Kikali is a small village 15km north of Satara in Maharashtra. Located just north of the village is the ancient Bhairavnath Temple, a wonderful site to visit and will feature in a another blog post shortly. Whilst the temple itself is worthy of any visit, I was struck by the large number of hero stones that were lining the perimeter of the temple complex.
I have of course come across hero stones before, but most of the examples I have seen have been in museums. The hero stones at Kikali have been collected from the surrounding fields and placed here for safe keeping. I have to say that whilst they have of course been displaced from their original setting which is a bit of a shame, seeing them together and hopefully more protected as a result was heartening.
A Hero Stone (Veergal in Marathi, Veeragallu in Kannada or Naṭukal in Tamil) is essentially a memorial commemorating the honorable death of a hero, usually in battle. Most of these stones were erected between the 3rd century BC and the 18th century AD, and can be found all over India, although the higher concentration of them appears to occur in south India. It is thought that Karnataka alone has over 2,500 examples of these memorial stones with their origins dating back to the Iron Age.
A hero stone was usually divided into three panels, although this was no fixed rule and depending on the event four or five panels can also occur. The carvings appear on one side of the upright stone, in the case of the more typical three panel layout, the narrative is as follows :
Upper Panel – The upper panel depicts the subject worshiping a deity, most commonly a Shiva linga, with an attendant/priest.
Middle Panel – Here you can often see the hero seated in a palanquin or shrine, often being lifted to the heavens by nymphs (apsaras).
Lower Panel – This panel usually depicts how the hero died, so battle scenes are often shown, but on occasions you do come across something a little different.
Sometimes the hero stones are accompanied by inscriptions narrating the act of the hero, the details of the battle and the king who fought the battle. I couldn’t find any such inscriptions on the examples at Kikali, but these are apparently quite rare within the state of Maharashtra.
The stones themselves can be found in groups or in isolated situations, although often they are found near irrigation tanks or lakes outside a village. The scholarly tradition maintains that a hero stone was raised on the spot where the hero fell, where his remains were buried, or alternatively in his (or his relatives) native village. However, it is highly likely that many if not most of these stones have been displaced over the centuries as the landscape is reshaped (for farming, new roads etc), or moved to protect them into museums or to local temples as we find here at Kikali.
The following set of of photographs are all from Kikali, where the hero stones can be found within the compound of the Bhairavnath Temple. The stones there are all propped up against the perimeter wall of the temple, which makes the panels quite hard to see with the similar stone background. So I have tried to make them a little easier to view by isolating the stones against a black background. Accompanying each picture is an interpretation of the hero’s story, based on the iconography within each of the panels.
The hero stone pictured above I found particularly interesting, and in the group that can be found at Kikali it has some unusual characteristics.
Whilst the uppermost scene includes the expected portrayal of the dedicatee worshiping in front of a shiva linga, there is no official (priest) present. The middle panel depicts the hero being involved in a skirmish, and it certainly looks as though he is being pierced by enemy spiers whilst wielding a dagger. The lowest panel then appears to represent a sacrificial ritual being performed by the hero. So here we have two different ways of dying that are represented on the same slab, and the “heavenly ascension” scene/panel is completely absent.
So whilst the middle panel appears to already give a proper account of the heroic death, this final scene appears to contradict that story.
As you can see from just the small sample of hero stones at Kikali, whilst these memorials do follow a basic framework of style and composition, there are massive variations in the stories being told through the iconography.
Recent studies on the death scene/panel alone has found that they broadly fall into seven reasons :
- People who died to protect their livestock from theft, or while retrieving it after an attack
- People involved themselves in cattle raiding
- People who died while defending their community and ruler from external attack, or died on the onslaught of a stronghold
- People who died trying to defend women and children
- People devoured by wild animals, most commonly tigers, or people who freed the village from the threat of wild animals
- People who died after a snake bite
- People who committed religious suicide
- Women who died in pregnancy or childbirth / suicide victims
The more you analyse these stones and their iconography, the more clues you can tease out about the life and final demise of these heroes being memorialised.
Hero stones are generally found in a rural context (even in ancient times), and so the vast majority of them are likely to be commemorating ordinary villagers as much as higher-ranking individuals. Those with scenes depicting the defending of cattle would certainly infer the former, but if there is the presence of royal symbols like parasols, banners, attendants and horses then one can probably safely assume that the hero has a greater status in society. The size of the hero stone itself is also potentially a distinctive factor to consider.
I feel my new found obsession with hero stones has only just started, I’m very much looking forward to discovering more on future trips to India.
The next time you’re in India be on the lookout for one. They are often now to be found near ancient temples, often tucked away in a corner with no particular attention paid to them. Any archaeological museum is also likely to have a few examples to see.
Armed with a little prior knowledge you can “read” the stories these hero stones have to tell, and the subtle differences in iconography can reveal a wealth of information about the individual and how they died.
Our hero still has a voice through the passing centuries.
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