The Heliodorus pillar is a stone column that was erected around 113 BCE in central India in Besnagar (near Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh). The pillar is named after Heliodorus, an Indo-Greek ambassador of Taxila-based king Antialcidas. In a private religious dedication inscribed in Brahmi script on the pillar, Heliodorus declared himself to be a Vasudeva devotee.
|Period/culture||late 2nd Century BCE|
|Place||Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, India.|
|Present location||Vidisha, India|
The Heliodorus pillar site is located near the confluence of two rivers, about 60 kilometres (37 mi) northeast from Bhopal, 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) from the Buddhist stupa of Sanchi, and 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) from the Hindu Udayagiri site.
The pillar was discovered by Alexander Cunningham in 1877. Two major archaeological excavations in the 20th-century have revealed the pillar to be a part of an ancient Vasudeva temple site. The temple and the inscriptions are among the earliest known evidence of Krishna-Vasudeva devotion and Vaishnavism in India.
Location and discoveryEdit
The pillar was first discovered by Alexander Cunningham in 1877 near the ancient city of Besnagar in neighbourhood of Vidisha in central India. Besnagar was founded near the confluence of Betwa River and Halali River (formerly, Bais River and the basis for "Bes"-nagar). The fertile region was historically important because it was on the trade route between the northern Gangetic valley, the Deccan and the South Indian kingdoms of the subcontinent. The Besnagar site is at the northeastern periphery of the confluence, and close to Sanchi and Udayagiri, both ancient and of significance to Buddhism and Hinduism.
When Cunningham first saw it, the pillar was thickly encrusted with ritually applied red paste (vermillion). This encrusted pillar was the object of worship and ritual animal sacrifice. Next to the red-colored pillar was a high soil mound, and on top of the mound a priest had built his home and surrounded it with a compound wall. The locals at the time called the pillar the Khamba Baba or Kham Baba.
Cunningham, an avid British archaeologist credited with many discoveries of ancient sites on the subcontinent, saw no inscription due to the thick crust surrounding the pillar. He nevertheless sensed its historical significance from the shape and the visible features such as the crowning emblem, carved fan, rosettes, the faceted symmetry merging into a round section. He also guessed there may be an inscription below the crust, and reported the pillar as, "the most curious and novel" of all his discoveries. Near the standing Besnagar pillar, Cunningham found a second pillar capital on the ground with an emblem in the form of a makara (mythical elephant-crocodile-fish composite). He assumed that this broken part was part of the standing pillar and he sketched a composite version. Further, about a kilometer away, Cunningham found a third pillar capital of similar style, with an emblem in the form of a kalpadruma (wishing tree). Cunningham assumed this discovery too was related to the Besnagar pillar in some way.
Between 1909 and early 1910, nearly 30-years after the pillar's discovery, a small Indian and British archaeological team led by H H Lake revisited the site. After the thick red crust was cleaned out, they found Brahmi script inscriptions. John Marshall reported the discovered inscriptions, and to everyone's surprise, the longer inscription related to a Greek ambassador named Heliodorus of 2nd-century BCE and the Hindu deity Vasudeva. An additional smaller inscription on the pillar listed human virtues, later identified to be from a verse of the Mahabharata.
The pillar and the unusual inscriptions attracted two larger archaeological excavations. The first was completed between 1913 and 1915, under Bhandarkar, but left incomplete because the priest blocked efforts citing rights to his home and compound walls his ancestors had built over the mound. The second excavation was completed between 1963 and 1965, under Khare, who had convinced the locals to move their religious practice to a location near a tree close by and relocating the priest's family. The archaeologists for the second excavation had full access to the Besnagar pillar site.
The 1913–15 excavations, though partial, revealed that the modern era Besnagar site had experienced numerous floods that had deposited silt over the last 2,000 years. The partial dig uncovered an extensive rectangular, square and other substructure and many brick foundations aligned to the cardinal axes. More ruined parts, plates and capitals were also found. The relative alignments suggested that the Besnagar pillar was likely a part of a more extensive ancient site.
The 1963–65 excavations revealed that the mound under the demolished later era priest home, contained the brick foundation for a sanctum (garbhagriya) and pillared halls (mandalas) of an elliptical temple. Further excavations below the foundation revealed a different foundation of likely a more ancient temple. These ancient temple foundation, layout and structures were similar to those discovered at Chittorgarh (Rajasthan). A more comprehensive excavation underneath the pillar and around the pillar led to the discovery that the pillar itself was much deeper, had a metal-stone interface, features Cunningham's early report had missed, and that secondary foundations were added over time to match the new ground level after major floods. Further, many more structures and items were discovered at the site. The archaeologists discovered that the Heliodorus pillar itself was one of eight pillars, all aligned along the north-south axis. These discoveries confirmed that the Besnagar Heliodorus pillar was a part of a more extensive ancient temple site.
The 1913 excavation revealed that a significant part of the Heliodorus pillar is below the platform. It sits on top of the remains of a more ancient pillar probably damaged by floods. Over time, silt from various floods have deposited and a raised platform was added at some point. The pillar shaft has a base support of two placement stones held with a layer of stone-metal. Above this was an untrimmed stone portion of the pillar. Above the untrimmed section is a trimmed octagonal cross-section. The original ground level was about 4.5 centimeter above the junction of the untrimmed and trimmed section. Above the length with octagonal facet is the section of the pillar with sixteen facets. Above the sixteenths section is the thirty-two faceted section, beyond which is the short round pillar section all the way to the top where sat the crowning emblem (now missing). The pillar is about 17.7 feet above a square platform (12 feet side), and the platform itself is about 3 feet high above the ground. The currently visible portion of the pillar's octagonal section is about 4 feet 10 inches high. The sixteenths section is fully visible and is 6 feet 2 inches high. The thirty-twos is also fully visible and is about 11.5 inches high, while the round section is 2 feet and 2 inches high. The bell capital is about 1 feet 6 inches deep and 1 feet 8 inches wide. The abacus is a 1 feet 7 inch sided ornate square.
The ornamental bands on the pillar are at the junctions of the octagon-sixteenths and sixteenths-thirty-seconds sections. The lower ornamental band consists of half-rosettes, while the upper ornamental band is a festoon with birds (swag with flowers, leaves and hanging vines). Early scholars mistook it as geese (or swan), but a closer examination revealed that they are regular pigeon-like birds, not geese (nor swan). The upper festoon is about 6.5 inches long. According to Donald Stadtner, the capitals found at the Heliodorus pillar site are similar, yet different in ways from the Sunga capitals found at Sanchi. The Sanchi discoveries lack the clockwise birds, the makara and the band found in Besnagar. They have elephants and lions, which are absent in Besnagar. According to Julia Shaw, the elephants and lions motif is typically found with Buddhist art of this period. The two styles have differences yet informed the other, states Shaw.
The Heliodorus pillar is neither tapered nor polished like the ancient Ashokan pillars found in India. It is also about half the diameter of Ashoka pillars. The Brahmi inscriptions are found on the octagonal surface just below the lower ornamental band of half-rosettes.
The 1963–65 excavations suggest that the site had an elliptical shrine – possibly 4th to 3rd-century BCE – with a brick foundation and likely a wooden superstructure. This was destroyed by a flood around 200 BCE. New soil was then added and the ground level raised to build a new second temple to Vasudeva, with a wooden pillar (Garuda dhvaja) in front of the east-facing elliptical shrine. This too was destroyed by floods sometime in the 2nd-century BCE. In late 2nd-century BCE, after some ground preparation, yet another Vasudeva temple was rebuilt, this time with eight stone pillars aligned in the north-south cardinal axis. Only one of these eight pillars have survived: the Heliodorus pillar.
The 1963–65 excavations revealed that the Heliodorus pillar was a part of an ancient temple site. The archaeologists found an ancient elliptical foundation, extensive floor and plinth produced from burnt bricks. Further, the foundations for all the major components of a Hindu temple – garbhagriha (sanctum), pradakshinapatha (circumambulation passage), antarala (antechamber next to sanctum) and mandapa (gathering hall) – were found. These sections had a thick support base for their walls. These core temple remains cover an area of 30 x 30 m with 2.40 m. The sections had post-holes, which likely contained the wooden pillars for the temple superstructure above. In the soil were iron nails that likely held together the wooden pillars. According to Khare, the superstructure of the temple was likely made of wood, mud and other perishable materials.
The sub-surface structure discovered was nearly identical to the ancient temple complex discovered in Nagari (Chittorgarh, Rajasthan) – about 500 kilometers to the west of Vidisha, and the Nagari temple too has been dated to the second half of the 1st-millennium BCE. The archaeological discoveries about Vasudeva Krishna at the Mathura site – about 500 kilometers to the north, states Khare, confirm that Garuda, Makara found at this site, palm-leaf motifs were related to early Vaishnavism. The Heliodorus pillar was a part of an ancient Vaishnava temple. According to Susan Mishra and Himanshu Ray, the Heliodorus pillar Besnagar site and the Nagari site are perhaps the "earliest Hindu temples" that archaeologists have discovered.
In 1910, an archaeological team led by H H Lake revisited the Heliodorus pillar site and nearby mounds. They found the Brahmi inscriptions on the pillar, and noticed several mistakes in the early Cunningham report. They also found many other broken wall pieces, pillar sections and broken statues in different mounds along the river, within a kilometer from the pillar. Lake speculated these to be variously related to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Near the Heliodorus pillar site, his team discovered sapta-matrikas (seven mothers of the Shaktism tradition of Hinduism). These discoveries suggest that Besnagar was probably an important ancient temples and pilgrimage site.
The text of the inscriptions is in the Brahmi script of the Sunga period, the language is Central-western epigraphic Prakrit, with a few Sanskritized spellings. The first inscription describes the private religious dedication of Heliodorus (Translations: Richard Salomon):
Line 1. This Garuda-standard of Vāsudeva, the god of gods
Line 2. was constructed here by Heliodora (Heliodoros), the Bhagavata,
Line 3. son of Dion, a man of Takhkhasila (Taxila),
Line 4. the Greek ambassador who came from the Great King
Line 5. Amtalikita (Antialkidas) to King
Line 6. Kasiputra Bhagabhadra, the Savior,
Line 7. prospering in (his) fourteenth regnal year.
Line 1. (These?) three steps to immortality, when correctly followed,
Line 2. lead to heaven: control, generosity, and attention.
The identity of the King Bhagabhadra in the longer inscription is contested. Early scholars proposed that he may have been the 5th ruler of the Sunga dynasty, as described in some Puranic lists. However, later excavations by German archaeologists near Mathura (Sonkh) has shown that the Sunga dynasty ended before the Heliodorus pillar was installed. Therefore, it is probable that the Bhagabhadra may have been a local ruler. The virtues in the shorter inscription has been variously translated by different scholars. John Irwin, for example, translates it as "Restraint, Renunciation and Rectitude".
(original Brahmi script)
(Prakrit in the Brahmi script)
Archaeological characteristics and significanceEdit
The Heliodorus pillar, being dated rather precisely to the period of the reign of Antialkidas (approximately 115-80 BCE), is an essential marker of the evolution of Indian art during the Sunga period. It is, following the Pillars of Ashoka, the next pillar to be associated clearly with a datable inscription. The motifs on the pillar are key in dating some of the architectural elements of the nearby Buddhist complex of Sanchi. For example the reliefs of Stupa No.2 in Sanchi are dated to the last quarter of the 2nd century BCE due to their similarity with architectural motifs on the Heliodorus pillar as well as similarities of the paleography of the inscriptions.
Based on Helliodorus pillar evidence it has been suggested that Heliodorus is one of the earliest Westerners on record to convert to Vaishnavism whose evidence has survived. But some scholars, most notably A. L. Basham and Thomas Hopkins, are of the opinion that Heliodorus was not the earliest Greek to convert to Bhagavata Krishnaism. Hopkins, chairman of the department of religious studies at Franklin and Marshall College, has said, "Heliodorus was presumably not the earliest Greek who was converted to Vaishnava devotional practices although he might have been the one to erect a column that is still extant. Certainly there were numerous others including the king who sent him as an ambassador."
According to Allan Dahlaquist, an alternative interpretation of the inscription is possible. Buddha too was called a Bhagavan, and Heliodorus originated from Taxila where Buddhism was strong. At the time of Dahlaquist 1962 publication, he stated there was no proof that a sect of Vishnu-Krishna devotees existed at that time in Taxila. Lastly, according to Dahlaquist, there is no definite evidence that Vasudeva should necessarily refer to Vishnu-Krishna. As god-of-the-god, Vasudeva can well be associated with Indra, who had a key role in Buddhism stated Dahlaquist.
Later scholars have questioned Dahlaquist's analysis and assumptions. Kuiper criticizes him for interpreting the dubious source of Megasthenes, ignoring all the "indications to the contrary", and dispute Dahlaquist's treatment of the evidence. The Greek texts that describe ancient India, have numerous references that suggest the existence of Vishnu-Krishna before the time of Heliodorus. For example, there is little doubt that Methora in ancient Greek texts is same as Mathura, Sourasenoi as Shurasenas, Herakles of India is Hari-Krishna, Kleisobora is Krishnapura. Similarly, early Buddhist sources provide evidence of Krishna worship, such as the Niddesa which mentions both Vasudeva and Baladeva.[note 1] The Jataka tales too include a story on Krishna. Heliodorus may have been a Buddhist, but converted to the Krishna religion when he was serving as an envoy. The Heliodorus pillar's inscription is generally dated to the late 2nd century BCE or about 100 BCE, is attributed to Heliodorus, as recording his devotion to the Vaishnava Vasudeva sect.
During the Besnagar site excavations by archaeologists Lake and Bhandarkar, a number of additional inscriptions were found such as one in Vidisha. These also mention Vaishnava-related terms. In one of those inscriptions, is the mention of another Bhagavata installing a pillar of Garuda (vahana of Vishnu) at the "best temple of Bhagavat" after the king had ruled for twelve years.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Heliodorus Pillar, Vidishā, Madhya Pradesh, India.|
- Heliodorus pillar at Besnagar, Maurya dynasty, Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, India, ca. 126 B.C., An image taken after 1968, University of Washington Archives
- Heliodorus pillar inscription, American Institute of Indian Studies
- Heliodorus Column, Archaeology Online
- Vedic archeology, Part 1: The Heliodorus Column