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Theatre of a vibrant empire

  • Away from the ticket counters, late ferries and chaos of tourists, an unexpected reconstruction of an ancient amphitheatre
  • A tourist’s life is never an easy one, but as long as one is Buddhist about it, things somehow turn out well

The main statue on Nagarjunakonda island.
The main statue on Nagarjunakonda island. (Photo: Alamy)

Finally, I am beginning to feel it: the inner peace, that meditative old monkishness, the nearness to the goal of my journey. But I am not quite there, the ferry timings are in flux: An hour ago, I was told the motor launch to the Buddhist archaeological site at Nagarjunakonda island would depart in minutes, but the ticket counter is yet to open.

I could have spent the time enjoying a leisurely breakfast at one of the eateries across the road from the terminal. I could even have taken a postprandial stroll on the massive Nagarjuna Sagar dam, where it is said more than a few overenthusiastic selfie-snappers have fallen down the gorge and been swept away. But watching the blue waves has a calming effect, and just then I see the launch rock and sway its way to the jetty. The counter opens, there’s full-tilt chaos as tourists scramble to buy boat tickets, and the museum tickets that are sold separately (it seems the site is divided between the recently bifurcated Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, so the ferry and the museum have disjointed economies to add to the mayhem).

A tourist’s life is never an easy one, but as long as one is Buddhist about it, things somehow turn out well. On-board, during the nearly hour-long boat ride, a vendor sells lukewarm cold drinks and melted ice creams. Despite his admonishments, passengers joyfully throw the colourful wrappers into the otherwise surprisingly clean water. Eventually, I catch sight of the Buddhist archaeological site on an island that was once a hilltop, before the dam was built.

Upon reaching, we are sternly told that the ferry will wait for exactly an hour before taking us back, which is rather scandalous considering the endless delay at the terminal. It takes 10-15 minutes to climb uphill and pass through multiple ticket controls, leaving little time to explore the monuments or the museum.

The museum alone would have been worth an hour, for it has a fascinating assemblage of sculpted panels and pillars which, apart from writing Buddha’s CV in stone, also depict ancient social life in a most edifying manner. It seems the locals did not wear too many clothes then and characters who are dressed up in tunics and togas, even hats, are identified as foreigners. As I circumambulate a pillar, I find a distinctly Chinese man. And, on the other face, a European-looking fellow with a cocktail glass in hand. Incidentally, coins from all over—including several minted by the emperors of Rome—were found during excavations that also unearthed wayside rest houses catering to travellers. The grandness of the monuments suggests this was an important centre for international trade, the proceeds of which were used in infrastructure projects that the rulers initiated. Clearly, Nagarjunakonda was more tourist-friendly then than it is now.

The ruins at Anupu.
The ruins at Anupu. (Photo: Zac O'Yeah)

For some reason, the tourism authorities haven’t really thought about maximizing the value of what they are offering. And within the hour, we are sheepishly boarding the launch back to shore. The disappointment makes me feel un-Buddhist until I spot a sign pointing towards “Anupu Ancient Ruins" and ask the taxi driver if he would mind going 8km further. No tourists go there, he says grumpily.

I insist, and it turns out to be a 15-minute drive. We get to a magical spot where the road runs down a valley surrounded by Buddhist monastery ruins and temples. There’s an amphitheatre built on an imposing scale some 1,700 years ago, to my knowledge the only one of its kind in India. Everything has been reconstructed here almost as exactly as possible from ruins dug up during the building of the dam.

There are no entry fees or ticket counters. No hassles at all—I can just walk up as if I were an ancient theatregoer. According to a weathered signboard, the structure was influenced by the architecture of the Roman empire. Although it isn’t as huge as the Graeco-Roman theatre ruins found around the Mediterranean, it might have seated a thousand spectators on tiered seats stretching around four sides of the arena. The main difference is that the Romans favoured semi-circular auditoria, while here the stage is a perfect square which I measure to be 50x50ft.

Gazing at the glimmering Nagarjuna Sagar in the backdrop, I imagine monks, such as perhaps the famed Nagarjuna himself, taking the stage to debate mysterious details of existential philosophy. The spiritual significance of the spot is cemented by a ruined temple that crowns the theatre. Judging by the half-a-statue that still overlooks the stage, it was dedicated to the Buddhist goddess Hariti.

However, experts think this wasn’t just an arena for metaphysical word-slinging, but a stage for sports too. Sculptural finds depict wrestling somewhat akin to the Roman gladiatorial style, which might have been a sociably macho way for Indians and foreigners to get close to each other.

Further, a relief depicting the Greek booze and drama god Dionysus (now shifted from the site) has excited Indian theatre scholars, giving us an idea of what entertainment might have looked like thousands of years before Bollywood. An intriguing aspect of Dionysus is that although he has been worshipped by Greeks for 3,000 years, his roots are traced to Asia, making him a foreigner among European gods. In fact, Roman scholar Pliny the Elder suggested that Dionysus was a king of India, born in India, before he (circa 6776 BC, as per estimates) travelled west to Greece and thence to Rome, where he kick-started the Bacchanalian cult by teaching the Mediterranean peoples to grow grapes and turn them into fine wine. Might it all have started hereabouts?

Zac O’Yeah is a Bengaluru-based detective novelist and travel writer.

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