The modern town of Vidisha is situated in the southeast of River Betwa, the latter forming its western boundary. During the medieval period, the town was known as Bhilsa (or Bhelsa), the name mentioned in a Paramara period inscription.1 In 1956, it was renamed Vidisha. Bhilsa was settled sometime sometime during the 8th-9th century CE. The population migrated from an old town, known as Besnagar, situated at the confluence of Halali (Bes) and Betwa, a few kilometers northwest of Bhilsa. Besnagar was surrounded on three sides by rivers, Bes and Betwa, and its western side was protected by an earthen rampart, constructed with a moat, running more than three kilometers in length. The name Besnagar could be traced from the river Bes or from Vessanagara, the latter is mentioned in the Pali literature. The Pali Buddhist chronicles tell Devi, the queen of Ashoka Maurya, hailed from Vessanagara. Vidisha, the old name of the river Bes, lent names such as Vidisha, Vedisa, Vedisanagara, Vaidisa, etc. to the town. The town is mentioned in various ancient and medieval Sanskrit literature. The earliest reference is found in Ramayana’s Uttara-Kanda. When a messenger sent by Rama to Shatrughna informed the latter of the commands of his elder brother, Shatrughna immediately left for Ayodhya leaving his kingdom to his two sons, establishing Subahu in Madhura and Shatrughatin in Vaidisha.2 Mahabharata mentions Dasharn (दशार्ण) region at different places, chapter LKIX of Vana-Parva, chapter CXCII of Udhyog-Parva, chapter IX of Bheeshma-Parva, however, it does not mention Vidisha. Though, it is generally accepted that Vidisha was the capital of this region during ancient times. Kalidasa in his Meghaduta describes Vidisha as the capital town of the Dasharn (दशार्ण) region. He writes, “Hey cloud-messenger! when you reach the region of Dasharn, you will find gardens laden with Kewra (serpent wine) flowers, temples in villages, trees full of bird nests, forests rich with black Jamun (Syzygium cumini), and swans who visit the city in seasons.”3 In his Raghuvamsha, Kalidasa mentions Subahu, a son of Shatrughna, was put in charge of Vidisha.4 In his Malvikagnimitram, Kalidasa mentions Vidisha in the context of the town where Agnimitra, the son of Pushpamitra, was stationed when the latter did a rajasuya-yajna.5 Markandeya Purana while describing the exploits of Prince Aviksita says that the prince forcefully carried away Princess Vaisalini, daughter of Visala, the king of Vaidisha, from her svyamvara and that resulted in other kings marrying against him.6 The antiquity of Besnagar goes back to 1100 BCE as per the habitation sequencing carried out by M D Khare during excavations in the 1960s. Vidisha was located on the crossroad of two ancient pathways, one connecting Pataliputra with Ujjain and another connecting Shravasti with Prathishthan. This made the town an important commercial center and various merchant communities were settled in the town. The town was part of the Maurya empire and it served as a seat of prince’s viceroyalty. Ashoka was posted as the governor of the region during his father’s reign. The stupa site at Sanchi, located about 10 km away, has its earliest foundations going back to the Maurya period. When the Shungas overthrew the Mauryas, the town became part of the Shunga empire. Various inscriptions belonging to the Shunga period discovered at Sanchi suggest the site was an active center during their period. It is generally believed that the early Shunga kings ruled from Pataliputra however during the later period the capital was moved to Vidisha. The Kanvas overthrew the Shungas and gained control of the region. Findings of Kanva coins in plenty around the Vidisha region support the view that Vidisha was an important town during the Kanva rule. With the fall of the Kanvas, Magadha lost the sheen of a royal capital and soon disintegrated. Kushans gained control of northwestern regions and Vidisha became their eastern frontier. Inscriptions of Kushan king Vasishka (247-267 CE) at Sanchi suggest the Kushan influence in the region. After the Kushans, the region was ruled by various regional dynasties, the four Naga chiefs ruling at Pawaya (old Padmavati), Kutwar (old Kantipuri), Mathura, and Vidisha were famous among them. These Naga kingdoms were brought into the Gupta empire as proven by the Allahabad inscription of Samudragupta (319-350 CE) which mentions the suppression of various Naga kings.
Bakker says that Eastern Malwa with its capital at Vidisha has been the theatre in which aspirations to the Gupta throne were fostered and shattered and in which Vakataka’s presence made itself most expressly felt. The town of Vidisha became a frontier town by the end of Samudragupta’s reign. This may partly explain the great importance attached to control over it and the surrounding country throughout the rest of Gupta history. Ramagupta, the eldest son of Samudragupta and probably his heir-apparent, was posted as the governor of Vidisha. The posting of heir-apparent at a frontier town such as Vidisha allowed the reigning king to test the abilities of his wards in fending off threats from frontier towns and rebellions. The regions west of Vidisha were under the control of the Saka or Western Satraps who were a constant threat to the Gupta empire. Vidisha would have been at the center of the war between the Sakas and the Gupta successors of Samudragupta. It appears that after the death of Samudragupta, Ramagupta came into conflict with the Sakas. Ramagupta was defeated and granted life in exchange for his wife, Dhruvadevi. Chandragupta II, the younger brother of Ramagupta, unable to bear the shameful act of his brother, invaded the enemy camp in disguise of a lady and killed the Saka chief, possibly Rudrasimha III. Chandragupta II later killed Ramagupta and married Dhruvadevi. Though Ramagupta is not mentioned in the Gupta genealogy in their inscription, however, a few inscriptions found over three Jain images from Durjanapura near Vidisha proved that he probably reigned for a short period. He also struck a few copper coins during his rule.
Chandragupta II proved to be a very intelligent ruler as he soon realized the necessity of political alliances with the frontier chiefs and rulers. He first wedded Kuberanaga, a Naga princess, and forged a permanent alliance with the Naga chiefs, who were a power to reckon with. Later, he gave his daughter, Prabhavati Gupta, to the Vakataka prince Rudrasena II in about 388 CE. This gave him a strong position in the southern regions south of Narmada. Chandragupta II had two sons from Dhruvasvamini, Govindagupta and Kumaragupta. He appointed Govindagupta as the governor of Vidisha and probably also as his heir-apparent. A few scholars keep the view that both Govindagupta and Kumaragupta ruled concurrently for different regions and finally Kumaragupta gained overall control probably after the death of Govindagupta. However, a few, including Bakker, take the view that after the death of Chandragupta, a fight for the throne might have broken between Govindagupta and Kumaragupta, and the latter emerged victorious. Kumaragupta appointed Ghatotkachagupta, another son of Chandragupta II, as the governor of Vidisha. Kumaragupta had good relations with his sister Prabhavatigupta, and both ruled their specific kingdoms helping out each other. They also decided to forge a marriage between Ghatotkacha with his niece, the daughter of Prabhavatigupta, whose name might be Atibhavati. This further consolidated the alliance between the Gupta and Vakataka houses. After the death of Kumaragupta, Ghatotkacha would have run into conflicts with Skandagupta. Ghatotkacha was probably helped by Pravarasena II, the son of Prabhavati Gupta. However, they were not successful and Ghatotkacha lost his life. Pravaresena brought his sister Atibhavati back to his Vakataka kingdom. Contrary to the earlier Gupta rulers who felt pride in mentioning their mothers, Skandagupta did not mention his mother’s name in any epigraph. This has led a few scholars to suggest that he was not a legitimate son of Kumaragupta. Probably this was also the reason that Prabhavatigupta and her sons did not extend their courtesy to Skandagupta and Pravarasena II bringing back his sister from Vidisha ended the Gupta-Vakataka hegemony.7
After the Guptas, Malwa came under the Aulikaras. The most famous Aulikara king was Yashodharman (515-545 CE), credited for defeating the Hunas. From them, it would have become part of Harsha’s (590-647 CE) empire. However, by then Vidisha had been surpassed by Ujjain and other power centers such as Thanesar. The fall of Harsha brought in various parties over the scene who were constantly at war. The Gurjara-Pratiharas, Parmaras, Rashtrakutas, and the Chalukyas. Finally, it was the Paramaras who provided the much-needed stability in the region around the mid-tenth century CE and onwards. They set up their capital at Dhar. Bhoja (1010-1055 CE) was the most famous Paramara king credited with various construction activities. Vidisha gained considerable importance during the Paramaras and various shrines and temples were constructed during their reign in the town. Western Chalukyas remained a Constance threat during the Paramara reign and kept control of the region from time to time. The region came under the Delhi Sultanate at the start of the fourteenth century CE.
Cunningham was the first modern archaeologist who explored the place in 1875 and 1877. During his second visit, he made a complete survey of the ruined city and explored the country for several miles around. The ancient city was surrounded by rivers on its three sides and the fourth side to the west was guarded by huge ramparts followed by a ditch. The city measures one and a half miles in length and one mile in width. A legend tells that the old city was founded by King Rukmangada. The king neglected his wife for an apsara named Vishwa Mohini, after whom the city was named Vishwa-nagara. A great festival of the Rukmangada-Ekadashi, that was in vogue during Cunningham’s visit, was said to be established after the apsara. The legend associated with the festival tells one day the chariot of lord Vishnu got stopped by a thorn bush. It was announced that the thorn could only be removed by one who had fasted on that Ekadashi day. An oilman’s wife was on fast that day and she successfully removed the thorn. Vishnu granted her a favor to follow the heavens by holding the wheel. Just then, the king was going that way and saw the lady handing by the wheel and ascending above. He held the feet of the lady and his all subjects followed the king, this way all of them reached the heavens. The city being deserted was turned upside down and since then remains in heaps of ruins. In his explorations, Cunningham found various Buddhist and Hindu antiquities. Among the Buddhist antiquities are stupa railings, pillars, coping stones, and pillar capitals. Among the Hindu antiquities are a few sculptures, pillar remains, and capitals.8
In 1908-09, J H Marshall discovered a most unique and important inscription in the whole repertoire of Indian epigraphy. It was engraved near the base of the Kham Baba pillar, now popularly known as the Heliodorus Pillar. The whole pillar was heavily smeared with vermillion and during his visit, Cunningham had hinted that there would have been an inscription on this pillar. However, as it was all hidden under the coats of vermillion, Cunningham was not successful in exposing the inscription. Marshall explains that it was H H Lake, the then State Engineer, who discerned what he believed to be lettering on the lower part of the pillar and the removal of a little paint quickly proved him to be right. When the whole painting was removed and the inscription was read, it came out as a big surprise as it mentions a pillar set up by a Greek convert. T Bloch was the first scholar to decipher the inscription and his translation was published along with the account of Marshall in the same journal.9 In the same journal, J F Fleet also published his decipherment of the inscription.10 In the same journal, L D Barnett published a translation of another inscription from Besnagar.11 He brings in a Buddhist connection by translating the last two verses. He translates the last two lines as, “It has been said that one should know that there are three things which, practiced at the proper time, are steps to immortality, viz. self-restraint, self-surrender, and diligence.”
The first excavation at the site was taken up in 1910 and was carried off by H H Lake, the then Gwalior State Engineer, on behalf of the Scindia king of the Gwalior State. The excavation lasted for about six weeks, in January & February 1910. His excavation of various mounds resulted in a few antiquities, however, his most important discovery was the inscription over the Kham Baba pillar. Lake successfully removed the coat and got a stamp, along with the drawing and photograph of the pillar. He describes the pillar as 17 feet 8 inches high above a platform, the latter is 12 feet square and 3 feet high. The first 4 feet and 10 inches of the column is octagonal ending with a sunflower design. The next length of 6 feet 2 inches is sixteen sides ending with a festoon encircling the column. The next 11.5 inches is thirty-two sides. The remaining 2 feet 2 inches is circular. Above it is a bell capital, 1 foot 6 inches deep and 1 foot 8 inches wide. The abacus is 1 foot 7 inches square and 1 foot 3 inches deep. On the abacus is a graceful design, 2 inches deep, of geese with beads. Another important discovery by Lake was of the eight large Matrika images.12
Arthur Venis provided some insights comparing previous translations as well as the confirmation from H H Lake that the pillar had been cleaned thoroughly and properly and no more inscriptions or additional lines were found engraved.13 Based upon the interpretations of Venis, Fleet revised his previous translation, and the revised reading goes, “This Garudadhvaja of Vasudeva, the god of gods, has been caused to be made by Heliodoros, a votary of Bhafvat, a son of Diya (Dion), a man of Takhasila, a Yona ambassador, who has come from the great king Antalkidas to king Kasiputra-Bhagabhadra, the savior, who is prospering in the fourteenth year of (his) reign.”14 Waddell attempted a reinterpretation of the pillar inscription in 1914. He asserts that the triad category of the three “paths”, or literally “steps” (pada), specified in the Brahmanical stanza are absolutely identical to the first three cardinal virtues specified by Buddha in his first sermon at Benares as preserved in the Mahapadhana Suttanta. He opines that Buddha took over bodily from the Brahmans their Visnuite “Three-fold path to immortality” (amtra-padani anusthitani) and made it the basis of his own Six-fold Path to Nirvana.15
D R Bhandarkar carried out another set of excavations at Besnagar in 1913-14. He selected the site, of three-acre area, adjacent to the Kham Baba pillar for excavation as the latter had earlier yielded rich antiquities. A legend, mentioned by the then priest, tells that two generations before him this place was occupied by his guru’s guru named Hirapuri. A certain personage of high distinction came with an army to this place and he was very charmed by the hospitality of Hirapuri. On the wish of Hirapuri that person transformed into this pillar so that he could always abide by the former. Bhois or Dhimar communities believe that Kham Baba was from their fisherman community and as evidence they point to the makara capital stating it was the fish that the Baba caught before turning into the lithic form. The sixteen-sided top is decorated with an ornamental festoon consisting of three strands suspended on eight brackets and a fruit or flower in each of the eight swags. The weather-worn condition does not allow the proper identification of fruits or flowers, ones that can be recognized are custard-apple, mando, brinjal, and lotus.16 The next season of excavation in 1914-15, Bhandarkar unearthed an irrigation canal of the Mauryan period. He also found three fire pits or sacrificial kundas, square, oblong, and yoni-type, of the third-fourth century CE as supported by the discovery of six Naga coins.17
V R Sukthankar explains that the composer of the inscription must have been Heliodorus himself as the inscription uses the word tratarasa for King Bhagabhdara and this title tratarasa (soter) is generally used by Greek kings of that time.18 J N Banerji states that the Vasudeva temple at Besnagar was an early shrine where vyuha images of Vasudeva were in worship. He explains the palm and makara capitals found at the site were dedicated to Samkarshana and Pradyumna respectively as these are their cognizance. He suggests that the kalpadruma was the capital standing in front of a temple dedicated to Sri or Lakshmi, and the round tall image of a lady found by Cunningham was the dedicatory image inside that temple.19 The next set of excavations was carried out almost 50 years later, from 1963-64 to 1965-66. The excavation was led by M D Khare and the objective was to ascertain periods of habitation. In a cutting located on the confluence of the rivers Bes and Betwa, six periods of habitation were identified, details as below:
- Period I (1100-900 BCE) – belonging to the chalcolithic period, black-and-red and black-slipped wares along with painted red ware, animal bones, iron objects, short microlithic blades
- Period II (800-200 BCE) – Northern Black Polished Ware, terracotta beads, bone objects, terracotta votive tanks, punch-marked coins
- Period III (200-100 BCE) – plain red, black-and-red, and kaolin wares, marble objects, shell bangles, terracotta and stone beads, and inscribed stone seals bearing Brahmi inscription reading Nikumbha-ragasya belonging to the Sunga period, a lamp of fine red ware provided with a pinched lip
- Period IV (100-300 CE) – assignable to the Naga-Kushana period, red ware, red-slipped ware, votive tanks, ear studs, gamesmen, a few copper coins
- Period V (300-600 CE) – assignable to the Gupta period, terracotta human and animal figurines, terracotta stamping pieces,
- Period VI (600-900 CE) – the site was deserted after the Gupta period and the sixth and last habitation represents the period after a lapse of some centuries, it is represented by some rubble walls, a few earthen pots containing animal bones, a copper coin, and fragmentary stone sculpture, circular discs or weighing objects, grey-ware painted and plain red ware
Khare was also successful in excavating the remains of a huge temple adjacent to the Kham Baba pillar. The temple measures roughly 30 m by 30 m square and is represented by two rows of grooves in an elliptical outline with a passage in between serving as the pradakshina-patha. The temple must have been made largely of timber as evidenced by post-holes, iron nails, and rings. It faces east and the outer groove projected forward to form an antarala in front of the garbha-grha. This temple was destroyed sometime by the close of the third century BCE. A brick platform on a raised plinth marked the next phase of the temple. This next phase was contemporary with the Kham Baba pillar. Khare and his team discovered seven more pits in addition to the pit occupied by the Kham Baba pillar. As various remains of different pillars and capitals have been found from the site, these pillars would be standing over these pits.20 Vidisha has been frequently featured in various studies since then. Sushma Chadha did a study on its ancient sculptures discovered at Besnagar and Udaigiri.21 M D Khare covered the pre-historical, historical, cultural, and political history of Vidisha. As he carried out excavations at the site in the 1960s, he provided a very accurate and detailed account of Vidisha from various aspects.22 K K Tripathi carried out an archaeological study of the whole district of Vidisha with his focus spanning from the proto-historic period to the Paramara period.23 On 21st-22nd October 1989, a seminar on Vidisha was organized by the District Archaeological Association, Vidisha. The seminar was attended by various experts coming from all over India and discussions were held on various aspects of the city and architecture. The proceedings of the seminar were published in 1990.24
Heliodorus Pillar – This pillar was first noticed by Alexander Cunningham in 1877. The pillar was locally known as Kambla Baba, or “fakir’s pillar”. He mentioned that it might be carrying an inscription however the base of the column was covered with a heavy vermillion coat. Cunningham tried to remove the coat but did not succeed. In 1909, H H Lake and Marshall were successful in discovering an inscription at the base of the pillar by removing the vermillion coat. This became one of the most interesting and unique discoveries in the annals of Indian history. D R Bhandarkar in his excavations confirmed that the pillar is in its original location.
This monolith pillar measures 17.7 feet high. At the base, the pillar shaft is octagonal for about 147 cm, then it turns sixteen-sided for the next 188 cm, further turns to thirty-two sides for 30 cm, and the top portion is circular in shape. The octagonal portion is separated from the sixteen-sided portion by a band consisting of half-sunflowers enclosed within a semicircle, one such flower on each face. The space between the top of two semi-circles is filled with a flower bud. The sixteen-sided portion is separated from the thirty-two-sided portion by a garland-festoon band. Over the shaft rests a bell capital with an abacus above. The abacus is octagonal in the lower section and the upper half is square. Its faces are decorated with honeysuckle and bead-and-lozenge motifs, birds flying in a clockwise direction carrying garlands hanging like festoons. The pillar was erected as a Garuda-dhvaja in front of a Vasudeva temple by a Greek individual named Heliodorus, an ambassador of King Antiakcidas to the Shunga court.
Inscriptions: The pillar is more known for its inscriptions rather than its style and execution. There are two inscriptions engraved over the octagonal face of the pillar at its base.
- The inscription of Heliodorus: This inscription is engraved at the octagonal base of the pillar, writing spread over its three faces. It is composed in Prakrit with a few Sanskrit words. It is written in Brahmi characters used during the Shunga period. It records the erection of a pillar by a Greek named Helidodous from Takshshila. He was an ambassador of the Greek king Antialcidas to the court of King Kasiputra Bhagabhadra. Below is its original Prakrit text and English translation:25
- [de]vadevasa vā[sude]vasa garuḍadhvaje ayaṃ
karit[e] i[a?] heliodoreṇa bhāga-
vatena diyasa putreṇa ta[khkha]silākena
yonadutena agatena mahārājasa
aṃtalikitasa upa[ṃ]tā samkāsam raño
kāsīput[r]asa bhāgabhadrasa trātārasa
vasena ca[tu]dasena rājena vadhamānasa
- This Garuda-pillar of Vasudeva, the god of gods,
was constructed here by Helidoa [Heliodors], the Bhagvata,
son of Diya [Dion], of Takhkhasila (Taxila),
the Greek ambassador who came from the Great King
Amtakikita [Antiakidas] to King
Kasiputra Bhagabhadra, the Savior,
prospering in (his) fourteenth regnal year.
- [de]vadevasa vā[sude]vasa garuḍadhvaje ayaṃ
- Inscription B on the pillar – This is another inscription engraved over the same octagonal base of the pillar but engraved over the different faces. Below is its original Prakrit text and English translation
- trini amutapad[a]ni [I][me?] [su]anuthitani
neyamti sva[gam] dam[e] caga apramada
- (These?) three steps to immortality, when correctly followed,
lead to heaven; control, generosity, and attention.
- trini amutapad[a]ni [I][me?] [su]anuthitani
Elliptical Temple – The Heliodorus Pillar inscription would have been standing in front of a Vasudeva temple in most probability however no such temple was unearthed in the initial excavations. However, the excavations of the 1960s by M D Khare were successful, and remains of an elliptical temple were unearthed in the area adjoining the Heliodorous Pillar, towards its southwest. The temple measures roughly 30 m by 30 m square and is represented by two rows of grooves in an elliptical outline with a passage in between serving as the pradakshina-patha. The temple must have been made largely of timber as evidenced by post-holes, iron nails, and rings. It faces east and the outer groove projected forward to form an antarala in front of the garbha-grha. The first phase of the temple is represented by the brick platform found only in its foundation trenches revealing the outline of the plan. This temple was destroyed sometime by the close of the third century BCE, probably devasted in a flood. A brick platform on a raised plinth marked the next phase of the temple. the site was raised artificially by dumping the earth excavated from the surroundings and retained by the rubble walls on all four sides. This would have been the desired design to prevent damage during floods. This next phase was contemporary with the Heliodorus Pillar. Khare and his team discovered seven more pits in addition to the pit occupied by the Heliodorus Pillar. As various remains of different pillars and capitals have been found from the site, these pillars would be standing over these pits. The extant remains are not sufficient to furnish any definite idea of its superstructure, however, as it is an elliptical plan temple, its garbha-grha would be in the rear with rounded ends topped with a vagon-shaped shikhara. Taking cognizance of various pillar capitals discovered at the site, Banerji opines that while the Garuda-dhavaja of a Vasudeva temple proves the existence of the Vasudeva cult, the other capital pillars found at the site suggest dedications to other gods belonging to the Pancharatra-vyuh of Vasudeva. Thus, he suggests there were many temples at the site, dedicated to various gods of the cult.26
Antiquities: Various antiquities discovered during past explorations and excavations at Besnagar have been on display in various museums. The majority of these are on display in the Gujari Mahal Museum, Gwalior. A few have been on display in the Vidisha Museum, State Museum in Bhopal, National Museum in New Delhi, and Indian Museum in Kolkata. One sculpture discovered by Cunningham is on display in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (USA). A few important sculptures and artifacts are described below.
Buddhist railing and coping stone – These railing pillars with their curved coping stone and cross-bars were discovered by Cunningham in 1874 and are now on display in the Gujari Mahal Museum, Gwalior. Based on the inscriptions over the coping stone, this is generally dated to the 3rd century BCE belonging to the Maurya period. The coping stone is 7 feet 4 inches long. The presence of this railing suggests that there was once a stupa at the site. The inner face of the coping stone has a procession scene consisting of a series of four elephants and four horsemen placed alternately separated by a footman. The scene starts on the left with a male attendant standing behind an elephant. A rider over the elephant carries a streamer or flag and a mahout rode the elephant. Over the head of the elephant is placed a basket with a small casket, the latter may be required to carry some mortal remains of Buddha to be enshrined in a stupa. Next comes another standing male attendant followed by a horse. The horse rider carries a large bowl in one hand. This is followed by three sets of elephants and horses arranged and separated by a standing male figure. The coping stone carries a Brahmi inscription that starts with a swastika sign and ends with a dharma chakra. It reads, “Gift of the monk (bhikhu) Patamana and the monk (bhikhu) Kumuda“.27
The other side of the stone has panels separated by curved sections made of lotus stalks. The leftmost panel has a stupa attended by a female devotee. The next panel is of a Bodhi tree worshipped by a couple standing on either side. The next panel has two musicians. The next panel has a female carrying a basket and a male figure carrying a fly-whisk or streamer in his hand. The panel next is much obliterated however lotus flower buds are evident. The panel next has a stupa and a female worshipper. The next panel has two male musicians. The next panel has a male figure holding trays in both hands. The next three panels have the same theme, a female figure folding trays in both hands. The panel next has a couple, the female holds a tray and the male holds a streamer. The next panel has a set of male musicians and the last panel has an elephant holding in its trunk a large lotus with its long stalk. Various donative records are engraved over this face, reading, “[vat]manas bhikhuno Somadasa bhikhno danam“, and “asamaya danam“.28
The pillar is 3 feet 9 inches in height and 10.25 by 7.25 inches in section. It has three sockets on the sides for three rail bars. The front side is decorated while the back is left plain. In the front, the top section has a large Bodhi tree. Below the tree are two rows of attendees. All attendees are male and wear large headdresses and earrings. There is an inscription however it is much damaged. From what remains, it reads, “(Gift) of [A]jamita (Ajamitra)“.29 The seven rail bars also carry inscriptions, a few legible and a few illegible. These various inscriptions read, “Gift of monk (bhikhu) Dhamagiri (Dharmagiri)” and “Gift of a nun (pavajita) of Nadika (Nandika)“30, “asdevas danam”31, and “samikaya danam” 32.
Makara Capital – This capital was found by Cunningham near the Heliodorous Pillar. The makara is 2 feet 11 inches high. Its tail is broken off. The holes near the eyes of the makara puzzled Cunningham and he suggested that it was probably to hold horn or fins. There are four fins, two on either side, over the lower body of the makara. Banerji opines that this capital belonged to a temple dedicated to Pradhyumna as makara is cognizance of Pradhyumna.33
Kalpa-vrksha Capital – This pillar-capital piece was discovered by Cunningham from a site located about 1 km from the Heliodorus Pillar following the course of the River Betwa. It is popularly known as Kalpa-vrksha or Kalpa-druma (wish-fulfilling tree) capital. The tree stands over a rectangular vedika (platform) which is decorated with a Buddhist-rail pattern composed of five pillars, including two corner pillars, with two cross-bars between each pillar pair. The tree is enclosed within a circular enclosure carrying a decoration of a cris-cross pattern. The upper base of the enclosure is divided into eight compartments separated by hanging roots of the tree. A vessel overflowing with treasures and a money bag has been placed in these compartments arranged alternatively. The tree has long pendant roots loaded with square-shaped pieces of money dropping from those. The money is being collected in vessels placed beneath the tree. The vessels are overflowing with wealth. These eight compartments probably represent the ashta-nidhis (eight treasures) of Kubera. Shankha (conch) and Padma (lotus) are among the ashta-nidhis of Kubera and two vessels have a symbol of shankha and padma supporting this view. The upper part of the tree is spherical in shape. The overall height of the tree is 5 feet 9 inches and its diameter is 3 feet 3 inches.
Banerji suggests that this capital was once adoring the top of a pillar installed in front of a temple dedicated to Sri Lakshmi, since she is also the presiding deity of wealth and thus of nidhis (treasures). He gives precedence to Lakshmi over Kubera, for this capital, stating Besnagar was an early seat of Pancharatra-vyuha worship and Lakshmi is an integral part of this cult therefore it is much probable that a temple dedicated to her was also present at Besnagar. To support his views, he also suggests the famous Besnagar Yakshi, which is now in the Indian Museum, is the cult object under worship in the temple of Lakshmi.34 While the possibility of a temple for Lakshmi may be accepted, the claim that the Yakshi image was the cult object inside that temple is a little far-fetched. Contrary to Banerji, Sivaramamurti opines that the capital was associated with a temple dedicated to Kubera.35 The capital is generally dated to the Shunga period of the 2nd century BCE.
Garuda Pillar – This broken shaft of a pillar was found by H H Lake in 1910 in a street of Vidisha town. This is a Garuda-pillar erected in front of the best temple of Bhagvat by Bhagvata, son of Gotami. Bhandarkar suggests that this pillar was surmounted by Garuda riding a makara. The holes near the eyes of makara were probably done to secure Garuda.36 M B Garde discovered a Garuda capital in 1920 near the Heliodorus Pillar. This capital piece has survived only with the claws of the bird and the serpent held in those claws installed over a vedika. This capital is now in the Gujari Mahal Museum. A few scholars suggested that the capital might be mounted over the pillar whose part of the shaft was discovered by Lake.37 Meera Dass proves that the capital fits the pillar shaft and is thus part of the same scheme.38
Inscription – The pillar shaft carries an inscription written in Prakrit language, in the Brahmi characters of the shunga period, 2nd century BCE. The inscription reads, “Bhagvata, son of Gotami, caused a Garuda dhvaja to be made in connection with prasadottama (the best temple) of Bhagavata (Vasudeva) when Maharaja Bhagavata had been crowned twelve years”.39
Yakshi Image in Indian Museum – This image was found by Cunningham near the above-described Kalpa-vrkha capital. She is now on display in the Indian Museum, Kolkata, and is famously known as the ‘Besnagar Yakshi’. The sculpture is 6 feet 7 inches high and was found broken in two pieces, half buried in the ground. The Yakshi has a cloth covering the hair on top of her head in the form of a bowl-shaped veil. She carries two long braids at her hanging going till her loins. She wears several garlands and necklaces. She has large earrings. The upper part of her body is covered by a broad jacket rounded in the front. She wears multiple garments covering her lower body. There is a sari or petticoat, shown with its gathers placed over her stomach. This reaches only to her midlegs. Beneath this sari is another garment that goes down to her anklets. A girdle is placed over her hips as the top garment. Below this girdle, she wears a waistband consisting of five strings.
Yaksha Image in Vidisha Museum – This sculpture was discovered in 1957 from the river Betwa.40 It was earlier standing in front of the Vidisha State Guest House and later moved to its present location in the Vidisha Museum. The sculpture is more or less intact except for the left hand which is broken off at wrist. The 14-foot-high Yaksha, generally identified as Kubera, stands in frontal posture balancing his weight on his two feet. He wears a dhoti secured by a girdle over his waist. The tassels of the girdle are shown hanging in the front. A cloth or scarf is placed over his torso, secured by a knot over his left shoulder, and worn in a cross pattern with its other end over the right side of his waist, in a similar fashion as a yajnopavita. He holds a bag in his left hand, the bag is cliched tightly by his fist. He wears five heavy bracelets on each arm. His ears are peculiar as the upper part appears of an animal rather than a human. His hair is gathered and tied in a heavy knot on the top, slightly tilted to his left.
Yakshi Image in Vidisha Museum – This image was discovered with the above image of Yaksha. She is of lesser height in comparison to the above Yaksha image. It was found broken at the knees and waist. She stands in a frontal mode balancing her weight over two feet. Her left hand holds a mango branch and rests over her thigh. Her right hand holds an object and it is placed near her breasts. She wears a lower garment secured at her waist by a girdle. Over the girdle, she wears a waistband of several strands of beads. She wears heavy anklets, bracelets, and several necklaces. Her hair is combed back in strands and braided into a large pigtail falling over the shoulder. The upper part of the head is covered by a circular band of cloth.
Yakshi Head in Bhopal Museum – This sculpture was discovered by K G Bakshi in 1945. Earlier the sculpture was on display in the Gujari Mahal Museum, Gwalior, however, later it was moved to the State Museum in Bhopal. The sculpture has survived only with its head and torso. She wears a necklace consisting of twelve strings of beads over her neck. Over this necklace is another larger necklace that hangs down to a little below her breasts. This necklace has eight strands secured by two straps. She has a cloth over her hair covering the top and back. The cloth is secured by a band that passes over the shoulders and back. Her hair is arranged in two braids. The sculpture is generally dated to the second half of the 2nd century BCE.41
Matrka Images – Seven different matrka sculptures were discovered from Besnagar in 1910. These all are on display in the Gujari Mahal Museum, Gwalior. All are shown seated over a throne and a few matrkas are shown holding a child in their lap. They all are carved in round and have two hands. They wear minimal ornaments, earrings, a necklace, and anklets. As their hands are all broken, they might be wearing bracelets over their arms. In clothes, they cover their breasts with a bodice, a simple lower garment with a girdle around the waist. All have different treatments done to their hair. Iconographically, there is nothing to correlate with the standard iconography of matrka images. These images are generally assigned to the early Gupta period of the 4th century CE.42
Mahishasuramardini – This magnificent image of Durga as Mahishasuramardini shows the goddess standing over a buffalo head flanked by two lions, one on each side. She has eight hands but only three have survived. A human figure is shown to her left in the act of inserting a dagger into the body of a lion. As a similar human figure is carved on her right side, whether the figure on her left could be identified with the demon Mahisha is not certain. Also, when the goddess is shown standing over the buffalo’s head, it is certain that the slaying of the demon is over and she now stands in her victory posture over the slayed demon’s head. In this case, the human figures on either side may be taken as demons belonging to the army of Mahishashura. This sculpture is generally dated to the Gupta period.
Kuber – This sculpture is generally dated to the start of the Gupta period. Kubera is shown in a posture generally seen in Yaksha images. As Kubera is also known as Yaksha-pati or lord of Yakshas, his depiction similar to Yakshas is not surprising. One arm is broken and in his other arm, he holds a money bag with his fists clinching the bag. He wears minimal ornaments, one necklace, arm bands, and bracelets. His legs are broken. His lower garment is a dhoti tied to his waist with a girdle with its flaps in the front.
Shunga Capital at Lohangi Hill – Lohangi Hill is a small hillock of about 200 feet high. The upper part of the hill is plain this has remains of various temples, shrines, and other structures within its 100 m diameter area. A legend associates King Rakmangarh and his famous white horse with black ears with the hill. It is said that the stone capital placed over the top of the hill was indeed the water tank for that horse, lending its local name as “pani-ki-kundi”.43 Some 600 years back, the hill became known after Lohangi Peer, a title of Shaikh Jalal Chishti, whose tomb lies on the top. This capital was discovered in 1914 and in 1972 the Vidisha Municipality department placed it over a concrete platform where it stands now. The total height of the capital is about 3′ and the diameter is 3’8″. The base is a bell-shaped member with a lotus design and is 2’7″ high. Above this bell member is a twisted garland band of about 6″ in height. Above this is another band of varying height, a maximum of 5.5″, carrying a design of circles and lozenges connected through a rope. The uppermost band is 5.5″ high and is decorated with geese and palmette designs. Above it are the remains of four sets of feet belonging to two addorsed lions and two addorsed elephants. On the evidence of the Heliodorus Pillar inscription, Stadtner suggests that this capital was a product of the Shunga art and may be assigned to the Shunga king Bhagabhadra, generally identified with the fifth Shunga ruler Bhadraka of the Purana lists.44
Bijamandal – This is the site of a Paramara temple that was later occupied by a mosque. The present name Bijamandal is probably derived from its original Hindu name Bijaymandir or Vijayamandir. As per a legend, it is said that the temple was constructed by Bijay Rani. The temple was demolished in 1682 CE during the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. A mosque was built utilizing material from the temple. The mosque is thus commonly known as the Alamgiri Masjid. A reference from Tabaquat-i Nasiri is generally quoted by a few scholars that mentions shortly after the capture of Gwalior in 1234 CE, Iltutmish moved towards Malwa and took the town of Bhilsa and its fortress. He demolished the idol temple which took three hundred years to construct, and which in altitude was about one hundred ells. It is generally taken that the temple destroyed by Iltutmish was the Vijayamandira and as it took three hundred years span for its construction, its construction would have started during the reign of the Paramara king Siyaka (949-972 CE) and was completed in the reign of Bhoja’s successor Vijayapala.45 However, if the temple was destroyed by Iltutmish in 1234 then what destruction was brought forward by Iltutmish in 1682? Or, after the 1234 destruction, the temple was reconstructed and this reconstructed temple was destroyed by Aurangzeb?
The temple was built over a high-rising jagati (base) of about 30 feet high and steps were provided on all four sides. A small-scale excavation was carried out in 1971-73 that resulted in exposing the steps in the south. As the temple was approachable from all sides, it falls under the sarvatobhadra category. The temple would be of panchayatana (quincunx) type with a central temple and four corner shrines. Inscriptions dedicated to different gods have been found in the temple and its components. An inscription over a pillar mentions goddess Charchika, and another inscription found in the excavation of the southern side eulogies Surya. As the Paramaras erected many temples dedicated to Shiva, this temple may also be dedicated to Shiva. Thus, we have three different deities to whom this temple might be dedicated, goddess Charchika, Surya, and Shiva. Under the available evidence, it would be difficult to say to whom the central temple was dedicated. A conjectural drawing of its superstructure is also difficult due to the lack of surviving fragments and other details. A number of loose sculptures found during the course of excavations in the 1970s are kept in the site museum.
- Fragmentary Stone Inscription46 – This fragmentary stone inscription was discovered by F E Hall who found it built into the outer wall of a modern house. This inscription is no longer traceable (Archaeology, Progress Report of the Archaeological Survey of India, Western Circle, for the year ending 31st March 1914. p. 59). Hall says that it records the erection of a Sun temple under the appellation of Bhaillesa by Vachaspati, a minister of King Krishna, on the Vetravati river. Sircar identifies King Krishna in the inscription with the Rashtrakuta king Krishna III (939-968 CE).47
- Inscription of goddess Charchika48 – This inscription is engraved over a pillar and contains twenty-six lines. It begins with a panegyric of a goddess called Charchika, in which we are told that the lord of Dhara became a master of the earth through her favor and that when properly worshipped she conferred upon her devotee the supernatural power of flying in the sky. We are then told the Charchika was a favorite goddess of Naravarmadeva alias Nirvana-Narayana, and that it was she who made the king fit for work. The inscription ends with telling us that it was the composition of one Thakkura sri-Madhava, son to Supata and Jasa. He is said to be a dvija and belongs to Mathura race. The record is not dated.
- A stone inscription in the local museum of the Gwalior State Archaeological Department49 – This inscription was collected from Mahalghat at Vidisha. It was recorded in the department report for samvat 1970 however it was not read properly. D C Sircar examined the inscription in 1952-53 and prepared a better translation. The characters belong to the North Indian Alphabet of the ninth century CE. The language is Sanskrit though corrupt in places. The record is dated to Samvat 935, taking the samvat as Vikrama Samvat, the record corresponds to 878 CE. The inscription records a grant of an akshayanika made in favor of the temple of the illustrious Bhaillasvamin. The donor was Hatiaka, son of Chachchhiaka, a merchant of the Paravada community. The grant was made by libation of curds and water at the various tirthas or bathing ghats of the locality.
- Eulogy of Sun-god, composed by Chittapa50 – During his tour in 1953, D C Sircar found a few interesting records then gathered in an open-air museum in the compound of a Dak Bungalow. Two records generated his attention, and both contained the eulogy of Sun-god.
- The first record was extremely damaged except for a few expressions that could be safely deciphered. It was written in Nagari characters of the eleventh century CE. The language is Sanskrit. The inscription begins with a symbol for Siddham and then the passage Om Namah Suryaya. Then follows a few stanzas in the praise of the god. The first half of verse 1 in line 1 begins with the expression Udaigiri and seems to end with the word vihaya. Only a few words in other lines could be deciphered.
- The second inscription is better preserved compared to the previous record. It was written in Nagari characters of the eleventh century CE. The language is Sanskrit. The record had at least twenty-three stanzas, of which ten could be safely deciphered. Of the remaining thirteen stanzas, two are forever lost and eleven could only be partially deciphered. The record mentions sage Agastya, Vishnu as the youngest brother of Surya cut off the head of Rahu and later spared his life as a result of his entreaty. Rays of Surya-god are the source of splendor for objects such as the jewel on the head of Shesha, pearls in the bed of the sea, and stars in the sky. These rays when come in contact with the moon, the horizon, and the clouds, become respectively the moonlight, the twilight, and the rainbow. The eulogy was composed by Mahakavichakravartin Pandita sri-Chhittapa. The person who got the eulogy written and the stone inscribed for embedding it in a wall of the Surya temple was Dandanayaka sri-Chandra. Sircar opines Chhittapa was a court poet of the Paramara king Bhoja.
- Pilgrim records51 – A number of pilgrim records are engraved over pillars and other architectural fragments. One reads, “Devapati, son of Sadhu Sadhala“, another reads, “Maha-mahattma Devaraja of Sodha lineage“
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14 Fleet, J F (1910). The Besnagar Inscription A published in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland for the second half-year of 1910. pp. 815-817
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23 Tripathi, K K (1988). Archaeology of Vidisa District, Ph.D. thesis submitted to the Harisingh Gour Vishwavidyalaya, Sagar.
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26 Banerji, J N (1941). Besnagar – One of the Earliest Seats of the Pancaratra Cult published in the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 5. pp. 147-152
27 No. 671 of Appendix to Epigraphia Indica, vol. X, A List of Brahmi Inscriptions from the earliest times to about A.D. 400 with the exception of those of Asoka by H Luders. p. 64
28 No, 715 & 716 of द्विवेदी, हरिहरनिवास (1947). ग्वालियर राज्य के अभिलेख. मध्य भारत पुरातत्त्व विभाग. ग्वालियर. pp. 97-98.
29 No. 672 of Appendix to Epigraphia Indica, vol. X, A List of Brahmi Inscriptions from the earliest times to about A.D. 400 with the exception of those of Asoka by H Luders. p. 64
30 No 673 & 674 of Appendix to Epigraphia Indica, vol. X, A List of Brahmi Inscriptions from the earliest times to about A.D. 400 with the exception of those of Asoka by H Luders. p. 64
31 No. 720 of द्विवेदी, हरिहरनिवास (1947). ग्वालियर राज्य के अभिलेख. मध्य भारत पुरातत्त्व विभाग. ग्वालियर. pp. 97-98.
32 No. 718 of द्विवेदी, हरिहरनिवास (1947). ग्वालियर राज्य के अभिलेख. मध्य भारत पुरातत्त्व विभाग. ग्वालियर. pp. 97-98.
33 Banerji, J N (1941). Besnagar – One of the Earliest Seats of the Pancaratra Cult published in the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 5. pp. 147-152
34 Banerji, J N (1941). Besnagar – One of the Earliest Seats of the Pancaratra Cult published in the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 5. pp. 147-152
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36 Bhandarkar, D R (1917). Excavations at Besnagar published in the Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey of India, 1913-1914. p. 190
37 पाठक, नरेशकुमार (1990). केन्द्रीय संग्रहालय, गुजरी महल, ग्वालियर में विदिशा से संग्रहित कलाकृतियाँ published in Chakravarty, K K (ed.). Vidisha Through the Ages. Agam Kala Prakashan. Delhi. p. 165
38 Dass, M. I. (2001). Helliodorus Pillar from Besnagar: Its Capital and Worship published in the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 62. pp. 1136–1137
39 Dass, Meera I (2001). Udayagiri: A Sacred Hill, its Art, Architecture and Landscape, Ph. D. thesis submitted to the De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. p. 128
40 Chadha, Sushma (1976). Study of Ancient Sculptures of Vidisha and Udaigiri, Ph.D. thesis submitted to the University of Sagar. p. 198
41 Chandra, Pramod (1966). Yaksha and Yakshī Images from Vidiśā published in Ars Orientalis, Vol. 6. pp. 157-163
42 Patil, D R (1949). Sapta-matrkas oe the Seven Mothers from Besnagar published in the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 12. pp. 109-112
43 खरे, महेश्वरी दयाल (1985). विदिशा. मध्यप्रदेश हिंदी ग्रन्थ अकादमी. भोपाल. p. 174
44 Stadtner, Donald (1975). A Śuṅga Capital from Vidiśā published in Artibus Asiae, Vol. 37, No. 1/2. pp. 101-104
45 Sagar, A P (2010). Vijayamandira Temple of Paramara Times at Vidisha published in Discovering Vidisha – Art, Archaeology and Architecture, Sharma Yogendra & Misra, Om Prakash (eds.). Aryan Books International. New Delhi. ISBN 9788173053757. p. 38
46 Hall, F E (1863). Three Sanskrit Inscriptions: Copies of Originals, and Prefatory Observations published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. XXXI. pp. 111-112
47 Epigraphia Indica, vol. XXX. p. 210
48 Archaeology, Progress Report of the Archaeological Survey of India, Western Circle, for the year ending 31st March 1914. p. 59
49 Epigraphia Indica, vol. XXX. pp. 211-215
50 Epigraphia Indica, vol. XXX. pp. 215-219
51 Archaeology, Progress Report of the Archaeological Survey of India, Western Circle, for the year ending 31st March 1914. p. 59
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.