Buddhism had its hey days in Karnataka starting from almost three centuries before the Christian era right up to the third century A.D. The waning of its influence in the aftermath is attributed to many socio-political changes. However minor relics and evidences about its existence have been available all through the ages.

About ten Rock edicts by emperor Ashoka delineating the basic tenets of Buddhism constitute the first written evidence about the presence of that religion in Karnataka, particularly the inscriptions found in Maski, Siddapura et al. Ashoka seems to have sent many emissaries of Buddhism to mahiSamanDla (mahAdEva is the emissary) among other places. Banvasi (raKKita is the emissary) in North Canara district is another such place. 

Buddhism thrived in Karnataka during the regime of sAtavAhana and Kadamba dynasties. Many archaeological and sculptural evidences corroborate this contention.

Sannathi, a small village in Chittapur talluk of Gulbarga district is the most ancient and important Buddhist site in Karnataka. Sannathi was in existence as early as 1-3 century A.D. It rests on the banks of Bhimaa River. It’s situated at a distance of about 18 Kilometers from NalvAr railway station. Some stUpas belonging to the sAtavAhana period are among the more important discoveries of this place. Archaeologists have found 2 stUpAs, 3 mounds, (dibbas) 4 rock edicts and 75 inscriptions belonging to different periods.  The relics are surrounded by a fortification.

The stupa is now razed to the ground and only the circular foundation has remained in tact. Some plaques that must have formed the covering for the egg shaped outer dome of the stupa are found in the vicinity. They contain carvings of a he-buffalo and a few winged horses in its pursuit. These figures are highly realistic and are vibrant with life energy. The stupa apparently bears resemblances to those found at Amaravathy and Nagarjuna Konda. Human carvings of the devotees who commissioned the stupa are found inside the stupa. A rectangular column found in a near by field displays a joyous couple and their servants. Many stone plaques lying around depict important incidents from the life the Buddha. One of them shows the birth of the Buddha. Another bears images of the feet of the Buddha, Bodhi tree and a throne. Most of these are made of white-green lime stone which are not very pliable.

            About fifty inscriptions are found in the vicinity of the stupa belonging to the same period. Most of them are in Prakrit language and Brahmi script. Two inscriptions pertaining to the regime of Badami Chalukyas are also found here. They mention many names including that of ‘vAsiTIputasirisa’ and it refers to the Satavahana king VasishtIputra Sri Satakarni.

            The kings of the Kadamba dynasty were quite tolerant towards Buddhism. Excavations in Banavasi the capital of Kadambas have resulted in the discovery of a stUpa. However it was built during the regime of satavAhanas only. The large apsidal structure is what remains and it was planned like a dharma chakra. Hyu En Tsang the traveller from China records the presence of 100 SanGArAmaa and 10000 Buddhist ascetics belonging to mahAyAna as well as hInayAna.      

AihoLe contains a rock cut buddhist shrine on the mEguti hill. It is oldest surviving Buddhist shrine in Karnataka. It is about 25 feet tall. One of the caves in Badami contains a statue of ‘padmapANi buddha’. Another temple of Tara, built at Dambal was by Sethi Sangarmaya of Lokkigundi  Buddhist idols have been found at Kadri (Mangalore) and Kapu area (Udupi district) Rahamath  Tarikere has listed a number of places whose names are associated with some concepts in Buddhism or the other. They are tArA, Bagavati, and dharma/dhamma. lOka/lokka/lakka, vajra, manju and mangaLa.

            Many inscriptions found in places such as Avani in Kolar district, (4th Century A.D.) kAravAr in North Canara district,(500 A.D.), two inscriptions found in baLLigAve(11th century A.D.), in DambaLa in Dharwar district (11th century) make stray references to Buddhism and donations made to further its cause. However, Buddhism has langusihed in Karnataka after this period and Jainism has a more vibrant presence even to this day. Ofcourse many significant events that have taken place in the second half of the 20th century have again brought this religion to the forefront.     

Further Reading:

1.    Buddhism in Karnataka by R.C. Hiremath. New Delhi, 1994, x, 144 p., plates, $12. ISBN 81-246-0013-9.

2.    Age of Buddhism in Karnataka, T.S. Rajagopal

3.    Karnatakada Bauddha Samskrithi, Talthaje Vasanthakumar,

4.    http://www.deccanherald.com/Content/Apr72009/spectrum20090406128473.asp

5.    http://www.shubhyatra.com/gifs/temple-inside-sannathi.jpg

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