Saru-Maru Caves – Ashoka’s Sojourn


The Saru-Maru Buddhist complex is located near the village of Pan Guradia in the Sehore district of Madhya Pradesh. The caves of Saru-Maru and its associated stupas were discovered in 1975-76 in exploration by K D Banerjee, belonging to the Prehistory Branch of the Archaeological Survey of India, and his team. The investigation revealed as many as forty-five rock shelters distributed between Shahganj and Pan Guradia, an area of about 40 km long located north of Narmada.1 Generally, these shelters face northeast along the escarpment and fall under four groups named after the nearest villages, Joshipur, Maukala and Talapura, Uncha kheda, and Bayan and Pan Guradia groups. Among these, the Bayan and Pan Guradia group is the most important since besides rock shelters, it has brought to light numerous stupas and two Ashoka inscriptions.

Stupa No 1 & 2
Stupa No 1 in the Saru-Maru Complex
Stupa No 2

As evidenced by two huge mounds within a distance of 10 km, a flourishing town might have existed on the bank of the Narmada River in the south of Bayan and Saru-Maru caves. The mound opposite Bayan is suggested to be the ancient city of Nemavati Nagari while the mound opposite to Saru-Maru is known as Savatpur. Antiquarian remains found on the surface and from the exposed sections indicate an almost continuous occupation from the Mauryan times to the Muslim period. Stupa No 1, in the above pics, was found in the exploration of 1976-77 by K D Banerjee and his team after clearing debris. A stave and chhatra (parasol) were also found lying above the stupa, it appears that these were removed by the robbers to reach the casket. The stave is octagonal in shape and bears an inscription mentioning a gift from a nun. The chhatra is in the shape of a lotus.2 Taking cues from the inscription, that the chhatra was donated by a bhikshuni (nun), Skilling suggests it is logical to conclude there were nunneries in the Malwa, such as at Sanchi, Ujjain, and probably Pan Guradia, however, none had been identified or discovered.3

Inscription – The inscription on the chhatra is written in Brahmi characters and in the Prakrit language. It mentions that the chhatra is the gift of Bhikshuni Sagharakhita (Sangharakshita) and it was caused to be made by Pusa, Dharmarakhita, and Araha, the amtevasinis of Koramika.4

Rock shelters
Hunting scene

Paintings in red ochre

Twenty rock shelters are found in the Pan Guradia, located on the escarpment and southwestern slope of the range. Most of these shelters have paintings falling into three categories, Buddhist symbols such as swastika, triratna, etc., hunting scenes, and horse-riders. These paintings are executed in red ochre, yellow, and white colors.

Stupas further up from the rock shelters

At various levels, along the slope of the hill, are a number of platforms containing a stupa built of dressed stones. Remains of about a dozen such stupas are identified, their diameters ranging between 2 to 16 meters. Twenty-one stupas are found further on the slope, above the shelter. In the front of the site is a maha-stupa, about 76 m in diameter, with an ambulatory path.  The most important among these is the monastic complex locally known as Saru-Maru-ki-kothadi.

Inscription of Ashoka

Two inscriptions belonging to the set of inscriptions engraved by the Mauryan king Ashoka have been discovered in the complex, over the back wall of a rock shelter, locally known as saru-Maru-ki-kothadi. Sircar, who edited these inscriptions, categorize these as the fifteenth version of the Minor Rock Edicts of Ashoka.5 He tells the inscription is damaged and fragmentary and it appears that the surface of the rock was found unsuitable for engraving the record in continuous lines therefore it is engraved in multiple lines in three different sections over the rear wall. Sircar translates the inscriptions as below:

  1. The king named Priyadarsin [speaks] to Kumara Samva from [his] march [of pilgrimage] to the U(or O)punitha-vihara in Manema-desa.
  2. [This] declaration [was missed by me when I was] on a tour [of pilgrimage and had stayed away from the capital for] 256 [nights, i.e. days].
  3. The beloved of the Gods issued the order [thus].
  4. [It is two and half] years since I have been a lay worshipper [of the Buddha].
  5. [However,] I was not zealously active [in the matter of Dharma at the beginning].
  6. [It is now more than a year that] the Buddhist Church has been intimately associated with me, and I am zealously active [in the matter of Dharma].
  7. Upto this time, the gods were not mingled with men in Jambu-dvipa.
  8. [Now they have been mingled with men.]
  9. [This is] the result [of my zealous activity.]
  10. This has not been caused by me being a big (i.e. rich) man.
  11. The small (i.e. poor) man, if zealously active [in the matter of Dharma], [may attain to the great heaven].
  12. For [this] purpose has this declaration [been made] that the small (poor) and the big (rich) should be zealously active [in the cause of Dharma].
  13. [The people living on the borders of my empire should also know] that they should also be zealously active [in the same cause]. T
  14. his matter will increase – will greatly increase – will [indeed] increase [to one and half times] and will become ever-lasting.
  15. Wherever there are rocks and wherever there are pillars of stones, [everywhere this matter] should be written (i.e. engraved).

Meena Talim differs from Sircar in the first few lines, she translates the first line as “King names Piyasassi, was living with prince. He the young man, was sent to Majjhima country, sojourning the pilgrimage.”6 While Sircar takes the country name as Manema-desa, Talim advocates it should be taken as Majjhima-desa as nowhere in any Buddhist text do we find mention of Manema-desa. Though, both Manema-desa and Majjhima-desa, are meant to represent the middle country region, the present Madhya Pradesh, and its adjoining areas. Chapter 13 of the Mahavamsa mentions Prince Ashoka ruled over the Avanti region bestowed by his father, and he visited Vidisha while on his way to Ujjain. This statement from Mahavamsha is sometimes corroborated by the first line of this inscription. Peter Skilling says the Pan Guradia inscription confirms Ashoka’s presence in the Malwa region when he was a prince.7

1 Indian Archaeology 1975-76 – A Review. pp. 28-30
2 Indian Archaeology 1976-77 – A Review. p. 32
3 Skilling, Peter (2011). Stūpas, Aśoka and Buddhist Nuns: Early Buddhism in Ujjain and Malwa published in the Bulletin of the Asia Institute, New Series, Vol. 25. p. 168
4 Indian Archaeology 1976-77 – A Review. p. 60
5 Epigraphia Indica vol. XXXIX. p. 2
6 Talim, Meena (2010). Edicts of King Asoka – A New Vision. Aryan Books International. New Delhi. ISBN 9788173053856. pp. 198-199
7 Skilling, Peter (2011). Stūpas, Aśoka and Buddhist Nuns: Early Buddhism in Ujjain and Malwa published in the Bulletin of the Asia Institute, New Series, Vol. 25. p. 167

Acknowledgment: Some of the photos above are in CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain from the collection released by the Tapesh Yadav Foundation for Indian Heritage.