Archaeologists in India Discover Ancient Hero Stones that Retell Epic Battles and Honorable Deaths
Intricately carved ancient Hero Stones can be found across India. These decorated stone markers serve as monuments to honorable deaths, commemorating fallen heroes and ferocious warriors who sacrificed themselves in order to protect lives and land. Archaeologists in Andhra Pradesh have found two Hero Stones dating to the ninth and tenth century A.D. which are still used in local worship during festivals.
Analysis of the stones has been reported to Ancient Origins by assistant archaeologist Konudula Ramakrishna Reddy of the Archaeological Survey of India, who spent time in Chagalammari, Kurnool District, while conducting research on the political and cultural practices of ancient societies.
An elaborate, five panel Hero Stone from 12 th century with carvings depicting battle scenes. Public Domain
K. Reddy and the research team located, examined, and photographed two Hero Stones; one in a field to the east of Gotlur village, the other in the center of Nelampadu village.
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The tradition of commemorating with Hero Stones ( Veera Sila , or Virgal) in India dates between the third century B.C. and the 18 th century A.D. These stone steles are adorned with a variety of carvings, including figures and inscriptions, and often a narrative of epic battle. They were placed in the memory of monarchs, chieftains, soldiers, holy people and respected members of society, especially those who had died in specific events: during cattle raids, while protecting feminine virtue, while saving family members, in following a leader’s orders, or while defending land. The stones also featured ferociously fighting sailors, and widows who committed the immolation of Sati.
The battle of the hero was usually narrated through image and text in a multi-panel format.
The British Library writes, “A hero stone was usually divided into three panels, but sometimes, if the story warranted it, into four or five. The upper panel would depict the subject worshipping a deity, usually a Shiva linga, The middle panel would depict the hero being borne into heaven by apsaras or heavenly nymphs, sometimes seated in a palanquin or a shrine, and the lower panels would show battle scenes or cattle raids (with heads of cattle).”
Stones can be found alone, or in groupings.
The Gotlur Hero Stone was located in a field to the east of the village beside a water reservoir. K. Reddy reports that the Boya community (Boyas being hunters and warriors in antiquity) worshiped the stone each October during the Dussera festival, making offerings of goats, sheep, and chickens.
Hero Stone from Gotlur village. Photo: Konudula Ramakrishna Reddy
The single warrior of the stone is named as Onti Verudu by the locals. The sandstone carving depicts the standing figure of a male warrior adorned with “a headband, earrings, and necklaces,” reports K. Reddy.
The warrior holds a dagger in his left hand; in his right he wields a double-ended weapon with twin curved blades. A small knife is seen tied in his waist band, and the decorative folds of his lower garments are clearly seen. The portion of the stone below this figure’s ankles is hidden below the soil.
The researchers have determined the iconographic features of material and clothing style, and the ornaments and weaponry date it to between the ninth and tenth century A.D. during the Renati Chola Dynasty who ruled this area in that period.
A 12 th century Hero Stone featuring an archer. Wikimedia Commons
Just three kilometers from Gotlur village, another sculpture was found in Nelampadu. On this slate slab, the carvings have been weathered and the details are not as easily discerned.
“The hero is seen riding on a galloping horse; he controls the horse with his right hand and holds a weapon in the left,” says K. Reddy.
Hero Stone from Nelampadu village. Photo: Konudula Ramakrishna Reddy
The horse rears with front legs raised, back legs on the ground. A palm tree can be seen behind the horse and rider, the palm leaves observed above the horse’s head. The rider sits in a saddle and his legs are in stirrups. K. Reddy suggests the depiction of the saddle and bridle are an interesting addition to the carving. Below the pair is thought to be a dog.
The archaeologists believe that based on the stylistic features, the dress of the rider, and the use of the saddle and bridle on the horse dates the Hero Stone to the same period as the Gotlur stone - circa the ninth and tenth century A.D., and during the Renati Chola feudal kingdom.
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Horses and dogs are not uncommon features on the stones featuring honorable people.
Author Upinder Singh notes in “ A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India ” that animals were given a place of honor on the stones if their lives were lost heroically.
“An inscription from Gollarahatti is in memory of a hunting dog named Punisha who died after killing a wild boar, while another one from Atkur commemorates the death of a dog named Kali who died fighting a wild boar during a hunt. A 12 th century inscription at Tambur mourns the death of the pet parrot of a king of the Kdamba dynasty of Goa. The parrot was eaten by a cat in the palace and the inscription tells us that the king was so filled with grief at this event that he killed himself,” writes Singh.
The famous Atakur Hero Stone inscription (949 C.E.) featuring an exciting retelling of the “the battle between ‘Kali’ the hound and a wild boar, and the victory of Rashtrakuta Emperor Krishna III over the Chola dynasty of Tanjore”. Wikimedia Commons
K. Reddy concludes that the fact that the local people still worship the stones during festivals is noteworthy.
Apart from their beautiful and illustrative carvings, the Hero Stones of India provide an opportunity to learn about the beliefs, traditions, and culture of the ancient societies.
Featured Image: A line of Hero stones from 10th century at Trimurthi Narayana Gudi, Bandalike village, Karnataka state, India. Wikimedia Commons
By Liz Leafloor