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The Ancient Thotlakonda Buddhist Monastery

Drive parallel to the pristine beaches along the Bay of Bengal outside Vishakhapatnam, when you leave behind the Rushikonda beach and drive further towards the Bheemili beach or the Bheemunipatnam beach, to your left comes a big arched gate, marking the entrance to Thotlakonda Buddhist Monastery. The complex is situated atop a hill, about 15 kilometer from Vishakhapatnam, or Vizag. The hill lies 128 MASL, overlooking the Bay of Bengal, and you can view the very picturesque coastline from the monastery.

What does Thotlakonda mean?

Thotlakonda is a Telugu name, indicating the presence of multiple rock-cut cisterns that are hewn into the bedrock of the hillock where the monastery stands. The name ‘Thotlakonda’ literally means “Hill with stone wells”. These stone wells or cisterns collected water for the Buddhist monks.

When was Thotlakonda archeological site discovered? What is the historical significance of Thotlakonda?

The Thotlakonda archeological site was first discovered by the Indian Navy during one of their aerial surveys, back in 1976. Since then, the Andhra Pradesh State Archeology Department has conducted major archeological excavations here and established the existence of a Hinayana Buddhist Complex which was flourishing about 2,000 years ago. During the excavactions, archeologists have also discovered lead coins from the Satavahana dynasty and silver coins of the Romans, indicating there was foreign trade occurring around here. Archeologists have also found terracotta tiles, stucco decorative pieces, sculptured panels, miniature stupa models, and holy Buddha footprints. During the excavations, twelve inscriptions in the Dhamna script have also been discovered. Polygraphic studies of these inscriptions indicate that the Thotlakonda hill might have been known as Senagiri, where Sena is a Pali word meaning Elder or Superior.

Thotlakonda saw the most activity in the time during 2nd Century BCE and 2nd Century CE, as a result of brisk Roman trade and religious missions being sent to other countries. Thotlakonda must have come up along with other Buddhist sites in the vicinity of Vizag, like Bavikonda and Pavurallakonda. The stupas on the hill, covered in a light lime plaster, lit up with rows after rows of wick lamps could have served as a guiding landmark for nautical commuters in the ocean (Bay of Bengal).

No royal patronage has been found associated with Thotlakonda, though the monastery has seen strong support of local believers and traders in its glory days. It is believed that for a long time, over a 100 disciples might have been staying at the Thotlakonda monastery. Excavations show that there were arrangements for clothes, food, medicines, etc. at the monastery and the place served as a religious as well as academic center. Thotlakonda is known to be a practicing center for Nikaya Buddhism. Gautama Buddha was worshipped here as is evident from the padukas (holy footprints) and other materials that have been unearthed during the excavations at Thotlakonda.

By the end of the 3rd Century CE, Thotlakonda had begun seeing a decline, and now all that stands there are empty stupas and ruins.

What is the religious significance of Thotlakonda?

Thotlakonda was within the influence of ancient Kalinga, a prominent center of Buddhism, since the times of King Ashoka. Kalinga was an important source of dissemination of the Buddhist religion to Sri Lanka as well as other parts of South East Asia. Thotlakonda is thus, also a prominent center of Buddhism and for dissemination of Buddhist religion to the rest of Asia. Thotlakonda also served as an important port of entry for any visitors coming from the high seas to visit all Buddhist prominent places located closely around the 83.3 degree East longitude. Thotlakonda also provides important insight into the process of transoceanic diffusion of Indic culture, especially Buddhism.

Thotlakonda is located on a hill with a pleasant climate, which might have made it a great location for the Buddhist monks to build a monastery complex here. The sea around is rather placid, and the hill is sheltred by a deeply curved coastline, making it a safe haven for any ships wanting to anchor here. Anybody coming to India to explore Buddhism, was often guided by the 83.3 East longitude, which holds religious significance in Buddhism, since most major sites of religious significance in Buddhism lie around this longitude, including Thotlakonda, Sarnath, Kushinagar, as well as Lumbini. So, visitors would come to India, anchor their ships at Thotlakonda, anchor their ships here, get some rest, before moving ahead along the 83.3 East longitude to explore the other sites of Buddhist significance.

Why visit Thotlakonda?

The Thotlakonda Buddhist complex is a beautiful complex comprising of stupas, viharas, chaityas, etc. amidst a lot of greenery, with the best views from atop a hill. Today, Thotlakonda is a haven of peace and calm, away from the bustling Vizag city.

When I visited the place in 2022, I had been beach-hopping my way along the coastline. It was a hot afternoon and Thotlakonda was a big relief to be at. Getting here involves getting off the main road that goes parallel to the sea, and going up the meandering route that take you to the top of the hill. If you enjoy driving up a hill with fantastic views, you can’t miss this. If you enjoyed the views of the Rushikona beach from atop the Ramanaidu Film Studios nearby, then you will definitely enjoy the views from Thotlakonda. Sit in the shade of the trees, sip some water, feel the breeze, and watch the waves rise and fall in the distance.

The Archeology department has put up useful signs that provide all the information regarding Thotlakonda, as well as about every different site inside the complex. The place has a meditative silence to the place, and anybody visiting the place should maintain the peace and decorum of the site too. Right opposite to the hill on which the monastery stands is the Thotlakonda beach, which has some spectacular rock formations, so you can catch some fresh seafood at the restaurants around, before heading down to take in the sights of the rocky beach.

Thotlakonda is not just an idyllic stop for the Buddhists, but also a place of interest for nature enthusiasts owing to its peaceful environment and picturesque landscape.

In 2019, the monastery complex of Thotlakonda was destroyed by the rains, but it was restored carefully and open again for visitors in 2021.

Have you visited Thotlakonda? What are your thoughts about the place? Let me know in the comments below. You can also find me on Instagram – @BanjaranFoodie or on YouTube – @BanjaranFoodie.

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