Stupa of the Netherworlds] as it was referred to and described in many inscriptions and built in the Ashokan era.
  • Maha Stupa:
    • The Maha Stupa is believed to have been developed in three constructional phases – Maurya, Early Satavahana and Later Satavahana periods -- stretching from 3rd Century B.C. to 3rd Century A.D. 
    • It is built with locally available limestone with elaborate ornamentation.
    • The archaeologists believe that the Stupa was destroyed by natural calamities.
    • The Sannati stupa also has symbolic and anthropomorphic forms of the Buddha. 
        • These depict the Manusha Buddhas, all carved by an artist from Vidarbha. 
        • The Buddha is depicted with symbols such as Nagamucchalinda (serpent with five or more hoods), elephant, swan, dharmachakra and empty throne with cushions. 
    • The slabs are decorated with architectural motifs and flora and fauna, which form part of the festoons and garlands. 
    • The Sannati stupa has the maximum number of inscriptions among all stupas (more than 700 inscriptions), and they refer to varied subjects including donors and patrons.
  • Sculpture of the emperor:
    • The excavation also recovered a stone sculpture portraying Mauryan Emperor Ashoka. 
    • The emperor is seen surrounded by his queens and female attendants in this rare sculpture. 
    • The sculpture had the words “Raya Asoko” etched on it in Brahmi script leaving little scope for mistaking the identity of the man featured in it. 
  • While the Stupa is believed to be one of the largest Stupas built at the time, the stone portrait is considered to be the only surviving and available image of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka.
  • Bodhi Tree sculpture:
    • There is another interesting sculpture depicting the revival of the Bodhi Tree by Asoka. 
    • The emperor is shown as paying obeisance to the tree and the artist has rendered it with great naturalism. 
  • Jataka story sculptures:
    • The birth narratives of the Buddha are among the most interesting sculptures in Sannati and are the best of their type. 
      • They commence with the dream of his mother Mayadevi. 
      • The appearance of a white elephant confirms the conception of a child. It also symbolically attests to the arrival of the Buddha on earth. 
      • It is followed by the interpretation of the dream, the nativity scene, presentation of the child to Vriksha Yaksha Shakyavardhana, his departure renouncing the palace life, the defeat of Mara, Buddha’s enlightenment, his first sermon at Sarnath Deer Park, his miracles and sermons to his followers, and the panel narrative finally culminates with the great departure—mahaparinirvana. 
      • There are also narratives depicting the distribution of the relics of the Buddha to his followers and the celebration of his departure in the tushita heavens.
    • The Jataka stories such as Chaddanta, Mriga, SutaSoma and Vidurapandita have been delineated on sculptural slabs. 
    • The Jataka tales narrate the incidents of the previous lives of the Buddha as Bodhisattva. 
      • The Bodhisattva is a pious person who would always help others.
      • In Shaddanta Jataka, the Bodhisattva was born as an elephant with six tusks. Who helps a hunter cut his own tusks and gives him a sermon.
  • The recoveries included around 60 dome slabs with sculptural renderings of selected Jataka stories, main events in the life of the Master, portraits of Shatavahana monarchs and certain unique depictions of Buddhist missionaries sent by Ashoka to different parts. 
  • There were 72 drum slabs decorated with a variety of Dharma-Chakras, Stupas, the first sermon, Bodhi-tree, Naga Muchulinda, and Viihara complexes. 
  • Also found were over 10 inscribed sculptures of the Buddha, over a dozen Buddha-Padas, fragments of Ayaka pillars, umbrella stones and shafts, parts of sculptures of Yakshas and lions and 250 Brahmi inscriptions with varied paleographical features. 

Historical significance:

  • Historians believe that the Sannati Ranamandal [war zone] was a fortified area spreading over 210 acres, of which only a couple of acres have so far been excavated. 
  • The excavations suggested that the area was one of the major Buddhist centres that flourished with the active support of Emperor Ashoka. 
  • The areas came under the control of Satavahanas after the Mouryas. 

Conservation efforts:

  • After the initial enthusiasm, the ASI appeared to have gradually developed apathy towards Kanaganahalli and Sannati sites for the next 15 years.
  • ASI has now started a major restoration project on the site which commenced in July 2022.
  • Karnataka government has established Sannati Development Authority to conserve the antiquities retrieved in the excavation and develop the areas into a major tourist and pilgrimage destination.

Way Forward:

  • According to ASI officials, the ancient Kanaganahalli Buddhist site is eligible to get the UNESCO World Heritage Site tag. 
    • The ASI and the state government need to work in coordination to realise the aim and put it on the Buddhist circuit of India.
  • Kalaburagi is already well-connected by rail, air and road. The State government should expand the connectivity and infrastructure of this ancient Buddhist site by developing better roads and tourist amenities. 
  • Equipped with better connectivity and civic amenities, the Sannati and Kanaganahalli may attract tourists from all over the world, especially from countries with sizable Buddhist populations like China, Thailand, Japan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

Other major Buddhist sites in Karnataka:

  • Maski Edict:
    • The minor rock edict found at Maski town in Raichur district in 1915 convincingly established that Devanampiye and Piyadasi (‘beloved of the gods’ and ‘one with a benevolent gaze’) were the titles of Ashoka. 
    • Till then, the identity of Devanampiye and Piyadasi which were widely referred to in ancient inscriptions remained unknown. 
  • A major education hub between 10th and 12th Centuries:
    • The site of ancient Nagavi Ghatikasthana, which was: often termed the Takshashila of the South by historians, is around 40 km away from Sannati. 
    • The Ghatikasthana, which had the status of a present-day university, was a major education hub during rulers of the Rashtrakuta and Kalyana Chalukya dynasties between the 10th and 12th Centuries. 
  • It is believed that Asoka also visited a place called Suvarnagiri in Karnataka.
  • Banavasi 
    • Banavasi in Uttara Kannada district is another place that has a rich association with Buddhism. 
    • The Banavasi Kadamba and Badami Chalukya dynasties too patronised Buddhism, but it was at a rather low key. 

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