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As Bastar opens up, memory pillars draw tourists

Decorated pillars of varying height along the main roads of Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district serve as memorials to the deceased

Memory pillars, which pay tribute to the deceased of the Maria tribe in Bastar, can be found in fields or on the roadsides. (Deepanwita Gita Niyogi)

Driving through Bastar in southern Chhattisgarh, it’s impossible to ignore the painted pillars of wood, stone and concrete by the roadside or in the paddy fields in which women toil. 

My guide, Harsh Prabhat Nand of Unexplored Bastar, a travel startup based in Jagdalpur, tells me they’re memory pillars in honour of the dead erected by the Marias of Bastar. The one we’re standing beside has images of deer, snakes, fish and frogs against a white background with a carved wooden structure at the top. On the pillar next to it were men and women painted in blue, fading slowly as it had been exposed to the elements.

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“These pillars are tributes to important people in the Maria tribe, and are erected near main roads so that they can be spotted easily,” explains Nand. “Earlier most of them were made of wood but it decays outdoors so people prefer stone or even concrete now.”

The Marias have erected memory pillars for centuries, and experts say memory pillars should be considered a part of India’s rich megalithic history.

Older memory pillars were painted with animals or scenes from daily life while recent ones bear the name, hobbies, personal likes and dislikes, and even photographs of the deceased.
Older memory pillars were painted with animals or scenes from daily life while recent ones bear the name, hobbies, personal likes and dislikes, and even photographs of the deceased. (Deepanwita Gita Niyogi)

As the Chhattisgarh government makes efforts to promote tourism in Bastar region, which earlier made headlines for naxal activity, the culture and traditions of the region is in the spotlight. Among the tourist spots is a site containing memory pillars dating back 2,500-3000 years, protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) since 2003, in Gamawada village of Dantewada district, about 100km from Bastar. Shreyas Sharma, junior conservation assistant Jagdalpur sub-circle, ASI, said the pillars found in Gamawada are centuries old and devoid of paintings. The ASI has constructed a boundary wall to protect the site and hired a resident as a guard.  

More recent pillars bear the name, designation, hobbies, personal likes and dislikes, and even photographs of the deceased. Gamawada resident Rajesh Kumar Bhaskar said these are called uraskals locally. “Some stones here are as high as 20-25 feet but there are small ones too. Daily utility items used to be buried underneath the stones. Along a line, stones belonging to only one clan are seen,” said Bhaskar.

To erect memory pillars, special artisans are hired by families. The artisans stay at the family’s house till the pillar is completed. Earlier, natural soil colours were used but now brighter blues, oranges and greens can be seen. The pillars are usually set up on the ninth or tenth day post the death.

Amit Bhagat, a Mumbai-based independent researcher on megaliths, said similar painted pillars are found in Telangana too. “Over the years, there have been additions. Favourite objects of the deceased person like cars, cycles or aeroplanes are depicted. Sometimes, pillars dedicated to children look different from those for older people,” says Bhagat, who has researched the megalithic sites of Chandrapur in Maharashtra. “The tribe would worship in the hills and carry the stones to the spot. These are seen by the roadside or in the southernmost direction of the villages. Some are erected after the village limit ends.” 

Danteshwari S Lakshme, who studied the pillars as part of her PhD on Ethno Archaeological Studies of Megalithic Culture with Special Reference to Uraskals of Bastar, said the Dandami Maria tribe erects the pillars as a death ritual. Some families are abandoning the tradition as they cannot afford to make the pillars anymore. 

Himanshu Shekhar, an archaeologist based in Ranchi who has studied megaliths in detail, said such memorials are also raised by the Raj Gonds, Korkus, Kotas and Bhils. “These memory pillars are the present-day counterpart of ancient megaliths and show the transformation of tradition over time,” said Shekhar.

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