Vira-stambha is one among the many forms of commemoration of the dead. Vira-stambha literally means 'Hero-stone', a direct translation of a Tamil/Kanarese term 'Virakala' or 'Virakullu'. It is an enigmatic item in Indian archaeological and art-historical writings. The earliest references to hero-stones occur in the Tamil Sangam literature, ascribed to the period between 300 BC to 200 AD (probably including interpolation of a later period). It is in the peninsular India, hero-stones seem to have a dense concentration. But recent researches have brought to light substantial presence of hero-stones and related monuments in West Bengal.

Like other areas of the sub-continent, the pre-modern societies of Bengal had opted for very many different forms of architecture in memory of the deceased. Hero-stones of Bengal are found in the southwestern districts of Purulia, Bankura, Medinipur and Bardhaman. Again, in Bardhaman district, it is only in the extremely western Asansol sub-division that hero-stones are encountered. Similarly, in Medinipur district, the area of occurrence is in the upland areas, rather than the coastal or alluvial plains.

Compared to the hero-stones of peninsular India, those of Bengal are much less elaborate in composition. Instead of the detailed depiction of heroes' prowess and destiny after death, artists of Bengal opted for a simple and synoptic treatment dominated by the solitary figure of hero or Sati. They conform to certain basic visual formula. Certainly, the most common theme is the hero standing alone, holding a sword and a shield or a bow and arrow. The hero is also shown on horseback, or in rare examples seated on an elephant. In somewhat elaborate versions, the hero is accompanied by an attendant who holds a parasol over his head. More elaborate versions would have the hero with a group of attendants of diminutive size. Sati pillars are also synoptic in their rendering of the theme. Sati is either seated or standing alone or accompanied by a parasol-bearing attendant. In some of the later examples, one encounters severed hand of the Sati along with the sun and the moon.

Almost invariably, a seated lion crowns hero or Sati stones, at times strikingly similar to their Orissan counterparts. In a standard hero-stone of Bengal, the entire narrative is accommodated in one single panel. At least one example from Budhpur shows a standing hero with sword and shield on the lower panel and the equestrian hero on the upper panel. Behind him is the parasol-bearing attendant. On an average, hero-stones are between 6 and 9 feet in height with unadorned basal portion, the upper portion showing the hero and the crowning lion. One solitary example measures about 6 inches and depicts the sword and shield-bearing hero. Though thematically indistinguishable from the hero-stone, it should be identified as a hero-tablet, meant probably as an offering to a temple.

Hero-stones are carved in locally available rocks. Whereas in Purulia, the artist opted for sandstone and chlorite schist, they had used sandstone in Bardhaman and laterite-blocks in Medinipur. Consequently the visual quality of figures in the hero-stones differ from one area to the other. Hero-stones of Medinipur, carved in laterite-blocks, are mostly eroded with their physical details lost under the uneven surface texture of the rock. There are, however, indications that the carved figures were provided with a coat of paint to overcome this material-bound limitation.

In general appearance, most of the hero-stones of Bengal come fairly close to the stone sculptures of the Pala-Sena period of southwestern Bengal. This becomes apparent when we compare some of the bigger figures of Budhpur with the contemporary Brahmanical sculptures from the same site. There is a pronounced emphasis on heavy-set physical type in the hero-stones of Budhpur, Chharra, Garui, Banpatua, Barua or Harispur. Despite erosion of surface-texture, one does not miss this feature.

But, a parallel visual convention was also at work where the forms are essentially flat and conceived in two-dimensional terms. Carved figures appear to stick on to the surface and spread themselves laterally. The nearest point of comparison that one can think of is figures carved in wood.

Since both the heavy-set and flattish forms occur side by side at the same site, it is unlikely that the two visual conventions are widely separated by time. Although sites like Boram or Budhpur must have remained active for more than two centuries, the difference in the visual language is probably due to artists' ability to draw from two parallel traditions.

Hero-stones continued to be erected in southwestern Bengal till about 13th-14th centuries AD. As yet undeciphered, Sati-stone inscription from Garui appears in the characters of the 13th-14th century. A number of hero stones in Purulia district also date from the same period. This would indicate that the hero-stones were erected between 11th and 14th century. Despite the uncertainty about stylistic dating and highly uncertain epigraphic evidence, there should not be any serious problem in accepting this period as the most active phase of hero-stone erections in southwestern Bengal.

It appears that hero and Sati stones of southwestern Bengal commemorate the conflict between the emergent political elite and the autochthonous population of the region. Unrecorded in epigraphic and/or textual sources, this must have been a long-drawn process, because by the medieval period a new form of geo-political units called bhums had come into existence under the Hinduised tribal chiefs. Significantly, this area remained peripheral to the earlier periods of history. For example Telkupi area ruled by the Pala feudatory Rudra Shikhara came to be known as Shikharbhum. Equally significant are the erection of Sati stones, a definite indicator of penetration of varna Hindu world view in a society which was predominantly tribal. [Gautam Sengupta]

Bibliography S Settar and GD Sontheimer (ed), Memorial Stones: A Study of the Origin, Significance and Variety, Dharwad, 1982; Gautam Sengupta, 'Hero Stone of West Bengal: A Preliminary Report', Journal of Bengal Art, 4, Dhaka, 1999.