Ever since the Telangana State came into being, the hitherto holiday “dry” season of May-July, now gets some relief with a holiday for the Telangana Formation Day. This year the holiday fell on a Thursday and if there is one holiday in a week, then the in-between days are self declared holidays.
This time, the holiday also coincided with our annual mango shopping trip to Ulavapadu in addition to a short trip requirement to Pithapuram. So the plan was to drive to Pithapuram, finish up our work, head to Nellore and do our mango shopping at Ulavapadu while returning back to Hyderabad.
Enroute Hyderabad-Pithapuram, on the Hyderabad-Rajamundry route via Khammam, we discovered that we could make a quick visit to Guntupalli Caves, a little known, ancient Buddhist site.
A trail to antiquity
Our journey to Guntupalli from Hyderabad took us via Khammam on the Hyderabad-Rajamundry route. We reached Khammam around lunch time, the highway bypasses Khammam city and for those heading straight on the highway, the food options are limited. There are a few hotels for a quick bite, though.
From Khammam, we followed Google Maps religiously and unlike our previous experience to Hamsaladeevi, Google Maps was bang on and we reached Guntupalli around 3.45 PM.
Guntupalli Caves are remnants of what must have, once upon a time, been a flourishing Buddhist centre. There are rock cut caves, monasteries, Stupas and Chaityas belonging to the 2nd-3rd Centuries B.C., dedicated to Hinayana or Theravada Buddhism.
At the ticket counter, we were told the site would be closed by 5 PM and we had about 45 minutes to visit the place.
Surrounded by hills on all sides, the Buddhist centre and rock cut caves are located on cliffs on the face of the hills. To reach the caves, one has to climb steep steps up the hill, the climb is so steep, it feels like climbing up a right angle !
Try doing it on a hot, sultry summer afternoon ! You won’t complain though, because the views as you climb up, are refreshing and give you all the energy to continue.
The rock cut caves have been carved out of the rock face. The series of caves begin with a rock cut temple with a Stupa inside. According to the information board, the Stupa inside is worshipped locally as the “Dharmalingeswara”, probably because of its resemblance to a Shiva Linga !
The temple was locked, so we could only get a glimpse of the stupa from the grills of the gate. We have no idea how and when the Nandi outside the temple was placed there ! The entrance looks very similar to the famous Barabar Caves of Bihar built during Ashokan times, considered the oldest rock cut caves in India. The caves at Guntupalli almost go back to that era. Did the monks of Maurya kingdom travel down to the Andhra region to set up this monastery?
ASI has taken over the maintenance of the site and they have done a good job, laying a path to the caves and stupas.
Along the rock face, caves have been carved out and were used by monks for meditation. It has been 2000 years since, time has made them weary but they are still standing, bringing you tales from the days of yore. Notice how the entrances to the cave have been carved to look like the entrance to a humble hut, this design was typical of rock cut caves of the time when temple/monastery architecture was transitioning from wooden structures to rock.
At the end of the first level of caves, there are steps leading further up. As you climb up, views of the hills surrounding the caves give a treat to your eyes.
It was surprising to find such greenery in mid summer, greenery also meant breeze to ease heat and sweat.
After a short climb, we arrived at yet another set of caves.
You don’t have to be a student of history to understand that these caves have stood here for 2 millennia and counting ! One look at the wind damaged entrance and you will know how time has ravaged these monuments.
Just make your imagination run back in time, imagine this place with monks meditating and chanting the Triratnas.
On the opposite end of the hill, you can see a Chaitya Griha, a small trek along the hill will take you there.
ASI has done a good job in keeping this place well maintained. The route to the caves and monuments has been neatly marked with sign boards for each monument, so you won’t lose your way or miss any of the monuments. Some of them call for a long walk, which on a hot summer afternoon is not something you would want to do.
Enroute, we saw this stone Stupa.
A little away was a path leading to one more group of caves.
We didn’t trek all the way to these rock cut caves because we were running short of time but we had to stop and click because the green hills were too beautiful to miss.
While walking back to the stone Stupa, we spotted a few goatherds and their goats, they happily walked around the Stupa, unmindful of the historical treasures they were treading upon !
Where once monks meditated, today, goats make merry.
Wonder how the monks managed to set up a monastery in this remote place? The nearest place of importance for Buddhism, in ancient times, was Amaravathi and that is about 150 kms from here. How did Guntupalli come to become a Buddhist centre?
These gaps in history give a lot of scope for imagination. As we approached the Chaitya Griha, we tried to visualise monks exploring this place, holding meetings in the monastery and designing the Chaitya Griha.
The information board of ASI says, there is a record by an Upasika or an attendant dating back to 2nd-1st Century BC about the building of the steps leading to the Chaitya Griha. 2000 years ! It is hard to even get your mind around the time frame !
The Chaitya Griha consists of a Stupa enclosed within brick walls, the passage between the Stupa and walls was meant for circumambulations.
Here is a closer look at the Stupa.
A sense of reverence fills you as you step inside the circumambulation path. Is it all in the mind or does it have to do with the place and its history?
From the vantage point of the Chaitya Griha, you can see hills all around you and an almost bird’s eye view of the sets of caves and monasteries.
What you see in the above picture are ruins of small Stupas at the foot of the Chaitya Griha. According to the ASI information board, these votive Stupas seem to have been built at different time periods, probably each generation of monks added a few Stupas !
Stupas were built by Buddhists to house relics or objects belonging to Buddha or his disciples and other important Buddhist monks. Some, like these, were built to commemorate events.
We had not expected Guntupalli to be such an important treasure box of Buddhism. We were glad we could make a trip to this place. We had exceeded the time limit of 5 PM and hurried back on another path leading back to the entrance, this one was like a walk in the jungle.
We could hear strange noises of the forest birds and creatures. If this is how the place looks in 2016 A.D, imagine the scenes in 200 B.C !
The Batman od(e)or !
Close to the entrance, we spotted another cave and walked over to check it out. This one didn’t exactly look like a rock cut cave and ran rather deep.
It was all ok till we stepped in a little to see what was inside and then the nauseating smell of bats hit us ! This photographer just about managed to hold still to click this picture of the cave before feeling light headed from the suffocating odor !
If the monks managed to stay in here and meditate, then they need to be worshipped as “Miracle Men” ! The smell wouldn’t leave our mind even when we returned to the car and drove onto the road. Every few seconds, we felt like throwing up and it took a cup of strong tea to get over the feeling ! Phew, no wonder Batman is a superhero, his odour is enough to scare people away !
When the ordeal was over, we had time to think, when you visit these places, you realise how strong Buddhism was in a major part of our country, how it deeply influenced and shaped our culture and philosophy. It is always fascinating to know how our culture came to be what it is now, even a forgotten place like Guntupalli must have had a role to play in it.
The 3 jewels of AP
The rest of trip included a quick visit to Padha Gaya at Pithapuram to perform some rites and then we drove to Nellore via Rajamundry and Vijayawada, did our mango shopping at Ulavapadu on the return journey to Hyderabad after 2 days of chilling at home. This year, we got the chance to buy mangoes directly from an orchard at Ulavapadu, it was a fun experience to pluck the ripe mangoes directly from the tree.
While driving back to Hyderabad, we realised, during this 3 day trip, we crossed all the 3 important rivers of Andhra Pradesh, we crossed the Godavari at Rajamundry and the Krishna at Vijayawada and the Penna at Nellore, the three rivers that have been life givers from the time long before the Three Jewels of Buddhism came into being !
To wind up, here is a picture of the Penna River at Jonnavada near Nellore. The famous Jonnavada Kamakshi Temple is located on the banks of the river.
One of those rare times when you will find water in the Penna in peak Summer !
- If you are travelling from Hyderabad, take the Khammam route and detour near Bethupally, follow Google Maps, you should be fine. It takes about 2 hours from Khammam via Sathupally. The road is good throughout, though a single lane road.
- Alternate route would be to take the Vijayawada highway upto Dwaraka Tirumala, Guntupalli is only 18 kms from there. This route is longer by 60 kms, has tolls and one has to pass through Vijayawada which could sometimes become a nightmare !
- It is actually a good idea to club a trip to Guntupalli along with a visit to Dwaraka Tirumala, considered as “Chinna Tirupati” (Junior Tirupati) by the people of this region. It is a very popular pilgrim centre.
- We are not sure if you will find good transport facilities to Guntupalli, there are a few local buses and autos but one cannot rely on their frequency. One could hire cabs from Dwaraka Tirumala, we suppose.
- The site is open from 10 AM to 5 PM. There is a Rs.5/- entry fee, which multiplies manifold for foreign citizens !
- Follow the path laid by ASI to visit the caves, do not venture too far on your own. The place is not very crowded and the forest around the hills is quite dense, if you lose your way, it will be hard to find the way back.
- Except for tea stalls, which are life savers for the bat smell affected people like us, there are no hotels near Guntupalli. Dwaraka Tirumala is your best bet for food and accommodation.
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