Adventure in Andhra

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Cow before a vihara, Thotlakonda

Happy Diwali! I write from the Deccan city of Pune, amidst the persistent crackling of fireworks during the holiday season. I am here primarily to conduct research at the American Institute’s outpost at Deccan College, but in my limited free time, I have enjoyed walking the city’s streets, shaded by banyan and peepal trees, and exploring its eighteenth-century wadas. I am staying with a lovely host family in Karve Nagar, a quiet neighborhood removed from the activities of downtown.

I should start with an apology to avid readers and an explanation for my recent lack of posting. Since my last post one month ago, I have been nomadic: I conducted site research in Andhra Pradesh, finished up my work in Pondicherry, hop-scotched across the subcontinent with stops in Hyderabad and Bangalore, met with academics in Mumbai, and finally, moved to Pune. I traveled by car, bus, train, plane, boat, and on occasion hitched rides on motorbike or flatbed rickshaw to get to forgotten sites. It has been a whirlwind of travel, often without stable internet access—what precious streams of bandwidth I could find were spent up in conversations with loved ones and uploads of application materials.

From top-left: Votive stupas, Lingalakonda, Sankaram; goat-trail to the top of the hill, Pavurallakonda; ferry to Nagarjunakonda island; Charminar, Hyderabad; monkey eating blossoms, Undavalli caves; relief above main cave, Bojjanakonda, Sankaram.

Only now, during the weeklong holiday of Diwali, have I had the luxury of self-reflection, the privilege to collect my thoughts and share them with readers. To catch us up, I’ll start with the two weeks in October during which I trekked to Buddhist sites in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana: Bavikonda, Thotlakonda, Pavurallakonda, Sankaram, Amaravati, and Nagarjunakonda. I’ll turn to my more recent investigation of cave sites in Maharashtra in the next post.

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Buddhism took hold in Andhradesha quite early, almost immediately after Ashoka erected an inscription at Amaravati in the third century BCE. Massive stupas, tumuli which housed relics of the Buddha, still dominate the kondas, the hills of Telugu country. Smaller votive stupas sprouted up around the encased remains of Shakyamuni Buddha, carved out of rock or else surrounded by curved walls in chaitya halls of veneration. Some rock-cut caves and cisterns are to be found, but much of the architecture consists of the earthen-brick cubicles of monastic residences, or viharas; in the case of Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda, builders dressed the rust-colored masonry with expertly carved limestone. These complexes lasted well into the Common Era, to the delight of Chinese pilgrims seeking the source of their faith. Dozens of later votive stupas on Lingalakonda lean toward the older sites on neighboring Bojjanakonda at Sankaram, reaching toward the radiating sanctity of the original stupa and its relics.

These monasteries benefited from the wealth of coastal trade, as well as that which traveled across the subcontinent along the Krishna and Godavari rivers. Hiking up to the top of Bavikonda, Thotlakonda, and Pavurallakonda, on faded paths lined by purple and yellow wildflowers, gives you a sense of how these sites commanded the harbors and hamlets of the coastal plain. Not much of Amaravati or Nagajunakonda, the major Buddhist centers along the Krishna River, survive to the present: the former saw its reliefs scattered to the winds by the ravages of colonial archaeology; the latter fell beneath the rising tide of the Krishna after the construction of a nearby hydroelectric dam. Fortunately, both sites possess museums which preserve many of their treasures from antiquity.

From top-left: Main stupa and votive stupas, with viharas in foreground, Thotlakonda; chaitya hall with votive stupa, Bavikonda; rock-cut cistern, Pavurallakonda; remnants of stupa and limestone railing, Amaravati; votive stupas with Bojjanakonda in the background, Lingalakonda, Sankaram; interior of minor cave, Sankaram; interior of major cave, Bojjanakonda, Sankaram; Roman silver coin found at Thotlakonda, Visakha Museum, Visakhapatnam; relief of couple with wine goblet, Nagarjunakonda.

By virtue of their strategic positions near coastal and riverine emporia, these sites attracted western products as much as they did worshippers. Most of the Andhra sites have turned up at least one Roman coin in the course of their excavation; others stand in the vicinity of large recorded deposits of Roman money. A massive hoard of early silver denarii and imitations was discovered at Akkanpalle in 1959, which lies in the shadow of the monasteries of Sankaram. Nagarjunakonda yielded a veritable diversity in Roman coins and imitations; in a particularly miraculous find, excavators unearthed a pierced Roman aureus depicting the empress Faustina along with other golden beads of various shapes, the components of a nishka necklace. The sculptural reliefs from the stupas at Nagarjunakonda depict couples drinking from goblets, satisfying their appetite for Mediterranean wine.

Sankaram provided my first experience with deeper caves—the ones I have encountered thus far have had large openings and shallow chambers, easily filled by daylight. At the first approach of the uninitiated, the pitch-black inner cells inspire a primal terror, one that arises from the bereavement of the senses and the fallacy of misrecognition. Serene faces of stone (and the occasional drowsy bat) startled me as I stumbled through the darkness. In pursuit of the sensory experience of these spaces, I faced my fears, dimming my headlamp and spending time deprived of sight on stone beds. As your eyes and other senses adjust, the carved environment comes into comforting focus. Occasional breezes fill your nostrils with the scent of wild herbs; only the far-off cries of goatherds and acquiescing bleats break the silence of the hilltop. You begin to feel the power of the deep in the pursuit of spiritual liberation.

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The trip to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana was a spontaneous arrangement—in my original proposed project for the AIIS, I had hoped to visit Nagarjunakonda at the very least, but anticipated that I would spend more time with the Roman coins in Chennai. When I finished my work in Chennai ahead of schedule, I hastily planned a larger research trip with additional sites. I was grateful to meet many individuals involved in the study of this region along the way, whether at Hyderabad University or small archaeological museums. The museum at Kondapur, an inland site about 80 km from the heart of Hyderabad, has an impressive collection for its size; the site also turned up Roman coins and imitative clay pendents in recent excavations, but it almost never features in academic discourse.

Itinerate research takes its toll. Travelling on a budget and the frequent lapses of public transportation in India limited what I could accomplish and left me physically drained. As I spoke with local experts, I learned about newer, unpublished excavations, some of which I could fit into my schedule, but many I could not. In some cases, petty museum staffers seemed to relish denying a foreign researcher access to finds, despite the fact that I had obtained the necessary permissions from government agencies. Other institutions were beyond generous with their time and support. I felt very welcome by the Nagarjunakonda Museum director, who granted me access to the inscriptions in storage which I needed to consult. I also received the rare honor to see the Buddha’s tooth, the relic of Nagarjunakonda, which to this day remains in nested reliquaries along with blossoms of silver and gold.

From top-left: Limestone facing depicting veneration of the Buddha’s seat, Amaravati; large bull, Amaravati Museum; ayaka pillar inscriptions, Reserve Collection, Nagarjunakonda; clay bullae pendants based on Roman coins, Kondapur Museum; ivory figurine wearing bulla necklace, Kondapur Museum; couple with parrot, Nagarjunakonda Museum.

It was difficult not to become frustrated in the face of some of these setbacks, especially when hounded by persistent exhaustion and the stresses of applications. With a few weeks of distance, I can now look back and be very pleased with how much I accomplished in 11 days, whether it be the professional connections that I made or the material culture I intimately studied. Stupa-hopping has strengthened my conviction that the eastern Deccan, Krishna River Delta, and coastal Andhra Pradesh were areas of intense economic activity in antiquity, worthy of the prominent place they hold in my dissertation.

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Since moving to Maharashtra at the end of October, I have turned my attention to ancient Buddhist cave sites and their inscriptions. So far, I have visited Kanheri, Karle, and Bhaja, along with the later Hindu caves at Mahakali, Jogeshwari, and Elephanta Island. I have a few more days in Pune at Deccan College before I make my way north to Nasik, where more caves and coins await me. More to come!

Written from Karve Nagar, Pune

N.B. All photos are by the author unless otherwise noted. Special thanks to the ASI Amaravati Circle Director and Nagarjunakonda Museum staff for allowing me to take photographs of finds from Nagarjunakonda and Amaravati. 

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Map of Sites (Source: Google Earth)

Rocks of Revelation

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Thirumayam Fort, atop rock with Shaiva cave, Pudukkotai enviorns

The rains have come to Pondicherry. Just as the deluge ends elsewhere in India, with the southwest monsoon exhausting itself against the Himalayas, the rainy season begins along the Coromandel, as the northeast monsoon retreats from the Bay of Bengal. I have spent the last few days here huddled inside a range of manmade structures, from the EFEO to tin roof eateries, in order to escape the torrential downpours. The concrete canals, once home to puddles and litter, now support gushing rivers of runoff. Grey days accentuate a changing scholarly climate in Pondy. Many of my good friends and mentors have departed, returning to their regular lives and obligations after summer projects. Only a few brave souls, who signed up for longer periods of research, remain to face the rain.

In the weeks leading up to the wet season, I continued to take day-trips to sites throughout eastern Tamil Nadu with a dwindling group of colleagues. We first journeyed to Tiruchirappalli, often called Trichy, which lies along the Kaveri right before it splits into several distributaries; the next weekend, we travelled further on to Pudukkottai. In the region south of the Kaveri, where the Eastern Ghat mountains peter out, hills of solid rock dominate the low-lying plains; into these Tamils of all faiths carved cavernous sacred spaces. We finally visited the most popular site in Tamil Nadu, Mahabalipuram, which lies on the Coromandel about 60 km south of Chennai. In addition to rocky outcrops, smaller boulders lie along the coast, the natural blocks which the Pallavas masterfully sculpted into ornate shrines.

From top-left: family of monkeys, Sathyagirisvarar Temple, Thirumayam; Jain Cave, Sittannavasal; Tiger Cave, Mahabalipuram; three of the Pancha Rathas, Mahabalipuram; Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram; view of Vijayalaya Choleswara from the top of the rock, Narthamalai; Vijayalaya Choleswara, Narthamalai; frog-pond atop the rock, Narthamalai; Pallava cave, Narthamalai.

The rock-cut caves of the south are some of the earliest examples of Tamil architecture to stand the test of time, the descendants of the earlier Buddhist sites in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh at the heart of my research on Indo-Mediterranean trade. The supreme craftsmanship of these houses of worship simply amazed me. And yet, the rocks that host them should also prompt our consideration: they live in geological time, outlasting mortals, but occasionally preserving their convictions; they are canvases of history.

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The Pallavas emerged from numerous ancient chiefdoms as the major regional power in the seventh century CE. Their patronage of the arts is arguably their greatest legacy, as revealed by the temples at their main port at Mahabalipuram. The caves at this site, with their pillars and cells carved out of the rock, boast exquisite sculptural reliefs, from the triumph of Vishnu as the boar-headed Varaha to Durga in her full glory. The Pancha Rathas and Tiger Cave started off as individual boulders, which the Pallavas chipped away into masterpieces of continuous stone. Even the spaces between caves teem with vivacious figures of man and beast, as in the elaborate scene known as “the Penance of Arjuna.” Later Pallavas initiated a change in architectural practice from rock-cut caves to freestanding stone temples. The caves of the seaside hillocks overlook the later Shore Temple, now weathered by coastal winds.

Pallava political and artistic influence extended well into subcontinent. High up the hill at Trichy, the Pallavas hollowed out a small pillar cave with a masterful relief of Shiva as Gangadhara, the bearer of the Ganges. At the Narthamalai hills between Trichy and Pudukkottai, the Mutturaiyars, Pallava dependents, began work on caves which the Cholas later expanded. These sites encountered long-standing traditions on the rocks. Jain ascetics had been at Sittannavasal, just south of the Narthamalai hills, as early as the third century BCE, carving beds on its narrow cliffs. In all of these caves, we could look for stylistic similarities to the motifs of northern art, which reached the south via the Buddhist sites of Andhra country, like Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda. In the Pallava cave at Trichy, the dvarapalas guarding the inner sanctum lean on clubs that look suspiciously like amphorae; they reflect the constant negotiation between image and meaning, signifier and signified.

From top-left: second-century BCE Jain bed, Sittannavasal; unfinished cave, Mahabalipuram; rock in progress, Narthamalai; unfinished columns, Mahabalipuram; painting from Jain cave, Sittannavasal (Source: Wikipedia); Varaha saving the personified Earth, Mahabalipuram; Durga in full splendor, Mahabalipuram; Shiva as Gangadhara, Pallava cave, Trichy; painted ceiling, Mahabalipuram; “Penance of Arjuna,” Mahabalipuram.

The caves also record the process of their own creation. Unfinished examples, abandoned when money ran out or structural failure was imminent, show rough-hewn columns, scratches of chisels, and half-excavated blocks for removal. Paint barely survives at Mahabalipuram but can be found elsewhere. A Jain cave at Sittannavasal preserves stunning seventh-century frescoes (photography was forbidden), which depict royals and monks among delicate flora and fauna. Even the plain walls of individual cells reveal an impressive level of craftsmanship. Charlatans posing as tour guides often demonstrate how an individual cella will only resonate the frequency of the low “oms” of meditation. You cannot help but think of the sheer number of individuals involved in their creation—specialized engineers, stone-carvers, and artisans, not to mention a multitude of workmen. The hills and their sublime spaces must have resounded with the clank and clatter of chisels as much as the sounds of prayer.

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Changes in faith lead to dialogues in stone. The Narthamalai hills host a competition of faiths: ancient Jain caves yield to those of early Shaivism and Vaishnavism; centuries later, Muslim shrines emerge downhill. In some cases, appropriation replaces coexistence. In particular, Vaishnavas converted earlier caves for their own purposes, whether it be the Jain temples of Narthamalai or the Vijayanagar pillar hall sheltering a Shaiva relief of the Pallava age at Mahabalipuram. While many of the caves no longer sustain worship, some still do, now adorned with lingas and recent signs of veneration.

Even freestanding structures interact with their surroundings, adapting to the contours of the rock. The Vijayalaya Choleswara temple, the jewel of the Narthamalai hills, stands immediately before earlier Pallava caves in the side of the hillock; small channels in the uneven ground reflect efforts by Chola masons to accommodate the rectangular shrines of the complex. At the foot of the rock at Thirumayam, two monumental temples—one Shaiva, another Vaishnava—surround natural and rock-cut caverns; their buildings run up against the rock, as if emerging out of the natural world. Dozens of naga statuettes, honoring the animist serpents in the deep, flank the gateways to their abode. At Mahabalipuram, the hilltops find new life hundreds of years after the Pallavas, supporting gopuras, mandapas, and even lighthouses. The rock is a perennial source of inspiration, even as the form and aesthetic of worship change.

From top-left: Thirumayam Fort; Old Lighthouse, Mahabalipuram; Vaishnava reliefs in earlier Jain caves, Narthamalai; shrine emerging from the rock, Sathyagirisvarar Temple, Thirumayam; accommodating a shrine, Narthamalai; view of Trichy Fort; Muslim shrine to Mohamad Mashan, Narthamalai; nagas under the rock, Sathyagirisvarar Temple, Thirumayam; view from Trichy Fort; Vijayanagara/Vaishnava columns protecting earlier Pallava/Shaiva relief, Mahabalipuram.

Different priorities emerge over the centuries. The flat surfaces atop these boulders became the foundation of numerous military fortifications, from the concentric walls of the Thirumayam Fort to the Vijayanagar bastion at Trichy. The British coveted these forts as part of their southern strategy: Thirumayam, governed by the client princes of Pudukkottai until independence, received arms from the British to secure their interests in the region; Trichy sustained successive sieges until it fell firmly under imperial control. From these citadels, British forces and their allies could survey and subjugate the Tamil hinterland at the behest of the Madras Presidency. These hills, once the home of non-violent meditation in dark caves, tower centuries later as the testaments of bloodshed.

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Tomorrow, I leave Pondicherry for about two weeks: I will spend a few days in Chennai, followed by about ten days of exploring the Buddhist sites of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (including more caves!). I will be traveling light while following the contours of the Krishna River, so I will probably post again once I return to Pondy. By the end of the month, I will be heading west to Maharashtra, the next major region of my research. Until next!

Written from White Town, Pondicherry

N.B. All photos are by the author unless otherwise noted. 

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Map of Sites (Source: Google Earth)
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Detail of Sites around Pudukkottai (Source: Google Earth)

Coins and the Cretaceous

Theatre, nineteenth-century, Government Museum, Chennai

Greetings from Chennai! The state capital of Tamil Nadu and fourth largest city in India lies roughly three hours north of Pondicherry by bus, commanding a large portion of the Coromandel Coast. It was founded as Madras, a British trading post of the seventeenth century that became the bastion of British rule in southern India for hundreds of years. Fort St. George, the former seat of the British authority, stands apart from the congested streets of the urban center; some fine examples of colonial architecture remain there to this day. Of course, Tamils were here long before the arrival of the British East India Company. One coastal neighborhood, Mylapore, has a far more ancient history—it was yet another bustling port along the Coromandel, much like Arikamedu or Puhar to the south. The banyans came first, sucking the life out of their host trees; their spidery roots, descending from living branches, now slowly rip apart British bricks.

Chennai houses the largest Government Museum in Tamil Nadu, and accordingly, the largest collection of Roman antiquities found throughout the state. My letters requesting access to view these objects for dissertation research went unheeded until last week, when I got the stamp of approval from the Director of Museums. After making quick arrangements for accommodations nearby, I spent a few days at the museum. I first met with the Curator of Anthropology to see the limited finds from Arikamedu under lock and key. Over the following days, I worked with the Curator of Numismatics, who showed me many of the thousands of Roman coins he oversees. Their hospitality and kindness made me feel truly welcome. I partook in the ritual of academic gift-exchange to cement these new relationships, receiving the newly published catalogue of a Roman coin hoard at the museum in return for a forthcoming article.

From top-left: Italianate tower on main building, Government Museum, Chennai; colonial building, Fort St. George, Chennai; the banyan’s revenge, Fort St. George, Chennai; Amaravati gallery, Government Museum, Chennai; beads from Arikamedu, Government Museum, Chennai; frieze from Amaravati, Government Museum, Chennai; Tamil Bronze Gallery, Government Museum, Chennai.

While at the museum in Chennai, I photographed a few of the Arikamedu finds and several Roman coins for my dissertation. In both cases, I could not achieve perfect photographs due to the lack of proper lighting and facilities at the museum, but with some cleanup they will do nicely (I present a few below, blemishes and all). As I faced this minor inconvenience, I could not help but consider it a symptom of larger systemic problems which affect museums throughout India and across the globe.

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The Government Museum, established in 1851, sprawls over almost 20 acres in the Egmore neighborhood of Chennai. Its Italianate, Indo-Saracenic, and modern structures overflow with examples of south Indian craftsmanship, including Tamil bronzes and sculptural reliefs from the Buddhist stupa at Amaravati. Beyond these, the museum has an impressive number of natural history galleries, where taxidermy and geological wonders gather cobwebs in antique cabinetry. Newer acquisitions must compete with colonial legacies. Stern portraits of Commanders-in-Chief of Madras stand awkwardly in rooms alongside recent pieces. The collections remind me of those I have seen on a regional level, but on a much larger scale; the museum is essentially a cabinet of curiosities, a one-stop knowledge emporium for the Tamil people.

For all the coins in its vault, the institution lacks functional capital. Dim lighting and dilapidated displays negatively impact the visitor experience and active research (my coin photos certainly suffered from the lack of proper facilities). Many a curator I have met throughout Tamil Nadu have expressed dissatisfaction with the physical state of their collections and the lack of government investment. You can see the result of limited funds at museums throughout the state; an unhealthy obsession with the T-Rex prevails (from fan art at Kanchi to animatronics at Pudukkottai), while hundreds of sculptures sit in the narrow gaps between buildings, exposed to the elements. One wonders whether these spaces, the legacy of British antiquarians, have continued relevance in modern India, whether the items on display stand in the shadow of their cousins in bustling temples. I have often been the sole visitor at a museum at any given time, outnumbered four-to-one by idle staff.

From top-left: Stained-glass windows, the only source of light in the Anthropology wing, Government Museum, Chennai; Portraits of Commanders-in-Chief of Madras, Government Museum, Chennai; snakes in a case, Government Museum, Chennai; Hindu statuary in the elements, Government Museum, Chennai; T-Rex in triplicate, animatronic (Pudukkottai Museum), stationary (Chennai), and painted (Kanchipuram Museum).

That being said, there are some bright spots at the museum in Chennai. For one, the new Numismatics Gallery far surpasses anything I have seen in Indian museums so far. Most regional museums show around a dozen diagnostic pieces ranging from punch-marked silver coins of 400 BCE to the early rupees of the Republic of India; many of the labels are vague or outright erroneous. The wing in Chennai, opened a few years ago, houses a much larger variety in very well-lit and labeled displays. The Curator of Numismatics gave me a personal tour of the galleries, recounting the care put into making the space a success. It gives me hope that, despite the problems facing museums around the world, dedicated individuals fight to preserve and improve these institutions, maintaining the past for the future.

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Those who know me know that coins have a special place in my heart. My interest in numismatics began in my youth as an amateur fixation but has since been disciplined by graduate studies and formal training at the American Numismatic Society. I have always been enamored with the dynamism of these objects of value, particularly those of the ancient world. These stamped hunks of precious metal are means of exchange and commodities, works of art and displays of power. Ancient money competes with payments in kind, barter, and credit; as a result, the value of a coin’s metallic fabric is always at odds with its inflated or depressed fiduciary value. Their long lives oscillate between periods of rapid movement and hibernation, and as they navigate different economies, they readily adapt to new functions and structures of meaning.

The Roman coins found in India showcase this versatility. Gold and silver issues, especially those minted during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius (27 BCE – 37 CE), reached India in large numbers as a result of ancient maritime trade. They arrived for the most part at Malabar and Coromandel ports, after which they followed trade routes into the interior of the peninsula. They participated in the gift-exchange and temple economies of these regions rather than monetized ones for which they were intended. As they took on new social meaning in these contexts, imported coins faced multiple forms of adaptation by Indian users, who pierced them with holes for necklaces and defaced imperial portraits with slashes. They inspired an industry of high-quality Indian imitations, which face identical treatment. Many ended up buried in large hoards or temple repositories, frozen in time until their rediscovery millennia later.

From top-left: Silver denarius of Tiberius, obverse, with “T” scratch to the right of the portrait from Indian user; silver denarius of Augustus, reverse, with piercing in center of flan; gold aureus of Nero, in honor of the divine Claudius, obverse, with slash on imperial portrait; gold aureus of Domitian, obverse; gold aureus of Marcus Aurelius, in honor of the divine Antoninus Pius, obverse; gold aureus of Antoninus Pius, obverse.

Several scholars have described the Roman coins in India, but nothing compares to seeing them in person. Many of the coins at Chennai are in perfect condition, hot off the mint in Lyon or Rome. The relief on Antonine gold aurei is particularly high, showcasing the artistic prowess of Roman die-cutters. Beyond the mutilated Roman portraits, you can see far fainter scratches of Indian users that never show up in published photographs. Even the small envelopes holding the coins in museum storage reveal a treasure trove of information, from different classification systems to corrective notes of subsequent scholars; I inserted myself into this dialogue, changing a misidentified Marcus Aurelius to Aurelian. You can read the entire life of an object before its burial and after its resurrection, as a commodity and item of scholarly fixation.

Of the coins I handled, the later gold aurei interested me most. Scholarly discussions often minimize these specimens in favor of the more numerous early imperial silver denarii. Several third-century Severan imitations of outstanding quality caught my eye. They possess very good copies of imperial portraits but present a range of Roman script legends around them on the obverse: some imitations get the obverse legends exactly right, for instance, SEVERVS PIVS AVG; other imitations get close, but miss the mark, like SVEVEI PIVS VIG; still others present a series of carefully crafted letters in palindromes or random sequences, e.g., IIVIVII IVITVIC.

From top-left: Imitation Roman coin medallion, reverse, with traces of imitation Roman script; imitation Roman aureus of Septimius Severus, obverse, with piercing, slashing, and imitation legend (IIΛVIVII IVITVIC); imitation Roman aureus of Septimius Severus, obverse, with piercing, slashing, and imitation legend (SVEVEI PIVSVIG).

One might try to identify hierarchies of aesthetics and meaning. Very pure gold was used for these objects, which would make sense given the celebration of imported gold in the Sangam Corpus and the donative inscriptions of Indian kings from Gujarat to Andhra Pradesh. The imperial portrait is also locus of attention, as the detailed copies and slashes reveal. However, the Roman script letters are not irrelevant to the overall design—the material and imperial portrait alone carry insufficient meaning to Indian consumers. One medallion in the collection at Chennai has imitation Roman script on the backside of the pendant, which reflects an almost compulsive need to include these characters even when they would not be seen. Having done extensive research on pseudo-Roman scripts in India, I can happily say that these specimens have confirmed many of my suspicions; we ought not to ignore these legends.

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I will likely be back in Chennai in a few weeks to take a look at more coins and meet with a colleague. Beyond that, I may not need to spend as much time in Chennai as I thought, which frees me up to see other parts of India. I am currently playing with the idea of visiting Hyderabad and ancient Buddhist sites in Andhra Pradesh. In the meantime, I have returned to Pondy, where I now complete this post. I got to explore the extraordinary cave temples at Mahabalipuram over the weekend, but more on that next time!

Written from Egmore, Chennai and White Town, Pondicherry

N.B. All photos are by the author unless otherwise noted. Coin photos are by author, with special thanks to the Curator of Numismatics and Director of the Government Museum, Chennai.

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Map of Chennai (Source: Google Earth)

Spotlight: Delhi’s Ashokan Edicts

Ashokan Pillar, Feroz Shah Kotla, Delhi
Ashoka’s Topra Pillar Edict, relocated to Feroz Shah Kotla, Delhi
“I have been a Buddhist layman for more than two and a half years, but for a year I did not make much progress. Now for more than a year, I have drawn closer to the Order and have become more ardent. The gods, who up to this time did not associate with men in India, now mingle with them, and this is the result of my efforts.”
– Excerpt from Minor Rock Edict in South Delhi (translation adapted from R. Thapar)

The Buddhist layman in the quoted passage goes by many names. He is Devanampiya, “the beloved of the gods,” and Piyadasi, “he who sees all with affection.” Perhaps more familiar to western readers, he is Ashoka Maurya, “the sorrowless,” the great king of ancient India. Ruling in the third century BCE from Pataliputra on the Ganges, he oversaw the Mauryan state at its greatest territorial extent, from the deserts of Kandahar to the jungles of Bengal, from the foothills of the Himalayas to the southern slopes of the Deccan. The bloodshed of his first and last conquest, that of the coastal state of Kalinga, prompted a moment of revelation; he turned to the non-violent path of early Buddhism and, in his words, heaven came to earth.

Ashoka ruled through stone instead of steel. The living rock throughout his realm bears multiple Prakrit decrees (along with one bilingual Aramaic-Greek version in the western borderlands). Rough-hewn pillars, weighing an average of 50 tons each, were moved hundreds of kilometers from quarries to their intended sites, where they were carved, polished, and inscribed with royal edicts. These inscriptions remain potent symbols in India even today; they stand in the imagination as a demonstration of Indian power on its own terms, rather than one defined by invader or colonizer. It comes as no surprise that the majestic lion capital that crowned Ashoka’s Pillar at Sarnath became the emblem of the modern Indian government.

Three of the over thirty Ashokan Edicts can now be found in the Indian capital of Delhi. Two Ashokan Pillars reached Delhi long after their initial creation. One of remarkable quality, originally erected in Topra, now stands in the archaeological site of Feroz Shah Kotla. Another from Meerut lies north of the medieval cities of Delhi (near the Hindu Rao Hospital), but shattered to pieces following a gunpowder explosion in the eighteenth century; it was later pieced back together, but never regained its former glory. A third Minor Rock Edict, carved on the spot and discovered only fifty years ago, inhabits a small park in South Delhi, a 20-minute walk from the lotus petals of the famous Baha’i temple.

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Map of Ashokan Inscriptions in Delhi (Source: Google Earth)

While I was in Delhi last month, I saw two of these inscriptions in person: the Topra Pillar and the Rock Edict in South Delhi. Their rich history inspired me to start a new Spotlight series on Following the Monsoon. In these special posts, I hope to provide in-depth treatments of sites or objects relevant to the study of Indo-Mediterranean trade or ancient history more broadly. For now, I will link these posts on the Et cetera page, but they may get their own menu soon enough.

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“On the roads, I have had banyan trees planted, which will give shade to beasts and men, I have had mango-groves planted and I have had wells dug and rest houses built every eight kos. And I have had many watering places made everywhere for the use of beasts and men…I have done these things in order that my people might conform to Dhamma.”
– Excerpt from 7th Pillar Edict on Topra Pillar (translation adapted from R. Thapar)

The Ashokan Edicts remain the premier sources for the study of ancient India. They put forth a biographic profile of the Buddhist emperor—how Ashoka embraced the teachings of the Buddha, the trials of his early faith, and his rule through Dhamma (the Prakrit version of Dharma), the Cosmic Law. They outline the personnel of his extensive imperial bureaucracy, who instructed the people in Dhamma and ensured their adherence to it. Ashoka’s diplomatic missions to the Tamil chiefs of the south and the Hellenistic rulers of the west also feature prominently. The king’s patronage of Buddhism, a religious system born centuries earlier, encouraged it to expand beyond the shelter of Gangetic Plain and test new footholds throughout the subcontinent.

I have always wrestled with these inscriptions, which move deceptively between personal adversity, autocracy, and achievement. It is often hard to tease apart religious precept from royal prerogative, and the general tone of non-violence often drowns out individual threats of force. After reading through the edicts in succession, you reach the harrowing conclusion that, behind the veil of enlightenment, Ashoka’s word is Dhamma, to be carried out by his network of enforcers. You begin to understand just how 50-ton pillars moved across so many kilometers.

Beyond absolute power and selective morality, there are clarifying moments of policy. Ashoka prioritizes religious tolerance, gifts of gold, and strong lines of communication. The Topra Pillar has been one of my favorites for quite some time because it boasts an extra edict, which records the king’s efforts to facilitate commerce by constructing wells and rest houses for travelers along major trade routes. These inscriptions establish a mode of rule—specifically that of the universal ruler, or chakravartin—which remains the archetype of Indian empire for centuries.

From top-left: Detail of Topra Pillar, Feroz Shah Kotla, Delhi; Pillar and Pyramid, Feroz Shah Kotla, Delhi; Minor Rock Edict behind bars, South Delhi; Topra Pillar, Feroz Shah Kotla, Delhi; Concrete shack housing Minor Rock Edict, South Delhi; ₹5 coin and ₹10 note, both with Lion Capital from Ashokan Pillar at Sarnath.

The inscriptions also played a crucial role in the history of scholarship. The frequency and consistency of the Ashokan inscriptions aided in the decipherment of Brahmi script in the early nineteenth century by British antiquarian James Prinsep. The monumental efforts of Prinsep, like the contemporary attempts to crack Egyptian hieroglyphics and Mesopotamian cuneiform, opened up an entirely new branch of “Oriental” knowledge for European academics all too eager to control it. The beautiful lettering on the Topra Pillar was a boon for this enterprise.

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“Even where the envoys of Devanampiya have not gone, people hear of his conduct according to Dhamma, and they follow Dhamma and will continue to follow it.”
– Excerpt from 13th Major Rock Edict (translation adapted from R. Thapar)

Sixteen centuries after Ashoka (and five before Prinsep), the Edicts first received renewed interest. Much had changed since the time of their creation. Buddhism had withered away in India, taking root in more fertile lands to the east. Knowledge of Ashoka remained in Buddhist lore, but disappeared from India much when his faith did; nor could anyone read the inscriptions that anchored his kingdom of heaven. Muslim kings now held sway in what was once Mauryan territory. In the fourteenth century, Feroz Shah of the Tughlaq Dynasty ruled much of the subcontinent as Sultan of Delhi. His reign marks a pivotal moment in Indian history, just before Tamerlane’s invasion, the Sultanate nadir, and the rise of the Mughals.

In Feroz Shah’s vast holdings north of the city, members of the royal entourage took notice of two mysterious pillars with strange markings. Rumor had it that they were the walking sticks of Bhima, one of the five Pandava brothers, the great warrior-kings of the Mahabharata. Enamored with these monoliths, the sultan ordered that they be brought to his new capital, the fifth of Delhi’s seven foundations, Ferozabad. The Topra Pillar would stand near the royal palace in what is now called Feroz Shah Kotla, while the Meerut Pillar would embellish the Sultan’s hunting lodge to the north of the city. Feroz Shah commissioned further expeditions to find specimens for his palace at Hisar in what can only be described as a sort of pillar-mania.

Persian sources meticulously record the labor required to move the Topra Pillar almost two hundred kilometers. Soldiers and local inhabitants gently lowered the standing pillar onto its side using silken cloths. Still more conscripted hands wheeled the multi-ton object to the Yamuna River and barged it downstream to Ferozabad. They re-erected the column, now called the Minara-i zarin (the “Golden Pillar”), atop a pyramidal structure in the royal citadel, which was designed to showcase the polished stone. The Golden Pillar has remained there ever since, posing for nineteenth-century watercolors and surviving spoliation.


“The Lat of Firoz Shah at Delhi,” Anonymous, 1810 (Source: British Library)
Architectural reuse is one of the structural efficiencies of the pre-modern world, serving as a path of less resistance for those seeking to build monumentally without the costs of acquiring fresh materials. However, motivations can go well beyond an economic calculus. The placement of the old within the new can satisfy the human impulse to sanctify, desecrate, beautify, and control. Independent of a conscious connection to Ashoka, these pillars were items of display and products of legend; they represented Feroz Shah’s command over his subjects as much as they adorned his court, just as they did for Ashoka. When studying their history, I could not help but think of the complex efforts to move Egyptian obelisks to imperial Rome 1,300 years before Feroz Shah—or, for that matter, the seizure of more obelisks by the empires of western Europe less than two centuries ago. It is a timeless tactic of power.

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“Since the empire is large, much has been engraved and much has yet to be engraved. There is considerable repetition because of the beauty of certain topics, and in order that the people may conform to them. In some places it may be inaccurately engraved, whether by the omission of a passage or by lack of attention, or by the error of the engraver.”
– Excerpt from the 14th Major Rock Edict (translation adapted from R. Thapar)

Inscribed monuments in India have incredible afterlives. They become woven into the fabric of folklore, as we have seen. They also become totems of worship. One famous example is the Heliodorus Pillar in Besnagar, an ancient dedication by a Indo-Greek ambassador which transformed over two thousand years into an object of veneration by low-caste Vaishnavas, receiving the local name Khamb Baba, or “Pillar Saint.” Many inscribed spaces host a written dialogue over successive generations. The Major Rock Edict of Ashoka at Junagadh begot the proclamations of future kings: first that of the mahakshatrapa Rudradaman in 150 CE (incidentally my favorite Indian inscription) and then another by the Gupta emperor Skandagupta in the fifth century; both record the repair of nearby waterworks laid by the Mauryan kings centuries earlier.

The Topra Pillar is no exception. Its surface bears the words of a twelfth-century Chahamana ruler Visaladeva Vigraharaja IV; his military victory over mleccha invaders stands in contrast to Ashoka’s rule of Dhamma. Travelers from all periods left their mark on the monument. A carved elephant presides over a competition between ancient Brahmi and medieval Nagari, though likely favors the latter due to their similarity in age. The initials of lovers in Roman script and dates from our era mar the ruined structure below. This intergenerational conversation has caused some anxiety. I have heard that worshippers at the mosque in Feroz Shah Kotla occasionally gather around the pillar in order to banish the spirits conjured up by its ancient lettering. Out of the corner of my eye, I noted a few individuals seated in worship in the honeycombed bowels of the pyramid; their private prayers echoed as I ascended on secret stairs.

From top-left: Old Jama Mosque, Feroz Shah Kotla, Delhi; Carved elephant between Brahmi and Nagari script, Topra Pillar; Detail of Ashokan Brahmi, Topra Pillar; Detail of Medieval Nagari, Topra Pillar; Detail of Ashokan Brahmi, Minor Rock Edict, South Delhi; Traces of gold paint and modern graffiti, Minor Rock Edict, South Delhi; Children at Play, Minor Rock Edict, South Delhi.

Strange destinies come out of forgetting. In South Delhi, the slanted stone that contains the edict supposedly served as a kiddie slide well into the twentieth century (its slippery surface is suited for this purpose, as I discovered firsthand). The inscription narrowly escaped obliteration in the 1960s, when a contractor first noticed the faded script just before demolishing the whole area for a housing development. The edict now lies under the protection of a concrete shack, the grass around it set aside as a neighborhood park. Today, religious tourists pay homage to the words of Ashoka, a hero of the Buddhist faith, in the land where the faith began and died. Traces of golden paint and modern scribbles can be found all around the inscribed stone, likely from the present age of pilgrimage. Children still scamper over the surrounding rocks, trying to send their kites on updrafts into polluted skies.

Perhaps in Delhi more than anywhere else do we find the lasting legacy of Ashoka’s Edicts. They have incredible life cycles, hibernating for centuries and awoken by chance, inviting fascination and engagement with their form or content. They have an unmistakable link to power throughout time, even after being forgotten for millennia. They long outlive their ancient framers and intended audience, but still find ways of shaping an ever-changing present.

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More updates about my current research coming soon!

Written from White Town, Pondicherry

N.B. All photos are by the author unless otherwise noted. Translations of the Prakrit are adapted from Romila Thapar’s Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas.

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Map of Sites (Source: Google Earth)
Edicts of Ashoka (Source: Wikipedia)

Empire and Edifice

Temple at Dusk, Gangaikondacholapuram

Over successive weekends, the gang went south to the Chola heartland. We visited three major Tamil sites, recently combined under the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation “Great Living Chola Temples”: Thanjavur’s Brhadishwara Temple; the religious complex at Gangaikondacholapuram; and the Airavateshwara Temple just outside Kumbakonam. As usual, we left Pondy before dawn and spent all day marveling at these prime examples of Dravidian architecture. The evening sky broke on the tired trips home, drenching the wide fields; cracks of lightning lit the way far better than our car’s headlamps.

This part of Tamil Nadu, an expanse of alluvial plains with sporadic palm trees, remains dominated by the Kaveri River, which traverses the southern peninsula from its source in the foothills of Western Ghats. The Cholas built their capitals very near to this river, just where it splits into the several mouths of the Kaveri Delta. We crossed the one-lane bridge over the Kollidam distributary four times in the course of our travels: two weeks ago, the river almost overflowed its banks, roiling from the heavy rains that devastated Kerala in early August; last week, it returned to the lows set by levies and the jagged peaks of the riverbed poked above the surface once more.

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Map of the eastern Kaveri and Kollidam (Source: Google Earth)

These waterways served the ancient Tamil chiefdoms as well as their imperial heirs, linking the ports along the Malabar Coast like Muziris to those of the Coromandel. Puhar (also known as Poompuhar), an ancient port situated at the mouth of the Kaveri, is the vibrant stage of the Cilippatikaram, where the entire world crowds into one city. The tiger stamps of the epic’s customs agents, certifying imports before they headed upriver, must have resembled the sigil of ancient Chola chieftains, which graces bronze coinage from the early Common Era. The port is now gone; like so many from antiquity, it lies beneath brine and silt. Supposedly, you can still find bits of Roman amphorae on the beaches nearby, washing up from the sunken past.

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The great Chola kings of the 10th through 12th centuries constructed temples to match their expanding empire. The “king of kings” Rajaraja I inaugurated the complex at Thanjavur (formerly Tanjore) around 1000 CE, during the peace born of successful military operations in the south. An epic inscription by the king—107 paragraphs spanning the entirety of the core structure—records the lands and riches of his conquests, which he provided for the temple and its bronze icons. His son and successor, Rajendra I, built a new capital at Gangaikondacholapuram to commemorate his campaign to the banks of the Ganges. The waters of this sacred river, furnished as the tribute of subjugated nations, used to fill the temple pools. Discourses on these masterpieces of Dravidian architecture often forget to mention their genesis in violence.

Size is the conspicuous metric of Chola power. The granite vimanas of their temples tower above all else in the vicinity, tapering like arrowheads threatening the sun. Even Rajaraja II’s twelfth-century Airavateshwara Temple near Kumbakonam, the smallest of the three, still overwhelms in its stature. All the while, the mastery of Tamil craftsmanship has instilled vivacity in every detail. Dancers revel in the friezes just below eye level, while the contorted bodies of beasts battle along staircases. Exterior reliefs assume different textures depending on the time of day, as we experienced firsthand at Gangaikondacholapuram. At dusk, the stone here softens and takes on a pinkish hue, the sort that defines the desert cities of Rajasthan a world away. As nighttime storms swirl around the central shrine, its facade sharpens into dramatic edges and faces lurk in the shadows, more reminiscent of Tolkien’s Minas Morgul.

From top-left: Stormclouds at Gangaikondacholapuram; Vimana (or central shrine), Brhadishwara Temple, Thanjavur; Vimana, Airavateshwara Temple, near Kumbakonam; Excerpt of Rajaraja I’s inscirption, Thanjavur; Lion and makara eating an elephant railing, Airavateshwara Temple; Ruined gopuram,  Airavateshwara Temple; Dancer and musicians, Airavateshwara Temple; Later painting of temples, Brhadishwara Temple, Thanjavur.

Before we saw the big three, we had already experienced many of the smaller Chola temples of Kumbakonam—temples just as alive as the “living” ones crowned by UNESCO. At the Adi Kumbeshwarar Temple, the usual adorations resound in carved halls. Cult images have sustained innumerable hands, worn smooth and covered in the black tar of libations, spices, and smoke. We did not refuse a ceremonial meal of rice and chutney after the morning’s final puja, not far from where an elephant doled out blessings with her trunk. In front of the massive Mahamaham tank in the center of town, a procession of women, golden-faced with turmeric, offered flowers as musicians in white kept time.

I found the perspective of the smaller temples clarifying when visiting their gargantuan cousins. There seems to be a conscious effort to maintain the grandeur of the imperial temples through a classicizing aesthetic. Much as anastylosis did for ancient Greek temples, whose bleached marble never received the color of their former life in order to accommodate a modern understanding of the Classical ideal, the restoration of the larger Chola temples has left their facades unabashedly nude. The painted panels of modern worship hide in dark interiors, venerated only by the devout. Graveyards of unmourned architectural fragments surround these celebrations of the past, just as you find at archaeological sites throughout the Mediterranean.

From top-left: Small Chola-era shrine, Nageshwaran Temple, Kumbakonam; Double-bodied Nandi, Nageshwaran Temple, Kumbakonam; The moment of color, Nageshwaran Temple, Kumbakonam; Chariot-temple, Nageshwaran Temple, Kumbakonam; Stray architectural fragments, Airavateshwara Temple, near Kumbakonam; Two beautiful bodies, Nageshwaran Temple, Kumbakonam.

The Nageshwaran Temple in Kumbakonam lives on in a different way. It came into being two centuries before Rajaraja I consecrated Tanjore, but still boasts the hallmarks of imperial style, including chariot wheels and a weathered inscription by the great king. The sly smiles of figural reliefs, which pose in doorways flanked by continuous Grantha inscriptions, left me breathless. However, classicizing has partly given way to the needs of faith. The Chola temple bases and their sculptural components remain unpainted up until a particular register, where they suddenly erupt into the technicolor of the standard Hindu temple. Somber stone finds a glorious rebirth in the colors of kitsch. I found it an ingenious solution to the sticky situation that recurs in spaces with the longest lives: how to respect the past but communicate the beauty of the present.

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Writing and some editing have otherwise kept me busy this week. It was so nice to see my friend and colleague Evan in Pondy as he passed through on his own journey in India. Trichy and possibly Auroville await us this weekend.

A brief content update before I sign off: I have heard from a couple of readers that they would find it useful to have some maps for the sites that I mention in my posts. Going forward, I will have Google Earth maps or the like in each post (I have also added some to the previous posts). Thank you for the suggestion!

Written from White Town, Pondicherry

N.B. All photos are by the author unless otherwise noted. 

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Map of Sites (Source: Google Earth)

Tensions of Treasure

View of the Ariyankuppam, Arikamedu

Arikamedu lies due south of White Town, on the southern bank of the Ariyankuppam River just as it meets the sea. It is not a particularly good place for a deepwater port, but no spot along the Coromandel Coast really is. The great rivers of the Tamil heartland, engorged by monsoon rains in the west, flood the coastal plains, meeting with the Bay of Bengal to form backwaters. It is here that a dynamic form of exchange occurred between coastal hamlets and ocean-going vessels, one mediated by smaller crafts that could navigate both the shallow marshes and the open sea.

Eighteenth-century Jesuits, who built a seminary here, first noticed the presence of western finds in their backyard. As rumors of cameos and pottery spread north, French scholars (including those at the EFEO) conducted cursory explorations in the 1930s and 40s. Many began to make the link between the area and the Podouke Emporion of Greco-Roman itineraries, which may or may not have some relation to the Tamil Puduchcheri (or “New Town”). Formal excavations began in 1945 under the auspices of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), directed by Sir Mortimer Wheeler.

From left: Ariyankuppam River, Arikamedu; Jesuit seminary, seventeenth century, Arikamedu; a refresher course on site reports, EFEO, Pondicherry.

With each excavation, the site assumed a new character. For Wheeler, the last colonial director of the ASI, Arikamedu represented Rome beyond its frontiers—an empire without end just as Britain’s was ending. The French excavations under Casal (1947–50) placed the port in a regional context of Megalithic sites, but maintained parts of this Romanocentric narrative. The site lay fallow for decades, until renewed interest sparked excavations by an international team under Begley (1989–92). Their findings not only clarified the earlier excavations, but extended the chronology of the site and reclaimed supposed imports as products of Indian ingenuity.

From these missions, we get a sense of a particular moment at Arikamedu—a Tamil port with a long history of trade on the backwaters, but one that participated in wider Indian Ocean networks for roughly two centuries, from the late first century BCE to the end of the second century CE. The sheer importance of this site for understanding the mechanics of ancient commerce has always excited me as a scholar. The tensions beneath the sand do much to challenge my preconceptions.

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After hopping the fence to enter the archaeological site, you might initially think you have been duped by your rickshaw driver. Mango and coconut trees line sandy paths to a sheer drop-off above the river; low-lying vegetation and strategic backfills conceal the ancient remains. The only superstructure is the old seminary, whose arches of pilfered brick are often mistaken as Roman architecture. If you know where to look, you can find the devil in the details. Roman-era buildings peek out from the crumbling embankment. Ring wells, which once nourished the coastal settlement, can be seen in split profile, their shattered ribs exposed to the elements. Pottery of all periods litters the ground, mingling with the trash of less considerate visitors.

I am so glad to have met a local enthusiast, Ramesh, who alternates his time between reading in the EFEO library, exploring the site he loves, and publishing his discoveries. We toured Arikamedu together, musing in broken English over what we could find; he then graciously welcomed me into his family home to view his findings over coffee. I truly appreciated his knowledge and patience; without his help, I would have spent far more time scrapping my way through the brush.

From top-left: Reconstructed jewelry from bead finds in the area; traces of a ring well on the surface, Arikamedu; following Ramesh down the embankment, Arikamedu; traces of Roman period brick, Arikamedu; ring well, Arikamedu.

To bring life to the site, you must add a catalogue of excavated and chance finds from over the past 80 years. Arretine Ware, pottery linked to workshops in France, has a brief heyday in the early first century CE. Roman amphorae at Arikamedu span much longer, following the changes of production centers throughout the Roman Mediterranean, from Italian wine in the first century to Spanish products in the second. Indian Rouletted Ware adapts in this moment with foreign designs. Unworked gems from the interior arrive to the coast, waiting to be carved into the cameos of international taste. Local glass and stone beads produced here participate in a pan-Indian Ocean market. Terracotta figurines adopt Indian dress and posture, but also draw inspiration from the prodigious outputs at Alexandria.

Traces of foreigners in the city pool in the northern portion of the excavated area. Spanish fish sauce and Adriatic olive oil, products with no real market in India, perhaps sustained seasonal trading communities or even resident aliens. Pozzolana-like cement found on broken potsherds suggests the recycling of amphorae for underwater construction, a possible contribution of Mediterranean masonry for quays at the river mouth. Limited epigraphy reveals languages and scripts of merchants from throughout the subcontinent. Beyond the activities of foreigners, the port continued as it always had, watered by its ring wells, but with a view to the larger world.

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The future of Arikamedu remains in doubt. For one thing, the site’s archaeological finds are not easily accessible. Many reside nearby in Pondicherry or Chennai; others have vanished, last seen in Hanoi or Paris over 50 years ago. The Pondicherry Museum, like many regional museums in India, is a trial of academic patience. Finds are jumbled in unlabeled glass cabinets, which stand alongside tattered furniture from old colonial mansions. Bricks from Arikamedu sit unprotected on a plastic side table lined with newsprint. The collection begs for some semblance of organization and pizzazz to captivate visitors. The strict anti-photography policy, even for researchers, obfuscates rather than protects; it effectively hides the disarray for the next victim.

Arikamedu faces many of the same pressures that affect archaeological sites around the globe. Talks of renewing excavations here or constructing an interactive visitor center sprout up sporadically, like the weeds that you find along the banks of the Ariyankuppam. Each time, the prospect has been starved by bureaucratic infighting, lack of funds, or public apathy. The current nationalist government tends to suppress projects that do not corroborate a narrative of Hindu supremacy in the subcontinent. Looting is a forgone conclusion, given that finds pop out of the sand at the slightest provocation. All the while, the river erodes the structures below; what pottery and brick the mangroves do not ensnare in their roots move slowly out to sea.

From top-left: Gemstones and beads, including carnelian cameo blank; Roman amphora fragment; Type 110 pottery; onyx fragments; pottery of all ages (from ancient period through 15th century).

The site lives up to one colleague’s description of a “festering sore,” constantly reopened by the tug-of-war between scholars of east and west, between rewriting the past and forgetting it, between man and nature. It can continue to change the landscape of ancient history, and yet, the prospect of an interconnected world cannot help but aggravate the scars of the colonial past. Doom and gloom aside, the efforts of people like Ramesh give me hope. He satisfies his own curiosities with research, but also eagerly shares his knowledge with others. He walks the grounds almost every day, noting advanced stages of erosion. He repeatedly petitions the government to invest more in site preservation for future generations. His heroic dedication reminds me that to study a site without understanding the stakes of its survival is an empty affair.

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Visits to the Pondicherry Museum and Arikamedu straddled a week full of lectures on Indology at the Institut Français de Pondichéry (IFP), a fellow academic center that works closely with the EFEO. Otherwise, things in Pondy remain much the same. Last weekend, the gang made a trip to the temples of Kumbakonam; tomorrow, we may travel to Thanjavur, one of the capitals of the imperial Cholas. In the next week or so, I plan to study some of the other local sites related to ancient trade (many of which have not received extensive scholarly treatment). Stay tuned!

Written from White Town, Pondicherry

N.B. All photos are by the author unless otherwise noted. For those interested, I have whipped up a brief bibliography of the relevant site reports for Arikamedu (along with a few extra scholarly treatments).

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Map of Arikamedu (Source: Google Earth)

Temples and Timelines

Muvar Kovil
Our companions at Muvar Kovil, Kodumbalur 
***Note to the reader: this post contains descriptions of ritual practices that might be disturbing.***

Temple-trekking has interrupted an otherwise sedentary week of library research. Three of us at the EFEO, all graduate students involved somehow with Sanskrit, Art History, and Archaeology, have decided to organize visits to many of the great Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu. While we have several more research trips in the works, the first few have already had a profound impact on my understanding of this part of the world.

We made two treks in recent days, setting off before dawn each time. The first journey went north to the major city of Kanchipuram (known colloquially as Kanchi); a second took us south to the lesser-known village of Kodumbalur, near Pudukkottai. We spent hours in the sun and sudden rain, visually dissecting temples of the Pallava (7th–10th c. CE), Chola (11th–12th c.), and Vijayanagar (14th–16th c.) periods. I enjoyed sounding out vaguely familiar letters of Grantha inscriptions alongside a newfound colleague, syllables chiseled just as the Brahmi of north and south India diverged into entirely separate writing systems.

These temples tower overhead as achievements of Tamil masonry. Images of royals and divinities grace the galleries of circumambulatory paths and sky-high registers with dynamic poses. Others inspire terror, like the goddess Durga in all her splendor or manned horses one might find on a haunted carousel. Inscriptions of all ages crawl along every surface, reflecting not an epigraphic habit, but an obsession with the written word. Later constructions, like the Hundred-Pillar Hall at the Varadharaja Perumal Temple in Kanchi, contain an overload of vignettes in displays of artistic erudition. Sublime and playful details, the strategic variations in continuity, captivate the viewer.

From top-left: Muchu Kundesvara Temple, Chola Era, Kodumbalur; Varadharaja Perumal Temple, Vijayanganar Era, Kanchi; Vaikunta Perumal Temple, Pallava Era, Kanchi; Sandstone Lion Pillar,Vaikunta Perumal Temple, Kanchi; Vanaras, Hundred-Pillar Hall, Varadharaja Perumal Temple, Kanchi; Inscribed Temple Wall, Muvar Kovil, Kodumbalur; Durga, Kailasanathar Temple, Kanchi; Ganas on an Upper Frieze, Muvar Kovil, Kodumbalur; Nightmarish Horse Pillar, Hundred-Pillar Hall, Varadharaja Perumal Temple, Kanchi.

At Kodumbalur, the former capital of the Irrukuvel chiefdom, I encountered the descendants of ancient Tamils who sought goods from the Mediterranean world. Bhuti Vikramakesari, Irrukuvel chief and tributary to the imperial Cholas, commissioned the temples of Muvar Kovil roughly a thousand years ago. Several centuries earlier, a Sangam-era poem of the Purananuru celebrates the wealth of the Irrukuvel heartland, blossoming from the treasures of trade. The contemporary Pudukkottai hoard, the largest recorded cache of Roman gold coins found in India, remained buried in this very region until the nineteenth century. As an ancient historian, I could not help but experience the competing narratives of these spaces; they are portals to a remote antiquity I know quite well, and yet also windows to an enthralling present.

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In very few places can you read the layers of the past as clearly as in a Hindu temple. The royal chapels of old, swollen from the nourishment of popular devotion, have multiplied to form sprawling religious complexes. The plaster and paint found on sculptural reliefs—some original, much from later periods—reflect attempts to breathe life into stone over successive generations. The sloppy hand of recent interventions obliterates delicate relief, often resulting in dull, grotesque, or comic aberrations. Granite bears not only royal titles, but also the initials of later donors and figural graffiti. Victorian numerals stand out of place next to ancient scripts, the legacy of survey missions under the Raj and colonial structures of knowledge.

Motif serves as a measure of change within these evolving buildings. What I would recognize as many hoods of a nagaraja, or serpent-king, sheltering the meditating Buddha in the early centuries CE later becomes Vishnu sitting on the coils of Shesha, the endless snake of creation. The western yavanas of antiquity, often found in subservient roles in sculpture, yield to the barbaric mlecchas of the Islamic world. It is a reminder that images never truly die but find new life and meaning across space and time, hibernating in the artistic consciousness only to emerge centuries later. In my study of Roman coinage as objects of aesthetic value in India, I often delve into related phenomena: how superficial details of coin iconography become the blueprints of far more meaningful expression in Indian art.

From top-left: Detail from Pillar, Muchu Kundesvara Temple, Kodumbalur; Detail of Paint, Muvar Kovil, Kodumbalur; Inscribed Initials Va U U, Vaikunta Perumal Temple, Kanchi; Gallery 34, Kailasanathar Temple, Kanchi; Painted and Plastered Reliefs, Kailasanathar Temple, Kanchi; Modern Paint Job, Hundred-Pillar Hall,Varadharaja Perumal Temple, Kanchi; Two Laughable Modern Reconstructions, Kailasanathar Temple, Kanchi.

It was odd to confront the divergent destinies of these houses of worship, which grew over a thousand years into mega-temples or withered away almost entirely. The temples are very much alive in the pilgrimage city of Kanchi, the loud and crowded refuge of the faithful. As westerners, we could not enter their holy of holies in consideration of Hindu worshippers. The temples of Kodumbalur, on the other hand, are more akin to the Greco-Roman ruins, where flocks of tourists and schoolchildren clamber over deconsecrated features. The village cows graze peacefully in the adjacent fields; their brethren in Kanchi mull their options over urban waste.

Kanchi’s religious identity gave me pause. Several processions clogged the already-choked streets before temple gateways. Devotees of one Shaiva sect practiced extreme acts of bhakti, or devotion to the god, piercing their cheeks with sharpened poles and hanging from wooden cranes by hooks to the back. Drums sounded from the deep of inner sanctums, accompanied by priestly chants and the occasional horn or conch-blast. We witnessed the adoration of the Shiva-linga with carefully sequenced libations, as well as images of nagas caked in turmeric. The smell of incense wafts from censers in the foreground of cult statues, just as it would have a thousand years ago.

The study of the ancient world often bypasses these sensations of religious life (despite occasional reminders in scholarship). We tend to forget this in the immediate consideration of ruined spaces, whose gaudy paint and strange odors faded away centuries ago. Perhaps the living traditions of Hinduism can provide analogies for more ancient forms of polytheistic worship; with these templates of the present, perhaps we can begin to restore the colors, sounds, and smells of past revelation.

From left: A go in the gopuram (cow in the temple gate), Varadharaja Perumal Temple, Kanchi; Veneration with Incense, Ekambareswarar Temple, Kanchi; Nagas caked with turmeric, Vaikunta Perumal Temple, Kanchi; Dressed Cult Statue with Offerings, Ekambareswarar Temple, Kanchi.

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It has been nice to settle back into my normal rhythm in Pondy in between treks. My dissertation work at the EFEO has been going well, though I can feel the approach of the application season, much as you can sense the coming of monsoon rains here most afternoons. I am getting used to other aspects of life in southern India, like eating rice by hand off of banana leaf plates. I got to visit the Pondicherry Museum (and saw some Roman things!), but that can wait. Until next time!

Written from White Town, Pondicherry

N.B. All photos are by the author unless otherwise noted.

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Map of Sites (Source: Google Earth)