Memorial stones of Saurashtra and Kutch
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History etched in stones
Parth Shastri,TNN | Feb 10, 2014
Paliya or khambhi
Every village in Saurashtra and Kutch is dotted with a number of stone structures, primarily in the outskirts, known as paliya or khambhi. These small memorials are not only part of the social fabric where the society revere their heroes but also serve as a piece of history that survive over the centuries and provide an insight into erstwhile society, customs and beliefs.
It is this last part that has now got the historians and researchers interested in thousands of memorial stones scattered across the state in various forms - right from the earliest stones found in Andhau village in Khavda, Kutch dating back to 2nd century to still alive tradition of erecting stone columns in tribal societies. The researchers at the BJ Institute of Learning and Research have taken up the study of the regions with the view to document the remaining memorial stones and prepare a timeline of the traditional and written history.
Mark burial spots
Talking about the tradition, Professor Ramji Savaliya, director of the institute, said that it dates back to the Vedic era where the last rites were not performed with agnisanskaar. The dead bodies were either buried or were floated in the rivers.
"The tradition to mark the spot of burial perhaps started with a single stone that later took form of stone circles that have been found during excavations. Later we find evolution of yasthi or stone columns with inscriptions, the earliest form of memorial stones describing the person's name and in most of the cases place and year. While in some parts of the country, it took place of stupas and temples, in Gujarat and some other parts, it survived as paliya. In the southern states, we also find hero stones with similar ethos," says Savaliya.
He adds that similar tradition such as runestones is found in almost all ancient civilizations. Today it has survived in forms of war memorials in most of the countries to commemorate the brave who sacrificed themselves for community or country.
Pointers to cultural traditions
What all can a researcher know from such memorials? "First of all, it is a memorial of a hero associated with local folklore and thus is part of traditions such as ancestral worship. If the person is known, we can get his or her history. Second, we get to know the culture and traditions such as sati tradition or type of clothes, vehicles and weapons the persons used over the period of time. Third and perhaps most importantly, we get the inscriptions with place and year. It shows evolution of language along with prevalent method of recording time," he adds.
YS Rawat, director of state department of archaeology, said that so far few mainstream researchers have attempted the documentation of paliya at a large scale. "Great work has been done by folk historians to preserve the tale of the brave and attempts have been made to find out more about the specific region. There is so much variety of the memorial stones that each category - warriors, sati, head of the family, protectors, animals, etc - requires specific study," he said.
Types of memorial stones
The most common of the categories, many a times such stones are found in large numbers in a limited area and are also known as Rann Khambhi. Mostly the stone columns were erected right at the place where the warriors died or near the battleground. In a typical memorial, one can find a warrior with weapons such as sword, mace, lance, bow and arrow and in the most recent ones, guns. There is also a wide variety seen in the transport ranging from infantry to horses, camels, elephants and chariots. Due to the very nature of the memorial, most of these stones belong to martial communities and tribes.
Researchers such as Jaymalla Parmar, Khodidas Parmar and Narottam Palan point that the honour was earlier given for exemplary deed such as saviours of the tribe, women and livestock. Later, many of the battles started resulting into the memorials as a tradition. Researchers believe that the hero worship was one of the major reasons for the tradition such as memorials of Hamirji Gohil and his friends at Somnath temple who died in the 13th century while trying to thwart an invasion.
The tradition of dying after the husband was most prevalent in the royal families but later on with the waves of invasions, there were mass suicides to save honour and to avoid being captured. The women with exemplary deeds also got the honour. In folklores, many such women have been depicted that later on became demigoddesses where people would worship. Many temples in the state have such memorials nearby. In typical memorials, one can find the right hand bent at 45 or 90 degrees in abhaya mudra showing blessings to all and kalyan for the husband in the afterlife. However, many have the full figures of women showing either the hands or only hands with other symbols. In some of the cases, the woman is also depicted entering into flames with body of the husband in her lap.
These stones are to some extent part of warrior category whereas it also shows the overseas travels and exploits by the community members. Gujarat being a state with long history of trade by sea route and naval warfare, many coastal regions of the state have such memorials showing a contingent on ship. These memorials were erected to commemorate those who died during the voyage.
Apart from the warriors, sailors and women, others also got represented on the stones mainly during the medieval period. Such stones depict story of religious devout, sacrifices, suicides as mark of protest against the state, friendship and so on. In some places, one even finds stones depicting war casualties such as persons carrying the royal emblem or playing war drums.
The state also has the memorials dedicated to animals that accompanied the humans. Most notables are horses, dogs and camels.
While these stones are not exactly memorials, it has the similar ethos. Kshetrapal or Khetarpal (protectors of the farms) stones are generally found in or around the farming land. In many communities, the ancestors take form of the protectors and keep a vigilant eye on the crops. These stones have snakes depicted as the symbol of protectors.
The symbology and evolution of memorial stones
Most of the memorial stones are around three feet in height and are buried up to 10 feet in ground. They are around one to two feet wide with three clear portions - head with symbols, middle with depiction of the person in whose memory the stone is erected and bottom with inscription stating name of the person, place and time with small write-up. The state has two major patterns about the top portion - while earlier it was half-circle in shape, later on it took pointed form. Most of the stones are carved out of sandstones due to ease of etching.
What makes paliya or khambhi a memorial are its symbols. All such stones have the sun and the moon in the top, depicting the feeling of yavacchandradivakarau (till the sun and the moon are in the sky), to give the eternal glory to the dead. The stones after 17th century also have symbols such as swastika and earthen lamp, intricately decorated background and upper portion.
Not all memorials are 'real'
The major challenge for the researchers is to find out the genuine memorials. Experts say that the tradition of the stones can be found up to 3rd century and it got revived around 15th century. After a number of such memorials were erected, all the similar communities and tribes have started erecting the stone structures that might or might not have the same claim to fame. As it later took on form of a tradition, it increased the number of such stones exponentially.
Memorial stones to store wealth
As almost all such stones have ethos of an ancestral history, it is seen with respect and fear. Thus, mostly people would not dare to desecrate such a place. Taking advantage of the belief, many started using the place to hide the precious metals, coins and other valuables. Such 'fake' stones were known to few and thus the wealth was protected.