India’s ties with Greece go back over 2,000 years, and the Heliodorus pillar, a stone column erected around 113 BCE in Besnagar, near Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, stands testimony to it. Heliodorus was an emissary of the Bactrian King Antialcidas to the court of King Bhagbhadra.
The Heliodorus pillar in an open ground near the confluence of two rivers, Betwa and Beas, is about 60 km north of Bhopal and about 8 km from the Sanchi Stupa.
Antialcidas was the ruler of Taxila and he sent Heliodorus as an ambassador to the court of King Bhagabhadra of the Shunga dynasty.
The pillar points to ties between the Indian and Bactrian kings, the popularity of the cult of Vasudeva-Krishna, and the possible conversion of Heliodorus to Vaishnavism and flourishing trade relations as Vidisha was a trading hub.
The pillar is surmounted by a sculpture of Garuda and is dedicated to Vasudeva, the supreme deity. It has an inscription in Brahmi script.
The pillar is about 17.7 feet above a square platform, and the platform itself is about 3 feet above the ground. The visible portion of the pillar's octagonal section is about 4 feet 10 inches high. The bell capital is about 1 foot 6 inches deep and 1 foot 8 inches wide. The abacus is a 1 feet 7 inches-sided ornate square.
There are two ornamental bands on the pillar. The lower ornamental band consists of half-rosettes, while the upper ornamental band has garlands with flowers and birds.
The pillar was discovered by Alexander Cunningham, a British army engineer and archaeological surveyor to the government of India, in 1877.
Interestingly, when it was first discovered, the pillar was covered in a thick layer of vermilion as locals used to venerate it as Khamba Baba.
Legend has it that the Khamba Baba protected the locals and had powers to fulfil wishes, especially the birth of a son. Fishermen, who lived around the Beas and Betwa rivers, worshipped the pillar.
Even today, members of the local fishing communities – Dhimars and Bhois – continue to worship the Khamba Baba.
More archaeological excavations at the site in the 20th century revealed the inscription. According to experts, the inscription is in Prakrit and written in Brahmi script. The inscription states: “This Garuda standard of Vasudeva, the god of gods, was constructed by Heliodora (Heliodorus), the Bhagvata, the son of Dion of Takshila, the Greek ambassador who came from the great king Amtalikita (Antialkidas) to King Kasiputra Bhagbhadra, the saviour prospering in (his) fourteenth regal year.”
Later excavations during 1963–65 showed that the site originally had an elliptical temple, built in the 4th or 5td century BCE. According to archaeologists, this was destroyed around 200 BCE. A second temple dedicated to Vasudeva was built which has a wooden pillar facing the elliptical shrine. This too was destroyed by a flood in the 2nd century BCE.
After this another Vasudeva temple was built in the late 2nd century.
This temple had eight stone pillars aligned on the north-south axis. The Heliodorus pillar is the only one of the eight pillars to have survived.
Apart from religious scriptures, the inscriptions on the Heliodorus pillar are among the earliest known writings in devotion to Vasudeva-Krishna and Vaishnavism.
Other sculptures and pillar capitals were found near the Heliodorus pillar. Among the sculptures are a tala (fan-palm capital), a makara (crocodile) capital, a banyan tree capital, and a statue thought to be that of goddess Lakshmi. These are believed to be pillar capitals that were once mounted on a row of pillars at the temple site.
Excavations suggest that these various pillars with their symbolic capitals were standing in line at the site, and experts believe that the Heliodorus pillar was one of the pillars that stood at the northern end of the line. Not only does the pillar provide important insights into history, but it also shows the evolution of Indian art during the Sunga period 2,000 years ago.