A couple of years ago a visit to the ancient Bhairavnath Temple just north of Satara in Maharashtra drew my attention to subject of hero stones. I had previously seen a few examples in various museums, but at Kikali there is an impressive collection of such memorial stones, and as an archaeologist and photographer I felt very much compelled to document them.
This slight obsession with hero stones hasn’t diminished since, to the extent that on my recent travels to India I have actively tried to seek out new sites and document what exists there. This has also brought to light the perilous situation some of these stones exist under. At one location, Kondhale near Pune, I discovered that in the last two years 20% of the standing hero stones have either been pushed over or broken. Such disregard for these fascinating artifacts saddens me greatly, and only amplifies my desire to document what exists today before some of these stones are lost forever.
Having visited the wonderful Mallikarjun Temple at the north-western extent of Loni Bhapkar, I proceeded to the Someshwar Temple in the heart of the village. I already knew there was a set of hero stones here, probably collected from the surrounding fields and placed by the temple 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, at least the villagers at some point deemed them important enough to preserve and relocated them to a place that offers some degree of protection.
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 and simplistic three panel layout, the narrative is as follows :
Upper Panel – The upper panel depicts the subject worshiping a deity, most commonly a Shiva linga, accompanied by an attendant or priest.
Middle Panel – Usually the middle panel depicts the hero flanked by a nymphs (apsaras), sometimes being lifted up to the heavens. Occasionally the hero is seated in a palanquin.
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. The nature of the hero’s death sometimes necessitates the need for an additional lower panel to add further clarity to the story of his demise. So a battle scene may be followed by a scene showing the hero lying dead next to cattle, indicating that he was protecting his herd.
Sculptural embellishments on these hero stones can also give us more detail. Some hero stones have extremely elaborate Kalashas (pot or vessel) above the top panel which gives us an indication of their status in society, perhaps a member of a respected family or in some cases even a warrior with royal connections.
Likewise the form of the hero stone itself can add further colour. Whilst the vast majority of these memorials consist of a single slab carved on just one side, you can also find pairs of panels carved on one side of the stone, possibly indicating the death of relatives. This extends further to examples where the memorial consists of a square column with panels carved on all four sides. Of course we will never know if this implies the deaths of related people, or whether all the warriors died during a single incident, as the vast majority of these stones have no accompanying inscription.
Sometimes the hero stones are accompanied by inscriptions narrating the act of the hero, the details of the battle and the warrior who fought the battle. In Maharashtra the existence of such inscriptions is extremely rare, and I have yet to find any examples at the sites I have thus far visited.
The stones themselves can be found in groups or in isolated settings, 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, construction of new buildings or roads etc), and/or moved to protect them into museums or to local temples as we find here at Loni Bhapkar.
Immediately east of the Someshwar Temple facing the temple entrance are 24 hero stones, representing up to 29 individuals. I have divided them into three distinct groups :
- Group 1 consists of 10 stones, all south-facing.
- Group 2 consists of 7 stones, all west-facing.
- Group 3 consists of 7 stones, more randomly positioned immediately next to the road.
I have tried to make the stones a little easier to view by isolating them against a white background. Accompanying each picture is an interpretation of the hero’s story, based on the iconography within each of the panels.
Group 1 – South-facing Hero Stones
Group 2 – West-facing Hero Stones
Group 3 – By the roadside
The first hero stone of this final group is perhaps the most impressive of the collection to be found at Loni Bhapkar. This is a square column, with panels carved on all four sides. It appears to have been reused as a gate post at some point, and now has a wall butting up against the north-facing side which renders those panels unreadable.
The hero stones here at Loni Bhapkar are a little less varied compared to some other sites. A wider variety, in particular around the death scenes, can be seen at Kikali.
Recent studies on the death scene/panels 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, or 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 warriors and heroes being memorialised.
Hero stones are generally found in rural contexts (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, and horses then one can probably safely assume that the hero had a greater status in society.
Although my attention was mostly drawn to the hero stones in the village, it would be remiss of me not to make a mention of the temple that is now custodian to these memorials.
Just like the Mallikarjun Temple a short distance away, Someshwar is also a bhumija style temple, quite possibly also built during the late Yadav dynasty rule. Here, however, the temple shows clear signs of being considerably renovated and updated during the Maratha period. The giveaway clue to these changes comes from the absence of a traditional amalaka, which has been replaced by a bulbous dome on top of the shikhara. This is an architectural feature the Marathas took from the Sultanates, who had been using such domes for at least 300 years.
To truly appreciate the lengths by which the Marathas would go to modify and update some temples, one really needs to visit the Bhairavnath Temple a very short distance away. Exactly what there is to see there will be in a forthcoming blog.
Although the Someshwar temple was locked, I was able to peer through the grill of the gate. Now dedicated to Shiva, the temple is completely plain with no intricate carvings or any significant form of embellishment at all.
For such a small village (the population is just under 4,000 people), there is quite a lot see here. Next stop on my tour is the Bhairavnath Temple, just 350m east of the heroes of Loni Bhapkar.
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