The construction of the original structure of the great Stupa of Amaravati had begun as early as 200 B.C. but structure was enlarged and embellished with great richness in the second century A.D. The inscriptions of Amaravati prove that the railing and casing slabs of the Great Stupa were added during the time of the Buddhist sage Nagarjunas residence in the Andhra region. The diameter of the dome of the Stupa at ground level was roughly around one hundred and sixty feet and its over-all height about ninety to one hundred feet; it was surrounded by a railing thirteen feet high consisting of three rails and a heavy coping. Freestanding columns surmounted by lions replaced the toranas of earlier structures at the four entrances to the pradaksina enclosure. Like Sanchi, the Amaravati Stupa had an upper processional path on the drum of the structure; this path also had an enclosing railing consisting of uprights joined by solid rectangular panels. Originally, not only the parts of the two railings, but also the drum, were covered with elaborate carvings in the greenish-white limestone of the region. Plaster reliefs substituted the stone casing for the decoration of the cupola because of the difficulty in fitting a stone revetment to a curved surface. Another unusual feature of the Stupa is that it consists of offsets or platforms located at the four points of the compass and surmounted by five pillars carved with representations of Buddhist symbols such as the Wheel and Stupa. In the decoration of the base a number of images of the Lord Buddha can be seen, a clear indication that, although probably originally dedicated to Hinayana Buddhism, the shrine was, under the influence of Nagarjuna, transformed into a Mahayana sanctuary.
In the centre of the wall painting at the top there is an image of the seated Buddha. On either side of this representation of the Temptation of Mara with the Buddha in anthropomorphic form are symbolical portrayals of the empty throne beneath the Bodhi tree. It is as though the Later Andhra Buddhists, even though followers of the Great Vehicle, were loath to give up the old Hinayana emblems, or perhaps attached a certain authority and appropriate sanctity to the early forms of the art of their religion. To right and left of the main section of the relief are vertical framing panels with representations of stambhas with lion capitals upholding the Wheel of Dharma. At the foot of each pillar there is an empty chair signifying the presence of the Buddha. In addition to the reliefs a number of free-standing Buddha images were found in the Stupa area placed round the base of the monument.
The Buddha, excavated at Nagarjunakonda, is represented standing wearing the Buddhist robe with the right shoulder bare. The heavy, colossal conception of the figure, together with the definition of the drapery by a combination of incised lines and overlapping ridges indicating the course of the folds and seams, is distinctly reminiscent of the Buddha images of the Kushan School. Iconographically, the conception is related to Gandhara sculpture in the representation of the Buddha wearing the monastic robe, but beyond this there is no indication of any direct stylistic influence from this centre of Greco-Roman art. Peculiarly characteristic of the Buddha images of the Amaravati region is the heavily billowing fold at the bottom of the outer mantle where it falls above the ankles. A typical head of a Buddha from Amaravati reveals a certain relationship to the heads of Kushan images in the general fullness and warmth of conception. In contrast to the roundness of the facial curve of the Mathura Buddhas, the heads from Amaravati are of a more narrow oval shape. All the heads of Buddha from this site invariably have the hair represented by snail-shell curls, following the scriptural account of the Buddha's appearance. In many respects these Later Andhra heads are more softly and plastically modeled, with less reliance on linear definition of the features.
The relief compositions at Amaravati are iconographically much more complicated in their illustration of the Buddha legend than anything found in either Gandhara or Mathura. Stylistically the Amaravati sculptors have a fondness for a very complicated and perhaps un-Indian arrangement of figures and settings in a number of planes. The Great Stupa at Amaravati is only the most important monument of a great style and other sculptural fragments no less distinguished in execution have been found at Nagarjunakonda and at Goli Village, both in the Krishna region. There are some indications based on recent excavations in the Amaravati region that the so-called Later Andhra style may have survived there even after the rise of Gupta power in the fourth century; indeed, until the rise of the Pallavas. The persistence of this late phase of Andhra sculpture is represented largely by Buddhist images. This disappearance of Buddhism and its art in South India is probably to be explained by the gradual rise of Hinduism.
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