HistoriCity | Amaravati: A brief history of the city that Chandrababu Naidu wants to build again - Hindustan Times
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HistoriCity | Amaravati: A brief history of the city that Chandrababu Naidu wants to build again

Jun 14, 2024 08:30 AM IST

The layered history of Amaravati, which lies on the right bank of the Krishna river, begins more than 2300 years ago around the 2nd century BC.

In his fourth term as chief minister Chandrababu Naidu has renewed his promise to build a grand capital of Andhra Pradesh at Amaravati, a small town in the coastal Guntur region. Naidu has announced that his predecessor YSR Jagan Reddy’s plan of creating three different capitals will be shelved.

Depiction of the Amaravati Stupa (Gryffindor/Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
Depiction of the Amaravati Stupa (Gryffindor/Wikimedia Commons)

Naidu’s choice of Amaravati seems to be rooted in its glorious history as the capital of the ancient Satavahana dynasty (2th BCE- 3th CE), which is believed to be located at the nearby village of Dharanikota. Satavahanas reigned over the region between coastal Maharashtra and coastal Andhra Pradesh, including parts of present-day Madhya Pradesh.

Satavahanas are most closely associated with Buddhism. Amaravati’s more recent history provides another role model, that of Vasireddy Venkatdri Naidu, an 18th-century Zamindar (landlord)-king who revived the ancient and lost glory of this town and built his fort here in the 1790s.

The layered history of Amaravati, which lies on the right bank of the Krishna river begins more than 2300 years ago around the 2nd-3rd century BC. The site was documented for the first time in 1816-17 under the supervision of Colonel Colin Mackenzie, the first Surveyor General of India during British rule.

After Mackenzie’s first visit, locals under the patronage of Venkatdri Naidu removed a lot of stone slabs, and other pieces from the Amaravati Stupa and used them for building their own houses and other structures.

The sculptures, inscriptions and other artefacts recovered in excavations following discovery by Mackenzie now lie in museums scattered across India (Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata) and England.

Scholars like Robert. E. Fisher has characterised the Amaravati style as more “sensual and abundant”. The lack of documentation during early excavations in the 19th century has meant that even those artefacts that have been discovered in other sites in Andhra Pradesh like Nagarakonda have been characterised as the Amaravati School of Art.

An inscription found at the massive Maha chaitya (great sanctuary) ‘stupa’ has led scholars to believe it may have been built during emperor Ashoka’s reign (c. 268 – c. 232 BCE). However, this cannot be said with certainty. More recent studies have suggested that another contemporary power known as the Sada dynasty also ruled from Amaravati. According to Professor Akira Shimada, in an inscription found at Guntapalli, the Sadas call themselves kings of Kalinga and have relations with the Mahameghavahanas (2nd BCE- 4th CE).

This interspersing and overlapping of dynasties is confounding but also shows that the region has been a site of contestation and remains so till today.

Historical records are virtually non-existent after the early centuries of the common era. After Satavahana, this region is believed to have been under the rule of various dynasties like Andhra Ishkvakus, Pallavas, Kakatiyas, Delhi and Bahmani Sultanate, the empire of Vijayanagara and the Golconda Sultans followed by the Mughal empire. Local feudatories continued to exist, but their records are yet to be discovered.

An inscription in Sri Lanka, dated to the 14th century refers to repairs made to the Amaravati stupa.

The Nizam of Hyderabad took control of the region in 1724 and during that time the French also acquired the region through the treaty of 1750. The British East India Company, whose presence in the region started in 1750, retained control until independence in 1947.

The Razakar violence around independence spared this region both for the long distance from Hyderabad and the fact that Hindus formed an overwhelming majority.

In the British period, Vasireddy Venkatadri Naidu’s acts of defiance began with resisting taxation. Historian Robert.E.Frykenberg wrote – in his seminal work, Guntur District (1788-1848): A History of Local Influence and Central Authority in South India – "In the wake of the reforming policies of Lord Cornwallis, the Masulipatam Council disappeared and the Vasireddy himself began to feel British pressure. He was compelled to release and reinstate his cousins in their villages across the river. A battalion of sepoys was stationed in his fort at Chintapalli. His small army was disbanded and he was allowed to keep no more police than would be necessary for the collection of revenue. Even the Zamindar himself was put under guard at Guntur for a while.”

What Vasireddy did next has immortalised him as one of the first rebels against the British in the south of India. Frykenberg wrote: “Despite the loss of his independence, the proud Kamma continued to display a brave face. He never returned to the palace which Company soldiers had desecrated. Instead, he built another palace at Amaravati. Built out of stone quarried from the now renowned Buddhist ruins, his new house was supported with pillars covered in silver and gold and was roofed with sheets of burnished copper. Nearby, gardens were laid out and temples were restored. From this grand residence, the Zamindar exercised a powerful influence for another 20 years.”

Vasireddy also renovated the ancient Amarlingeshvar Shiva temple in 1796 at Amaravati and donated generously to temples and sects spread across this region. In fact, in 2015, ancient Buddhist sculptures dating back to 2nd-3rd AD were discovered while repairing the temple. His descendants continue to hold large tracts of land through trusts.

The revival of Amaravati’s lost heritage (Buddhist and non-Buddhist) must be an integral part of the grand new plans to develop it as the new capital of Andhra Pradesh.

HistoriCity is a column by author Valay Singh that narrates the story of a city that is in the news, by going back to its documented history, mythology and archaeological digs. The views expressed are personal

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