When Buddhism reached Karnataka
The birth narratives of the Buddha are among the most interesting sculptures in Sannati and are the best of their type.
Karnataka, a land of rich tradition and culture, has thousands of monuments that attest to its ancient saga of heritage. Buddhism was one of the earliest religions in the region with lots of activity there starting from the 3rd century BCE. Interestingly, Karnataka has more than half-a-dozen inscriptions of Mauryan emperor Asoka. The Sri Lankan Buddhist chronicle Mahavamsha has records about Asoka’s Buddhist missionaries in the region.
The spread of Buddhism resulted in the construction of memorials like stupas and viharas. Sannati is a small village in Gulbarga district on the north bank of River Bhima, a tributary of River Krishna. Archaeological excavations were conducted by Karnataka’s Directorate of Archaeology in Sannati and by the Archaeological Survey of India at the Ranamandala and Kanaganahalli sites. The ASI excavation at Kanaganahalli near Sannati unearthed the remains of a large stupa, along with a good number of sculptures that were strewn around.
The stupa at Sannati was known as the Shakya Maha Chaitya. The stupa, likely to have been initially built during Asoka’s reign and later renovated by Satavahana kings, is today almost in ruins, but sculptures and inscriptions found here attest to the vibrant Buddhist art and culture in the region. Excavations at Sannati have contributed many Buddhist sculptures, including inscribed historical figures of Asoka and Satavahana kings, depictions of the Jataka tales and miracles of the Buddha. The discovery of an Asokan slab edict followed by the finding of his portrait is an important contribution to the historical records of Indian art. In the sculptural depiction, the emperor with his queen and attendants are carved on a slab, which has an inscription identifying him that reads Raya Asoka (Raja Asoka). It is the first-ever sculpture of Asoka with his name inscribed.
There is another interesting sculpture depicting the revival of the Bodhi Tree by Asoka. The emperor is shown as paying obeisance to the tree and the artist has rendered it with great naturalism. It is believed that Asoka also visited a place called Suvarnagiri in Karnataka. It should be reminded here that the riddle of Devanampriya and Asoka was solved by the Asokan edict at Maski in Karnataka’s Raichur district. It revealed that Devanampriya (the beloved of the Gods), a name found in many early Mauryan inscriptions, was an epithet of none other than Asoka.
The birth narratives of the Buddha are among the most interesting sculptures in Sannati and are the best of their type. They commence with the dream of his mother Mayadevi. The appearance of a white elephant confirms the conception of a child. It also symbolically attests to the arrival of the Buddha on earth. It is followed by the interpretation of the dream, the nativity scene, presentation of the child to Vriksha Yaksha Shakyavardhana, his departure renouncing the palace life, the defeat of Mara, Buddha’s enlightenment, his first sermon at Sarnath Deer Park, his miracles and sermons to his followers, and the panel narrative finally culminates with the great departure—mahaparinirvana. There are also narratives depicting the distribution of the relics of the Buddha to his followers and the celebration of his departure in the tushita heavens.
The Jataka stories such as Chaddanta, Mriga, Suta Soma and Vidurapandita have been delineated on sculptural slabs. All these slabs served as decorative veneering to the drum and platform of the stupa. The Jataka tales narrate the incidents of the previous lives of the Buddha as Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is a pious person who would always help others. In Shaddanta Jataka, the Bodhisattva was born as an elephant with six tusks. The Queen of Kashi wanted to have the tusks chopped so that she could get them and the Shaddanta elephant would die. A hunter was appointed to get the tusks. In the narration, the artist has carved the elephant with six tusks within the herd. The hunter was unable to cut the tusks as they were heavy. The elephant, having known the intentions of the hunter, helps him cut the tusks and gives him a sermon.
The Sannati stupa also has symbolic and anthropomorphic forms of the Buddha. These depict the Manusha Buddhas, all carved by an artist from Vidarbha. The Buddha is depicted with symbols such as nagamucchalinda (serpent with five or more hoods), elephant, swan, dharmachakra and empty throne with cushions. The slabs are decorated with architectural motifs and flora and fauna, which form part of the festoons and garlands. The Sannati stupa has the maximum number of inscriptions among all stupas (more than 700 inscriptions), and they refer to varied subjects including donors and patrons. Sannati, besides its Buddhist association, is presently known for Sri Chandralaparameshwari, a Shakta deity in a 9th century CE temple.
Buddhist art in Karnataka made its beginning at Sannati and spread its style all over the ancient region. Banavasi in Uttara Kannada district is another place that has a rich association with Buddhism. The Banavasi Kadamba and Badami Chalukya dynasties too patronised Buddhism, but it was at a rather low key. The rich sculptural tradition of stone carvings gave a new dimension to Karnataka’s art history.