Greek mythology and Buddhist rock cut temples of Ancient India

Pegasus and Atlants from Pitalkhora Baluster face
About a couple of years ago, I paid a visit to the ancient Buddhist rock cut temples at Pitalkhora; some distance away from the tourist town of Aurangabad in Maharashtra state of India. The main prayer hall in this group of caves is at a somewhat higher level than the foreground and one needs to climb a few steps cut in the rock to enter the prayer hall. The side faces of balusters of the steps are naturally of triangular shape. As I was looking around, I found some bass relief figures carved on these side faces. When I looked closely, I found first a large figure of the celestial dwarf ' Yaksha' with his hands up, as if he was supporting the steps along with another smaller 'Yaksha' to the left. Further to the left, in a narrow angle marked by two lines, there was a figure that appeared like that of a horse. I looked closely and a feeling of wonder and amazement filled my mind. The horse had wings. It was a classic figure of the Pegasus; the divine stallion with wings; straight from Greek mythology. I was not able to understand what a Greek Mythological figure was doing in a Buddhist temple excavated at least 200 years even before our era.
Next to the main prayer hall, at Pitalkhora, there was a large cave that housed cells of Buddhist monks and also a common hall. The cells for the monks were lined at the rear of the hall and also on the sides. The wall dividing the cave between common hall and cells for monks was highly decorated with carved Buddhist motifs like canopies and pillars. The pillars were shaped like a bell near the ceiling and above this, I found pairs of animals shown seated on the capitals. The first pair on the left itself was a big surprise again. Here, a pair of winged sphinxes was shown seated on the capital just below the ceiling. The sphinx on the right was shown seated in a proper lion pose but the one in the left was shown seated in a very curious way; just like a small baby. The Sphinxes had human heads, elephantine shaped ears and wore pendant earrings. The curly hairstyle on the heads of the both sphinxes, was vintage Greek without any doubt.

 Pitalkhora Sphinxes

According to an eminent Indian archaeologist, M.K. Dhavlikar, even the Yaksha or celestial dwarf figures are of Greek origin. He says and I quote:
there should be little doubt that it is originally a Greek motif. In Greek mythology, atlants are sort of demons who support the earth and are quite commonly depicted in Greek art as supporting superstructures. At Nasik, the motif is much Indianized and hence the figures look like Yakshas.....but their earlier representation at Pitalkhora (2nd cent. B. C. ) is more illustrative. There they are carved on balusters of the flight of steps leading to the main Chaitya. They are dwarfs and have goblin-like features with curly hair and look more Greek.”
After this visit to Pitalkhora caves, I started specifically looking for figures from Greek mythology in other Buddhist rock cut temples excavated around that period during my visits. I found my curiosity amply rewarded at Nashik, Karle'n and again at Bhaje caves. Here are some of the Greek mythological figures that I found and appear in these caves. 

Sphinx at Karle'n
At Karle'n main prayer hall there is a figure of Sphinx with a human rider sculptured above a capital and an inscription below on the pillar, says it has been donated by a 'Yavana' named as 'Dhamadhaya.

 Owls near Athana's feet; Nashik caves

In Nashik caves, very interesting figures of creatures from Greek Mythology can be seen. On the inner face of porch pillars, in cave number 3, there are two sphinxes again with bodies of lions. In cave number 24 on the eastern end, we can find a male rider riding a female centaur. A centaur is a mythological creature with the head, arms, and torso of a human and the body and legs of a horse. Such centaurs are of common occurrence in Greek art. Again in the same cave we find another surprise. Here a bass relief of a carved Owl can be seen. An owl is considered inauspicious in India. In Greek mythology, the bird was associated with Athena, the Goddess of wisdom and if one flew over or before Greek soldiers, it was a sign of victory.
Greek Triskelon

In addition to this, other Greek mythological figures like a 'Griffin'; ( with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle; and an eagle's talons as its front feet) as well as figures of Nemean Lions can be seen carved on the capitals at the top of the inner face of porch pillars. Besides mythological figure, some common Greek motifs like that of a triskelion, a Swastka like motif with three arms radiating from centre, are also seen at Nashik.

Pegasus and Atlants of Bhaje

One of the earliest Buddhist rock cut temples is at Bhaje. The cave number 18 here is a virtual feast for the eyes. Many Greek mythological figures appear here. Here again, we can find figures of centaurs, Pegasus and Yaksha or atlants carved on the capitals or on the walls.

The questions that naturally come to the mind therefore are why these figures and motifs were carved in what were primarily Buddhist caves, meant for Buddhist monks? Was it because of the influence of the campaign of Alexander the great on India that had happened a century and half earlier or was there some other reason? 

The Gandhara Buddha

Alfred Charles Auguste Foucher (1865–1952), was a French archaeologist scholar, who first came up with idea that the Gandhara (the region to northwest of India) school of art, reflected Greek influences. His ideas were essentially based on the striking similarity between some of the works of art from Gandhara with those from Greece. No doubt, he had number of facts supporting this hypotheses like invasion of Alexander the great through the north western frontier of India and existence of Greek kingdoms in Afghanistan.

 King Menander's coin; Greek Goddess Athena on other side
Foucher reasoned that fifty years after the invasion of Alexander the great, in year 326 BCE, a Greek king Demetrios, son of Euthydemos, took advantage of the break up of the Mauryan empire and conquered whole of northern India. Soon after this, Demetrios lost Bactria(part of present Afghanistan) to a rebellion and was left only with nothing more than his Indian conquests, and became known as King of the Indians. Under rule of his successors for a century and more, the Punjab became a Greek colony. Foucher suggested that Greek arts influenced the Indian arts during the reign of these Indo-Greek kings and even suggested that during the reign of King Menander (known also as Milinda) between 155 and 130 BCE, Buddha's image was created as an Indianized figure of Greek God Apollo.

Foucher's hypotheses was strongly refuted by Henry Heras ( 1888- 1955), who was a Spanish Jesuit priest, archeologist and historian in India. In a research paper written in 1936, Heras felt that Foucher's hypotheses may not be on right track after all. He gave following reasons for this and I quote:

  1. The so-called Greco-Buddhist school of Gandhara did not flourish in the centre of the Greek possessions in the East (Bactria), but only in the regions south of the Hindu Kush and in the north-western provinces of Hindustan.

  1. The centre of this school seems to have been Hadda on the plains of Jalalabad (Both places presently in Afghanistan), 6 miles south of this city. The specimens of this school found in Peshawar, Taxila and Lahore.

  1. The so-called Greco-Buddhist school of Gandhara is not at all influenced by Greek models or by Greek ideals ; though the Gandhara works of art have an apparent point of contact with those of the Greek school. Yet they are totally different in their main object and in their practical execution.

  1. The School of Gandhara aims at tho reproduction of reality, not precisely the physical beauty of man. Hence it discloses the affections and feelings of the soul in tho most marvellous way, an object which hits never been within the scope of the Greek school.

  1. The Gandhara school is only the continuation of the artistic tradition of the Dravidian nation, whose first known specimens come from Harappa and Mohenjo Daro.

  1. The Gandhara school flourished so much thanks to the patronage of the Kushana King Kaniska. Tho degeneration of its art was duo to the admittance of Aryan artists among the Dravidian sculptors.

(Note: This was written in 1936, when Aryan invasion theory was very much in vogue)

 Buddha statue found at Hadda, Afghanistan
Even though what Heras says is difficult to believe in toto, considering the striking similarity between Gandhar school of art and Greek art, I feel that we can accept his argument to the extent, that contemporary Indian arts in Pre-Kushan and Kushan periods (200BCE-200CE), might not have been dominated by Greek school of arts. Sculpturing and such other Indian arts, must have flourished on their own, mainly in Kushan period, though maintaining a certain contact with Greek influences.

 Another coin issued by King Menander
Coming back to our subject proper, we should therefore reject possibility of any great impact of Greek school of arts on Indian arts, particularly sculpturing, because of Alexander's campaigns or subsequent rule of Indo-Greek kings like Demetrios and Menander and can rule these out as possible reasons for existence of large number of Greek Mythology figures in Buddhist rock cut temples of ancient India.

We must therefore now turn to see, if any evidence exists in the cave temples themselves, which can lead us to the reasons of presence of these Greek Mythology figures there. 

Mothers ode to her son in Nashik cave number 3

One specialty of ancient Buddhist rock cut temples in Maharashtra state of India, is that they are widely littered with rock inscriptions of various word lengths everywhere. You can find these writings in main prayer hall or Chaitya, residence quarters excavated for the monks and even near water cisterns. Some of them are short; just one or two liners, whereas some are very lengthy. The most distinguished example of such lengthy inscriptions is found in Nashik cave numbering three. In this inscription, 'Goutami', the mother of the great king Goutamiputra Satkarni, who defeated the saka satrup Nahapana's forces decisively to liberate Deccan region sometimes in the first century CE, has gone absolutely eloquent in describing the bravery and great deeds of her son. However, such lengthy epigraphs, of much interest to historians, are not of any real use to us from the point of view of our subject here and I shall rather concentrate on the shorter variety.

 Inscription on the pillar in Great Chaitya hall at Karle'n

According to the book; “Inscriptions from the Cave-Temples of Western India” written by Jas Burgess and Bhagvanlal Indraji Pandit, total numbers of inscriptions found in following Cave temples are as follows.

  • Buddhist Monastery at Karle'n - 37 Inscriptions
  • Buddhist Monastery at Bhaje- 8 Inscriptions
  • Buddhist Monastery at Nashik- 30 Inscriptions
  • Buddhist Monastery at Pitalkhora- 7 Inscriptions
  • Buddhist Monastery at Junnar- 34 Inscriptions
It would be clear to readers that these are in substantially large numbers and therefore deserve our special attention. Above inscriptions can be divided in two categories. The first category of Inscriptions are carved to put on record orders of Kings, Governors or of persons having some authority. The inscription from King's mother, which I mentioned above is from this category. The second category consists of inscriptions that have been primarily carved on behalf of private individuals. It is this category of inscriptions that is of specific interest to us because these inscriptions are essentially a record of a donation of an individual to the monastery.
 Bhaje inscription near water cistern
As an example let us consider an inscription carved in Bhaje caves. This says:
The meritorious gift (or benefaction) of a cistern by Vinhudata the Mahàrathi, son of the Kosikè.”
It should be clear from the text that this inscription was made as an acknowledgment of the donation received from an official known as 'maharathi,' and with a name as “Vinhudata,” that was used to excavate the cistern at the place where this inscription is found carved. This means that that these large number of inscriptions done at the behest of private individuals were essentially carved to mark the donations of the individuals to the monastery.
Going deeper into the details of these donors, who willingly gave large sums to the monastery, we find people from all kinds of trades and profession. There are rich merchants, officials, as well as professionals like a Carpenter or a Perfume Man, besides ordinary lay people like a farmer's wife. The list is very interesting no doubt. However there is another category of Donors, which presents itself as of special interest to us. This category of donors calls themselves as 'Yavana.'
Samuel Clark Laeuchli has tried to explain origin and meaning of this word. He says and I quote:
There are three words, i.e., Yona, Yonaka, and Yavana, which have all been considered to mean "Greek.'' Panini gives Yavani as the feminine of Yavana and the word is therefore attested in Sanskrit prior to the advent of Alexander. The from Yona could be the normal Prakrit form of the word, while Yonaka would be the same, only with the addition of the very common suffix -ka. The major difficulty with this analysis is that Yavana/Yona stems from the Greek Ioanes which should come into old IndoAryan as Yona, not Yavana. In this case the form Yavana would be a back building in Sanskrit from the Prakrit Yona..... Although the word Yona / Yonaka occurs in the Asokan edicts, the Heliodoros pillar, etc., the form Yavana is found only at Junnar, Karla, Nasik, and Junagadh in western India, and perhaps in Kharavela's Hathigumfa Inscription in Orissa.”
Mr. M.K. Dhavlikar, whom I have mentioned earlier says and I quote:
The existence of Grecko-Romans, that is the Yavanas, in Western India has been well attested by their inscriptions in Western Indian Buddhist cave temples, especially at Karla, Nashik and Junnar. They were present in this part of the country right from the days of Asoka ( 272-32 B. C. ), who is said to have deputed a Yavana missionary, one Dhammarakhita, to propagate the teachings of the 'Enlightened One'. The excavation of a ancient site near at Nashik has yielded fragments of amphorae - wine jars - imported from the Roman empire.”
Having established that the word 'Yavana' means a person of Greek origin, let us try to find out whether there are any 'Yavanas' in the list of donors to the Buddhist monasteries. Fortunately for us Laeuchli has prepared a list of number  of inscriptions done at the behest of private Yavana donors.

Great Chaitya hall at Karle'n Monastery
(Mark the sculptures on the capitals)

We saw earlier that in the large number of inscriptions, carved on the walls and pillars of the Buddhist rock cut temples of Maharashtra state of India, there is a fair sprinkling of inscriptions done at behest of donors, who call themselves as 'Yavanas.' These 'Yavanas' have been found to be essentially people from Greece or Rome or Greco-Roman origins. Samuel Clark Laeuchli has taken pains to make a list of inscriptions of such 'Yavana' donors, though only from two cave monasteries located near Karle'n and Junnar, which I reproduce below. The list therefore is not exhaustive and can be considered as only a representative one.
1.Gift of an upright of the Yavana from Dhenukakata
2.This Pillar is the donation of the Yavana Sihadbaya from Dhenukakata.
3.This pillar is the donation of the Yavana Yasavadhana from Dhenukakata
4.This Pillar is the donation of the Yavana Culayakha from Dhenukakata
5.This Pillar is the donation of the Yavana Dhamadhaya from Dhenukakata
6.This Pillar is the donation of the Yavana Citasagata from Umehanakata
7.The Gift of two cisterns by the Yavana Irilasagata
8.The gift of a dining hall to the Samgha ( group of monks) by the Yavana Citasagata
9.The gift of a facade by the Yavana Camda
This list, gives us names of a few persons of Greek origin, living in Deccan region of India, who are surprisingly very secretive and have not given any details about themselves or their professions, except for the fact that they are 'Yavanas.' This looks like a certain military discipline and is radically different from other donors, who give information about themselves and their professions etc. The questions that come to mind naturally are, who are these persons? Why were they living in India, far away from their country of origin? And finally, why would they donate large sums to a Buddhist monastery in a foreign land? Before we try to find out answers to these questions, it would be important to note two historical facts, which have direct bearing on the presence of 'Yavanas' in India.
Firstly, all major Buddhist rock cut temples such as those at Karle'n, Bhaje, Shelarwadi, Bedse etc. were located near the junctions of major trade routes and a vast number of small caves were dug near minor trade routes. This raises another question as to with whom, the trade was being carried? Luckily records from Gracco-Roman accounts such as those written by the Pariplus and Ptolemy clearly indicate that the trade was carried with Greece as well as Rome and the goods arrived at the trade ports that lay on the west coast of India. These trade posts were mostly up the creeks and estuaries of rivers to the extent navigation permitted. Ports which lay in the vicinity of these Buddhist caves in the Western Ghat mountain ranges can be listed as Broach (Bhadoch) Sopara (Nala Sopara), Kalyan and Choul.
Secondly, the period in history, about which we are trying to discuss, was politically an extremely unsettled and war-torn one. The Satvahana empire was going through a terrible low, as forces of Saka Satrup Nahapana under generalship of his son-in-law Usavdata, had earlier captured most of the Satavahana territories around these monasteries, though, Satavahana king Goutamiputra Satakarni, in a decisive battle, had won back later most of his kingdom, by end of first century CE. Perhaps parts of coastal regions around Bhadoch, Kalyan and Sopara were still controlled by Nahapana's forces, leaving Chaul port as the only option for Roman ships to anchor.
Samuel Clark Laeuchli reasons out that 'Yavanas' must have been the mercenaries and military figures associated with Nahapana's forces and were living in the Deccan, as long as Saka Satrup Nahapana was in control of it. He has based this conclusion from the fact that these donors were very secretive and did not divulge any information about themselves in the inscriptions. On the other hand, many others, including D.D. Kosambi and M.K. Dhavlikar believe that 'Yavanas' were essentially traders, who handled India's trade with Rome. However in either case, it is clear that, who were these 'Yavanas' and why were they were residing in the Deccan.

D.D.Kosambi goes on to suggest that Buddhist monasteries in the Deccan had so much of wealth that they were able to offer many services to the 'Yavana' traders such as security, sanctuary and banking facilities. It all means that Yavanas, like other traders, were in a very close relationship with the monasteries and helped them to the extent possible.

We now come to the subject proper and try to find out whether traders, who had close relationship with the Buddhist monasteries could have any way influenced the works of art displayed on walls of these monasteries. Sushma Trivedi, a research scholar, rightly points out in her research paper ' Impact of trade on early art of India' and I quote:
Creation of art is not an isolated event or an independent happening, totally unrelated lo its surroundings, but is interconnected with and nurtured by a variety or human activities such as economic, social and political. In reality, the economic condition is the most important cause of social changes of a given society and these in their turn arc reflected in the contemporary art. Thus in a deeper analysis evolution of art is closely connected with changing economic patterns..... A change in nature of economy brings a change in the patron class, in socio-religious institutions and ideologies, which in turn create new requirements and fresh opportunities for the emergence of new forms and content in art.”

She gives an example of the an early Buddhist structure, the Stupa of Bharhut, which was decorated with the simplest of art forms. However as Buddhist structures started getting a new class of donors, who essentially were private individuals, the tastes of this new class of donors, along with the general social conditions imparted some new interests and aesthetic values lo the art forms. D.D.Kosambi has rightly described this new change in following words while describing Karle'n monastery.

The sculpture is beautiful, even voluptuous, of handsome couples of opulent men and women, dressed in the height of style, riding horses and elephants; hardly what one would expect is an assembly place for monks,but precisely what a rich merchant would have liked.” 
 Handsome couples on elephants, Karle'n monastery

Extending this logic to the case of 'Yavana ' donors, who might have been either mercenaries or traders, it is easy to imagine a little scenario, where a “Yavana' has agreed to handover a handsome donation to the monastery in return for some services offered. The monastery might have offered him to carve his name on one of the walls. Supposedly, he wanted to remain anonymous, for whatever reasons, the monastery might have then agreed to carve or create a bass relief of something that was dear to his own heart; a figure from the Greek Mythology. So in the Great Chaitya hall at Karle'n monestery, with 24 grand pillars with capitals decorated with handsome couples of opulent men and women riding horses and elephants, Sphinxes are also carved out on 2 of the capitals, as acknowledgment for the donations received. A scenario entirely plausible, according to me.

I think that this is how the Greek mythological figures were introduced in the Buddhist rock cut temples. Just to placate or make happy some 'Yavana' donors, who were coaxed in giving huge donations to the monastery. 

 Examples of sculptures from Mauryan period
 ( Pre-Greek arrival, 300 BCE)
(Was there any real Greek influence on Indian arts?)

Alfred Charles Auguste Foucher, might probably have seen too much into similarities between Greek and Gandhara arts to consider and name it as great Greek influence on Indian art in his over zeal to name everything as of European origin. Henry Heras perhaps was right after all, when he said that The so-called Greco-Buddhist school of Gandhara was not at all influenced by Greek models or by Greek ideals. As far as Buddhist Rock cut temples are considered, it must have been a simply fulfillment of a small wish form a major donor to the monastery.


1.The cave temples of India; Burgess and Fergusson
2.Beginnings of Buddhist Art; A. Foucher
3.Inscriptions from cave temples of western India; Burgess, Bhagvanlal Pandit
4.Dhenukakata; D.D.Kosambi; JBBRAS 1955 Vol. 30-II
5.Evolution of Buddhist Rock cut temples; M.K.Dhavlikar; JBBRAS 1970-71,Vol 45-46
6.Nashik a Yavana center; M.K.Dhavlikar;JBBRAS 1981-84; Vol 56-59
7.Yavana inscriptions of western India; Samuel Clark Laeuchli ;JBBRAS 1981-84; Vol 56-59
8.Impact of trade on early art of India; Sushma Trivedi; JBBRAS 1995; Vol 70


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