Review: Phanigiri - Interpreting an Ancient Buddhist Site in Telangana
Few have visited the ancient monastery of Phanigiri referred to as kari mahavihara, that functioned between the 1st and 4th centuries CE. Discovered in Suryapet district in 1942, it lies embedded like a gem in the granite hills of Telangana. The monastery’s unusual name was probably drawn from its location on a hill (giri) shaped like a snake’s hood (phan).
Phanigiri - Interpreting An Ancient Buddhist Site in Telangana, a much needed book on one of India’s most beauteous Buddhist sites, is the result of the collaboration of six eminent scholars and art historians. The introductory chapter by Naman P Ahuja, Professor of Indian Art and Archaeology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and editor of this volume, highlights Telangana’s early commercial links with the Roman empire. Maritime routes via the eastern coast and the Bay of Bengal connected the region to south east Asia and the delta of the Mekong. It also brings to the fore the artistic and commercial dialogue between the Krishna and the Kabul valleys that lie at least 2000 kms apart.
The book reveals the Deccan-Gandharan connection in art and architecture visible in the high relief and three-dimensional sculptures found at Phanigiri, in the choice of motifs on decorative borders, in the portrayal of semi-divine figures like ganas, yakshas, mithunas and nagas and in the depiction of biographical details from the Buddha’s life. Contemporaneous sites in Gandhara such as Takht-i-Bahi used similar material of stone and stucco. Historian Akira Shimada says that structures similar to the rare octagonal shrine found at Phanigiri zone 3 are seen in Taxila and at several Buddhist sites in the Kabul-Ghazni region. Equally intriguing are the double shrines found in Zone 1 and 3, the long octagonal pillar and the colossal yaksha. This prompts us to see the art of Phanigiri as part of the wider iconography then sweeping across the subcontinent.
A mesmerising canvas of superb artistry is revealed as the visitor passes through the sacred precincts where lamps burned in perpetuity and sweet scented flower canopies fell like a veil from the yashti. Here, huge yakshas guarded the monastic gates and tall images of the Buddha gazed compassionately from their pedestals.
Buddhist scholar and art historian Peter Skilling refers to several inscriptions that reveal elite sponsors associated with the Ikshvaku court. The octagonal pillar inscription recalls the donation of a Dhammachakra by the royal physician Nandinnaka at the time of king Rudrapurushadatta of the Ikshvaku dynasty. Another one records the donation by monk Dhammasena who erected a flower canopy over the umbrella of the stupa. His donation also included 150 cows. A group of monks received a donation of gold coins to keep the flames burning in perpetuity. A 3rd century AD inscription refers to an annual donation for the Pavarana festival. Other inscriptions inform us about constructions and renovations within the site. There is also a mention of two women donors, Kitannika and Buddhannika, suggesting that some women of the period were financially independent.
British historian John Guy lays out the architectural décor of the monastic complex and points to some unprecedented recoveries such as the octagonal pillar surmounted by a profusely embellished Dharmchakra. An inscription on the pillar speaks of the prevailing rivalry between Hinduism and Buddhism. The most visible object of worship here, the yashti(central column) of the stupa within the harmika (square railing) supported the honorific umbrellas (chattris) denoting successive heavens of the Buddhist cosmology. There has been much speculation about the spectacular sculpture of a bejewelled male figure recovered from the site. The life size figure could be one of the earliest expressions of bodhisatva imagery in the Deccan or a nature spirit deity like the yaksha, says Guy. Another astonishing find is a life size yaksha in stucco from within the private quarters of the monastery pointing to the popularity of the yaksha cult among the monks.
NR Visalatchy, director of the Department of Heritage of Telangana takes the visitor through the sacred precincts beginning from the first monastic complex in the north southwards to the mahastupa in zone 4. On the way, is a massive 24-pillared congregational hall surrounded by vihara cells from where a large number of stucco figures along with a votive stupa and Roman gold coins were recovered. Embellished panels and several sculptures including the famous ‘turban relief sculpture’ were recovered at another majestic 48-pillared congregation hall in vihara zone 3. A silver reliquary was recovered from the medhi of the colossal mahastupa commemorating acharya Kanamulaya in zone 4.
The study of the Phanigiri region, which is crowded with early monastic remains, is especially important as, apart from Amravati and Nagarjunakonda in the Krishna river valley, most sites have not yet been fully studied. Shimada stresses the need for more research on the early Buddhist monasticism of Andhra. Unfortunately, 28 monastic complexes were submerged when the Nagarjunakonda dam came up. Pointing to the rare art and architecture of Phanigiri, Shimada urges readers to visit these forgotten sites for a comprehensive understanding of their historical milleu.
Visualising the unique free-standing stone torana at Phanigiri, art historian Parul Pandya Dhar offers a reconstruction based on the architectural design, iconography and configuration of narratives on the architrave fragments. The Buddha’s biographical narratives on the front faces of the architraves culminates in the turning of the wheel of Dharma (dharmachakra pravartana) in the deer park (mrigadava) at Sarnath, suggesting his transformation from a bodhisatva to the Buddha. Visual narratives occupy the rear side of the architraves, according to Dhar, who looks into their intended rationale and highlights the role of royalty and the Buddhist sangha in negotiating a dominant space for Buddhism.
The final chapter has a stunning visual of the spectacular sculpture called the ‘turban relief of Phanigiri’. Likened by Ahuja to a ‘hero stone’ as seen in many parts of Central and South Asia, it recalls the ‘Great Renunciation’ of prince Siddharth, or his tossing away of his turban, the symbol of material wealth and temporal power.
Phanigiri was abandoned by the close of the 4th century CE possibly due to changes in patronage and religious allegiance. A change in the course of the Aleru river also adversely impacted trade. Whatever the reason for its decline, Phanigiri’s moment of brilliance has been well captured in the excellent photography and text of this volume.
Sunita Dwivedi is a Silk Road traveller and author. She tracks the Buddhist heritage of Asia