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Studying Interface: Herostones, Oral Traditions and the

Pastoralists of Maharashtra


Herostone - Phaltan

Sati and herostones are an important but relatively little studied field. The herostones from Central Indian have emerged from a tribal context and concern tribal chiefs. They are invaluable in understanding attitudes to death and belief patterns of tribes. The herostones from Western India reflect the physical and social ecology of the area in their pictographical context. Those that depict cattle raids in their lowest panel are understood as indicators of a dominant pastoral economy of the past. These herostones are found only in a specific area of the semi-arid tract of Western India.

In this area even today we come across pastoral communities like Kurubas in Karnataka, Dhangars in Maharashtra, Abhiras of Gujarat and Rabaris of Rajasthan engaged in sheep rearing activities. Here, historically speaking, plough cultivation was introduced only after the `Pax Britanica’. Herostones that depict cattle raids are thus of paramount importance as they are an important source of an existence of pastoral economy. They are also an important indicator of social mobility, for, herostones were not erected for everyone. A classic case in this instance could be Rajasthan, where we can in fact study the emerging Rajput nobility through the herostones as they indicate an important status symbol which was perhaps not accessible to everyone.

The hero and sati stones are largely found in Western, Central and Southern India. We come across basically two types of herostones from Rajasthan. They are Paliyas (single panelled stones) and the Govardhan pillars that have a sculpted top. The Govardhan pillars are memorials for those who died in a cattle raid, but battle scene are also depicted at times. A sati would normally be shown by depiction of a couple facing each other. Chronologically, these stones would fall within the 6th to th 13th-14th century A.D. The Saurashtra series is of relatively recent period, belonging to the last three to four hundred years. Here the most frequent occurrence is of Paliyas. The Paliyas are normally linked to cattle raids, skirmishes and village disputes. South India and Maharashtra can be easily termed as the heartland of herostones. The herostones from Tamil Nadu fall roughly within the 6th to the 12th century A.D. A majority of these are still in formative stages. The Cayasthambhas of Andhra Pradesh are not, strictly speaking, herostones. Karnataka and Maharashtra contain a large number of sati and herostones. This series falls in the early medieval period (5th, 6th century A.D. onwards) and have been dated to 5th to 14th-15th century A.D. The series from Maharashtra does not contain any inscription hence the dating has to be done on stylistic grounds. Apart these areas we come across memorials in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Kashmir and Orissa on the east coast.

This study has been largely located in the overall context outlined above with a focus on the form as well as the content of the Viragalas. Towards that end, the concept of a Vira, as understand by the society, reflected through its folklore and immortalised by its actual depiction on the stone tablet has also been studied. This tradition is rooted in the ancient Indian tradition of Maharashtra and can also be traced to its other sources within the Indian panorama; Lasti, Cayasthambha, and the Sthuna.

The herostone is usually divided three panels. The lowest panel depicts the event in which the hero has died. If the hero died in a battle then a battle scene would be depicted, if the occasion was a cattle raid then heads of cattle would be depicted. On the Western sea coast there are some stones where naval battle scenes have been depicted on the lowest panel of the stone. The middle panel depicts an apsara carrying the hero to Heaven. Sometimes, the hero is seated in a palanquin, or in a shrine – like structure. The upper panel depicts the hero worshipping a deity, which usually is shiva-linga. Here also the deity may change according to the local influence. The sun and the moon symbols accompany the stone. In this standard form there occur tremendous variations, depending upon a particular context of the stone. Often there are stones that have four or five panels. This increase in panels is necessitated by the need to give more details of the event in which death has occurred. The death of two persons is depicted by merging the fatal situations in the panel. Also in the depiction of panels there are interesting solutions of accommodation if two or more that two persons have died. In such cases the two events are merged. If more than two persons have died and have to be depicted on the stone, then they are accommodated in a quadrilaterally carved stone with four faces of the stone with its attendant panels.

- Ajay Dandekar

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