Decoding a 2000 year old Makara capital found at Besnagar

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This stone Makara may appear quite ordinary today, but it was one of the key pieces of a puzzling archaeological discovery. Archaeologists even discovered a fascinating local legend that had come to be associated with this Shunga-period capital that may have once been atop a pillar.

The Makara was found during an excavation led by the British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham in the year 1875-1877, a few yards off the now-famous column of Heliodorus. It was one of the four capitals dislodged from their pillars (which were never found) at Besnagar in Madhya Pradesh. The others were : a kalpadruma (wishing tree) capital which is currently at the Indian Museum Kolkata, and two tāla (palm leaf) capitals, also at the Gwalior Museum. 

The base of the Makara capital and fan-palm capital, 1880 / Source: Archaeological Survey of India / Public Domain

Cunningham described the Makara as “ugly” and was bewildered by the mysterious hole behind the eyes. Here’s an excerpt from his notes :

“The Makara or “crocodile” pinnacle is lying in a field on the slope of the mound, at a short distance from the fan-palm pinnacle. No trace of the shaft could be found; but the whole of the capital which is cut out of one block with the crocodile is still existing, although much broken on one side. The bell of this capital, as I have just noticed, is of the true Asoka proportions, and I have little doubt, therefore, that the pillar was set up during the time of Asoka. The diameter of the bell is 2 feet 3 inches and the whole height of the capital with its abacus is 4 feet 10 inches. The Makara is 2 feet 11 inches high; but as the end of the tail is broken off, its full height would have been over 3 feet… There is a mysterious hole at a short distance behind the eye which has puzzled me very much. Perhaps a horn or a fin, which the sculptor had forgotten, was inserted here as an after-thought. Altogether, the crocodile forms a very ugly finish for the top of a very graceful and elegant capital”. 

Besnagar plan
Besnagar, identified as the ancient city of Vidisa, is situated close to the Buddhist site Sanchi & popular Hindu site Udaygiri. According to Pali scriptures, Vidisa lay at the route from Pataliputra to Ujjain and also on the route from Kausambi to Ujjain via Gonadda. It served as a junction for trade routes from all directions. This strategic position of the town made it a centre of political, economic and cultural activities. 
Drawings based on the first excavation.

Uptil this point, the Makara capital had seemed like just another Ashokan-period capital. 

The Makara capital was found in close proximity to a pillar which is dated to 2nd century B.C. Further investigations took place in 1910, when several mounds were opened by H. H. Lake, the Superintending Engineer of the then Gwalior State under Maharaja Scindia. This was followed by more intensive excavations in 1913 led by an Indian archaeologist, D. R. Bhandarkar. It was during these years that John Marshall, known for his excavation of Harappa & Mohenjodaro, shed light on the pillar’s inscriptions, one of which would later reveal the purpose and significance of the Makara capital. 

The Heliodorus pillar and discovery of the Makara capital : 

At the time of excavation, D.R Bhandarkar found that the pillar was called the Kham Baba / Khamba Baba’ by locals.

One of the inscriptions on the the pillar revealed the identity of its patron, Heliodorus, and thus started to be referred so by archaeologists. It was a dedication to ‘Vasudeva’ in Brahmi script. 

The pillar, a “Garudadhvaja of Devadeva Vāsudeva by Bhāgavata Diyaputra Heliodorus, an ambassador of the Greek king Antialkidas of Taksaśilā to the court of Kāśīputra Bhāgabhadra” hinted at a Garuda-capital, which was not found.

While the pillar itself testified to early diplomatic relations between Asia & Europe, it is the deeper symbolism of the Garuda, Makara, Fan-palm capital and Kalpadruma that continued to attract archaeologists and explorers. 

Makara capital_Besnagar
Makara and bell capital, Besnagar, India] P-041951 / Kern Institute / Published 1908 / Download Restricted. 

The Makara and the capital as described by Dr. Bhandarkar :

“There is not one hole, but two holes, one behind each eye, and it seems more likely that they served as mortises for holding the tenons of the crowning piece.”

– Dr. Bhandarkar. 
Read the full observation note by Dr. Bhandarkar

“Near the second fan-palm were lying and are still lying two sculptures, which cannot be chronologically far removed from Kham Baba (i.e., the column of Heliodorus) itself. One of these is a rail capital. The bell, which forms the lowermost part, is 2′ 2-3/4″ in height. The upper half of the bell is very much battered and injured. Above is a cable necking, which divided the bell from the abacus. The latter is 9-1/4” high, and is circular in shape. It is divided into two compartments, the lower of which is occupied by the bead and reel ornament, and the upper with honeysuckle patterns alternating with crocodiles.

On the abacus is a rail moulding 2′ 3-1/4″ square and 1′ ½” high, and above it comes another member in the form of an amalaka. It is 1′ 1-3/8″ high thus bringing the total height of the whole capital to 4′ 10″, excluding the tenon at the top, which is 7-1/2″ long, 5-1/4″ broad, and 6” high.

This tenon seems to have been fitted into the mortise of the soffit of the makara pinnacle, the other sculpture lying beside it. The mortise is 9″ long, 6-1/4″ broad, and 8” deep.

This no doubt appears to be a little too large for the tenon of the rail-capital, and militates, according to Mr. Lake, against the above supposition. But in early Indian architecture the mortise holes were frequently much larger than the tenons, and Sir John Marshall assures me that he has met with many similar instances at Sanchi.

This crocodile again bears such a close resemblance to the similar animals figured on the edge of the abacus of the rail capital, that their connection can scarcely be seriously called in question. I, therefore, quite agree with Cunningham in holding that it was the pinnacle of this capital.

There is not one hole, but two holes, one behind each eye, and it seems more likely that they served as mortises for holding the tenons of the crowning piece.”

What could the presence of the Makara capital, the fan-palm capital and the indication of a possible Garuda-capital in close proximity to each other indicate?

As a symbol, the Makara, a mythical water-animal has been associated with maritime commerce and prosperity; it has also been depicted as the ‘vahan’ (vehicle) of Varuna, the God of Oceans as well as of Ganga, the River-Goddess. 

A painting of Varuna, 1675-1700, Bundi / LACMA / Public Domain 
Watercolour painting on paper of Gaṅgā the personification of the sacred river Ganges
Gaṅgā, the personification of the sacred river Ganges / 19th century, Company School, Patna / Public Domain

But the Makara was also associated with Pradyumna – the eldest son of the Hindu deities Krishna and his chief consort, Rukmini. According to the Bhagavata Purana, Pradyumna was the reincarnation of Kamadeva, the god of love.

This equation of the Kamadeva with the makara is appropriate as the makara represents the essence of the waters (rasa its various equivalents, sap, semen, Water of Life, etc.) and virility (virya). Therefore, the association of the makara with Kamadeva or any other deity of fertility is quite appropriate.

Studies of the cult of the Mother Goddess in Ancient India by Moti Chandra, Prince of Wales Museum Bulletin, 1973 

Likewise, the fan-palm pillar capital was understood to be associated with Saṃkarṣaṇa. The pillar capital shaped as a Kalpadruma tree, also found nearby, was seen as a representation of Sri Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth.

The archaeologists thus concluded that the columns were dedications to Vāsudeva’s kinsmen, otherwise known as Vrsni-Viras (Vrishni Heroes). 

Scholars believe that in ancient India, it was a popular custom to erect dhvajas / votive columns in honour of sectarian deities near their temples. So could these shrines dedicated to three of the five Vāsudeva-kinsmen (Vasudeva-Vishnu, Samskarasana, Pradyumna) be part of a bigger site?

Kondamotu Vrishni relief, 4th century CE, Hyderabad State Museum / 

Further archaeological investigations and research about Besnagar

Excavations in 1913-15 revealed railings, and brick foundations; later excavations in 1963-65 led by archaeologist M.D Khare revealed that the pillar, and the capitals including the Makara capital were likely part of an extensive ancient temple / pilgrimage site. This was ascertained based on the discovery of foundations of an old Vishnu temple belonging to the late 3rd century BCE. 

Kham Baba Pillar / Khamba Baba Pillar & Makara capital : the local legend 

The archaeologist Bhandarkar, wrote about his encounter with the local priest, Pratap-puri Gosain, of who’s compound, the pillar was a part. He represented the third generation of the original ‘Baba’, Hiranpuri, with whom the worship of the pillar had come to be associated. 

 Heliodorus pillar 1913-15 excavation led by Bhandarkar, British Library

“Once on [recte upon] a time before this worship began, a personage of high distinction came with an army to the place where Hirapuri lived. The latter (Hirapuri) requested the former to abide with him for all time, and the visitor was so charmed with the hospitality of the ascetic that he acceded to his wish and transformed himself into the Kham Baba. Such is the legend narrated to me by Babaji (Pratap-puri Gosai). The column, generally speaking, is a favourite divinity with the Bhois or Dhimars, who believe that Kham Baba was originally of their caste. As evidence of their contention they point to the crocodile capital near the south-east corner of Babaji’s house, which, they say, was a machhli or fish captured by the original Dhimar before he assumed the lithic form and became Kham Baba. The makara also, it is said, was transformed into stone along with him…. Kham Baba is believed to be such a beneficent deity that it can grant all boons, but people come here to make vows particularly for obtaining a son.”

– Dr. D Bhandarkar, Annual Report Of The Archaeological Survey Of India 1913-14

The discovery of the Makara capital at Besnagar thus provided valuable insights into ancient Indian architecture and the religious beliefs of that time.

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Report of Tours in Bundelkhand and Malwa in 1874-75 and 1876-77 by Alexander Cunningham, Vol. X, published 1880.
History Of Indian And Indonesian Art by Coomaraswamy, Ananda K., 1927
Annual Report Of The Archaeological Survey Of India 1913-14
Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1913
Prince of Wales Museum Bulletin, 1973 
The development of Hindu iconography by Jitendra Nath Banerjea
Vrishnis in Ancient Literature and Art by Vinay Kumar Gupta, 2019

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