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Heliodorus pillar

Heliodorus pillar

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Heliodorus pillar
Heliodorus pillar.jpg
Heliodorus pillar in VidishaIndia.
Period/culturelate 2nd Century BCE
PlaceVidishaMadhya PradeshIndia.
Present locationVidishaIndia
Heliodorus pillar is located in India
Heliodorus pillar
Heliodorus pillar
The dedication of the Heliodorus pillar was made by Heliodorus, ambassador of the Indo-Greek king Antialcidas (here depicted on one of his coins).

The Heliodorus pillar is a stone column that was erected around 113 BCE in central India[1] in Vidisha near modern Besnagar, by Heliodorus, an Indo-Greek ambassador of the Indo-Greek king Antialcidas in Taxila[2] to the court of the Shunga king Bhagabhadra. Historically, it is one of the earliest known inscriptions related to the Vaishnavism in India.[3][4][5] The site is located about 60 kilometres (37 mi) northeast from Bhopal and 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) from the Buddhist stupa of Sanchi.[6]

The pillar was surmounted by a sculpture of Garuda and was dedicated by Heliodorus to the god Vāsudeva in front of the temple of Vāsudeva.[2] According to Rawlinson, the colonial British era historian, locals called it the Khamba Baba or Khambaba.[7]


The pillar was first discovered by Cunningham in 1877 near the ancient city of Besnagar in neighbourhood of Vidisha, but the inscription itself, hidden under a thick crust of vermilion covering the shaft, was only discovered later by John Marshall.[8] There were other pillars in the area as at least three capitals were discovered.[2] Ruins of a huge square temple were also found in the immediate vicinity of the pillar.


There are two inscriptions on the pillar, located around the pillar, at the same level under the middle decorative band, on five of the six faces of the pillar. The inscriptions have been analysed by several authors, such as E. J. Rapson,[9] Sukthankar,[8] Richard Salomon,[10] and Shane Wallace.[2]

The text of the inscriptions is in the Brahmi script of the Sunga period, the language is Central-western epigraphic Prakrit, with a few spellings akin to Sanskrit.[10] The first inscription describes the situation of Heliodorus and his relationship to the Shunga Empire and the Indo-Greek Kingdom:

"This Garuda-standard of Vāsudeva, the God of Gods
was erected here by the devotee Heliodoros,
the son of Dion, a man of Taxila,
sent by the Great Yona King Antialkidas, as ambassador
to King Kasiputra Bhagabhadra,
the Savior son of the princess from Varanasi,
in the fourteenth year of his reign."[11]

The second inscription on the pillar describes in more detail the spiritual content of the faith supported by Heliodorus:

"Three immortal precepts (footsteps)... when practiced
lead to heaven: self-restraint, charity, consciousness"

The Prakrit words for these three steps are: damacāgaapramāda (the Sanskrit cognates are: damatyāgaa-pramāda, often translated as "self-control, forsaking, attentiveness").

Richard Salomon gives a similar but slightly different translation:[2]

"This Garuda-pillar of Vãsudeva, the god of gods, was constructed here by Heliodora, the Bhãgavata, son of Diya, of Takhkhasilã, the Greek ambassador who came from the Great King Amtalikita to King Kãsîputra Bhãgabhadra, the Savior, prospering in (his) fourteenth regnal year. (These?) three steps to immortality, when correctly followed, lead to heaven: control, generosity, and attention.[12]

King Bhagabhadra, who is said to have welcomed ambassador Heliodorus, may have been the 5th ruler of the Sunga dynasty, as described in some Puranic lists.[10]

Heliodorus pillar inscriptions
(original Brahmi script)
(Prakrit in the Brahmi script)[2]

This Garuda-standard of Vāsudeva, the God of Gods
was erected here by the devotee Heliodoros,
the son of Dion, a man of Taxila,
sent by the Great Yona King Antialkidas, as ambassador
to King Kasiputra Bhagabhadra,
the Savior son of the princess from Varanasi,
in the fourteenth year of his reign.


Three immortal precepts (footsteps)... when practiced
lead to heaven: self-restraint, charity, consciousness

𑀤𑁂𑀯𑀤𑁂𑀯𑀲 𑀯𑀸(𑀲𑀼𑀤𑁂)𑀯𑀲 𑀕𑀭𑀼𑀟𑀥𑁆𑀯𑀚𑁄 𑀅𑀬𑀁
Devadevasa Vā[sude]vasa Garuḍadhvaje ayaṃ
𑀓𑀭𑀺𑀢𑁄 𑀇(𑀅) 𑀳𑁂𑀮𑀺𑀉𑁄𑀤𑁄𑀭𑁂𑀡 𑀪𑀸𑀕
karito i[a] Heliodoreṇa bhāga-
𑀯𑀢𑁂𑀦 𑀤𑀺𑀬𑀲 𑀧𑀼𑀢𑁆𑀭𑁂𑀡 𑀢𑀔𑁆𑀔𑀲𑀺𑀮𑀸𑀓𑁂𑀦
vatena Diyasa putreṇa Takhkhasilākena
𑀬𑁄𑀦𑀤𑀢𑁂𑀦 𑀅𑀕𑀢𑁂𑀦 𑀫𑀳𑀸𑀭𑀸𑀚𑀲
Yonadatena agatena mahārājasa
𑀅𑀁𑀢𑀮𑀺𑀓𑀺𑀢𑀲 𑀉𑀧𑀁𑀢𑀸 𑀲𑀁𑀓𑀸𑀲𑀁𑀭𑀜𑁄
Aṃtalikitasa upa[ṃ]tā samkāsam-raño
𑀓𑀸𑀲𑀻𑀧𑀼𑀢𑁆𑀭𑀲 𑀪𑀸𑀕𑀪𑀤𑁆𑀭𑀲 𑀢𑁆𑀭𑀸𑀢𑀸𑀭𑀲
Kāsīput[r]asa [Bh]āgabhadrasa trātārasa
𑀯𑀲𑁂𑀦 (𑀘𑀢𑀼)𑀤𑀲𑁂𑀁𑀦 𑀭𑀸𑀚𑁂𑀦 𑀯𑀥𑀫𑀸𑀦𑀲
vasena [chatu]daseṃna rājena vadhamānasa


𑀢𑁆𑀭𑀺𑀦𑀺 𑀅𑀫𑀼𑀢𑁋𑀧𑀸𑀤𑀸𑀦𑀺 (𑀇𑀫𑁂) (𑀲𑀼)𑀅𑀦𑀼𑀣𑀺𑀢𑀸𑀦𑀺
Trini amuta𑁋pādāni (i me) (su)anuthitāni
𑀦𑁂𑀬𑀁𑀢𑀺 𑀲𑁆𑀯(𑀕𑀁) 𑀤𑀫 𑀘𑀸𑀕 𑀅𑀧𑁆𑀭𑀫𑀸𑀤
neyamti sva(gam) dama cāga apramāda

— Adapted from transliterations by E. J. Rapson,[14] Sukthankar,[8] Richard Salomon,[10] and Shane Wallace.[2]
Heliodorus pillar rubbing (inverted colors). The text is in the Brahmi script of the Sunga period.[10] For a recent photograph.

Archaeological characteristics and significance[edit]

The Heliodorus pillar inscription, made by Heliodorus circa 110 BCE.

The design of the base of the capital with bell-shaped lotus, the cable necking, and the abacus with pecking-geese and honey-suckle designs are in direct prolongation of the artistic choices made in the pillars of Ashoka, with some variations such as the prismatic structure of the pillar or the details of the carving, generally less fine than those of the pillars of Ashoka.[15] It is also about half smaller in diameters than the pillars of Ashoka.[15]

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.[15] 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.[15]

A remaining fragment of the Garuda capital is located at the Gujari Mahal Museum in Gwalior.[16]

Professor Kunja Govinda Goswami of Calcutta University concludes that Heliodorus "was well acquainted with the texts dealing with the Bhagavata religion."[17]

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[18] 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."[19]

Alternate interpretation[edit]

Structure and decorative elements of the Heliodorus pillar. The pillar originally supported a statue of Garuda, now lost, or possibly located in the Gujari Mahal Museum in Gwalior.[16]. Established circa 100 BCE.

According to Allan Dahlaquist, an alternate interpretation of the inscription is possible. Buddha too was called a Bhagavan, and Heliodorus originated from Taxila where Buddhism was strong.[20] 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.[20] Lastly, according to Dahlaquist, there is no definite evidence that Vasudeva should necessarily refer to Vishnu-Krishna.[20] As god-of-the-god, Vasudeva can well be associated with Indra, who had a key role in Buddhism stated Dahlaquist.[20]

Later scholars have questioned Dahlaquist's analysis and assumptions.[21] 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.[22] 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 MathuraSourasenoi as ShurasenasHerakles of India is Hari-Krishna, Kleisobora is Krishnapura.[23][24] 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.[23] 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.[23][26]

Related evidence[edit]

In the 1910s, the Besnagar site was extensively excavated by archaeologists Lake and Bhandarkar for studies along with the nearby Udayagiri Caves and Vidisha sites. This effort yielded a number of additional inscriptions such as one found in Vidisha that mention Bhagavata. 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.[27]

Temple ruins[edit]

Remains of a huge temple dated to the 2nd century BC and measuring an area of 30 x 30 m with 2.40 m thick walls was unearthed in the area of the Heliodorus pillar by the Archaeological Survey of India during the excavation year of 1963-64.[29] Excavation revealed an even earlier 4th-3rd century BC elliptical temple which had been destroyed by flood in 200 BC before the erection of the pillar.[30]



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Other examples[edit]

A pillar of broadly similar design, Sanchi Pillar 25, can be seen in the nearby Buddhist complex of Sanchi. It is also attributed to the Sungas, in the 2nd-1st century BCE.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The dating of Niddesa is a disputed topic. It ranges from the 4th century BCE to post Ashoka period, but no later than the 1st century BCE.[23][25]


  1. ^ Avari, Burjor (2016). India: The Ancient Past: A History of the Indian Subcontinent from C. 7000 BCE to CE 1200. Routledge. p. 167. ISBN 9781317236733.
  2. Jump up to:a b c d e f g Greek Culture in Afghanistan and India: Old Evidence and New Discoveries Shane Wallace, 2016, p.222-223
  3. ^ Osmund Bopearachchi, 2016, Emergence of Viṣṇu and Śiva Images in India: Numismatic and Sculptural Evidence
  4. ^ Burjor Avari (2016). India: The Ancient Past: A History of the Indian Subcontinent from C. 7000 BCE to CE 1200. Routledge. pp. 165–167. ISBN 978-1-317-23673-3.
  5. ^ Romila Thapar (2004). Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. University of California Press. pp. 216–217. ISBN 978-0-520-24225-8.
  6. ^ Julia Shaw (2016). Buddhist Landscapes in Central India: Sanchi Hill and Archaeologies of Religious and Social Change, c. Third Century BC to Fifth Century AD. Taylor & Francis. pp. xliv, cxliv. ISBN 978-1-315-43263-2.
  7. ^ Rawlinson, H. G. (Hugh George), 1880-1957 Bactria, the history of a forgotten Empire
  8. Jump up to:a b c Sukthankar, Vishnu Sitaram, V. S. Sukthankar Memorial Edition, Vol. II: Analecta, Bombay: Karnatak Publishing House 1945 p.266
  9. ^ Rapson, E. J. (1914). Ancient India. p. 157.
  10. Jump up to:a b c d e R. Salomon, Indian Epigraphy. A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the Other Indo-Aryan Languages (Oxford, 1998), 265–7
  11. ^ Archaeological Survey of India, Annual report 1908-1909 p.129
  12. ^ R. Salomon, Indian Epigraphy. A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the Other Indo-Aryan Languages (Oxford, 1998), 265–7.
  13. ^ Archaeological Survey of India, Annual report 1908-1909 p.129
  14. ^ Rapson, E. J. (1914). Ancient India. p. 157.
  15. Jump up to:a b c d Buddhist Landscapes in Central India, Julia Shaw, 2013 p.88ff
  16. Jump up to:a b Buddhist Landscapes in Central India, Julia Shaw, 2013 p.89
  17. ^ K. G. Goswami, A Study of Vaisnavism (Calcutta: Oriental Book Agency, 1956), p. 6
  18. ^ A. L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Taplinger Pub. Co., 1967), p. 60.
  19. ^ Steven J. Gelberg, ed.. Hare Krsna Hare Krsna (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1983), p. 117
  20. Jump up to:a b c d Allan Dahlaquist (1962), Megasthenes and Indian Religion: A Study in Motives and Types, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., p.167
  21. ^ Benjamín Preciado-Solís (1984). The Kṛṣṇa Cycle in the Purāṇas: Themes and Motifs in a Heroic Saga. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 29–30. ISBN 978-0-89581-226-1.
  22. ^ F. B. J. Kuiper (1969), A Review of Megasthenes and Indian Religion, A Study in Motives and Types by Allan Dahlquist, Indo-Iranian Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1968-69), pp. 142-146, Brill Academic, pages 142-146
  23. Jump up to:a b c d Edwin F. Bryant (2007). Krishna: A Sourcebook. Oxford University Press. pp. 5–6. ISBN 978-0-19-972431-4.
  24. ^ For views of most scholars versus Dahlaquist, see e.g. Zacharias P. Thundy (1993). Buddha and Christ: Nativity Stories and Indian Traditions. BRILL Academic. pp. 97 note 49. ISBN 90-04-09741-4.
  25. ^ Richard Salomon; Andrew Glass (2000). A Gāndhārī Version of the Rhinoceros Sūtra: British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragment 5B. University of Washington Press. pp. 14 with footnote 12. ISBN 978-0-295-98035-5.
  26. ^ Ashoka and his successors, Encyclopaedia Britannica
  27. ^ DR Bhandarkar (1915), Excavations at Besnagar, Annual Report 1913-1914, Archaeological Survey of India, Government of India Press, pages 186-225 with plates; the ASI Annual Report 1914-15 pages 66-81; the ASI Western Circle Report 1915, Excavations, pages 59-71 with plates
  28. ^ Gupta, The Roots of Indian Art, 1980, p.29
  29. ^ A., Gosh. Indian Archaeology: A Review 1963-64. Calcutta: Archaeological survey of India. p. 17.
  30. ^ Agrawala, Vasudeva S. (1977). Gupta Art Vol.ii.
  31. ^ Marhall, "A Guide to Sanchi" p.95 Pillar 25.

External links[edit]

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