Long before once upon a time began, the Krishna region was a Buddhist hub, mainly because of the Satavahana rules, who patronised Buddhism owing to their allegiance to King Asoka and Magadha empire. After, the Magadha stupas, the biggest ones can be found in this region of Andhra Pradesh, starting from Amaravathi, Nagarjuna Konda, Bhattiprolu and the little known Ghantasala.
Most people only know Ghantasala as the surname of the immortal Telugu playback singer but 2000 years before him, the place was a happening Buddhist and trading centre. After paying our respects to SriKakulandhra Mahavishnu, we headed to Ghantasala, 12 kms away, to see the Buddhist Maha Stupa.
Kantakasaila of yore
It took us about half an hour from Srikakulandhra Mahavishnu temple to reach Ghantasala, the village roads in this part of Andhra are very good. We drove through the village, looking at the traditional and cozy looking houses with huge courtyards, the sights were beautiful.
We were wondering if the famous singer had anything to do with the village, when we spotted a statue dedicated to the one and only Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao.
Though the composer-singer was born near Gudivada, his family hails from the village of Ghantasala. For Telugu people born before the 1980s, music and singing starts and ends with this Gana Gandharva, a title he earned for his divinely melodious music and voice.
The only amusing thing is that the statue is located right outside a burial ground but then, the place doesn’t matter when the village decides to honour the legend who had his roots in their soil.
Driving to the end of the village, we reached the Maha Stupa of Ghantasala. The gates were locked and we were told the person incharge had gone for lunch. Deciding that the person wouldn’t turn up we clicked a few picture and were about to leave when the person incharge hurriedly came to us and opened the gate. Before us was the ancient remnant of the glory of Buddhism !
The Stupa was built in 1st-2nd Centuries A.D and was discovered in 1904. A major part of the Stupa was vandalised at the time of its discovery. The structure that we can see today has been restored using the ancient bricks and seems well maintained.
This Stupa is unique in its design, it has 12 spoke like designs leading to the top, we read that the design represents the 12 zodiac signs.
It is believed that there were quarters for the monks near the Stupa. In its heydays, Ghantasala must have been teeming with Buddhist monks.
We walked around the Stupa, feeling the 2000 year old bricks, trying to imagine a time when Buddhism flourished and Buddhist monks prayed at this Maha Stupa. If you are a history buff, the feeling gives you a strange kind of kick !
Exhibiting the glory of Ghantasala
There is an archaeological museum opposite the Stupa where the sculpture found around the Stupa and in excavations have been exhibited. The museum has sculptures from different periods of time dating from pre-Satavahana to 10th-11th Centuries A.D, most of the sculpture is made out of marble and follows the Amaravathi school of sculpture. Some of the sculpture is so old that even the figures have faded. Predominantly, the sculptures and figures tell you stories from the life of Buddha and the Jataka tales. You can also see the Chattra or umbrella that forms the finial of a Stupa.
We were impressed by the well maintained museum, despite the fact that Ghantasala is a far off village. The museum incharge told us ASI maintains the museum and does a good job with the exhibits but are irregular in paying salaries ! Wish the government gives some thought to these monuments, museums and their caretakers, protecting our heritage is far more important than simply taking pride in it.
He also gave us an information brochure on Ghantasala. It is entirely in Telugu and we learnt some interesting information about the history of Ghantasala, like how the place was a thriving town when the Stupa was built, it seems there are records of how people of Ghantasala made donations for building the Amaravathi Stupa.
The brochure also has a picture of how the Stupa looked before it was restored by ASI. This picture of the brochure will give you an idea !
The brochure had details of the Stupa and its dimensions, history of its excavations and the various objects that were found in the excavations. A few inscriptions which mention about the donations made to the Stupa are also detailed in it.
It also goes on to explain how the name Ghantasala was derived, it says, the place was earlier called “Kantakasaila”, Kantaka is believed to be the name of Siddartha Gautama’s (Gautama Buddha as he was known when he was still a prince) horse and Saila referred to a school of Buddhism, together it came to be called Kantakasaila which became Ghantasala over the centuries.
Thanking the caretaker for showing us around, we left the museum. We were told by him to also check out the important temple in the village.
The information brochure talks about Ghantasala was a thriving port town during the ancient times which exported grains and textiles to Rome and beyond. Wether that was due to its proximity to Masulipatnam or if there was a river link to the sea from Ghantasala, we are not sure but the brochure points to discovery Satavahana and Roman coins and the Jaladeeswara (Lord of the Sea)Temple as proof that it was once a port town.
The Jaladeeswara Temple, it is believed, is one of the oldest temples in Andhra, with its foundations going back to 1st-2nd Century A.D. The temple is unique in the sense, the idol of Bala Parvathi, the Goddess and the Shiva Linga are located on the same platform.
The main shrine was closed when we visited the temple, we made a quick walk around the temple, even as the ground was burning hot. The Ghantasala family has contributed towards building pilgrim amenities like cottages and washrooms.
We managed to click a picture of the temple Gopuram before running to the shelter of our car only to realise that it was equally hot inside the car !
Of course, the temple structure today hardly has any signs of its ancient story.
Soon, it was time to take leave of Ghantasala. As we drove through the village, we were particularly impressed at how seriously people have taken the Swachh Bharat scheme, we found signs that said “Swachh Ghantasala” and the efforts are visible, the village looks clean and well maintained ! It was truly inspiring to see small villages taking up the responsibility that will go on to make a big difference in the country. Way to go Ghantasala !
We left Ghantasala, totally in awe that we had touched 2000 years of history !
- Ghantasala is 26 kms from Machilipatnam and around 56 kms from vijayawada. The place is connected by buses from Machilipatnam. The roads are good too and nothing to beat the feeling of driving through villages.
- The Stupa is open from 6 AM to 6 PM and the museum from 10 AM to 5 PM. There is no entry fee.
- Machilipatnam is the nearest city to find accommodation and good food options.
- One can plan a weekend trip to Machilipatnam and include the Buddhist circuit of Amaravati, Ghantasala and Bhattiprolu enroute.
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