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Studying An Enigma

Upinder Singh

Akira Shimada
Brill, Leiden, 2013, pp. 265 including Figures, Tables, Maps, 69 plates, Appendices, Bibliography and Index, price not stated.


The site of Amaravati in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh has attracted a great deal of scholarly interest for over two centuries. The stupa that once stood here was among the oldest and most splendid in the subcontinent. Its structural remains and inscriptions constitute important sources for the early history of Buddhism and its exquisite limestone relief sculptures are considered masterpieces. The tumultuous modern history of the site has been studied from the perspective of the history of Indian archaeology and the colonial construction of India’s past. Tragically, there is very little of the stupa at Amaravati itself. Since its discovery in the late 18th century, its parts came to be scattered across the world, the two principal collections eventually being housed in the Government Museum Chennai and the British Museum in London. In fact, the Amaravati sculptures are often spoken of in the same breath as the Elgin marbles in demands for the repatriation of cultural treasures. In spite of the great attention bestowed on Amaravati, it remains an enigma. This is not only due to the scattered nature of its remains but also because of the tendency of scholars to study the architecture, sculpture and inscriptions separately. Due to its complex construction history, we do not have a good idea of the process of architectural evolution of the stupa. The stupa is well known, but other parts of the monastic complex are known from inference rather than material remains. Further, attention has been so focused on the monument itself that its larger local, regional and historical contexts have not been given adequate attention. Akira Shimada’s book changes this. It offers a meticulously detailed, integrated analysis of the archaeological, architectural, epigraphic, and to some extent art historical material related to the early historic stupa, locating Amaravati within its immediate environs, exploring its connections with the city of Dhanyakataka (Dharanikota). Shimada makes comparisons with other Buddhist sites in Andhra as well as those elsewhere, such as Sanchi and Bharhut in central India and Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. His discussion of monastic and lay interactions at Amaravati has larger implications for the understanding of Indian Buddhism. The book is profusely illustrated with maps, photographs, and line drawings, and the appendices give a succinct tabulation of useful empirical data. Shimada’s achievement is to highlight in the first chapter the prehistoric and megalithic remains in the Amaravati area and ...

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