Heliodorus and Udaygiri

Sridhar and his friend Mandar visited Vidisha and Udaygiri caves . Be prepared to get surprised !

Opportunities in life present itself in several myriad ways. For me, it came in the form of a marriage in Bhopal. Deepak’s brother Ravi was getting married and Mandar and I quickly wove a tight schedule on the places to visit around Bhopal. As was our wont, apart from Sanchi, we chose couple off- beat destinations.  Soon we landed in Bhopal and are whisked away to a hotel. The marriage went off well amidst lots of pomp and the food was marvelous. I do not have a sweet tooth but I adopted sweets only diet for the first time in my life and I had my fill.

We arranged for a vehicle to take us to Sanchi the next day. Sanchi…..what a place! I would advise you that once you are in Sanchi, you should first visit the Exhibition hosted by the Archaeological Survey of India which is very close to the main entrance to the Stupas. Amongst the several exhibits, the standouts for me were the photographs of the ruins of Sanchi when it was first discovered. Then you would appreciate the amount of time and work that has been invested in restoring the Stupas to the current form.

The Stupas were beautiful and the site itself was very tourist friendly. Information on the Stupas was on hand and there was no requirement for a guide. One can spend an entire day in Sanchi still feel dissatisfied! But this article is not about the Stupas of Sanchi and hence I will have to drag you to the banks of the river Betwa near Vidisha.

Besnagar is blessed with two rivers running parallel – Bes and Betwa and a small tributary of Betwa called Chokrel  making it a Tirveni ( joining of three rivers). Besnagar lies 57 km north east of Bhopal. There are references to Besnagar as Wessnagara in olden times and King Ashoka was supposed to have visited Besnagar . Hence, Besnagar would have been very busy and bustling town during Ashoka’s times.  From Bhopal you travel on NH 86 to Vidisha and clamber on to State Highway 19 to reach Besnagar. Ah! Forgot to add one more piece of information, our driver was a young chap named Sunil. He thought we will be returning back to Bhopal after visiting Sanchi. He seemed surprised when we directed him to Besnagar. All along the way, he was quizzing us as to what were we going to see in Besnagar. Wish we could answer him at that point in time.

To give you a perspective of what you are going to read, Sir Alex Cunningham, the gentleman who set up and established the Archaeological Survey of India had visited Besnagar and had noted in his field trip report between 1874-1877 (report of Bundelkhand and  Malwa) that he has never made such  novel and curious discovery before.

We entered Besnagar and almost immediately saw it.  Near the village square we spotted a lone orphaned stone pillar inside an enclosure. We gingerly made our way through the enclosure and gaped at the pillar. We scratched our heads for more information and spotted an information plaque.  I regard this as the most under rated and the most neglected monument of our history. This, my friends, is the Heliodorus Pillar. Sir Alex in his report stated that a young fakir was occupying the base of the pillar and hence the pillar was called “Khamba Baba”. The base of the pillar had a very generous smattering of red lead (vermillion??) and hence he could not investigate the pillar further.

Later, his successors visited the site again and discovered inscriptions in Brahmi and Prakrit  on the pillar. The inscription talks about Heliodorus, an envoy from the King Antialcidas of Taxila. Heliodorus had visited Vidisha when it was under the rule of King Bhadra. The inscription further talks that he was a Vasudev Bhakt and that the pillar is his contribution to a Vishnu temple. The Vishnu temple has been ravaged by time and is no longer in existence. The lowest part of the pillar is octagonal while the middle part has 16 sides and the upper part is circular. The pillar would have been crowned by something like the three Lions. Unfortunately we could not find the top portion. The icing on the cake was that the plaque said that the pillar is dated 150 BC!!

Personally, I think that this pillar stands as a testimony to the fact that India was a potpourri of culture and faiths even in those times and men were free to adopt whatever faith they wanted which would show them the right path to live. Imagine a person trotting on a horse from Taxila which is in Pakistan and setting foot in Vidisha and then adopting a different faith! Such an important place should be celebrated and not consigned to the footnotes of history. Sunil, our driver, wore a very incredulous look on his face. He could not fathom why we were in this non descript village and why the hell were we making rounds of a pillar.

We wandered around the place and could find remnants of sculptures set in stone. We found a wooden plank embedded with long nails. We pointed this out to Sunil and wondered aloud as to what purpose this wooden seat would be put to. Sunil gave a weak smile and quickly bounded to the safe confines of his car!


Heliodorus Pillar- First Look


Inscription on the pillar


Warrants a closer look I guess!


Heliodorus Pillar- Last look

We then made our way to Udaygiri Caves which lies 3.5 kms to the south west of Besnagar. Udaygiri caves occupies an important place because during the times of Chandragupta Maurya, Udaygiri was the Stanford of that era!! It was regarded as an institute of higher learning and there were Buddhist chaityas and viharas .We hoped we could see paintings like those of Ajanta or the sculptures rivalling to that of Ellora caves. These were caves which were inhabited by Buddhist monks.

In one of the cave niches, we encountered a large Varaha (Boar Avtar of Vishnu) sculpture with intricate details.  One can notice Prithvi in the form of a woman is raised on the tusks of Varaha thus saving her from the depths of the ocean. Varaha’s foot is  planted on  a serpent king. The sculpture is imposing and one will be stuck by the sheer authority of the pose. We moved forward and soon encountered Vishnu in a reclining pose on the Serpent King Anantha. Again the sculpture is massive.  As we climbed a small hillock we saw several unfinished pieces of sculptures strewn around and some caves were closed for public viewing. We could satisfy ourselves by taking snaps of the Dwarpals (Gatekeepers) of those caves.   There was a massive broken pillar on top of the hillock and maybe lying in that state for centuries.  We also noticed remains of viharas or dwelling houses.  We walked down the hill and saw a beautiful Mahishasuramardini sculpture. The rock surface was showing signs of separation. Sadly, we noticed that in this treasure trove of a place, there were neither information kiosks nor booklets.


Approach to Udaygiri Caves


Vishnu resting on Anantha



 The Broken Pillar




Dwarpals- Notice the bushy hair!


Sculpture outside a cave

We made our way back to Besnagar where the Triveni and the temples around were bathed by rays of the setting sun. Beautiful!   We came back to Bhopal all famished but satisfied. We later realized we forgot to have lunch in the afternoon!



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