Ashokan places in Madhya Pradesh

— Meera Dass

The visit by Susanne Rau, professor for Spatial History at Erfurt University, to Bhopal called for a visit to the Mauryan sites around Bhopal. The visit by Susanne Rau, spokesperson of the “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” project at the Max-Weber-Kolleg in Erfurt to which I have contributed as a Research Fellow and author of a paper on the archaeological sites of the area, added significance to my research on this very early and complex Buddhist landscape that features specific archaeological sites with edicts and inscriptions linked to Ashoka and other members of the Mauryan dynasty.

Ashoka, a Mauryan emperor with an empire spread across the Indian subcontinent, is particularly known for early Buddhist foundations that stand out in the region’s architectural heritage with their pillars with inscriptions and well-studied pillar capitals. Alexander Cunningham, Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), in his 1854 The Bhilsa Topes, or Buddhist Monuments of Central India, chronicled a few early sites around present-day Besnagar, located some 50 kilometres from Bhopal, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh in Central India.

Alexander Cunningham (fourth from right), unknown date (Image: public domain)

Besnagar, or ancient Vidisha, was a fortified town (now an archaeological mound), located on the legendary highways of ancient India known as the dakshinpath and Uttarapath. High deposits of archaeological remains and inscriptions, plus the attention by Alexander Cunningham and subsequently John Marshall, also Director General of the  ASI, led to the beginning of scholarship in the early twentieth century. A century and a half later our understanding of the Buddhist, Bhagvata, Vaishnavite and Yaksha worship has developed exponentially. However, the inter-relation of these different streams of worships in such a confined region is under examined leaving a gap in knowledge and scholarship. My fellowship at the “Religion and Urbanity” group in Erfurt was a step in the direction and I am grateful for Susanne Rau’s visit that adds a greater depth and understanding to the spatial analysis of the landscape.

Vidisha Museum

Our tour first took us to Vidisha museum where an ancient pillar, bull capitals, large Yaksha and Yakshi from the earliest times, are housed. Pillars and their capitals are very important remains from the past. Vidisha Museum, constructed under Gwalior State under the initiative of John Marshall (DG,ASI) in 1919, houses remains and artefacts from the region. The remains from here are also housed in Gurjari Mahal Museum at Gwalior as also in the Indian Museum at Calcutta.

Displayed outside the museum building are several stone sculptures that includes an unusual pillar shaft of modest height and stocky girth. The statue of the Yaksha and Yakshi in the museum are one of the rare and intriguing remains from Mauryan period with origins from an independent cult worship. With their colossal scale these large, free standing, in the round images are one of the earliest examples of such images of India. Sophisticated in its workmanship it shows a man in refined clothes and jewellery, holding a bag of coins with sandals in his feet. The female figure, of equally colossal scale holds a bunch of mangoes in her hand. The presence of at least three such massive images found along with some hands and shaft remains from the vicinity, show a significant presence of the cult and the worship. A pillar with its capital in the form of Kalpavrksha, a wish fulfilling tree, currently in Indian Museum at Calcutta gives strength to the importance the cult held.

Heliodorus Pillar

The next visit was to an ASI protected site not very far from the original location of the Yaksha, Yakshi and Kalpavrksha. Here the presence of a single pillar with its inscription by Heliodorus from Taxila, opened a new chapter in the knowledge of Bhagvata cult and its worship. The pillar that stands truncated and alone in a square walled enclosure that was excavated several times and yielded sculptures, structures etc. which when collated together provided glimpses into the rituals and other knowledge of the time. Eight more pillar foundation were unearthed Every part of the pillar along with the four excavations conducted in the past tells a story that adds facet to the larger narrative set by Buddhist Sanchi in the area.

Udayagiri Caves

A bigger and more developed 3rd century CE, Vaishnavite complex at Udayagiri occupying the hills and a ridge, to the west of the archaeological mounds of Besnagar, was part of the planned halt. The complex gained in significance during Chandragupta Vikramaditya’s rule during the fifth century CE, as couple of inscriptions highlight. The hill was probably  a monastic site of Vaishnavites monks involved in observing the celestial (for more details see my PhD thesis  Udayagiri: A Sacred Hill, its Art, Architecture and Landscape in Leicester in 2001). Two large panels of Vishnu in his Varaha avatar and Vishnu Anantashaiyana (Vishnu Narayana) are of special significance at this site.

By © Asitjain / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The remains of at least two pillar shafts and their capitals were removed from the site and subsequently shifted to Gurjari Mahal museum at Gwalior. Carvings on the abacus of these two pillar capitals depict figures associated with kalagadana (measurement of time), dividing time into year and months. The entire morphology of the site begs for greater understanding in the subject of time calculation based on the observation of the celestial. The site is located on the Tropic of Cancer and the seasons are most clearly marked based on the azimuth of the Sun and the location of the constellations.


The last stop of the trip was the UNESCO inscribed World Heritage Site of Sanchi. This is a large Buddhist monastic site that thrived for nearly a millennium and contains some of the most significant sepulchral architecture containing relics of principal followers of Buddha such as Sariputta and Moggallana in the highly decorated stupas meant for the purpose. The carved railings of the large stupa built as an ‘egg’ or womb to hold the stone chambers containing reliquary caskets with ashes and bones within. Reliquary caskets from Sanchi and neighbouring monastic sites of Satdhara, Sonari and Murailkhurda, can be seen at the British Museum, London (see Willis 2000).

The narrative panels carved on the stone archways of the torannas (gateways) placed at the four cardinal direction entrances of the railing enclose around the large main stupa called Maha Stupa, are the main attraction of the site. These panels give a visual narration of the Buddhist Jatakas and other stories related to the Buddha and the fight for his relics. Apart from the main story the narrative panels are a gold mine for ancient Indian art and architecture. The significant number of inscriptions from the site provide depth and understanding towards social, religious and values of the life of the people in ancient India.

Since the discovery of Ashokan pillar, Sanchi has been associated with the great emperor who is known to have opened eight burial mounds that were believed to contain Buddha’s relics, so as to redistribute the relics across the Indian subcontinent into stupas. Sanchi happens to be one of these highly venerated stupas that is attributed to the spread of Buddhism, initially. The carvings on the torannas depict the story in one of the most remarkable carvings of the early centuries of this era. There are remains of at least five more pillars that were dedicated here, after the more famous Ashokan pillar, with four lion capital, like Sarnath.

We returned from the trip after this.

Further Reading

Dass, Meera. 2001. Udayagiri: A Sacred Hill, Art, Architecture and Landscape. Unpublished PhD Thesis,PRASADA, DeMontfort University U.K.

Dass, Meera and Willis, Michael. 2002. ‘The Lion Capital from Udayagiri and the Antiquity of Sun Worship in Central India.’ South Asian Studies, 18:1, 25-45.

Balasubramaniam, R. and Dass, Meera. April 2000. ‘On the Astronomical Significance of the Delhi Iron Pillar.’ Current Science Vol. 86, No. 8: 1134-1142.

Khare, Maheshwar D. 1985. Vidiśā. Madhya Pradesh Granth Academy Bhopal.

Shaw, Julia. 2007. Buddhist Landscapes in Central India: Sanchi Hill and Archaeologies of Religious and Social Change, c Third Century BC to Fifth Century AD. London: The British Academy.

Willis, Michael. 2000. Buddhist Reliquaries from Ancient India. London: British Museum.

Willis, Michael. 2009. The Archaeology of Hindu Ritual. Cambridge University Press.

Meera Dass is a former Research Fellow of the “Religion and Urbanity“ group based at the University of Erfurt in Germany. While in Erfurt, Dr. Dass wrote an essay on the Besnagar pillars and religious sites of Vidisha. She has previously published a post on “Yatrā and Darśan: Pilgrimage to see in Hindu Religion” on the Religion and Urbanity Blog.

Cite this blog post
urbrel (2023, December 1). Ashokan places in Madhya Pradesh. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

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