THE CONCEPT OF VIRA-SWARGA AS GLEANED FROM THE HERO STONES OF SOUTH INDIA

B. Ranganathan

According to popular belief, soldiers dying on the battle-field are transported to heaven and enjoy heavenly damsels and pleasures. This popular belief is as old as the Rig-Veda. There are numerous references to such concepts in Indian literature belonging to the ancient as well as medieval period.

The Mahabharata says that, “None should mourn the death of a hero, because a warrior under such circumstances goes straight to heaven. Thousands of heavenly damsels ran after a hero dying on the battle-field each shouting ‘He will be my husband’.

Another passage from the same epic mentions that,

“The men their lives who bravely yield,

To death upon the battle-field,

Their fleeting pangs and sufferings o’er

All straight to heavenly mentions soar,

There nymphs divine these heroes meet,

With witching smiles and accents sweet,

Run up and cry in emulous strife,

‘Make me, nay me, thy wife’.”

 

Kalidasa in his Raghuvamsha says that, “Someone whose head was struck off by the enemies sword at once became a god, he now found his own headless body dancing on the battle field, while he was embracing a celestial nymph with his left arm”. Another passage mentions that any two warriors who have been wounded by each other and died at the same time were still fighting even after becoming gods because of the selection of both of them by a single divine girl.

Tamil literature, especially of the Sangam period, is studded with numerous references to such a belief. The Purananooru, one of the Ettuthogai (Anthology of Eight) says that if a person falls in battle, he will enjoy the bliss of marriage with a spotless maiden in heaven. The hero’s heaven described in Sangam literature resembles, very closely, the “Valhalla” of Gothic mythology where dwell men who died by arms.

The above concept is further reinforced by epigraphical records. At the battle of Koppam, the Chola King Rajadiraja I was wounded mortally by the forces of Chalukya Someshvara I Ashvamalla and the Chola record says that Rajadiraja went up into the sky and sojourned in the company of Indra, where he was welcomed by the women of the sky. This passage recalls the statement made in the Purananooru poems. The same sentiments are also echoed in a number of inscriptions.

This popularity of this belief is vouched for by thousands of hero-stones discovered in India, especially in the southern peninsula. In a large number of hero stones found in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the depiction of the hero’s journey to heaven has been uniformly maintained. Normally the hero stone contains various scenes from the battle field to heaven.

For a clear understanding, we may illustrate here a hero stone from Mavali in Karnataka state. The hero stone contains four bands of sculptures. In the first, the lowest panel, are shown two agricultural implements, one of which is the plough. In the next panel above is the battle scene which depicts the brave warriors on both sides eagerly coming out, bow closing with bow, horse with horse and dagger with dagger, an exciting scene of battle. On one side is the headless trunk of a man. In the next tableau above this one, the celestial nymphs of Indra’s heaven come forth to receive the hero, holding offering in their hands. These nymphs are represented as winged human beings. The nymphs are many and are in a joyous dancing mood at the sight of the hero. Two of them, at the corners, are showering flowers. In the next panel we are shown the transportation of Polyamma, the hero, to Indra’s heaven. The hero is seated in the royal posture on a raised seat, attended on either side by winged nymphs bearing floral offerings and waving whisks, a pair on either side. Indra’s heaven is decorated with flowers hanging over the seat of the hero, higher up, we see the beautiful victorious elephant of Indra, Iravatha which, according to tradition, stands at the entrance to svarga. Thus the Mavali hero stone depicts the heroic death of the hero Polyamma and his final union with Indra, eagerly watched by the celestial nymphs.

image_1_27.1

Sometimes, as in A.D.1213, the concept of courage is described graphically by the scribes. While describing the death of Jakkanna, the scribe says, “As the chariot of flowers ascended, the celestial nymphs bore Jakkanna to the world of gods; the heavenly women singing, the heavenly drums sounding, the rain of flowers falling. Jakka, the hero arrived at the world of gods, amid the singing of heroic songs”.

The following verses from the hero stones give us an idea of the inspiration that spurred on warriors to make them into heroes: “He who secures victory on the battle-field obtains Lakshmi, he who dies fighting obtains celestial damsels. The body is evanescent, it may be destroyed any moment, why should anyone then feel worried about death on the battlefield?”. Another verse says that “Life is uncertain, honour alone endures as long as the moon and stars. So, acquire honour, even at the risk of life”.

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Attention may be drawn now to the hero stones found in Tamilnadu. The panel type of hero stones were not so popular in this region in contrast to the hero stones found in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where we get a good number of hero stones depicting the various scenes band by band, such as the battle-field, the hero’s journey to heaven and his final union with God, etc., The reason for this absence is not known. They were probably satisfied with the recording of the events describing the circumstances under which the particular hero had lost his life.

They did not give much attention to the artistic value of the sculptures of the hero stones. Instead, they simply carved the image of the deceased hero with weapons such as the bow, arrow, spear, sword or dagger. As many hero stones in Karnataka record the grants made in favour of sculptors, and the sculptors, in turn, carved beautiful and elaborate sculptural masterpieces.

However, in a few hero-stones from Tamilnadu, the deceased hero has been depicted on the top corner of the stone flanked by winged damsels holding whisks in their hands, thus symbolising the hero’s journey to heaven.

The belief that those who died fighting on the battle-field would reach heaven, and the institution of hero stones for these persons, were intended to motivate the soldiers to take part in the battle. Society and the State took care of the descendants of the deceased heroes and grants, mainly in the form of land, were freely given to them. That potential warriors were inspired and this belief propagated among them is reflected in the vast number of hero-stones scattered throughout the length and breadth of South India.

Notes and References

Attention may be drawn now to the hero stones found in Tamilnadu. The panel type of hero stones were not so popular in this region in contrast to the hero stones found in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where we get a good number of hero stones depicting the various scenes band by band, such as the battle-field, the hero’s journey to heaven and his final union with God, etc., The reason for this absence is not known. They were probably satisfied with the recording of the events describing the circumstances under which the particular hero had lost his life.

They did not give much attention to the artistic value of the sculptures of the hero stones. Instead, they simply carved the image of the deceased hero with weapons such as the bow, arrow, spear, sword or dagger. As many hero stones in Karnataka record the grants made in favour of sculptors, and the sculptors, in turn, carved beautiful and elaborate sculptural masterpieces.

However, in a few hero-stones from Tamilnadu, the deceased hero has been depicted on the top corner of the stone flanked by winged damsels holding whisks in their hands, thus symbolising the hero’s journey to heaven.

The belief that those who died fighting on the battle-field would reach heaven, and the institution of hero stones for these persons, were intended to motivate the soldiers to take part in the battle. Society and the State took care of the descendants of the deceased heroes and grants, mainly in the form of land, were freely given to them. That potential warriors were inspired and this belief propagated among them is reflected in the vast number of hero-stones scattered throughout the length and breadth of South India.

Notes and References

  1. Panikkar .R., 1983, The Vedic Experience Mantramanjari – An Anthology of the Vedas for Modern Man and Contemporary Celebration, All India Books, Pondicherry, India. pp. 631-636.
  2. JRASB Letters, Vol. XI, 1945, p. 70.
  3. Indian Antiquary, Vol. X, p. 92
  4. Raghuvamsam of Kalidasa. An English version (A Translation of the origin in verse) by Anantapadmanabhan, Ramayana Publishing House, Madras, 1973, p.99.
  5. Puranaanooru, 93, 260, 287, Ahananuru – 61
  6. Kailasapathy, K., Tamil Heroic Poetry, P. 25. Oxford, 1972, p.25.
  7. Valhala – In Teutonic mythology it is a hall of Odin into which the souls of heroes slain in battle and others who have died bravely are received. Cf. The Randam House Dictionary of the English Language (College Edition), Madras, 1976. p.1455.
  8. Nilkanta Sastri, The Cholas, p. 257, 1955. University of Madras.
  9. Epigraphia Indica, Vol. I, pp. 12, 18, 19 and 313; Vol. III; p. 101; Vol. IV, p.49
  10. Epigraphia Carnataca, Vol. VIII, Simoga district, Sorab 9.
  11. Mysore Gazetteer (Ed.) Hayavadhana Rao, Vol. II., Pt. I, pp. 158 – 59, 1930.
  12. Epigraphia Carnatica, Vol. VIII, Hn. p. 31.
  13. Kasthuri, “The Hero-stones of Mysore”, Rangasamy Iyangar Commemoration Volume, pp. 206 – 207.
  14. Epigraphia Carnatica, Vol. Xi., Hi., pp. 106; Vol. x – Ki: Sd. – 82, Vol. XV – AK: 273
  15. Nagasamy, R., (ed.), “Dharmapuri Kalvettukal”, TNSDA 84 of 1973; 162 of 1974; 72, 139 of 1974.
  16. Subramanian, N, Sangam Polity, Asia Publishing House, Madras, 1966, pp. 134-35.
  17. Tamilnadu State Department of Archaeology (TNSDA), 19, 66 of 1972; ARE, 180 of 1921; 47 of 1928, 29, para 34.
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