- Early Buddhist Architecture in Context: The Great Stupa at Amaravati (ca. 300 BCE–300 CE) by Akira Shimada
Akira Shimada’s book is a welcome and timely addition to the nearly two centuries of research on the Amaravati Mahastupa (great stupa), and a more recent but expanding literature on the archaeology of early historic South Indian Buddhism. The study of this remarkable Buddhist monument presents a rather unique case for archaeologists, epigraphers, and social, religious, and art historians. Once a massive and beautifully adorned stupa, built and maintained by generations of early South Indian Buddhists, it was abandoned sometime during the fourteenth century a.d. By at least the late eighteenth century, it was willfully pillaged, first for building materials and then, over the course of a series of disastrous salvage projects, pillaged again for “objets d’art” bound for museum collections. Indeed, so complete was the destruction of the site that Upinder Singh closes her 2004 essay, “The Dismembering of the Amaravati Stupa,” by saying that: “the result of a century-and-three-quarters’ exploration and excavation at Amaravati is that, today, the site of what James Fergusson described as the most elaborate and magnificent piece of architecture found in any part of the world, is marked by a nondescript mound ringed by a few forlorn stones.” Today the surviving architectural assemblage of the Amaravati stupa is scattered across a number of museum collections. The details of their provenience are documented by an even more scattered body of incomplete or inadequate field notes and reports, presenting a formidable challenge to those wishing to study the site and its wider social contexts. Shimada’s research, presented in this volume, has risen to that challenge, considerably advancing our knowledge of the social and material history of Amaravati itself and the wider social history of Buddhist practice in early historic period Andradesa (ancient Andhra Pradesh).
Shimada takes on the material and social history of Amaravati, first, by squarely tackling the elusive issue of chronology, carefully reconstructing the Mahastupa’s building history before moving on to explore a range of issues involving the developing role of the Buddhist sangha (order of monks and nuns) within a socially diverse South Indian society. The former, no small feat, has been attempted several times over the past century, with less than satisfying results. Shimada’s approach to the problem differs in that it provides a remarkably synthetic and systematic overview of the evidence, exploring the stupa’s epigraphic, sculptural, and archaeological records together as a cohesive body of complementary evidence, building on important correspondences in the data and interrogating the discrepancies. This stands in opposition to many past studies that focused on one or two of these elements, often in atomistic ways bereft of both an understanding of architectural coherence and a wider sense of construction as a social process. His work is thorough, comprehensive, and transparent, digging deep into a diverse set of East India Company, British Colonial Office, and private [End Page 368] records, as well as providing a fresh look at the architectural evidence housed in several museums. Shimada then moves on to consider a number of broader social themes including patronage, ritual practice, urbanism, trade, and exchange, activities that articulated the Buddhist sangha at Amaravati and elsewhere with a wide range of communities.
The book begins with an account of the problems that have befuddled chronological reconstruction and interpretation of the stupa and the wider archaeological site. These include the state of the site upon discovery by British colonial officials, the nature of their subsequent salvage operations, and the efforts of Indian, colonial, and other foreign scholars to approach chronological reconstruction through studies of palaeography and sculptural style that were reliant on unrefined regional dynastic histories. Critical to this end, Shimada reviews how tropes of decay, popular with colonial Indologists, led at times to very specific theories of causation for the construction of the stupa (e.g., dynastic patronage, Greek and Roman influences on sculptural style), theories with very little real...