Srisailam is situated in the thick and inaccessible forests of the Nallamalai Hills, and is famous as Srisaila. The sanctity of this place is claimed both by the Hindus as well as by the Buddhists..." [Ramesan, Temples and Legends of Andhra, p.11]
It was temple of tribals
There is a legend about a cow giving all its milk on a stone, which was latter enshrined in a temple by divine order. [Ibid. p.11] Similar legends are attached to many other temples, including Tirupati.
"There is another legend concerning the origin of this temple, among the tribal population called Chenchus, who live in this part of the hills. According to this legend prevalent among the Chenchu tribes. Lord Siva came once to Srisailam on hunting expedition, and fell in love with a beautiful Chenchu woman, whom he married, and who used to accompany him in his hunting expeditions to the neighbouring forests. Hence even today Lord Mallikarjuna is known among these tribes as "Chenchu Malliah". This tribal legend is beautifully borne out by an interesting bas-relief on the prakara of the temple, in which a tiger is shown as being killed by Lord Siva with a trident. In this Lord is shown as being followed by Parvati dressed as a forest woman with arrows and four dogs. It is interesting to note that the Chenchus have free permission, even today, to go into any part of the temple, including the Garbha Griha, enshrining the sacred linga. It is in fact, these tribal people that help to drag the car in the big Ratha festival of the temple and also at other minor services within the temple. During the great Sivaratri festival, when thousands of people congregate here, to bathe in the sacred waters of the Patalganga and worship Lord Mallikarjuna, the Chenchus also go and worship inside the Garbha Griha independent of all the priests. To this day, caste, creed or sex, does not prohibit any one, providing he or she is a Hindu, form doing Abhiseka to the Lord from the waters of Patalganga or to do Archana with flowers directly. Such a catholic form of worship is unknown anywhere else in Andhra, except at Srisailam, and this custom probably dates back to the Buddhist period when caste rules were not so rigid.
"Srisailam may be traced back to the Buddhist period and perhaps even earlier than to the Mahayana school of Buddhism which is known to have flourished during the first century A. D. The Buddhist pilgrims, Fa Hain and Hiuen Tsang have made references to the Sriparvatha hill which is in the Nagarjunakonda valley of the same river Krishna. After the decline of Buddhism, the Hindu religion would appear to have re-established its authority, probably due to the efforts of Adi Samkara and Srisailam which is a seat of Hinduism, is now counted as one of the sacred Khsetras with an important seat for Sakti in the name of Madhavi which later on came to be called as Bhramarambha. Srisailam is also a principal seat of the Jangams and is one of the five main mathas of the Veera Shaivas. ..." [Ibid., p.14]
"Here lithic records, preserved in the temple, however, do not take us back earlier than the 14th century A.D..." [Ibid., 16]
"The main festivals of the temple last from February to the end of May and during this period, the temple is under the management of Pushpagiri Math of Cuddapah district, whereas on the other days the management is left to a Jangam priest assisted by the local Chenchus. ...The Chenchus take a leading part in the festivals both before and after Sivarathri...." [Ibid., p.17]
"...The main temple of Lord Mallikarjuna stands in the centre of this inner courtyard and is surrounded by a number of minor shrines. The temple of Bhramarambha or the Amman temple as it is popularly known is in a separate enclosure west of the inner courtyard." [Ibid., p.18]
"...On the northern side of the temple under the shade of a Vat Vriksha is another shrine dedicated to Mallikarjuna, and local legend say that this shrine contains the original linga over which the black cow of princess Chandravati gave its milk." [Ibid., p.18]
One of the bas reliefs show a Kiratarjunaiya scene and here....
"... The bas - relief shows entire sequence of story, and it is interesting to note that Parvati is, in this bas - relief dressed as a Chenchu woman." [Ibid. p.18]
Huen Tsang informs us that Buddhist scholar Nagarjuna was staying here. [Lokmat, 27.2.97]
Tribals were Buddhists
All this information is sufficient to link up the temple with the tribal population. The important point to note is that all these tribals belonged to the Buddhist faith. The mere fact that these shrines had to be destroyed with sword and fire for establishing Brahmin supremacy over Buddhism, gives ample evidence that these tribal people practiced the Buddhist faith and the shrines were their centers not only of worship but also of life. All the activities of tribal folks used to be centered around the temple. That is the reason why these places had to be destroyed if Brahmin supremacy had to prevail at any time. The relation of the tribals with the Buddhist faith is the crucial point that is missed unfortunately by Indian scholars, though some of the westerners have mentioned. This holds true for almost all areas, and specially for South India. You may name any temple, any shrine that is subjected to Brahmanic iconoclasm, it would be closely related to Buddhist faith, and belong to the tribals. The relation between Buddhism and the tribal races seems to be great and significant. We would see later that Tirupati is no exception to this.
Nagarjunakonda and Srisailam were destroyed and acquired for Brahmanic use
Now we would concentrate on Srisailam and observe what the scholars have to say about Nagarjunkonada, as well as Srisailam. Prof. Bhagvan on the authority of Longhurst has observed as follows:
"... Under his (Sankara's) very supervision, the Buddhist, their statues and monument at Nagarjunakonda were destroyed. A.H.Longhurst, who conducted excavations at Nagarjunkonda, has recorded it in his invaluable book: 'Memoir of the Archaeological Survey of India' No.54, The Buddhist Antiquities of Nagarjunkonda, by A.H.Longhurst, Delhi, 1938, p.6.
"The ruthless manner in which all the buildings at Nagarjunakonda have been destroyed is simply appalling and cannot represent the work of treasure seekers alone as so many of the pillars, statues, and sculptures have been wantonly smashed to pieces. Had there been a town close at hand a Amaravati, one can understand the site being used as a quarry by modern builders as was so often done in India. But this never occurred at Nagarjunakonda as there are no towns and no cart roads in or out of the valley. Local tradition relates that the great Hindu philosopher and teacher Shankaracharya of medieval times came to Nagarjunakonda with a host of followers and destroyed the Buddhist monument. Be this as it may, the fact remains that the cultivated lands in the valley on which ruined buildings stand represent a religious grant made to Shankaracharya and it was only with the sanction of the present religious Head of the followers of the great teacher that I was to conduct the excavations. This same Brahmin pontiff, who resides at Pushpagiri in the Guntur District, also owns the Srisailam temple in the Nallamalais, which no doubt was acquired in the same manner as it seems to have been a Buddhist site originally." [Bhagwan K.S.: 1986: 14]
Apart from the manner of capturing the Buddhist sites by Shankaracharya, the narration of Longhurst gives an evidence of Srisailam originally being a Buddhist shrine, and that it was acquired for Brahmanical use, though the original rights of the tribals had to be conceded, and the tribals in the changed circumstances had to be satisfied with the portrayal of Parvati as a tribal women. It would be remembered that even the Brahmanic literature had to depict Parvati as a tribal women has become the subject matter of many a dance drama scenes. The Chenchus are known to be the poorest tribals of the lot. But they have not given up their rights of Ratha Yatra, which we will see later (chapter 27), is a relic of Buddhist tradition. It is also worth noting that during the most profitable period the temple is in charge of outsiders, and during rest of the year, it is left in charge of locals. One would find such arrangements in many other places. Why? Does this need any comment?