IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 20 | Regions | South Asia


Photographic prints at the Kern Institute Leiden
Ritual Life of the Heliodorus pillar

At the very beginning of this photographic column, dealing with one or two historical prints from our South and Southeast Asian photo collection, it occurred to me to take the word column literally by choosing the so-called Heliodorus pillar of Besnagar (Madhya Pradesh, India). It is a famous freestanding Hindu votive pillar dating from the 2nd century BC. Even in the 19th and first half of the 20th century the pillar site was considered a sacred place with a special ritual function.


The Heliodorus pillar is located close to the northern bank of the Bes River. Thanks to its location on the southern trade-route between the Ganges Valley and the Deccan, Besnagar, the ancient Vidisa, was a flourishing mercantile city in early times. Its perfect natural setting at the confluence of the Bes and the Betwa Rivers, gave Besnagar an auspicious dimension.

The pillar itself has a total height of about 6.5 m above the actual ground-level. The pinkish-brown pillar consists of three parts: a faceted shaft (hewn into octagons, sixteenths, and thirty-seconds, finally finishing round), a bell-capital and a damaged abacus, showing a geese-and honeysuckle ornament. There is no figure or symbol left on top. The pillar is surrounded by a square platform, which is not original. On the octagonal part of the shaft are two quite revealing inscriptions. The first inscription identifies the pillar as a so-called Garudadhvaja (Garuda standard), set up in honour of Vasudeva of whom the mythical bird, Garuda, is the emblem. The column was ordered by Heliodurus, a Greek or Greek-named envoy of the Indo-Bactrian king, Antialkidas. He came to the court of King Kasiputra Bhagabhadra, the ruler of the Besnagar area, from Taxila in modern Pakistan. Heliodorus calls himself a devotee of Vasudeva, one of the names of Visnu. The second inscription has a deeper religio- philosophical content: 'Three steps towards immortality, when accomplished, lead into heaven: selfcontrol, resigning worldly life, and prudence'. The Heliodorus pillar was certainly not the only votive pillar at the site. There is substantial archaeological evidence for both the former existence of more votive pillars ­ probably placed in line- and for a temple.

Now, the damaged Heliodorus pillar is the only architectural structure that remains. With the loss of its original context, it has had to survive as a limb, amputated from its body. In the 19th and first half of the 20th century, the 'limb' succeeded surprisingly well in meeting this challenge. To understand this cryptic remark we have to go through the old archaeological reports.

History of the archaeological survey

It was the first director general of archaeology, Alexander Cunningham who, in January 1877, first took scientific note of the Heliodorus pillar. Its discovery, and that of some of its fallen capital close by, immediately excited him: 'perhaps the most curious and novel discoveries that I have ever made'. It sounded promising! At this time the site could certainly not be called deserted. Quite the contrary: the pillar was considered holy and formed the ritual centre of a 'young Bairagi'. According to Cunningham's informants, the place was frequently visited by pilgrims and in the months Jyesht and Asharh there were ram sacrifies before it. The pillar itself and the area around it was known as Khamba Baba, Babaji's stambha or pillar. Its appearance was somewhat peculiar: the whole shaft of the pillar was entirely smeared with a thick layer of red lead paste, making it impossible to investigate the pillar properly. Cunningham tried to find an inscription, but the locals assured him there was not any and 'I was very unwillingly obliged to be content with the examination of the red surface'.

Thirty years later, in January 1909, Mr H. Lake, superintending engineer of the Gwalior State, discerned lettering on the lower part of the shaft and removed some of the thick layers of paint ... an important lithic record was revealed to the world! Not shown here, but in the Kern Collection, is a print of the pillar almost entirely covered by the layers of paint. There are two men sitting on the platform: to the left an impressive man, possibly the new Baba, and to the right an older man. In the summer of 1909 all the paint was removed. It was Mr Lake too who started an exploration of the site in January 1910, but he was not very successful in his undertaking.

In the cool seasons of 1914 en 1915, D. Bhandarkar investigated Besnagar and the Khamba Baba site more systematically. In his first report he gives a historical account of the religious use of the pillar since the beginning of the 19th century.

The story goes back to an 'original Baba', a Saiva ascetic called Hirapuri, with whom the worship of the pillar (re)commenced. Naturally all this is rooted in legend. 'Once upon a time before this worship began, a personage of high distinction came to the place where Hirapuri lived with an army. The latter requested the former to live with him for all time, and the visitor was so charmed by the hospitality of the Baba that he acceded to his wish and transformed himself into the Khamba Baba'. Chandanpuri, a pupil of Hirapura carried on the tradition. He was not an ascetic but is called a pujari, a man in charge for the rituals and offerings. The third Babaji, named Pratap-puri Gosai, lived at the site during Bhandarkar's excavations. The pujari demonstrated his ownership of the pillar and the area around by virtue of an inam from the Gwalior Durbar. The lower castes especially came to worship their lithic god, hoping for a boon and a healthy son. The least offering which could be made was the besmearing of the pillar with a mix of red lead and oil. In my opinion the ram offering was reserved more for special rituals. The red paste was probably a substitute for the rams' blood. Liquor was another favourite offering to the deity. Bhandharkar also found he had to clean the column again. It took him 10 days: the layers had been growing fast! Photo 1 shows the pillar in its cleaned state. To the right we see the corner of the pujari's house. Once we have set foot on the platform, leaving our shoes behind, we see a terracotta figure and some ritual vases. To the left an older man and in the tree which grows out of the platform (an extra cosmic axis symbol) a second male figure. Is he just looking for shade? Possibly, the red paste was smeared on the upper part of the shaft by climbing the tree. In order to investigate the underground part of the pillar and its foundation the tree was cut and the platform removed. After the investigations the pillar was given a new platform see Photo 2. A real monument was born! All pillar mysteries had been solved, but what about a Vasudeva temple? As the pujari's house was almost certainly built on the exact site of the temple, it took some time to decide on its demolition. It was M.D. Khare who was permitted to clear this area in the period 1963-65, enabling him to uncover the elliptical foundations of an old temple of the late 3rd century BC. Are any rituals still performed at the site? I would love to know. *

For information on the Photographic Project Kern Institute Leiden, see IIAS Newsletter 19.
Photographic Project manager at the Kern Institute
Leiden University
E-mail: theuns@let.leidenuniv.nl.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 20 | Regions | South Asia