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Monolithic Pillars of The Gupta Period

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Item Code: NAL701
Publisher: B.R. Publishing Corporation
Author: Sachin Kumar Tiwary and Sathanam Krishnamurthy
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9789350501603
Pages: 141 (30 Color and 20 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch x 5.5 inch
Weight 320 gm
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Book Description
About The Book

The present book deal exclusively about the free standing monolithic pillars erected during the reign of the Gupta dynasty (circa 3rd to 6th century A.D.),which is a subject hitherto untouched although its analogue, the Mauryan monolithic pillars have been studied by many scholars. It is the result of meticulous study carried out by the authors on the basis of available diverse sources such as literature, inscriptions and archaeological excavations. Probably the first exhaustive and exclusive study published on the subject, it thoroughly discusses their art and architecture together with their historical and archaeological context, the erection method and the transportation system based upon ethno-archaeological studies.

The way the inhabitants of the adjoining villages mutually cooperated and shared the responsibility of transportation is an interesting new hypothesis coming out of the ethno- archaeological study. The sketches and illustrations make the subject quite easy to understand. The typology of those pillars and comparison with other are other significant attractions for the scholars. A critical review on the origin of the monolithic pillars has also been made.

Special attention is given to the question of the method adopted in the transportation of the pillar and its erection with inputs from various primary sources such as ethno-archaeological study, literature and excavation. The artistic features of the pillar and its capital are also highlighted tracing the evolution of the various capital figures and its significance. The book overall is a pioneering attempt made by the authors and provides impetus to future research.

About The Author

Dr. sachin Kumar Tiwary, fellow of Nehru Trust fellowship 2013 was born on 1st February 1985 in the Chaibasa (Singjbhum district of Jharkhand state in India), has great passion for the field of archaeology right from his college gays. He has acquired B.A. (Hons.) degree from the prestigious Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi in 2005 and post-graduation in Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology from the same University in 2007. Then he did Post Graduate Diploma in Archaeology, Archaeology form institute of Archaeology, Archaeological Survey of India, Ministry of Culture, and Government of India and passed out in 2009. He has also qualified U.G.C., NET in June, 2007. He has completed his PH.D. on “Rock art of Kaimur Region(Bihar)” from Patna University. At present he is posted as Assistant Archaeologist in the Patna Circle of Archaeologist Survey of India. He has been credited for publishing more than 20 of articles in International, National and regional humanities and social science journals. Besides, he has also presented several research papers in many International level.

Shri. Sthanam Krishnamurthy, born on2nd August 1948 in the sacred town of Trupathi (Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh) at the foot of Lord Sri Venkateswara, has a great passion for the field of archaeology right from his college days. He had passed B.A. with distinction from Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth, Trirupathi in 2005 and then acquired his post- graduation in Ancient History and Archaeology from University of Madras, Chennai with a first rank in 2007. The he did Past Graduate Diploma in Archaeology from Institute of Archaeology, Archaeological Survey if India and Passed out with first mark in 2009. He has also qualified U.G.C.,J.R.F. in 2009. At present he is posited as Assistant Epigraphist (Sanskrit inscriptions) in the Office of the Deputy Superintending Epigraphist, Archaeological, Survey of India, Northern Zone, Lucknow.


Indian History witnessed the classicism of its civilization during the Gupta age when art, culture, literature and sciences reached to their climax with all-round political, socio- economical, cultural and religious developments. It has to be noted that the tradition of erecting free standing pillars marking a scared spot or event or in memory of a person has been there in many cultures all over the world. In Indian context we find that this tradition is of remote antiquity, initially made of wood and then modelled in stone. However the earliest of such extant monolithic pillars come from the Mauryan period although some of them can be considered as of Pre-Mauryan period. As far as the concept of erecting such memorials is concerned, the Vedic yupas and the megalithic menhirs of the Iron age can be regarded as prototype. The scholarly world has debated much regarding the nature, technology and artistic features of the Mauryan pillars and comparatively less work has been done ir case of the pillars of post-Mauryan period.

The book Monolithic Pillars of the Gupta period authored by two young scholars in the field of Archaeology and Epigraphy Sachin Kr. Tiwary and Sithanam Krishnamurthy, is a well researched work dealing with the various aspects of monolithic pillars erected during the Gupta period. Apart from the field study of various places they had gathered data from various sources such as inscriptions, coins, exploration reports, excavation reports, ethno-archaeological study, art, literature and discussed in a systematic manner various factors of the monolithic pillar such as its typology, chronology, method of transportation and erection, archaeological context and finally the artistic details. They have also discussed various theories regarding the origin of monolithic pillars in India and the copying from the monoliths of Mauryan age up to the Gupta period.

It is interesting to note the ethno-archaeological study used by them to find out the probable method employed in the transportation of the pillars from the quarry site to the place of erection.

I congratulate the authors for taking up the task of publishing this book and hope it would be useful to scholars in the field and inspire young scholars to bring out more such research works.


Man is the only fortunate species in the world, who got the chance to evolve into a being having high intellectual callibre, which allowed them to give form to the ideas. This ability of man resulted into many innovation, discoveries and creation. Of the many creation made by man the edifices which were built under the patronage of the rich, Powerful and pious gives us an interesting insight into the development of art, architecture and cultural belief.

The pillars about which we are going to discuss in this book is one of the splendid creations of man. Broadly pillars can be grouped under two categories. i.e. the pillars which have served pure structural purpose and the free standing, monolithic pillars. These pillars carved out of single block of stone, standing by their own weight soaring high to the skies gives a sort of awe to the onlooker and had fulfilled the desire of the person who had created it to attain both immortal fame and also to create something unique in a simple yet magnificent way. Much is heard of the Mauryan Pillars, about their shine, proportions and their stunning capitals, but comparatively much less has been discusses upon on the monolithic pillar of the succeeding ages, which represents a continuity of the tradition, although set up for different purpose. So the present attempt is to study the selected monolithic pillars of the ages of Gupta period regarding their technology, artistic and Contextual aspects. Brief summary of the inscriptional data found engraved on these pillars wherever available is also given. In the technological aspect attention has been laid on the method followed for erecting these pillars. For this purpose owing to limited number of excavations done in the vicinity of these pillars much data need to be drawn from the result obtained from the excavations conducted in the sites of Mauryan and pre-Mauryan pillars. Artistic aspect of the pillars has been mainly stressed on the capital of the pillar in most case in addition to its general features. For contextual data reference have been cited from the results of archaeological excavations done in some of the pillar sites and also the extant associated structure on the surface. Basing on the inscriptional and artistic data an attempt data an attempt has also been made to categorize the pillars of this period under four different groups. Before going into these details a brief political history of the Guptas has been given, various theories regarding the origin of monolithic pillars in India has also been dealt with taking data from the various published sources of many scholars of repute such as Alexander Cunningham, Arthur Evans, john Irwin, etc. It is hoped that this small book would be a useful reference material for further research in this field, especially pertaining to the technical and contextual matters


It has been the very nature of Man to have the urge to achieve something unique and attain immortal fame. As a result of this we could see that the edifices built by the rich and powerful rulers of the past were monumental in form and seems to be asserting the grandeur if their creators. Of the many works of arts and architecture patronized by the ancient kings of India only a few have survived to the present day owing to the vagaries of nature such as the remnants of ancient cities, fortification, palace, rock-cut cave temples, chaityas, viharas, stupas, structural temples, sculptures, pillars etc. Of these the last mentioned one can be divided into two types: those pillars which have served purely structural purpose and the free standing monolithic pillars. Among the latter there are two variations in the method of sculpturing, one is the rock-cut free- standing insitu pillars as seen in some of the cave temples of western India such as cave number 8 (Chaitya griha) at Karle (Plate XX-a), cave number 16 (Kailas cave temple) at Ellora, p(Plate XX1-b) etc., and the other is the pillars which were not insitu, in which the stone was sourced from the quarry site, transported, carved and erected in the required place.

The main subject of this book is to discuss in detail the various features of the monolithic pillars erected during the period of the rule of Gupta dynasty (circa 240 A.D. to mid-6th century A.D.) which were not insitu. Such a type of monolithic (from Greek word meaning mono = single and lithic = stone) pillar in general comprises of two components. The first part is the shaft which is made of a single stone and the second part is that crowning capital made of another single stone, which includes the abacus and the capital figure above. The capital part is riveted to its shaft by means of a bolt.

As will be discussed in the succeeding pages the practice of erecting pillar had its Vedic roots and they were generally associated with a scared spot or a place of spiritual congregation. Symbolically a pillar is seen as a link between the mortal world and the celestials above and the crowning member represents the divine entity. The Mahabharata refers to the practice of worshiping the dvaja before venturing into the battlefield and from the relief from Bharhut (2nd century B.C.) it is seen that the warriors carry the dvaja which in this case is a staff with royal insignia attached to its top (Plate 1). Similar representation of the staff in association with the king can be seen in many of the coin of the Gupta period as well and it is probable that the staff has Latter assumed the shape of a pillar.

The purpose for erecting monolithic columns differed in various periods in spite of its association with sacredness. It seems that due to the loftiness of the pillar and its association with sacred spots Ashoka had used the pillar as one of the medium for engraving his inscription and thereby to propagate the code of Law (dharma). The inscription engraved on the pillar erected by Heliodorous, a Greek ambassador at besnagar (vidisha district, Madhya Pradesh ) datable to circa 2ndcentury B.C. shows that the garudadvaja was erected in honor of God Vishnu (Sircar, D.C. 1991 :88). From many of the depictions on the relief panels at Bharut and Sanchi it can be seen that they were held in veneration and become objects of worship.

The main difference between the pillar erected by Ashoka from that of the Gupta period apart from its technique and art is that while all the pillars of the former were royal erection, the pillars of the Gupta period were erected not only by kings and chieftains but also by individuals and they were raised mainly for three purpose: to get religious merit for oneself or to their preceptor; to proclaim their victory and to commemorate some person or event.

Previous work

Much work had been done on the pillars of the Mauryan period, about their shine, proportions and their stunning capitals. But comparatively much less has been discussed upon on the monolithic pillars of the Gupta period which represent a continuity of the tradition, which is more antique. A separate book dealing with this topic is more antique. However we can still get scholarly information on individual pillars from the well-defined reports on exploration and excavation which can be regarded as primary sources. The accounts of Alexander Cunningham in his Archaeological survey of India – Reports (for the year 1862-65, 1871-72 and 1880-81), that of Sir John Marshall in his report on “The monuments of sanchi: their exploration and conservation”. In ASI-AR-1931-14, excavation reports such as Excavation at Bhitari by Dr. Vidula Jayaswal and Excavation at Lathiya, in Ancient India (New series No.1)by Dr. B.R. Mani give much information regarding the particular pillar, about its archaeological context, method of erection and art. The report on exploration and Excavation published by Archaeological Survey of India in Indian Archaeology- A Review (for the year 1957-58, 1960-61, 1961-62,1962-63, 1963-64, 1964-65)also provide firsthand precise information.

Inscriptions play an important role in getting reliable and accurate information especially for deciding the period and purpose of its erection. Of the twenty pillars erected in the Gupta period, thirteen of them bear inscriptions engraved on its shaft. They were properly documented and published in report such as Archaeological Survey of India- Annual Reports (No. 7, No.10 and No.14), Corpus Inscriptonum john Faithful Fleet (Later revised by D.R.Bhandarker), learned articles by various Indologist in the journal Indian Antiquary and in the Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy.

Regarding the transportation and erection of the pillar, we have accurate information, though of medieval period from a manuscript titled “Sirat-e-Firoz shahi” by an anonymous author originally written in 1371A.D., (The preserved copy of this dated 1002 AH (1593-94 A.D.)is now in khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library at Patna, Bihar state). A recent study conducted by the first author among the village elders in the region around Chunar, the traditional quarry site for sandstone revealed an interesting explanation to the question on the method employed in the transportation of the pillar, which is describe in the succeeding pages(chapter no. 4).

Various theories regarding the origin of monolithic pillars in India has also been dealt with taking data from the various published sources of many scholars of repute such as Alexander Cunningham, Arthur Evans, john Irwin, Ramprasad Chandra, D.R.Kosambi, Susan L. Huntington. Recent observations by Dr. Vidual Jayaswal on the medium, chiseling and manufacturing of the pillar has added a new dimension to the study of the monolithic pillars.

The present attempt by the authors is to study the selected monolithic pillars of the age of Gupta period regarding their technological, artistic and contextual aspects. Brief summary of the inscriptional data found engraved on these pillars wherever available is also given. In the technological aspect attention has been laid on the method followed for transportation and erection of the pillars. For this purpose owing to limited number of excavations done in the vicinity of these pillars much data need to be drawn from the results obtained from the excavation conducted in the sites of Pre-Mauryan and Mauryan pillars. Artistic aspect of the pillars has been mainly stressed on the capital of the pillar in most cases in addition to its general features. For contextual data reference have been cited from the result of archaeological excavations done in some of the pillar sites and also from the extant associated structures. It is hoped that this book would be a useful reference material for further research pertaining to this field.

Before going further it would not be out of place here to know briefly regarding the historical background of the monolithic pillars under discussion.

The Historical Setting

The Gupta Empire marks a glorious epoch in the history of North India, when after the fall of the Mauryans with a long gap of more than five hundred years, there arose once again an imperial dynasty which succeeded in uniting the whole of Northern India and also got acknowledged its supreme authority from its neighboring kingdoms as well.

From the available reliable sources like the Puranas, especially the Vishnupurana, Vayupurana, and the Bhagavathapurana it is known that the original home of the Guptas comprised the region of Magadha extending along the river Ganges as far as up to North-West Bengal.

The Poona copper plate inscription of Prabhavathi Gupta, the daughter of Chanragupta II describes Sri Gupta as the Adiraja of the dynasty. The Gupta dynasty has a long rule of about 300 years from circa. 240 A.D. to about the middle of 6th century A.D. approx. 542 A.D. We get the inscriptional evidence referring to the last of the Gupta rulers namely Vishnugupta- Chandraditya. A genealogical list of the Gupta dynasty is given below (Bhandarkar, D.R., et.al., 1981). Of these rulers Chandragupta I is the first ruler who assumed the title of Maharajadhiraja where as his two predecessors namely Srigupta and Ghatotkachgupta were known by the title of Maharaja alone, which were often borne by the feudatory chiefs. This shows that it is from his time Gupta dynasty began to assert its sovereignty. The reason for this was attributed to the marriage of Chandragupta I to Kumaradevi, a Lichchhavi princess, as this alliance has probably united the two kingdoms and brought him fame. Even though his accession to throne was marked by founding of a new era, yet not much is known regarding his conquests. His son Samudragupta, famous for his conquest as known from Allahabad pillar inscription is the next ruler who can be called as the greatest among the Gupta Kings. This inscription composed by the court poet Harisena describes his campaigns against the eleven kings of the south, the nine kings of the Aryavarta, the chiefs of the forest tribes and against the frontier kingdom and republics respectively. His empire seems to have extended from the river Brahmaputra on the east to the river Jamuna and Chambal on the west; and from the foot of the Himalayas on the north to the Narmada on the south. There were a lot of opinions regarding the successor of samudragupta, whether it is Chandragupta II or his elder brother Ramagupta. We have many literary sources which support the theory of the succession of a ramgupta to the support the theory of the succession of a ramagupta to the throne like Devichandraguptam authored by Vishakadatta, Natyadarpana of Ramchandra Gunachandra, Harshacharita of Banabhatta and a Persian work by Abdul Hussan Ali of 1226 A.D. All these give more or less similar or varied versions of Devichandraguptam which is very well discussed and debated by historian, so it may not be needed to mention it again here. Apart from the literary evidence, we also get few cooper coins with legend Ramagupta on it. The historical validity of the account of Ramagupta is often claimed by referring to the dedicatory inscriptions engraved on the pedestal of three jaina tirthankara images found from the village of Durjanpur. (Vidisha dist. Madhya Pradesh. ) (EP.IND.XXXVIII,no.8 ). However it was argued that it referred to some local king and that of the imperial Gupta dynasty.

Information regarding the reign of Chandragupta II can be obtained from the inscriptional and numismatic sources. These sources reveal that he was a great archer and rider having beautiful personality i.e. ‘Roopakrith’, married to Naga princess Kuveranages, had a daughter from her named Prabhavathi Gupta, who later on proved influential in the relationship between the Guptas and the Vakatakas. The greatest military achievement of Chandragupta II was his advance to the Arabian Sea and annexation of eastern Punjab, Malwa, Gujrat and Kathiawae. With the conquest of western parts of the country all the major ports of that region came directly under his rule and as a result the empire prospered due to seaborne trade with Egypt and Europe. His conquest of Western satraps resulted into the issue of silver coins imitating and often counter-struck over the Satrapa coins in the western parts of the country for the first time by the Guptas. During his reign the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hein (399-411 A.D.) visited the country and left a useful account of the contemporary socio-cultural events. Prof. R.D.Banerji regards him as the empire builder of Northern India. The Bilsad inscription gives the earliest rule of the next ruler Kumaragupta I as 415 A.D. He performed Asvamedha yajna as known from his special type of coins issued for the purpose and yet seems to have mostly peaceful reign. The next ruler is Skandagupta, who at the end of his father’s reign successfully fought against the Pushyamitras and the invading Hunas as known from his Bhitari pillar inscription. Similarly from other inscriptions such as Junagadh eock inscription, Kahaum pillar inscription (Plate IVa) we get to learn about the achievements of this ruler. After him the next important ruler was Budhagupta. From the inscriptional evidence it seems that he succeeded in recovering some of the territories lost by his predecessors and there by attempted to reestablish the glory of the dynasty. The next ruler Tathagatagupta seems to have a shot rule and was succeeded by Narasimhagupta Baladitya. During his rule the Hunas again made an attack on the Gupta Empire under the leadership of Mihirakula and his son Toramana. From the accounts of Hiuen Tsang it is known that Baladitya succeeded in imprisoning both of them and later on released them. He was succeeded by rulers such as Kumaragupta III and Vishnu Gupta. Raychaudhari places them between 510 and 554 A.D. During the rule of Kumaragupta III, the guadas, the Andhras, the sulikas and the Maukharis revolted. Ishanavarman of the Maukharis claimed victory over the other three and took up the title of Maharajadhiraja and thus coming in conflict with the Guptas. Vishnugupta was succeeded by rulers such a krishanagar, Harshagupta, Jivitagupta I, Kumaragupta VI and Damodaragupta. Their rule was limited to the Magadh region alone. The struggle with the Maukharis continued even during the rule of Damodaragupta. From Harshacharita of Banabhatta it is known that by this time the rule of Gupta dynasty was confined of Malva and its next ruler Mahasenagupta in view of rising dangers of the Maukharis, tried to make alliance with Rajyavardhana and Harshavardhana of the Pushyabhuti dynasty by sending his sons kumaragupta and Madhvagupta to their court at Thanesar. Mahasenagupta was succeeded by his son Devagupta 11. He along with the Gaudas succeeded in killing Grahavarman, the Maukari of Kannauj and thus came in direct conflict with Rajyavardhana, the brother in-law of Grahavarman. During the battle that followed Devegupta II lost heavily and was defeacted so much that the next ruler Madhvagupta II remained as a subordinate ally of Harshavardhana. He was succeeded by Adityasena. He tried to renew his contacts with Gaudas and the Maukharis. He was succeeded by his son Devagupta III, and in turn by Vishnugupta II. The last known king of this dynasty was jivitagupta II. Even in the inscriptions of the 12th and 13th centuries there is reference to guptas, but they were merely petty chiefs (Bhandarkar, D.R., et.al.1981: 61-62).


List of Plantsxvii
List of Figuresxxi
List of Mapsxxiii
2Origin of the Monolithic Pillars: Its Concept and Art11
3Chronology and Typology19
4Technique of Transport and Erection of the Pillars27
5Context of the Pillars33
Appendix A: A Note on the Pillar at Umrao Dullah's Garden, Bhopal, M.P65
Appendix B: Comparative Table showing Difference between Mauryan and Gupta Pillar67
Sample Pages

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