I live in the city of Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana, a state in South India. It is one of the two Telugu states (alongside Andhra Pradesh) in the peninsula. Telugu country was once a heartland of the Buddhist faith. It produced some of Buddhism’s greatest scholars, influential schools of thought, and finest pieces of art. The ruins of several stupas – Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda, Jaggayapeta, are proof of the golden age of Buddhism in South India. But the religion did not make it past the Middle Ages, losing royal patronage and being replaced by folk Hinduism among the masses. However, it experienced a sudden and unexpected revival in the closing decades of the British era. European historians and archaeologists, intrigued by the presence of thousands of mounds across the length and breadth of the subcontinent, began to dig up Buddhist stupas, chaityas and viharas. Exquisite sculptures and cave paintings were recovered and restored. Scholars examined long forgotten manuscripts and reintroduced Indians to the country’s glorious Buddhist heritage.
Buddhists from outside the subcontinent were also attracted by these developments. The British Govt. began to restore the Buddhist holy of holies, the Mahabodhi Temple in the 1880s. Personalities like Anagarika Dharmapala (a Sinhalese monk), Thomas Rhys David (British scholar of Pali) and Henry Steel Olcott (American Theosophist) were heading a Buddhist revival in South Asia. Meanwhile, members of Hindu lower castes began to get attracted to Buddhism. The religion was seen as opposed to social inequality and priestly privilege. Pandit Iyothee Thass of Tamil Nadu, and Dr. B R Ambedkar of Maharashtra embraced Buddhism. Today, there are millions of Buddhist converts from the lower castes of India alongside traditional followers (Tibetan Buddhists of Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti, Sikkim, Tawang, and Theravada Buddhists of Tripura). There is nothing comparable in the states of Telanagana or Andhra Pradesh. Only a minuscule number of Buddhists reside in the region. However, there is a growing interest.
Recently, a major step was taken towards further restoration of the Buddhist tradition. A relic of the Buddha was brought from Thailand, and enshrined in Hyderabad’s Mahabodhi Buddha Vihara (earlier known as Ananda Buddha Vihara). The stupa of the Vihara, located atop Mahindra Hills, has been the focal point for a small Buddhist community residing in the city. They include Telugu and Marathi adherents from South India, as well as Baruas from the Northeast. With the establishment of the relic, the stupa will be considered a mahastupa. The remains of the Buddha (recovered after his cremation) were divided among his followers (who lived in the various kingdoms and republics of North India). Legend has it that Emperor Ashoka divided them further into 84,000 portions. These were then sent to different parts of Asia, as part of the Buddhist mission. The relic brought to Hyderabad was obtained from Wat Boonyawad, located near Bangkok, in the Thai province of Chonburi.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a Buddhist reliquary from Gandhara (part of present day Pakistan and Afghanistan), dating back to the period between the 1st and 3rd centuries CE. Reliquaries, carrying the remains of the Buddha (known as Śarīra), were a very important part of Buddhist religion. This particular reliquary was made of schist and had some coins accompanying it. It is housed at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- ‘Buddha’s relic reaches city’, The Hindu (dated January 12, 2019)