Karnataka, like many other states in India has a long history of documentation of events in the media of stone and metal. This broad category of inscriptions is usually sub divided in to various groups. Memorial stones (ಸ್ಮಾರಕಶಿಲೆಗಳು) come under one of these groups and they provide ample information about the social and cultural practices of their period, giving us an inkling of the psychological attitudes and belief systems of people and communities.

The stones are erected to honour an individual for his valour, loyalty, fidelity and sacrifice. In case of women, they may be installed to deify a woman who burns herself of the funereal pyre of her husband to accompany him to heaven or kills herself to protect her modesty. Some saints, both men and women, particularly those belonging to Jainism decide to renounce this world and seek the here after by performing a fast unto death. Even these monks have commemorative stones built to retain a record of their deeds. These stones are called respectively Hero Stones, (vIragallu) Masti Stones (mAstigallu) and Nisidige stones (nisidigekallu).

These stones are usually a combination of written material and illustrative carvings in various proportions. The format varies dependent on the parameters of historical period, geographical region and the thematic material dealt with. They are usually made of granite, red sand stone, soap stone or crude stones again depending on the above parameters. Usually the language and the script are those that are in tune with Kannada prevalent during those times, of course with a generous mixture of Sanskrit. They are some times terse and to the point or elaborate and descriptive. More often than not they follow standard patterns which are handed over to them by the earlier writers and engravers.

Hero stones in Karnataka have a long tradition starting from the tamaTakallu Inscription of 550 A.D. right up to kOnasAgara inscription of 1910 A.D. This honour is accorded to an individual who dies in harness while serving his king and master or in order to protect the honour of women who are being molested by enemies or while trying to protect the cattle wealth of a village or even those who die during a royal hunt. By and large, these heroes constitute individuals who are able to put society above the self. This was carried out of course within the context of an imperialistic or feudal set up. These were erected by the grateful king, community or the family.

Some individuals will have taken an oath to sacrifice their lives in order to save their master’s life as and when the occasion demands. These individuals and the practice were called ‘garuDa’s (lenka) and ‘vELevALi’ respectively.

The structures of hero stones have changed from time to time. However the sculptural details are usually more prominent than the wordings. Some of them depict the hero in combat with the enemies predominantly and the details about him will be tucked in somewhere. BEgUr Hero stone is known for giving a detailed description of a battle. Gradually the pattern was whittled down to three stages. In the first stage the hero is shown in combat, the next stage depicts his ascent to heaven graphically and divine damsels carry him to heaven in an airborne chariot. In the concluding phase he is shown relaxing in heaven, either worshipping a god or sitting in a meditative posture. Once in a while these stages are extended up to six or seven. The hero stones during the regime of Hoysala dynasty are carved beautifully and the words are found in the mid band of the stones. ‘Athakur Inscription’ documents a memorial of this kind being built for a dog named ‘kALi’.

‘Sati stones’ or ‘Mast stones’ constitute a different category. Here the woman has to perform either a ‘sahagamana’ or ‘anugamana’ voluntarily which involves burning herself on the funeral pyre. She was given the status of a ‘Maha Sati’ (mAsti) after this event and a stone was erected in order to commemorate the event. These stones are very simple and they do not even mention the name of the woman. They portray a woman in isolation or in the company of her husband. One of her hands will be raised in benediction and she will be holding a lemon in the other. mAsti stones are found in abundance particularly during the tenth and eleventh centuries. Some memorials depict just the right hand and nothing else. ‘dEkabbe’s Inscription’ is an instance. Once in a while these satis are deified and temples are built around their memorials. (mAstammana guDi)

Nisidige stones comprise the third and final category. Jaina monks, after having decided to renounce their lives by taking up a wow to fast un to death were commemoated by these stones. Such fasts were known as ‘sallekhanas’. Many rocks in Shravana Belagola have such niSdhI shAsana inscribed on them.

Practices like these may sound barbaric and inhuman to most of us and those contentions are no doubt true. But many of our contemporary practices have their roots in such attitudinal fallacies and a study of the mindsets involved in these practices may go a long way in resolving the issues.


References: 1. Shasana Vyasanga: ‘Samadhi, Balidana,

Veeramarana Smarakaglu’, M.M. Kalburgi, 1980, Dharwar.

2. Karnatakada Veeragallugalu (karnATakada vIragallugaLu) R.Shesha Shastry, Kannada sahitya Parishattu, Bangalore .

3. Mastikallugalu-ondu adhyayana, (mAstikallugaLu-ondu adhyayana-Basavaraja Kalgudi, Bangalore University , Bangalore .

4. Kannada Shasanagala Samskritika Adhyayana, (kannaDa shAsanagaLa sAmskritika adhyayana) M.Chidananda Murthy, University of Mysore , Mysore .

5. Memorial stones a study of their origin, significance, and variety

Published in 1982, Institute of Indian Art History, Karnataka University, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg , Germany (Dharwad, New Delhi ), Editors: Settar S., Sontheimer Gunther-Dietz

Links: 1. Hindusim: pictures of funerals and memorials




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