Sannati and Kanaganahally: Asoka’s Last Resorts in South India

Asoka statue and recreations of Asokan pillar with lion capital and Sannati and Kanaganahally stupas in the background by the Buddhist people at Sannati by the river Bhima in Kalaburgi district of Karnataka. Dec 2021. Photos by Ajay Sekher

According to Buddhist traditions, the Mauryan emperor Asoka the great traveled to South India three times in his life. The third time he never went back, it is widely held by Buddhists in India. As his grandfather Chandragupta Maurya came to breathe his last moments in South Karnataka in Sravanabelagola (literally the Bella Kola or white pond of the Sramana) along with his Jain guru Bhadrabahu in BCE 4th century; Asoka also is said to have spent his last days in northern Karnataka in BCE 3rd century. In Kalaburgi district bordering with Maharashtra where the river Bhima creates many distributary wetlands and irrigated paddy field networks this ancient land of Sannati remains almost unknown to the world.

Asokan edict at Sannati archeological site in Karnataka, his last resort in South India. This was accidentally discovered when some later constructions at Chandralamba Hindu temple collapsed in 1986.

Amidst vast green paddy fields now nurtured by the Sannati regulator cum bridge we have the historic places and archaeological sites of Sannati and Kanganahally. These were sites of two ancient stupas built by Emperor Asoka towards the end of his life, and perhaps he embraced death peacefully on these tranquil shores of Bhima amidst the meditating cool greens and blues. He traveled the whole subcontinent following the footsteps of the compassionate one and made more than 84,000 stupas and pillars with distinct rock edicts wherever the Buddha had spoken. 

Huge more than life-size Buddha sculptures lying neglected in the ASI site sheds at Sannati in Karnataka

Hally or Halli is a common suffix to place names in Kannada land that is equal t to Pally in Tamilakam and Kerala, denoting a Buddhist sacred space or the site of a stupa, Chaitya or Vihara; the keyword having southern Pali or Dekhini Pali/Prakrit and Tamil connection that has been used by all the minorities including Jews, Christians, Jains and Muslims in South India for their worshiping places. In Andhra there is a place still existing called Kanagana Palli and the ancient name of Konark in Odisha was originally Kanaka Mana in Buddhist times. Nayapally is in Odisha or ancient Kalinga of Asokan times and Nampally is in Hyderabad. Another Konakamana is in Nepal Tarai.  Kanaga or Kanaka indicating gold is a key affix to place names throughout Tamilakam and Keirala suggesting the Buddhist origin of the place as the idols of the Buddha were originally made in gold and the Viharas were having much-donated gold.

The author Dr Ajay S Sekher at Sannati archeological site before the recreation of Asoka statue as a monk, Asokan pillar and two stupas in the backdrop. Buddhist flag also flying on the right. Dec 2021

The relics of the ancient structures first built by Asoka and later modified and rebuilt many times by Satavahanas at Sannati were underneath the surface of the soil for thousands of years and came up to the view of the world only in 2001 when Archaeological Survey of India excavations began here. The ruined foundation of the ancient stupa was recovered and an Asokan inscription or huge rock edict was also recovered from the nearby Chandraleswari Hindu temple.

Ancient granite aqueducts at Tirunelly Pally or ancient Sree Amalakee Vihara in Wayanad district of Kerala. Post middle ages it is a Vaishnavite Brahmanical shrine.

In 1986 when the Sanctorum of this Chandralamba Kali temple collapsed the Asokan inscription in Dhamma script was revealed. Many stones and pillars have gone into the making of many other recent structures in the neighborhood. The huge flag post foundation of the temple could also be a modified column base of an Asokan pillar. It has happened in Bhubaneswar Bhaskareswara temple and even the Varavur and Mattanchery Udyaneswara shrines in Kerala are sites of such Asokan pillar modifications argue local subaltern historians.

Ruins of the Maha Stupa at Sannati; made by Asoka in BCE third century and later rebuilt by Satavahana kings. Originally called Sakya Maha Chaitya. image from the internet.

The invaluable portrait sculptural reliefs of Asoka with his queens and consorts and his worship at the stupa were discovered from the dislodged panels of the stupa here. The Brahmi or Dhamma script inscription “Rayo Asoka” is below the portrait relief in sandstone. Historians like Romila Thapar as in her Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas; have been citing it and many archaeologists are of the opinion that the foundation of the Sannati stupa is older than the Sanchi stupa and it is a later Asokan construction. But all these invaluable treasures along with many huge, more than life-size sculptural depictions of the Buddha are simply piled up in the site sheds and many relics are already stolen from this ASI enclosure in the last twenty years.

Portrait-relief of Asoka in sandstone with his consorts at Sannati stupa with the inscription in Dhamma script or Brahmi “Rayo Asoka.” image from the internet.

The ASI site is literally closed to researchers and the general public. The stupa and relics are not open to the people and visitors from far and wide who are driving in as we did during the Christmas holidays in December 2021. We drove more than 2000 KMs altogether from Kerala to reach Sannati and in return. Photography and videography are strictly prohibited and even for research purposes photos are not allowed. We emailed for permission in advance but were forced to wait for hours and eventually official sanction was denied saying that the application had to be given two weeks in advance online. The indifferent official at the site also said that it is “a sensitive” site. Times of India on 22 January reported that the Kalaburagi MP Mr. Umesh Jadhav is seeking the support of ASI for conserving and declaring Sannati as a world heritage site. (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/hubballi/excavation-will-resume-at-sannati-and-kanaganahalli/articleshow/89049681.cms )

Brahmi or Dhamma script inscription beneath the portrait relief of Asoka as “Rayo Asoka” at Sannati. Images from internet

The ASI that is devised to conserve and present such historic treasures and archaeological heritage before the people are literally hoarding and concealing it from the collective consciousness and public discussion. It is a grave offense and crime against humanity and the civilized world as we are all deeply concerned about our common heritage and cultural history of the people. The play of power politics, manufacturing amnesia, and erasure of history at the cost of the people’s tax money are evident. The vital memories of Asokan Buddhist legacies in South India are thereby nipped in bud by a hegemonic anti-people ruling bureaucratic nexus and axis of erasure.

The closeness of Sannati to Amaravati and Yeragudi Asokan sites. Amaravati iconography is reflected here. image from the internet

This is a strategic act of the Hindu commonsense and the Brahmanical consensus against the memory and history of Buddhism in India that posed a challenge to caste and Varna and the revival of the Vedic Varnasramadharma system of social stratification. By burying this world heritage that is more than two millennia old, the advocates of Hindu Dharma are literally manufacturing and marketing the 16th-century brief Brahmanical “empire” of Vijayanagara in Hampi. Public funds are pumped into the literal fabrication of Hampi as an “ancient” wonder and the reinforcement of the Karnataka Sanskrit University there in true Brahmanical hegemonic fashion. Sannati is now transferred to the Hampi circle of ASI. Earlier it was with the Dharward circle. These beureaucratic churnings are also done towards subsiding and obliterating the centrality of this world heritage site.

Panels depicting Mahamaya the mother of the Buddha and his birth at Sannati resembling the Amaravati style. Image from the internet

 The whitish sandstone of the region has withstood more than two millennia of seasoning and severe onslaughts of time and aggressive invasive violence done by humans to humanity and civilization at large. Almost all the stones are having Dhamma Lipi inscriptions too, which make them unique and truly cosmopolitan. Even from the underbelly of medieval Hampi ancient Buddhist sculptural and architectural relics were found that are exhibited in the Lotus Mahal museum within the Hampi archaeological site. The Buddhist stone panel reliefs exhibited there date back to BCE second and first centuries the immediate post-Asokan era in the Deccan.

Asoka and the Boddhi tree or Peepal tree with footprints of the Buddha at Sannati in Karnataka. Image from the internet

In Ayhole of ancient Ayyavolly or Ayya Pally there are Buddhist monasteries in stone atop the hillock facing the current huge shrine in elephant butt or apsidal or Gaja Prishtta style that is a reminiscence of the Buddhist Chaitya cathedral architecture. There are double-storied granite monasteries with Buddha reliefs and the demolished statue of the Buddha. The Jain shrine there could also be a Buddhist shrine in the beginning as its foundation clearly shows the iconographic and architectural shreds of evidence of typical Buddhist motifs and imagery including the Dhamma Simhas and Dhamma Gajas the Asokan ethical elephants and lions representing the Sakya Simha who is also imagined by Asoka as an exquisite elephant.

Asoka and followers worshiping the Buddha through icons of the lion’s throne and footprints as depicted on the Sannati stupa panel in Karnataka. Image from the internet

In Pattadakallu or Pattadakal also, the ancient Asokan Buddhist style is evident and the typical iconogrphic motifs of Buddhism prevail though in the sanctum sanctorums of the ancient pagodas some Lingas and Yonis or Sakti figures are placed in later periods.  Badami or Vatapi caves and shrines were also originally Buddhist and later Jain and Brahmanical ones were created by invading and expelling the original creators of that series of caves on the red stone hillock.

Author Dr Ajay S Sekher at Sannati archaeological site before the ASI enclosure of the stupa ruins in Dec 2021

In the Kalinga region now known as Odisha, there are many rock-cut caves in Khandagiri and Udayagiri near Bhubaneswar that are now known as Jain vestiges. These were originally carved and dedicated to Buddhist Sanghas by emperor Asoka and after his reign when Kharavela the Jain king came to power he gave it all to Jain monks. Now it is known as a Jain site.  These kinds of appropriations, handovers and later modifications have happened in many early Buddhist sites from the Kalingan, Deccan regions to Tamilakam regions and Kerala too. Many ancient Vattams or well-rounded stupa like sanctums all over Kerala and apsidal or Gajaprishtta ones were originally Buddhist ones as in Ayhole or ancient Ayya Pally in northern Karnataka. As we have seen the Bahujans are chanting the Sarana mantras of Ayyappa and coming to the ancient Buddhist shrine of Savarimala even today.

Flag post at Chandralamba Kali Hindu temple at Sannati from where the Sannati Asokan edict was recovered in 1986 when the sanctum collapsed. This huge foundation of the post resembles the column foundation of an Asokan pillar as in many temples in Odisha and South India including Kerala.

As we entered Kerala regions of Wayanad from Karnataka through the Brahmagiri ranges we could see ancient routes of cultural invasions and changes that happened in early Middle Ages. The ancient vihara called Tiru Amalakee Vihara or Tiru Nelly Pally is modified into a Brahmanical Hindu temple post-Middle Ages with two executions stones or Kazhuveti Kallus placed at the entrance. This could be one of the first Buddhist shrines to be captured and converted in the Kerala regions.

Many headless partly demolished Buddha sculptures and that of his lead-disciples at Sannati site shed of ASI. These are not open to the public and the world. In Tamilakam such relics are called Talavetty Muni Appans and found throughout the state. At Ayhole or ancient Ayya Pally in north Karnataka close to Sannati too we saw a headless Buddha violently mutilated and demolished in later Brahmanical conquests.

 But still, the ancient aqueduct in huge granite stone pillars are still intact that is a lasting Buddhist construction requiring imperial engineering skills and technology like the one offered perhaps by the vast Mauryan empire that stretched from the Gandhara to Tamilakam. All the ancient temples in Kerala too are depicting the Asokan Dhamma Gaja, Simha, Vyala motifs at the foundation, evidencing their ancient Buddhist origin and later modification. It is the same in Pulpally, Kottiyur and many neighboring shrines at the edges of Wayanad landscape that is a Deccan projection into the Kerala land.

Recent recreation of Kanaganahally stupa at Sannati by Buddhist people of the region as ASI is hoarding and forcing the ancient sites and invaluable relics to be lost and destroyed in open weather and theft.

Kazhuveti Kallus or execution stones are still found in Asamannur the Ur of Asoka Mannan east of Perumbavur, Tiru Koditanam near Vazhapally in Changanasery and Koothattukulam Siva shrine in Ernakulam district. On the Asamannur second execution stone on the west, the Vattezhutu writing clearly evidences the execution done in the tenth century. In Ayiranikulam shrine Vattelutu inscription in Thrissur district too, the execution of Buddhists is mentioned in the expression “Maurya Kshata.” Vattezhutu itself is a medieval modification of Asokan Dhamma scripts in Kerala and Tamilakam. The detailed analysis of Asamannur inscription by the veteran Kerala epigraphist Prof T Pavithran may be seen in Buddhism and Kerala edited by the author and published by Sankara University Press in 2021 available at SSUS Kalady publication counter.

Author Dr Ajay S Sekher and media person Bansree A S at Srirangapatna fort where Tipu Sultan’s body was found after the battle of 1799 with British imperial forces in the Carnatic wars.

We could also see the 18th century capital and fort of the tiger of Mysore; Tipu Sultan where he fought his last with the British imperial forces at Srirangapatna north of Mysore the Ur or dominion of Mahisha another demonized Bahujan Buddhist leader of the people like Mahabali and Ravana who were deposed by Vaishnavite Brahmanism through cheat. Demonization and othering were strategies used by the hegemonic forces of monopoly against Asoka too, but many new books and research projects and the will of the people have revitalized his memory as that of the enlightened one himself.

Buddha panels of an ancient stupa recovered at Hampi in the State Archaeology Museum inside Hawa Mahal at Hampi. Remarkable similarity with Amaravati style in iconography and Tribhanga posture of human bodies also relates it to early Buddhist art and could be from the second century BCE period.

Academic knowledge-based institutions seeking truth and justice like Asoka University or the revived new Nalanda University and similar research institutions in Indian culture and history or archaeology with the support of all the Buddhist countries of Asia and the civilized world institutions like the UN have to come together to save the resting place and relics of Asoka the great from the forces of repressive erasure and hegemonic obliteration of the common heritage and cultural legacies of the people.

Buddha Pada recovered at Hampi. Such footprints were modified into Vishnu and Siva Padas in the middle ages to Hinduise the regions by priestly patriarchy all over India. Even in Kerala, such footprint worship was common among the Buddhist laity, and practices of printing the footmarks of the dead are still with Avarna.

There is an urgent need to open up and conserve the ancient Asokan sites in Karnataka as many historical and archaeological evidences are resurfacing despite the severe attacks of distortion and amnesia. These vital civilizational evidences of ethical life, material culture and practical wisdom must be conserved for the future and preserved as world heritage by UNESCO and other global agencies and cultural institutions of humanity.

Execution stone or Kazhuveti Kallu raised as a warning against the Avarna people having Buddhist legacy to keep away from the Brahmanical Hindu temple once it was modified so by priestly patriarchy. Such Kazhuveti Kallus with Vattezhutu inscriptions denoting the date of execution in the tenth century CE are at Asamannur, Tirukoditanam and Koothattukulam in Kerala placed before Caste Hindu temples.

It will also improve the economy of the region reeling under the pandemic. The aggressive and annihilating attitude towards our own cultural pasts and civilizational roots would be catastrophic and self-destructive. Let truth and justice prevail. Let the truly cosmopolitan and international Asokan legacy come to light and the attention of the whole world as in its ancient great glory.

Sri Pada at Tirunelly or ancient Sree Amalakee Vihara in Wayanad, a projection of the Deccan plateau into Kerala parts of the Western Ghats. An evidently medieval modification of the Buddha Pada into Vishnu Pada that happened in many places all across the subcontinent. Tirunelly was one of the first Viharas or Pallys to be captured and modified into the Brahmanical Vaishnava shrine followed by Pulpally, Tiruvallykavu and Kottiyur.

Dr Ajay S. Sekher; January 2022

ajaysekher@gmail.com 9895797798

The Elephants that Linger: The Buddhist Legacy of Mamallapuram

Apsidal or Gajaprishta shrine and the Gajotama the full size elephant, both carved out of monoliths at Mamallapuram site called Five Chariots. Aug 2015
Apsidal or Gajaprishta shrine and the Gajotama the full size elephant, both carved out of monoliths at Mamallapuram site called Five Chariots. Aug 2015

Mamallapuram or Mahabalipuram was known as Mallai, Kadal Mallai, Mallai Kadal and Mamallai invariably in ancient Tamil texts till early middle ages. The reference to the Mallai could be a clear denotation to the Malla people. It was the Mallas of Kalinga and Magadha who revered the Buddha most during his later teaching career and performed his last rites when he died at Kusinara. In this sense Mamallai could be the great Malla, the compassionate one, the boundless ocean of mercy. And Mallai Kadal represents the ocean of his mercy and compassion. As a great renouncer upholding Maitri and mercy he could be the mightiest of all; the Mamalla or Mahabali.

These Mamallapuram elephant images and the Kinnara/Yaksha images are remarkably similar to the Ajanta, Amaravati and Kalinga Buddhist iconography
These Mamallapuram elephant images and the Kinnara/Yaksha images are remarkably similar to the Ajanta, Amaravati and Kalinga Buddhist iconography

Anyway this beautiful stretch of sand having peculiar granite rockery formations called the whaleback granites between the sea and its backwaters was inhabited by the human race from the stone age onwards, and they had global connections, as stray pottery and even Roman coins were recovered from this land strip. It was the port of the Pallavas of Kanchi from ancient times. Bodhidharma the Pallava prince who went China to teach Chan or Zen and Kung Fu at the Shaolin temple perhaps began his long voyage to South China Sea from this Pallava port of Mamalapuram in the 6th century.

The rock cut temples in Mamallapuram are exactly like a Stupa with the top structure and the front pillars and the egg like overall shape.
The rock cut temples in Mamallapuram are exactly like a Stupa with the top structure and the front pillars and the egg like overall shape.

Most of the rock cut caves and monoliths now existing on this beautiful shore are the work of the 7th and 8th century Pallava kings who also adapted the name Mamalla. The lion was also their favourite motif. Both the Dhamma Simha and Dhamma Gaja are lavishly portayed in the exquisite carvings and reliefs. It must be remembered that the Mallas and Mauryas of Kalinga and Magadha were also fond of the lion and elephant motifs. The Mauryan emperor Asoka for example, depicted the enlightened one as a unique elephant or Gajotama or Ganapati or the leader of the democratic order as emerging from the womb of a granite boulder on top of Dhauligiri on the banks of the river Daya at the site of the Kalinga war near Bhubaneswar in Odisha in third century BC. From then on the elephant has been a key icon and a universal symbol of the Buddha. Dhamma Simhas or lions are also depicted in Buddhist art and architecture in India and in the whole of Asia.

The shore temple at Mamallapuram. Also called the shore pagoda by western sailors as it closely resembles the Buddhist pagoda style of architecture.
The shore temple at Mamallapuram. Also called the shore pagoda by western sailors as it closely resembles the Buddhist pagoda style of architecture.

The lion seat or the Simhasana and the lion pillars at Mamalapuram gain historical and archeological importance in these contexts. There is a lion seat at the top of the mount carved into a monolith and the ruins of a large structure using granite and baked bricks. It is the ruins of, most probably a Maha Stupa at Mamalapuram, that probably existed up to the 6th century AD. The presence of a rock cut overhead water tank and a small square pond also endorses the presence of a Buddhist monastic structure there. It was the early Teravada tradition to worship the compassionate one in the forms of simple symbols as in a Simhasana the lion seat or the Bo tree. Such Simhasanas or lion seats are still found in the rural corners and old temples of Odisha and Maharashtra.

The lion seat or Simhasana at Mamallapuram. The Simhasana was a typical Teravada tradition of worship like the Bo tree
The lion seat or Simhasana at Mamallapuram. The Simhasana was a typical Teravada tradition of worship like the Bo tree or the urn. To its right is the ruined brick structure, most likely to be great Stupa.

The Pallavas who were Buddhists till the sixth and seventh century as testified by the voyage of Bodhidharma himself, might have begun the early works in true Buddhist architectural tradition and later generations who got Hinduized into the Vaishnava Bhakti tradition gradually altered the iconography into what is now termed as South Indian Pallava Hindu temple architecture. It must also be remembered that just before them, from the third to the sixth century AD it was the dedicated Buddhists called Kalabhrars who were ruling in Tondai Mandalam and Kanchi. Kalabhrars even stopped the Brahmadeya or Brahmaswam land enjoyed by the Brahmans free of tax and they were called as Kali Arachars and Kazhapalars by the Brahmans. Bodhidharma it is said was keenly influenced by this long Buddhist tradition of Tamilakam.

Another rock cut temple in Mamallapuram resembling the monasteries of Ajanta, Ellora and Aurangabad.
Another rock cut temple in Mamallapuram resembling the monasteries of Ajanta, Ellora and Aurangabad.

Another important Buddhist architectural element that is anchored in the sand and whaleback granite terrain of Mamalapuram is the apsidal structure or the Gajaprishta style of construction. At the Five Chariots site the life size elephant and the apsidal shrine are placed side by side carved out of monoliths. The other Rathas or chariots also could be compared to the pagoda architectural style of Buddhism. The shore temple was traditionally called the shore pagoda by western sailors. The longer shrine facing south could be compared to the Baital or ship pagoda in Bhubaneswar.

Bricks and ruins of the great structure at Mamallapuram next to the lion seat, most probably a Maha Stupa. The reddish tint of the soil is because of the fragmented bricks.
Bricks and ruins of the great structure at Mamallapuram next to the lion seat, most probably a Maha Stupa. The reddish tint of the soil is because of the fragmented bricks. Small rock cut pond and a tank is also near.

Though the apsidal sanctum design is rarely found in the diamond triangle of Ratnagiri-Udayagiri-Lalitgiri in Odisha it is abundant in Kerala and Ceylon. The apsidal and rounded shrine design called Vattam in Kerala or Vattadage in Sri Lanka is basically developed from the circled Stupa design and the rock cut vestiges of Ajanta, Ellora and Aurangabad. These sculptural and architectural elements substantiate the development of Buddhist art and architecture in south India, its connections with Kalinga, Ajanta, Amaravati, Anuradhapura and Magadha; and its gradual absorption and appropriation into Vaishnavite and Shaivite Bhakti cults through the aberration of Mayana.

Lion pillars in the rock cut temple at Mamallapuram. Lion and elephants motifs were key icons in Buddhist architecture.
Lion pillars in the rock cut temple at Mamallapuram. Lion and elephant motifs were key icons in Buddhist architecture in India and South Asia.