The cultural vestiges of this valley, initially brought to light by Shri S.Venkataramayya, a teacher, was made known to the scholars by Shri A.R. Sarasvati in March 1926 CE. Sarva Shri A.H.Longhurst and M.H.Quraishi (1924-31 CE) and T.N.Ramachandran (1938 CE) of the survey under took excavations here exposing Brahmanical and Buddhist structures and retrieved lime stone slabs, inscriptions etc. With the decision of constructing a dam across the river Krishna, the valley was subjected to intensive, large scale excavations to salvage the prestigious relics of the past, by the Survey, under a special project headed by Dr. R. Subramanyam for well over six continuous years (1954-60 CE).
Due to this systematic work in over 130 sites spread in 24 square km, a cultural sequence from Early Stone jAge to Medieval times was established. The remains of more than 70 structures and an array of antiquities in various media including the reliquaries of the Master and his disciples were discovered. To avoid total submergence, some of these outstanding structures were reconstructed on the island and on the eastern bank of the lake near Anupu and the antiquities are exhibited in the museum. This feat of reconstruction of remains using original raw material following similar ecosystem and alignment is first of its kind in India and emulates the world renowned preservation scheme of Abu Simbel (Aswan Dam Project) in Egypt.
The crescentic fertile Krishna valley girdled on three sides by high hills of Nallamalai range offered its cradle to the nomadic prehistoric man. The continued sequence of stratified Early, Middle and Late stone age cultures on varied material and technique has earned a numero uno status for the site in the prehistoric archaeology of the peninsular India.
The valley witnessed the rural life in the Neolithic period in around 3rd millennium BCE with the people acquiring the technique and arts of cultivation, domestication of animals, potters craft and carpentry. This phase was succeeded by the iron using Megalithic people in around 1500 BCE.
From the antiquities available, the early history of the place is assignable to the later Satavahanas. The Ikshvakus succeeded them under Vasisthiputra Chamtamula. Mathariputra Virapurushadatta, Vasisthiputra Ehuvala Chantamula and Vasisthiputra Rudra Purushadatta are the other illustrious rulers of this dynasty known from the inscriptions and coins. These kings, claiming descent from the mythological Ikshvakus of Ayodhya, ruled the lower Krishna basin for about a hundred years. The grandeur and aura that the Nagarjuunakonda has gained is all due to the short yet brilliant achievements of these kings. Never before and never afterwards did the valley witnessed such a spectacular growth as a prestigious power centre, an atelier of artistic pursuits and an important centre of Buddhist and Brahmanical faiths.
The Ikshavaku kings were followers of Brahmanism and worshippers of Kartikeya and Siva. They performed many a Vedic sacrifices like asvamedha and vajapeya and made numerous grants. However, the women of the harem had strong leanings towards Buddhism. This eclectic outlook of the rulers made the valley a flourishing centre of both Buddhism and Brahmanism.
With the fall of the Ikshvakus, the art tradition and political glory of Vijayapuri vanished and the area formed part of the Eastern Chalukyan kingdom and then fell into the hands of the Kakatiyas of Warangal. Delhi Sultanate finally annexed the valley. Because of its strategic location the area changed hands between the ruling powers of the Bahamanis, Vijayanagara and Gajapati kings of Orissa. During this period, the hill fort of Nagarjunakonda was built by a Reddy king as one of the garrisons of Kondavidu. The fort and the valley came under the Qutub-Shahi kings of Golkonda, but ceased to play any significant role after the fall of the Vijayanagara empire.
Buddhism probably entered the Krishna valley during the life time of the Master him self. With the branching off of the Mahasanghikas from the orthodox Hinayana, in the 2nd Buddhist council held at Vaisali, the valley became a vibrant centre of the dissident developments. Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda (Sriparvata) nourished the Mahasanghika schism. Due to the ardent efforts of Acharya Nagarjuna, the valley turned out to be the nucleus of Buddhist studies. Inscriptions bespeak that it attracted the attention of the royalty, mercantile elite and zealous missionaries alike from far off regions.
A century of Ikshvaku rule witnessed an unprecedented architectural and sculptural activity in the region due to the economic prosperity, enjoyed by the capital Vijayapuri owing to an uninterrupted transoceanic trade with the Roman and Byzantium empires through the east coast. Men and women of every social stratum from royalty to monks patronized these artistic pursuits.
The sculptures of Nagarjunakonda represent the final phase of the art tradition of the lower Krishna valley that emerged at Amaravari and Jaggayyapeta in 2nd century BCE and reached its zenith during the later Satavahana times in the mid-second century CE. The early sculpture of the Ikshavaku period carved in low relief are characterized by less ornamentation, certain amount of rigidity, stylization and symbolic representation of the Master through wheel, feet, throne etc. The later sculptures, however present an evolved style with maturity in content, form and technique. Carved in bold relief, these are characterized by artistic vision and elegant execution, rhythm and clarity of lines besides a balanced composition set in befitting frames. The artist’s ability mirrors the subtle human sentiments of pathos and happiness.
The themes opted are mainly the episodes from the life of Buddha and his previous births (Jatakas) but the spirit underlying them is undoubtedly mundane richness of like and vitality of the aristocratic elite and commoners. As a sequel, the delineations have become vivid, effective and of appeasing countenance. The artist has excelled in imparting the intended spiritual impact on the viewer’s mind by a powerful portrayal with utmost dexterity and sophistry.
The iconic presentations of the benevolent Teacher here incorporate all the mahapurusha lakshanas to suit the Mahasanghika ideology of the superhuman being. Thus, the Buddha image here, whether it is sthanaka (standing) or asina (seated), in round or in relief, show moderately well built physique with serene ovalish face and round, well modeled shoulders. The long robes fall in symmetric folds following the body contour and drapes gently leaving a shoulder bare. The left hand usually holds sanghati and the right positioned in symbolic gesture of abhaya (protection) or pravachana (preaching).
A variety of mithuna figures depicting various moods of joyous couple are introduced in independent frames as spacers punctuating the narrative panels. Though these induce a certain amount of restrained sensuous aroma to the narration yet rank as the best specimens of Nagarjunakonda art vibrating with life, spirit and vigour.
The graceful women folk of Vijayapuri are immortalized in the finest expressions of plastic art, capturing the sentiments of both sringara and vipralambha (separation). The mischievous, playful moods of the children, an endless subject of expression in Indian secular art, has been effectively utilized by the ever alert artist of Nagarjunakonda as can be noticed in the narrative panels and the ornate mandapa pillars.
This unique island museum established to collect, preserve and exhibit the antiquities retrieved from the excavations, is housed in a spacious structure simulating a Buddhist vihara on plan. It is located amidst the remains of a medieval fortification, in the northern part of the island spanning about 2.5 kms East-West and 1 km North-South.
The museum presents precious artifacts of all cultural periods through which the valley and the region have passed, in five well organized galleries. Carved limestone slabs, sculptures, inscriptions and other antiquities all assignable to 3rd-4th century CE constitute a majority of the exhibits
Major portion of this aesthetically displayed gallery is known for the master pieces of Ikshvaku art and architecture in the form of all pervading serene Buddha, well sculptured ayaka-slabs, the cross beams of ayaka-platforms capturing in all finesse the episodes of the life of Buddha punctuated with joyous mithunas and elegant tree nymphs etc.
A separate section with show-cases all along the wall highlights the development of human civilization in the region from Early Stone Age to the Megalithic period through excavated artifacts and adequate illustrations.
Located in a large hall, Galleries II and IV exhibit the decorated drum slabs, dome slabs, cornice beams and other architectural units of a stupa, and a few Brahmanical sculptures of the Ikshvaku and subsequent periods.
The carved architectural units which once decorated the various stupas, capture the life of the Master from his birth to mahaparinirvana passing through the events of great departure, meditation, enlightenment and preaching. The popular miracles he performed during his life time and the stories of the previous births known as Jatakas like Sasa-jataka, Champeya-jataka, Sibi-jataka, Mandhatu-jataka etc., also form subjects of carving.
Attractive Brahmanical sculptures displayed here include Karttikeya and his concert Devasena, a Sivalinga, a unique representation of Sati and a few figures of Vidyadharas. Exquisitely Carved mandapa pillars capturing joyous moods of children at play, war scenes and other secular themes, medallions showing elephants in majestic postures and an example of a drawing (hastalekha) on a slab are also exhibited.
This gallery presents models of a panoramic view of the submerged valley along with models of secular and religious edifices. On the floor of the hall of this gallery is a model, 6.01 m square, of the submerged valley and its surroundings (scale 1 cm=906 m), locating about 120 excavated sites, besides topographical details. In the wall show-cases all around are miniature models of important excavated sites. These include Neolithic and Megalithic burials; stupas showing a variety of plan including the Mahastupa; viharas such as the Mahisasaka, Bahusrutiya and Kumaranandi-vihara; Brahmanical temples dedicated to Sarvadeva, Kartikeya, Pushpabhadrasvamin, Ashtabhujasvamin etc., and secular edifices like the amphitheatre (stadium), bathing ghat etc.
The inscriptions are written on pillars forming part of the structural complexes, sculptures, pedestals, memorial pillars and detached slabs. Mostly, the script is ornate Brahmi of 3rd-4th century CE with typical characters of nail headed and long vertical loop. Majority of them are in Prakrit language and some are composed in Sanskrit. Among the exhibits the inscriptions of Vijaya Satakarni, the memorial pillar depicting King Vasisthiputra Chamtamula, ayaka pillar of Chamta Sri, the Buddhapada inscription and a Sanskrit inscription on a pillar invoking god Pushpabhadrasvamin are noteworthy. A Telugu inscription issued by king Purushottama of Orissa is also on display.
The drum slabs in the gallery delineate the episodes in the life of the Master like meeting and conversion of prince Rahula, conversions of robber Angulimala and emperor Ajatasatru and Buddha giving audience to Indra. One slab depicts Bodhisattva Padmapani as the central figure.
The medieval sculptures displayed here ranging in date from 14th-17th century CE represents the later phases of plastic art in the valley. These include Yoga-Narasimha, Mahishamardini, Durga, Siva and a Jaina Tirthankara seated in Yoga posture. Besides these, two earthen Storage Jars are also on display.
The above vivid and myriad exhibits in the galleries have earned a unique place for this museum.