Counting Buddha’s footprints in and around Visakhapatnam

zac o?yeah | Updated on September 06, 2019 Published on September 06, 2019

Enlightened presence: Visakhapatnam is surrounded by archaeological sites that date back to the heyday of Buddhism in India   -  IMAGES: ZAC O’YEAH

Relics from a monastic past combine with flavourful local offerings to make Visakhapatnam a city for all ages

The ocean far below batters the coastline like an animated 3D painting. Tall waves lick the sands, and the occasional eagle swoops down to catch fish. Nearby, a sign says “Kitchen”, so I’m obviously drawn to it, but it’s empty — just stubs of wall remain, something that may once have been a cookery worktop, with no scent of spices. Only that persistent sea breeze raises dirt from the ground.

Further off are rows of bedrooms that may have hosted a hundred people at any given time. I turn down the path to the great refectory, or dining hall, next door. Same desolation: Two long, low tables at which numerous folks might sit cross-legged on the ground, but no hungry souls in sight. A serving counter at which, in a luxurious modern resort, a mixologist might fix cocktails at the hooch hour. But now, nothing is on offer except dust.

Truth is that no food preparation has happened at Thotlakonda, or Eagle Hill, as the ancients knew it, after this monastery near the modern port city of Visakhapatnam was abandoned 1,800 years ago. There are no evident signs of pillage but, at some point, Buddhism simply moved on from India, with the monks sailing to Southeast Asia and China. However, during the millennium that Buddhism was one of India’s major religions, its institutions blossomed all over the country — Visakhapatnam itself is believed to have been named after a Buddhist princess or maybe an old monk.

The town is virtually surrounded by rarely visited archaeological sites. There are incredible monolithic stupas cut out of the Lingalakonda ridge, ornate meditation caves at Bojjanakonda next door and scores of rock-hewn cisterns for advanced rainwater harvesting atop Pavurallakonda. Most of these were founded as long ago as 250 BCE, after Ashoka’s conquest of Kalinga, and many believe that Buddha’s relics were interred at Bavikonda’s hilltop monastery. This was “the region of Masalia stretching a great way along the coast before the inland country; a great quantity of muslins is made there”, according to the antique Greek guide Periplus (80 CE); Masalia is said to be the present-day Machilipatnam, a small town just down the coast, which proves that this area was considered a significant travel destination even then. Roman silver coins have been found at many of the monasteries.

The hilly sites probably had a strategic purpose: From atop it was easy to spot whoever was coming and rustle up supper if they were customers or go for plan B if it looked like something else. But there must also have been an appreciation of the natural beauty of coastal Andhra. Furthermore, as in many parts of the olden world where Buddhists pioneered hospitality, Thotlakonda would have catered to those who travelled up the Coromandel. Further north are the famous hill monasteries of Odisha, and there were Buddhist settlements as far south as Tamil Nadu, forming a chain of sorts.

Basing myself at the palatial Novotel hotel in Visakhapatnam seems a little out of sync for monastic exploration, but I can’t help think that the monkish kindness of hoary yore is a good precedent for modern hospitality. Monasteries didn’t have ₹1 lakh-a-night presidential suites for dignitaries, but the swimming pool in the hotel garden, overlooking the beach promenade, brings to mind the hilltop reservoirs. As I sample local goodies from the breakfast buffet laid out in a restaurant that overlooks the garden, I also can’t shake off the feeling that the menu of the region’s Buddhist kitchens must have included some of the food on offer, in some form or the other.

Morning shows the day: Breakfast platter at Novotel Visakhapatnam



Hospitality is as ancient a concept in India as is good food. Trying to figure out what those monks may have served their business-class guests in return for generous donations, I ask if I may accompany one of the hotel’s 64 chefs — the one in charge of homely heritage cookery — to the market. The idea is to visualise the regional ingredients in the purest form.

The person in question is Krishna Kishore, executive sous-chef, and he, incidentally, hails from Guntur, the city and district that is known for being the heart and soul of Andhra cuisine. Kishore believes that the food from the region blends influences of Odia and Bengali cuisines. An easy example of this is frying the fish before making a curry — a practice that is not common in South India. We drive three kilometres to the traditional Poorana Market in the quarters known as 1-Town, which shows what is left of old Visakhapatnam. The neighbourhood that once housed colonial mansions has only a few elderly structures such as an old post office and a lighthouse.

My tummy may be full of the city’s celebrated green gram pancake, pesarattu, but I’m already looking forward to dinner as Kishore inspects seasonal produce and picks up fresh tamarind leaves to add to prawn curry. We drive to the nearby fishing harbour, where thousands of boats jostle for berth while nets are mended by weather-beaten fishermen. The day’s catch is sold in pushcarts and buckets by argumentative women.

Harbour alert: The day’s catch is sold in pushcarts and buckets


In the evening, as I dine on the hotel’s breezy rooftop, with views of frothy waves in a dark sea (the source of most of my supper that night), I’m being mindful of what I eat. Although those monasteries attracted Sri Lankan and Tibetan monks, I wonder if the monks adapted Andhra flavours into their diet — if they ate anything like the plump and tangy prawns in sorrel leaves sauté (gongura royyala iguru) that I chew with elation. I also have freshwater fish swimming in a stew redolent of tamarind sourness (chepala pulusu). Buddha, as quoted by KT Achaya in Indian Food: A Historical Companion, also ate rice and fish “which are full of soul qualities but devoid of faults”. This, to me, seems pretty much like the coastal Andhra meal I am having. The monks must certainly have had ulavacharu, the soupy horsegram rasam, a staple among farmer families, along with coconut pulao, and the sour relish called gongura pachadi — quite unique to Andhra and made of wholesome sorrel leaves. But what they didn’t have were the chillies that Andhraites are so fond of, because those came to India with the Portuguese sometime after 1500. Ancient dishes would rather have been seasoned with curry leaves, ginger, onion, garlic and black pepper. Since aubergine originated in India, it is likely to have been a popular ingredient too. At least I got to taste several lip-smacking dishes with the vegetable.


Between meals and excursions, I stroll about the beachfront area visiting its museums (a full-sized submarine to step into, a historical museum in a bungalow with displays on the history of navigation and finds, such as Roman coins, from archaeological sites; a dedicated Buddhist museum is said to be on the cards). Other attractions include the Kailashagiri amusement park’s viewpoints, and an outdoor film studio where the blockbusterBahubali was canned.

I discover that a Buddhistic sentiment pervades the town even today, because everyone I chat with claims that their loved Vizag (a nickname for Visakhapatnam) is the gentlest city in India where people respect each other. One taxi driver, for example, says that even people from hipster cities such as Mumbai and Delhi instantly want to settle here — there’s no rowdyism or political issues, the city is green and everything is more than perfect.

Yet, Visakhapatnam doesn’t live in some dusty past, because it’s probably one of the cleanest modern metropolises with dustbins everywhere. These come in handy after a small meal of prawn pakodas and fish balls at the famous Fish Nutri Cart, run by fisherwomen, at the ocean promenade. Some fellow hoggers there tell me that Vizag is also called the ‘City of Destiny’, a place where you meet your future. It looks pretty bright.


Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist;

E-mail: zacnet@email.com

Published on September 06, 2019
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