Unknown War Heroes of Ramban

Robin Koul
When we hear about Ramban, a picture of a small, dusty town on Jammu Srinagar NH-44 highway comes to our mind. And moreover the landslides on the route portray it more furious. My mind too had the same depiction, till I had a chance to explore it and know its rich and diverse cultural history by close quarters.
Geologically Ramban in itself is a group of mountains in the Middle Himalayan range and each mountain has its own story, its own history, its own myths and legends to tell, and most interestingly, its history is interconnected with the whole of the India and the Asian continent itself.
This story is about the Unknown Forgotten War Hero sculptures whose presence now lays disfigured, distorted and nameless under the layers of dust and soil, and their glory washed out by the wrath of passing time. It is about the nameless stone sculptors which I found in various places in the Ramban area. Those stone Sculptors are the greatest link between our present and past history which is unknown to the present generation. And I felt it a significant responsibility to revive that link, when I stumbled on those stones while exploring Ramban.
Those stone sculptures are known as Hero Stones, War Stones, Paliyao, Paliya, Khambhi, Govardhan Stambhas, Kirti Stambh and Chhaya Stambhas, Veergal in Marathi, Veeragallu in Kannada or Na?ukal in Tamil and by other local names in different parts of India and have been accounted from Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Central India and also in Sindh region of Pakistan. Those Stones were sculpted for the memorial commemorating the honourable death of a hero, usually in battle or died an unnatural death. Those were the images of a man or woman, who had performed some heroic deed, like participation in a war, saved his village from bandits or intruders looting their animal herd and thus eventually lost their life untimely.
Hero Stones of Ramban
Those stones are widely distributed in various areas of Ramban. During my personal visits to the various places I found some peculiar similarities between all of them, and at the same time those are also noticeably different from the sculptures found in rest of India.
Many villages like Gham, Digdool, Pali, Maitra and various other scattered places in Ramban those sculptures can be seen erected or laying around.
In Gham village we can find them near the water points called bowleys. A large number of stones are under a tree which has encountered landslides in the past, due to which most of the sculptures are submerged under the earth. Few recovered stone conduits have been placed in-between the stone walls of a newly constructed temple.
The Digdool area has an explicit connection with the sculptures found in Ghora Gali. Locals have named it Ghora Park. Two prominent horse men sculptures along with others have been preserved by villagers and few lay under the soil. This place too has a water bowley and water flowing through the stone conduits which are similar to Ghora Galli and other various places. Two prominent square shaped stones with carvings of probably a chakra are cemented in the boundary wall.
Pali village too has a number of sculptures erected under a tree. But most of them are stowed over one another which are now covered under soil. Also few stones are coloured in pink limestone and placed outside the village temple.
Maitra, one of the most populated areas of Ramban, one can witness few well preserved stone slabs inside the Shani Ji Temple under the Peepal tree.
Myths and Legends
While talking to local villagers I came to know that those sculptures were made in the memory of the dead and are called Phakhars. Mostly who have encountered unnatural death, like wars, suicide or accidents. It is said that after death if the soul of the unfortunate doesn’t attain mukti (salvation), they keep coming back and troubling their near and dear ones. So those stone sculptures are made in the name of the dead and with some prescribed rituals they are being worshipped for the well being of his family and peace of the dead person’s soul. In olden times some portion of new crop was presented to those Phakhar’s. Also annually all the family members gather for the annual remembrance of those dead.
One of the village elders said that after the Kalinga war when Emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism, he sent his sculptors all around the world to erect stone sculptures like this in the memory of soldiers who died in that war. He said that in connection with the resemblance of the chakra like engraving on the slabs to Ashoka’s Dharmachakra.
Some people claimed those to be the route markers made by king’s caravan and travellers to help them in travel through those forest areas in history.
Reasons for the construction of those strange sculptures can be numerous, but enquiring from many village elders, unfortunately no one has an exact and precise knowledge of the origin of those sculptures, as no one knows their importance in their daily life and no one has ever seen anyone making them. The reason may be that those sculptures were there before the settlement of the present clans in the area.
Depiction of Phakhars
Most of the sculptures represent the warrior clan. And each sculpture tells us a different story. It shows the detailed embroidery of their armoured clothes and skirts. They are holding a variety of weapons like swords, shields, bow and arrow and draggers. Both men and women are shown mounted on the horses. Other than horses there are elephants, birds like eagle and a calf carved on the stone slabs.
Marking of Chakra having different numbers of spokes in different sculptures is prominent in many slabs depicting, may be sun or some symbolic representation of royal stamp. Most of the slabs are having a square hole at the bottom portion.
Those enigmatic sculptures are an important link between past and present; those silent stones provide us with ethnographic and iconographic information about customs, cultures, rituals and beliefs of our ancient societies. They also enlighten us regarding the then prevailing religious, political and social beliefs. These memorials may be associated with ancestral worship and ancient rituals. They also give information about cultural traditions such as Sati. The types of clothes, weapons and vehicles of the time period can also be identified to have a better idea of our history.
Documentation, conservation, restoration and cataloguing of those pieces of history are the need of the hour. With the passage of time the actual shape and detailing of those sculptures is getting deteriorated. Some kind of scientific analysis, excavation plan of those endangered cultural heritage sites is of utmost necessary. At my own level I am constantly trying to study, research and understand the actual origin, history and importance of those sculptures and also trying to conserve them with the help of local people and groups like Leaf Monkey Hiking Club Ramban. I request the District Commissioner Ramban, Archaeological Survey of India, Directorate of Archives, Archaeology and Museums Government of Jammu and Kashmir to come forward and preserve those sculptures in their local areas which can boost the development and tourism along with conservation of culture and history at the same time.