Thotlakonda Buddhist Complex near Visakhapatnam Credit: The News Minute

The government of Andhra Pradesh has become embroiled in yet another controversy over land acquisition. This time over the decision to build a government guest house near the Thotlakonda Buddhist Complex near Visakhapatnam.

Various activists and Buddhist organisations have objected to any constructions by private or government entities in the area. Their concerns rest on the fact that there might be potentially rich archaeological evidence related to the Buddhist era from the 3rd Century BC which is yet to be unearthed.

The government has denied the possibility that the land in question— on which a guest house for VIPs is to be constructed — has any historical significance. Addressing the media on Monday, state Minister for Tourism and Culture Muttamsetti Srinivasa Rao said that the guest house land is not related to the Thotlakonda and Bavikonda Buddhist sites. He said that the protected area is limited to an extent of 120 acres, and the land allotted for the government guest house (around 30 acres) is more than a kilometre away from the Buddhist sites.

He stated that there was no historical significance to the land located beyond the 120 acres. This 120-acre land will only be used for promoting tourism related to the Buddhist sites, like setting up meditation centres, he said.

Remnants of stupas at the Thotlakonda Complex

The Buddhist sites and their significance

The Thotlakonda Buddhist monastery is located on a hill, nearly 15 kilometres away from Visakhapatnam city, near the Kapulauppada neighbourhood. The Bavikonda monastery is located on another hill, at a distance of around two kilometres from Thotlakonda.

Thotlakonda was first identified by the Indian Navy as part of an aerial survey in the 1970s. In 1978, the Andhra Pradesh Department of Archaeology and Museums (APDAM) notified the Buddhist site as a “protected monument”, under the Andhra Pradesh Ancient and Historical Monument and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1960.

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A government order dated May 2, 1978, reads: “the Governor of Andhra Pradesh hereby declares the ancient site Totlakonda situated in S.No.314 at Mangamaripet (village) Hamlet of Kapulappada in Bheemunipatnam Taluk of Visakhapatnam District as described in the Annexure to be a protected monument.”

This protected area comprises the Thotlakonda site situated in Survey no. 314 as mentioned in the government order, and bounded by lands under survey nos. 295 and 296 in the east, and by hills in the north, west, and south. According to retired bureaucrat EAS Sarma, the protected site is not just 120 acres, but the extent of the site under old survey number 314 extended over more than 3,300 acres.

Since then, the Andhra Pradesh Department of Archaeology and Museums reportedly performed excavations in Thotlakonda from 1987 to 1991. The occupation of the site was dated to have been between 2nd to 3rd century BC to 2nd or 3rd century AD. Several stupas and other archeological evidence were unearthed on the hill where the Thotlakonda site is located. However, the excavations were done in a limited extent of land, as the archaeology department was underfunded, Sarma says.

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Previous attempts at constructions in the area

In 2016, under the previous TDP government, around 15 acres of land was allotted for the construction of a Film Nagar Cultural Centre (FNCC) near these Buddhist sites. At the time, several activists, including Emani Rani Sarma — who has since written a book titled Thathagatuni Adugujadalo on the need for preserving these sites — had moved the Andhra Pradesh High Court opposing the construction of the FNCC.

The HC in its verdict stayed any construction activity within the boundaries of the Thotlakonda site notified as a protected area by the state department of archaeology.

The restored Maha Stupa at Thotlakonda which had collapsed in 2019

Minister Muttamsetti Srinivasa Rao himself referred to the FNCC controversy on Monday and said that while the TDP government had tried to construct a Film Club for activities like song and dance, “we are not doing such frivolous things, we are doing things to save people’s money and to do good for them.”

While the construction of the Film Nagar Cultural Centre was stalled, several attempts have been made since then to alienate parts of land from the protected area and to allot it for various private and government constructions, Sarma says. The TDP government had since proposed the construction of an IT park within the land under Survey no. 314, and former CM Chandrababu Naidu even laid the foundation stone for a data centre project by the Adani Group, in about 80 acres of land near Kapulauppada.

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Potential archaeological evidence lying unexplored

Sarma says that the idea behind opposing construction in the notified area of above 3,000 acres is that there may be archaeological evidence still hiding there. “As the archaeological department tends to have less funds, they probably haven’t been able to excavate more. But if they do, they may find new evidence,” he says.

The Tourism Minister himself also alluded to the shortage of funds with the archaeology department on Monday. Stating that the government was committed to protecting historical monuments and Buddhist structures, he referred to an incident from last year when the dome of a maha stupa at Thotlakonda collapsed due to heavy rains. The Minister said that he requested the Visakhapatnam urban body authorities and got Rs 70 lakh allocated for renovations, as the archaeology department didn’t have sufficient funds.

The collapsed dome was built as part of many renovation works carried by the state Department of Archaeology in 2016. After the collapse, activists had demanded that restoration be carried out by the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India). They had said that the state body was more likely to succumb to pressure from the Ministry of Tourism and end up making decisions that could adversely affect the heritage structures in an attempt to prioritise attraction of tourists.

In the early 2000s, an anthropology scholar, Lars Fogelin, had carried out an archaeological surface survey in the area immediately surrounding the Thotlakonda site. In his book Archaeology of Early Buddhism, Fogelin wrote that over six months of fieldwork carried out between 2000 and 2002, his team “surveyed 7.3 square kilometers and identified 328 archaeological features, including walls, terraces, reservoirs, and a stupa (a Buddhist ritual structure).”

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His book talks about the “relationship between Buddhist monks and laypeople during the Early Historic Period”, and involved a study of not just the monastery but also the “smaller, non-monastic archaeological remains” that surround the monastery. His study mentions the economic and ritual engagements between the monks with the local population, and also mentions “a complex mortuary landscape combining the memorials of both monks and nuns scattered across the nearby hills.”

Fogelin’s work was also part of the evidence submitted to the HC in 2016 — when the stay on the construction of the Film Club was obtained — to justify the need for protecting the notified area under Survey no. 314, Sarma says.

Unclear definition of the notified area

Tourism Minister Muttamsetti Srinivasa Rao has denied that the guest house land has any historical significance. He told the media on Monday that the guest house land is not related to the Thotlakonda and Bavikonda Buddhist sites, and called the allegations an attempt from the opposition parties to obstruct development work by the YSRCP government.

“The archaeology department has fenced some areas. From survey no. 314, around 120 acres will remain untouched,” the Minister said, adding that the guest house land was part of survey no. 386, and therefore unrelated to the notified area. “The state guest house land is around a kilometre far from the Buddhist sites,” he said.

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However, the 2016 HC verdict in the Film Nagar Cultural Centre case mentioned that while the total extent of land under Survey no. 314 was 3148.45 acres, an extent of 15 acres was in Survey nos. 395 and 413, were carved out from Survey no. 314.

EAS Sarma and Kothapalli Venkataramana, Convenor of Buddhist Monument Protection Committee allege that the land records have been modified by revenue department officials over the years to alienate parcels of the 3,000-acre land. Survey no. 314 referred at the time of notification was the old survey number, Sarma says. “Usually, with such a large unit of land, it is subdivided into smaller units but the parent number (314 in this case) is retained. So you would have numbers like 314/1 and so on. But in this case, it has been subdivided into different numbers, leading to confusion,” he says.

Venkataramana says that of the total 3,000-odd acres originally included under survey no. 314, at least 600 acres is related to the Thotlakonda monastery. The guest house land falls within these 600 acres of historical significance, he said.

“Over the past few years, many revenue officers disturbed it (the land records for survey no. 314) and brought it down to 120 acres. A proper survey on Buddhist structures was not conducted. There’s actually at least 600 acres of land where Buddhist structures were found. Currently, they are considering only a few structures, but there are others further away, like bathing structures used back then, which are not being considered (by the government),” he said.

The Tourism Minister has insisted that the actual extent of the Thotlakonda site is only about 6 acres, but the peripheries of 120 acres have been identified and fenced. However, the fencing is unrelated to the limits of the notified area, says Sarma. “The fencing was done at the time of excavations because cattle may come inside, and people may come and disturb things. That fencing has nothing to do with the area notified,” he says.

As per the Archaeological Sites Act, the entire notified area cannot be touched, as there could be potential archaeological evidence, Sarma says. “If they want to alienate any land, they would have to denotify. To do that, you have to prove there was no archaeological evidence, for that you would have to dig (which hasn’t been done yet),” he says.

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However, the Tourism Minister on Monday stated authoritatively that the protected area is not more than 120 acres. “Buddhism is an international issue … We can set up a Vipassana meditation centre in the 120-acre land to attract international tourists. Unlike the Film Club, we will retain the sanctity of the place. There should only be godly, meditative things in that place. Within that 120 acres, nothing will be constructed except meditation centres,” Minister Muttamsetti Srinivasa Rao said.

Opposing the construction of the government guest house complex, Venkataramana said, “In Tirupati, the Tirumala hills are considered sacrosanct and the lands there wouldn’t be used for any unrelated government or private constructions. The same is true for Simhachalam. Similarly, Buddhist monuments with historical significance must not be disturbed.”

(The news first appeared in The News Minute)

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