NAGARJUNAKONDA, or “Nagarjuna’s Hill”, 166km south of Hyderabad and 175km west of Vijayawada, is all that remains of the vast area, rich in archeological sites, that was submerged when the huge Nagarjuna Sagar Dam was built across the River Krishna in 1960. Ancient settlements in the valley were first discovered in 1926, and extensive excavations carried out between 1954 and 1960 uncovered more than one hundred sites dating from the early Stone Age to late medieval times. Nagarjunakonda was once the summit of a hill, where a fort towered 200m above the valley floor; now it is just a small oblong island near the middle of Nagarjuna Sagar lake. Several Buddhist monuments have been reconstructed, in an operation reminiscent of that at Abu Simbel in Egypt, and a museum exhibits the more remarkable ruins of the valley. VIJAYAPURI, the village on the shore of the lake, overlooks the colossal dam itself, which produces electricity for the whole region. Many nearby villages had to be relocated to higher ground when the valley was flooded.
The maha-chaitya, or stupa, constructed at the command of King Chamtula’s sister in the third century AD, is the area’s earliest Buddhist structure. It was raised over relics of the Buddha – said to include a tooth – and has been reassembled in the southwest of the island. Nearby, a towering Buddha statue stands beside a ground plan of a monastery that enshrines a smaller stupa. Close by are other stupas; the brick walls of the svastika chaitya have been arranged in the shape of swastikas, common emblems in early Buddhist iconography.
The museum houses stone friezes decorated with scenes from the Buddha’s life, and statues of the Buddha in various postures. Earlier artefacts include metal axe-heads and knives (dating from the first millennium BC). Later exhibits include inscribed pillars from Ikshvaku times. Medieval sculptures include a thirteenth-century tirthankara (Jain saint) and a seventeenth-century Ganesh.