Emperor Ashoka The Great, still a prince aged 18, was appointed as a viceroy by his father, Bindusaar, at Ujjain. He halted at Besnagar for some time on his way to Pataliputra to assume his position as the governor of Ujjain. Devi, a banker’s daughter of Vidisha of the Sakya clan, a queen of Ashoka was from Vidisha only. Mahavamsa mentions that before sailing for Ceylon Mahendra, son of Ashoka, came to visit his mother at Besnagar. The mother took her son to a ” Chaitya Giri ” which, by popular belief was none other than the Sanchi Stupa.
Vidisha was a floursihing town during the reign of the Guptas. Three Jaina images found at Vidisha are sculpted during the time of the Gupta king Ramagupta. These images are the earliest art specimen of the Guptas which have come down to us. The town would also have witnessed the march of the victorious Chandragupta II when he was on his mission to tackle the Sakas.
Cunningham visited Besnagar in 1875 and 1877 and reported its antiquities. He found ruins of various rails and other Buddhist artifacts which were adorning some stupa at some time probably. These Buddhist remains suggest that the town was a flourishing city once. As Ashoka visited this town so there is no doubt that it held an important position at his time and it retained that importance after his time as well. Cunningham also found various coins, about 90, 6 out of which were old punch marked coins.
On the destruction of Besnagar, sometime after 7th century AD, a new town sprang up on the Eastern bank of the River. This new town was known as Bhailaswamin or Bhillaswamin, the name of the place was later corrupted to Bhilsa or Bhelsa. The name Bhelsa appears to have probably been obtained on account of the famous Suryamandir dedicated to God Sun.
Later this region remained under Mughals, Marathas and Peshwas and thereafter became a part of the Sciendia’s Gwalior State and was a tehsil of Isagarh pargana. In 1904 Vidisha was raised to a district having two tehsils of Vidisha and Basoda till the formation of Madhya Bharat in 1948. The district was enlarged in 1949 by the merger of small states of Kurwai. At the same time, the town and the district were renamed as Vidisha.
Monuments: I was not able to visit the monuments which are located within the limits of the main town due to shortage of time. However there are important monuments situated very near to the main town which I visited and documenting here.
1. Udaigiri Caves – Located about six km from Vidisha town, Udaigiri caves are the rock-cut caves on a sandstone hill. This sandstone ridge is about 2 km in length and oriented in north-west to south-east direction. The highest point is about 350 feet high at its north-west end. A passage is cut in its middle where it is very much depressed.
The name of the site in ancient times is not directly attested. Udayagiri, literally the ‘mountain of the sunrise’, first appears in inscriptions of the eleventh century and it is now the name attached to a small village at the foot of the hill.
The caves of Udaigiri are an exquisite illustration of the local art form. J C Harle mentions that although these caves are of little importance architecturally but it is here that the elaborated caved doorways in the Gupta style first appear. It is here that we see, for the first time, the celebrated Gupta scroll-and-leaf decoration. All the caves are Hindu except a single Jaina cave on the half-way up the north-east end of this hill.
Some historians have suggested that the Iron Pillar at Delhioriginally stood at Udaigiri as an inscription in one of the Udaigiri caves states that the devotee who repaired the shrine ‘bows forever to the feet of Vishnu. The inscription on that pillar mentions that it was standing at Vishnupadagiri, the ‘hill of Vishnu’s foot-prints’. However this identification is not widely accepted as Vishnupadagiri is identified with Gurdaspur region in Punjab.
Cave 1 – This is probably the only surviving shrine of this unique style in which it is constructed. It is termed as false cave temple by Alexander Cunningham because it is formed utilizing a natural rock ledge as the roof, supported over the walls on two sides, hence making the cell for a sanctum. The sanctum thus formed is a 7 feet by 6 femt rectangle. A 7 feet square mandapa, supported on four pillars and two pilasters, is constructed in front of this sanctum. There is no platform built to support the pillars as these are resting directly over the rock. Roof of the mandapa is supported on architraves which are resting over these pillars and pilasters.
The doorframe has three bands where the last band is topped with a figure of Ganga and Yamuna as evident by the sockets provided for these. However these figures are no more there. At the back wall of the cave, a statue was carved out however only outline of this statue has survived as it was chiseled off sometime back. This cave is not accessible at present, as told by the complex keepers however I am not very sure about this.
Cave 2 – It is just a small cavity, not much deep, containing a Ganesha image. The image can be identified by the remaining signs of a trunk and pot belly, as nothing much is remained of this image as though.
|Cave No 3|
Cave 3 (Cave 2 in Cunningham’s report) –The cave is about 8 feet long and 6 feet broad. There is no mandapa now however two pilasters are seen in front wall of the cave which suggests that there might have been a mandapa in front of this cave. The door of the cave is carved in a ‘T’ fashion which is usually seen in wooden doors. In this ‘T’ style, a part of lintel is left hanging on either side beyond the door jambs. This feature, which is inappropriate or unconventional for rock architecture, probably suggests that wood was in use prior to the usage of stone or rock.
The door has three bands but none is decorated. A horizontal cutting over the door is probably to support the roof of the mandapa. There is a statue of Kartikeya carved on the back wall of the cell. He is carved in very bold relief. He carries a spear and probably a cock in his hands.
|Cave No 4|
Cave 4 (Cave 3 of Cunningham’s report) – It is named as Veena cave by Cunningham because of the presence of a statue of a man, on the doorway lintel, playing Veena, an Indian musical instrument. The cell is about 14 feet long and 12 feet broad. There is a water channel in the plinth and in the floor of the chamber leading to a hole that pierces in the cave wall.
An ornamental doorway, 6 feet high and 3 feet wide, is carved at the entrance. There are four bands on each side of door which are ornamented with floral designs. There are three lintels over the door which are separated by a significant depression which runs across the jambs. On the second lintel are five cusped bosses with small circular panels each having a figure inside. Not much can be drawn from these bosses now but at the time of Cunningham it was in better state of preservation. He tells that the boss on left has a male figure playing veena, and that of the extreme right has a male figure playing sarangi. The middle boss has figure of lion, while two bosses, on either side of that, have a figure of crocodile. There are two dvarpalas flanked on either side of the doorway, however the images are quire worn. Two pilasters are seen beyond the dvarpalas which are square at bottom, change to octagon above and then into sixteen sided shaft. There were figures of Ganga and Yamuna at the time of Cunningham, however these figures are missing now.
There would have been a mandapa in front of this cave as remains of pillars in front are still visible. Cunningham mentions that there would have been two large pillars on front corresponding to the two pilasters on the rock face and two small pillars on sides. On the left of the cave is another open cave, 11 feet long and 7 feet broad, at the right angle to Veena cave. There are eight figures of goddesses caved, six sitting in front and two on either side. Cunningham identifies these with ashta-shakti, eight female energies.
|Mukhalinga inside cave 4|
An exquisite mukha-linga is carved out of mother rock inside this sanctum. The lings rests over a platform which is also hewn out of rock. This single faced Shivalinga is one of the rare artifact of Indian art. A face is carved on the lingam, with graceful and charming countenance. His hair are bound in a tuft by a ring, while his tresses are flowing down on either side of his face. The arrangement of the hair recalls the story of how Śiva broke the fall of the River Gaṅgā as the waters came down from heaven. There is third eye in middle of his temple. He wears a necklace in his neck and earrings in his ears.
|Cave No 5 – Varaha Panel|
Cave 5 (Cave 4 of Cunningham’s report) – This is the second largest cave at the site and measures 22 feet in length, 13 feet in height and 3.5 feet deep. The whole of the back wall is covered with a colossal figure, about 13 feet high, of Vishnu as Varaha, the boar incarnation. His left foot is resting above the coil of a snake who is seeking forgiveness from Varaha joining both is hands. Goddess Bhu-devi is resting on his left shoulder clinging to his tusk with her one hand. His nuzzle is caressing the face of the goddess who is petrified with the course of events.
There are many figures carved on either side of Varaha. Brahma and Shiva riding over Nandi is seen on topmost line on left side of Varaha. They are accompanied with many gods who are represented with halos behind their heads. Below this row are probably asuras, demons, as there is no halo behind any image of that row. Below this row are the two rows for various sages. Figures on right of Varaha are of various musicians and apsaras.
On proper right lateral side, Ganga and Yamuna are shown descending from heaven to earth and mingling with ocean. This ambitious water imagery is attempted by carving incised wavy lines representing water. Among this ocean is standing a solitary male figure, probably Varuna the god of ocean, holding a vessel in his hands. Both the rivers are represented in their female forms, Ganga riding over makara and Yamuna over a tortoise.
J C Harle mentions that a unique attempt has been made, in this panel, to extend and amplify the scene and give literal expression to more of accompanying myth and symbolism. There is one figure which remains unexplained due to the badly mutilated image. It is shown behind the serpent and probably represent the donor, Chandragupta II. But it may be far fetched theory. Few scholars even suggest that this scene represents the victory of Chandragupta II over his enemies, the Sakas, and unifying the central region of India under one ruler. Central India region is represented with its two great rivers, Ganga and Yamuna, which mingled into a single ocean which may be the representation of Chandragupta’s kingdom if not himself.
|Cave No 6|
1. Above the Vishnu and Mahishasura-mardini panel – Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum Vol III – written in Sanskrit language in western variety of the Gupta characters – dated in year 82 which may be taken in Gupta Era corresponding to 400-01 CE – Luck! In the year 82 is made this religious benefaction of the Sanakanika, the Maharaja ….dhala (?), the son’s son of the Maharaja Chhagalaga; and the son of the Maharaja Vishnudasa, who meditates on the feet of Parambhattaraka Maharajadhiraja, the glorious Chandragupta (II).
|Cave No 7|
Cave 7 – This cave is named as Tawa cave by Cunningham as there is a dome like roof above this cave. Cunningham suggests that it could be because of its Buddhist nature however it is not the case. The cell is 14 feet long and 12 feet wide. The door is simple and devoid of any band ornamentation. The lintel is protruding beyond the jambs hence does not come under ‘T’ door category.
There are two dvarapalas which are standing in the similar posture as that of cave 6. The roof of the cave is decorated with a lotus design which is not seen in previous caves, however present in few other caves which we will see later in the article.
Inscriptions – There is an inscription on the back wall of this cave.
1. On the back wall – published in Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum Vol III – written in Sanskrit in eastern variety of the Gupta characters – undated – records excavation of this cave which is dedicated to Shambhu (Shiva) by Virasena, surnamed Saba, who was a minister of Chandragupta (II) and got this position in heredity. He was accompanying the emperor on his mission to conquer the whole world.
|Cave No 8|
Cave 8 – This cave has an undecorated gateway without guardian figures. A figure of Vishnu is placed inside the sanctum.
Cave 10 – Two fully modeled guardian figures are flanked on either side of the gateway of this cave. Again we see an image of Vishnu inside the sanctum.
|Cave No 10|
Cave 10, 11 – Cave 10 is just a cavity. On the same rock face is cave 11 with a sanctum and door.
|Cave No 12|
Cave 12 – consists of a niche containing a standing figure of Narasimha, Vishnu in his ‘Lion-man’ incarnation. Below on either side are two small standing attendant figures. The images cut through a shell character about two meters in height. In the floor below Narasimha there is a short Brahmī inscription.
|Vishnu as Sheshashai|
Cave 13 – Vishnu as Anantasayana, lying over serpent Adisesa. Chandragupta, probably, shown sitting near the feet of the lord. Vishnu shown here with four hands, one hand is supporting his head and another he carries a chakra. The remaining two hands are resting on thighs. Adisesa is shown leftmost side with his hood.
|Cave No 14|
Cave 14 – The last cave on the left hand side at the top of the passage. It consists of a recessed square chamber of which only two sides are preserved. The outline of the chamber is visible in the floor, with a water channel pierced through the wall on one side as in the other caves at the site. One side of the door jamb is preserved, showing jambs with receding faces but without any relief carving.
Cave 15,16 – No idea where these are.
|Cave No 17|
Cave 17 (Cave 8 of Cunningham’s report) – This cave is referred as Kotri in Cunningham’s report. A significant portion of the cave was damaged as evident with the stone reinforcements done at its proper right side. Due to this damage, left portion of the door is all gone. From the right side of the door, it can be inferred that the lintel does not protrude beyond the jambs. Also there would have been images of Ganga and Yamuna on top of the pilasters as image of Ganga is still there on the right portion of the door.
Two dvarpalas, almost worn out, are flanked on either side of the door. Two niches are also provided on each side of the entrance. Ganesha is carved on left side niche while Durga as Mahishasuramardini is present on right niche.
|Cave No 18|
Cave 18 – This is an empty cave with an undecorated doorway.
|Cave No 19|
Cave 19 (Cave 9 of Cunningham’s report) – This cave has been referred as Amrita cave in Cunningham’s report due to presence of sea-churning activity depiction over the lintel. This cave has the most exquisite doorway among all the cave at the site. It has two bands. The inner band has foliage design all across it. The outer band has female figures at the bottom and above this it is divided into seven small panels. Panel 1, 3, 5 and 7 are carved with foliage design while rest of the columns have human figures, mostly couples. Lintel corresponding to this band has 13 such panels with alternate flower and couple decoration. The middle panel is left blank, probably to carve out the symbol of the main deity to whom this cave shrine is dedicated.
Pilasters, may be considered as third band as well, on either side starts with a male figure standing on a plank supported by a dwarf. Above them is the shaft of the pilaster which is topped with image of Ganga on both sides. Ganga is shown riding over makara. Above the lintel is a scene depicting samudra-manthan, ocean churning, a tussle between the gods and demons. An unfinished carving of nava-grha, nine planets, is seen above the samudra-manthan scene.
Two damaged statues of the dvarapalas are adorned on either side of the entrance.Though the mandapa has not survived but pillars are still standing in situ at the site. These pillars help us to understand how the mandapas in other caves would have been designed. These are square at the base but change to octagonal in middle and then again turning back to square shaft.
Cave 20 (Jaina Cave) – This cave is inaccessible at present hence I am giving its account as mentioned by Cunningham. The main excavation which runs from east to west, is 50 feet in length by 16 feet in breadth, and is divided into five rooms by cross-walls built of rough stones. The two innermost rooms are respectively 17.5 feet by 7 feet and 16.5 feet by 8 feet. The other three rooms are 15 feet and 11 feet. From the southernmost room a second excavation, consisting of three small rooms, runs from north to south. There is an inscription in one of the northern rooms.
1. Rock inscription of the time of Kumaragupta I – Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum (Fleet’s edition) Vol III – Written in 8 lines in Sanskrit in Gupta characters – dated in year 106 of the Gupta Era (426-27 CE) – The inscriptions mentions a soldier named Sanghila, who was a son of Ashvapati and Padmavati, who was born in the northern country of the Kurus, and who installed an image of Parshvanatha in this cave. He was also known as Ripughna and Sankara. The inscription does not mention any particular Gupta king but mentions reign of theirs. The ruling king would be Kumaragupta I as the date falls under his period.
Heliodorus Pillar – Heliodorus was a Greek ambassador to India in the second century B.C. Few details are known about the diplomatic relations between the Greeks and the Indians in those days, and still less is known about Heliodorus. But that the column he erected at Besnagar in central India about 140 BC is considered one of the most important archaeological finds on the Indian subcontinent. It is known that Heliodorus was sent to the court of King Bhagabhadra by Antiakalidas, the Greek king of Taxila. The kingdom of Taxila was part of the Bactrian region in northwest India, conquered by Alexander the Great in 325 B.C. By the time of Antialkidas, the area under Greek rule included what is today Afghanistan, Pakistan and Punjab. The column erected by Heliodorus first came to notice in 1877, during an archaeological survey by General Cunningham. The inscription, however, went unnoticed, because of the pillar’s thick coating of red lead paste. It had been the custom of pilgrims who had worshipped there to smear the column with vermillion paste. The column, Cunningham deduced from its shape, was from the period of the Imperial Guptas (A.D. 300-550). Thirty-two years later, however, when the inscription was brought to light, it became clear that the monument was several centuries older.
(excerpts from http://www.archaeologyonline.net/)
In January 1901, a Mr Lake discerned what he thought was some lettering on the lower part of the column, and removal of some vermillion paste proved him right. Dr. J.H. Marshall, who was accompanied by Mr Lake, described the discovery in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1909. Cunningham, Marshall explained, had been mistaken about the age of the column and “could little have dreamt of the value of the record which he just missed discovering.” A glance at the few letters exposed was all that was needed to show that the column was many centuries earlier than the Gupta era. This was, indeed, a surprise to me, but a far greater one was in store, when the opening lines of the inscription came to be read.”
A reproduction of the inscription, along with the transliteration and translation of the ancient Brahmi text, is given here as it appeared in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.
1) Devadevasu Va[sude]vasa Garudadhvajo ayam
2) Karito ia Heliodorena bhaga
3) Vatena Diyasa putrena Takhasilakena
4) Yonadatena agatena maharajasa
5) Amtalikitasa upa[m]ta samkasam-rano
6) Kasiput[r]asa [Bh]agabhadrasa tratarasa
7) Vasena [chatu]dasena rajena vadhamanasa
” This Garuda-column of Vasudeva (Visnu), the god of gods, was erected here by Heliodorus, a worshipper of Vishnu, the son of Dion, and an inhabitant of Taxila, who came as Greek ambassador from the Great King Antialkidas to King Kasiputra Bhagabhadra, the Savior, then reigning prosperously in the fourteenth year of his kingship.”
1) Trini amutapadani-[su] anuthitani
2) nayamti svaga damo chago apramado
“Three immortal precepts (footsteps)..when practiced lead to heaven-self restraint, charity, conscientiousness.”
From the inscriptions it is seems clear Heliodorus was influenced by Vedic principles that he could be considered to be a Vaishnava, a follower or worshipper of Visnu. Professor Kunja Govinda Goswami of Calcutta University concludes that Heliodorus ” was well acquainted with the texts dealing with the Bhagavat [Vaishnava] relgion.”
To our knowledge, Heliodorus is the earliest Westerner on record to adopt Vedic principles. But some scholars, most notably A.L. Basham and Thomas Hopkins, are of the opinion that Heliodorus was not the only Greek to adopt such principles. Hopkins, chairman of the department of religious studies at Franklin and Marshall College, has said ” Heliodorus was presumably not the only foreigner who converted to Vaishnava devotional practices — although he might have been the only one who erected a column, at least one that is still extant. Certainly there must have been many others.”
It is also interesting to note that the Heliodorus column has other historical merits. Around the turn of the century, a number of Indologists (Weber, Macnicol, and others) had noted ” points of similarity’ between the Vaishnava philosophy of unalloyed devotion and Christian doctrine. They had argued that Vaishnavism (worship of Vishnu and Krishna) must have been an offshoot of Christianity, and cited the similarity between stories about Krishna and about Christ to further support their claim. But the discovery of the inscription on the Heliodorus column laid their speculations to rest. Here was conclusive archaeological proof that the Vaishnava tradition antedated Christianity by at least two hundred years.
The column also struck down another popular notion. For centuries it was a common belief among scholars that India’s orthodox tradition did not accept converts. An Islamic historian, Abu Raihan Alberuni, who went to India in A.D. 1017, tried to explain in his book Indica why the Indian orthodoxy did not admit foreigners. Alberuni suggested that the practice developed only after the Moghul incursion into India, sometime after A.D. 674. Antagonism between the Moghul and Hindus seems to be the main reason behind the non conversion practice. For many centuries prior to Moghul presence, however, there had been no bar to conversion into the orthodox fold, as attested by the Heliodorus column.
Food and Accommodation – Vidisha is a relatively big town and you will get good options to stay in everyone’s budget. However better option would be to stay in Sanchi and visit Vidisha as a day trip. Vidisha has many eatery options, however as I did not try much there so can’t help you on this.
- Agrawala, V S (1977). Gupta Art. Prithivi Prakashan. New Delhi.
- Bhandarkar, D R (1981). Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum Vol III. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi.
- Brown, Percy (1959). Indian Architecture (Buddhist and Hindu Periods). D B Taraporevala. Mumbai.
- Cunningham, Alexander (1880). Report of Tours in the Bundelkhand and Malwa in 1874-75-76-77 (Vol X). Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi.
- Harle, J C (1974). Gupta Sculpture. Munshiram Manoharlal. New Delhi. ISBN 8121506417
- Mishra, S N (1992). Gupta Art and Architecture. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi.