Graeco-Roman (Yavanas): Pioneers to the architecture of Nasik Trirashmi caves

By Dr. Akash D. Gedam*

Nasik was one of the most important centers of Hinayana Buddhism in north-west Maharashtra. The group of twenty-five caves, locally known as Pandu Lena, but actually Trirashmi lane in Epigraphical records though few in number are nevertheless of great importance for the study of the early rock-cut architecture in Western India.

General View of Nasik Caves (fig.1)

Nasik therefore can be said to provide a datum for the reconstruction of a precise chronology for the earlier phase of rock-cut architecture. We will, however, not go into the details of the development of the site but confine ourselves to only one cave-XVII in that order.

Who were the Yavana’s? 

 ‘Yavana’ is generally thought to be derived from the Greek word Ionian. It has been suggested that the Indians took the word from some Semitic language or from the Persians when they first encountered Greeks on the borders of their country. The Persians originally called Ionian Greeks, and later all Greeks, Yaunas. The Hebrew word for Greeks is also ‘Yawan.’

 The commonly accepted definition states that the term ‘Yavana’ originally had meant ‘Greek’ and that it was only later that it was applied to Romans, Muslims, and westerners in general. The Indian texts and inscriptions in which it has been found.

 The Yavanas (Sanskrit) and Yonas (Pali) are mentioned frequently in Indian literature and inscriptions from the mythical age’s right up to the thirteenth century A.D. They are spoken of in the great epics, in the Buddhist canonical texts and commentaries, in the Manu Smruti, in the Dharmasastras, in the Puranas, and in numerous other texts and inscriptions.

The earliest Indian usage of the term ‘Yavana’ is found in Panini’s Sanskrit grammar, Astadhyay Panini, who lived in Gandhara (Pakistan), a district of Northwest India could have heard about or met those

Greeks long before Alexander’s arrival in India. In support of this paper there is also the Majjhima -Nikaya does reference to the ‘Yona country’ exist at the time of the Buddha.

The thirteenth Rock Edict of Asoka distinguishes the Yonas’-where the classes of the Brahmanas and the Samanas do not exist. From the fifth, the ninth and the thirteenth Rock Edict we are also informed that in Asoka’s time several Yonas were subjects of his dominion.

Similarly, proclamations, demonstrating Asoka’s Compassionate attitude towards living being and his association with Indo-Greeks (Yonas) are found in some of his other Rock Edicts. The second Rock Edicts describes the provision of medical treatment, shade and water for men and animals throughout his dominion and also in neighboring countries. In these Edicts the Yona King Antiochos (Antiyako Yona raja) is mentioned by name. The fifth and ninth Rock Edicts mention Yonas as the king’s subjects devoted to Dharma.

Moreover, if we identify the Yona King Milinda of Milindapanha with the Indo-Greek King Menander, then Menander would be probably the only Greek king to have been mentioned in Indian (Pali) literature. Of the early Greek geographers and travelers, Pliny and the author of the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea give a good account of the trade of the western Coast of India with Rome Even Ports like Kalyan, Choul besides Berygaza (Baroch), inland towns like Paithan, and kings Satakarni and Pulumayi have been mentioned.

Also, is the ethnic identity of the Buddhist donors who proclaimed themselves to the Yavanas on the inscriptions of the Buddhist?

Greeks & Buddhism

Buddhism began its transformation a world religion under the vigorous patronage of Asoka, who has been designated the Constantine of Buddhism. In addition, several missionaries (Dharmamahamatras) were sent to propagate the principles of Dharma to alien nations, including the Yonas. Asoka had appointed one Yavana Dhammarakhita for propagating Buddhism in Aparanta that is Konkan, the coastal region of Maharashtra. This would suggest that a sizeable Yavana population was there in Maharashtra even from the days of Asoka.  The Buddhist texts record that the Yona country was converted by Thera Maharakkita, who was sent there after the Third Buddhist Council which took place at Pataliputra (Modern Patna, Bihar-State, India) during the reign of King Asoka in 241BC.

Most of the Greeks who lived under Indian influence were converted to Buddhism and to some extent their contribution to the spread of this religion was important. The Indianised names of many Yonaka monks found in the Pali texts and inscriptions attest to this process.

The Yonaka Dhammarakkhita Thera,who is remembered as the teacher of Punabbsukutumbikaputta Tissa, preached the Aggikkandopama Sutta and is reported to have converted thirty seven thousand people. And the Yona Mahadhammarakkhita Thera, along with thirty thousand monks, came from Alasanda to the foundation ceremony of the Maha-Thupa.

From the exaggerated number of monks we might infer that Buddhism was popular in the city during this time. The best illustration of the conversion of several Yonas to Buddhism is found in the Buddhist text Milindapanha (Questions of King Milinda), which records conversations between King Milinda and the elder Buddhist monk Nagasena.

The expansion of Buddhism to the Yona country has been well preserved in the memory of the Sri Lanka Theravada Buddhists.

Nasik Cave-XVII

This is one of the most important caves (fig.1) from the standpoint of the present study. It consists of a verandah, a large rectangular hall. One cell on the left side and four on the right. There is another chamber in the back wall which was in all probability intended as the stupa shrine as the inscriptional evidence would suggest. If complete, this would have been the earliest and the most perfect specimen of a quadrangular chaitya-cum-vihara which is typified by the later Ajanta examples. But unfortunately, except for the verandah at the front, it is mostly unfinished.  


Nasik Cave-XVII (fig.2)

The cave is situated to the right of the Chaitya Cave-XVIII which is earlier and the only apsidal chaitya at the site. A flight of steps on the right leads to Cave-XVII which, being an unfinished excavation has not received the attention it merits. It consists of a verandah, a large rectangular hall, and four cells on the right and two unfinished cells and a long-recessed bench on the left side. A small flight of steps in between the two pillars of the verandah, leads to the cave. The verandah (19.4m wide,1.9m deep and 3.07m high) has two pillars (fig.7) and two pilasters which have a stepped or pyramidal base with a ghata over it, an octagonal shaft, a  bell capital, and a, amlaka in the box above which is a stepped member crowned by animal capitals. The animals are all elephants on which are riding couples in the Karla tradition.  The sphinx a colossal sculpture with lion’s body and human head, the sphinxes probably installed at the entrance of the cave to protect the cave from outsider’s impurities and natural calamities (Cave No. X). above this, on the architrave, is the typical vedika rail pattern but even this too does not seem to have been finished because its lengths is not equal to that of the width of the verandah. A rectangular cell has been carved out in the right end of the verandah. The large hall has a doorway (3m high and 1.47m wide) with a square window on side (1.1 sq.m.) and there is yet another door on the extreme left which may have been carved later.

The hall is rectangular (12.80m deep and 8.20m wide) and has four cells in the right wall (fig.4) of which the first and the last are squarish whereas the two central ones are rectangular. It is likely that there would have been four corresponding cells on this side too, but they could not be excavated because there was no space; they would have destroyed the right wall of the chitya Cave-XVII on the left.

The rectangular hall (fig.3)

Hence the idea of cells had to be given up and instead a long recesses bench was carved out. In the back wall is a rectangular chamber (4.40mX2.20m) which may have been intended as a shrine (fig.3). But what is most remarkable is that it has a vestibule formed by two pillars and two pilasters which have remained unfinished below the abacus.

They have no bases, but have animal capitals on stepped members and their shafts are squarish. This is by far the earliest example of and antarala in the western Indian rock-cut cave temples.

Four cells in the right wall (fig.4)

On the left is a long-recessed bench in the middle and a cell each at either end but both are unfinished. (fig.5)


Long-Recessed Bench (fig.5)

A most important feature of this cave is the inscription (fig.6) in the back wall of the verandah which records the epigraph, between the small door and window of the back wall of the verandah, reads:

Inscription on the wall (fig.6)

Sidham otarahasa Dantamitiyakasa Yonakasa Dhammadevaputasa Idagnidatasa dhammatamana ima lenam pavateTiramnhumhi khanitam abhamtaram cha lenasa chetiya-gharo pomdhiyo cha- matapi taro udisa(I)ima lenam karitan savabudhapujaya chitudisasa bhikhusamghasa niyatitam sa ha putena dhammarakhitena(II)  (Script – Bramhi, Language- Prakrut)

Success! The righteous Yavana Indragnidatta, son of Dharmadeva, a native of northern country (and) inhabitant of Dantamitri, caused   this cave to be excavated on Mount Trirashmi (Triranhu) and inside the cave a chaityagriha and (three) cisterns, for the sake if his parents. This cave, caused to be made for the worship of all Buddhas, has been made over to the community of monks from the four points of horizon (by him), together with his son Dharmarakshita (Dhammarakhita)” (EI, VIII, pp. 90-91)

This cave, which consisted both of a lenam (residence of monks) and a chaityagriha (chaitya shrine) and a cistern, was the gift of one Indragnidatta, son of Dhammadeva, a Yavana, resident of Dattamitri (Demetrias).  According to some scholars, were wealthy Indian merchants who were Greek citizens, a resident of Dattamitri has been identified with Dametrias, supposed to be named after Demetrius, the Indo-Greek ruler. It was given to the monks of all quarters for accruing merit of his parents. Thus, there is clear epigraphical evidence to show that this cave, which consisted of a chaitya and a vihara, would have been, if complete, the earliest excavation of its kind.

The cave appears to be an ill-fated excavation in spite of the munificent donation of a Yavana. Firstly, when the work   began the verandah was completed and the Epigraphical record was incised. Then it was perhaps realized that the hall would have been too narrow and hence the width of the verandah was extended. This is why the entrance doorway is not in alignment with the flight of steps. Later it was noticed that no cells could be carved in the left wall because of the adjoining chaitya Cave-XVIII.

In the meantime, the work continued inwards and the antarala pillars and the pilasters were carved out. But it is not known why the shrine chamber was not completed. It may perhaps be due to the unsettled political conditions then prevalent or for want of funds. A good number of Yavanas probably came to Western India in the wake of the Kshatrapa   invasion in the first decade of the second A.D. There is no doubt that some of them were here right from a very early period from the days of Asoka, but there was a marked influx in the latter half of the first and the second century A.D. as is evident from their donations at Karla, Nasik and Junnar. A worthy merchant’s house, probably of a Yavana, unearthed at Kolhapur also belongs to the same period. They must have established themselves well in the first quarter of the second century when Nahapana had conquered western Maharashtra. There should be little doubt that most of them continued to stay here even after Nahapana was defeated by Gautamiputra Satakarni in 124 A. D. on the basis of stylistic similarities between Caves- XVII and Cave-X at Nasik, the former can be dated to about 120 A.D. just following the latter which was completed during the period of Nahapana’s supremacy. But soon after the Satavahanas established their sovereignty and during this transitional period cave XVII could not be completed probably because of unsettled political conditions.

It will thus be clear that cave XVII marks an important stage in the development of rock-cut architecture of Western India. Although not finished, it was intended as a chaitya-cum-vihara as the epigraph explicitly states.                                          

Graeco-Romans (Yavans) and Sakas as the inscriptional records would testify and it is likely that some Yavana artists were also working at sites like Nasik as the occurrence of classical motifs would suggest. But so far as cave-XVII is concerned, it is likely that the donor Indragnidatta, a Yavanas from Demetrias, would have desired to have a chaitya-cum-vihara   at Nasik, the like of which already existed in his native country. This would lead us to the problem of the origin of quadrangular, flat-roofed chaitya-grihas. It may be noted in this connection that of the stupa shrine types, the quadrangular was the most popular in Gandhara and the earliest occurrence of the quadrangular stupa shrine types with and antechamber is met with in the Griha-stupa A13 of the Kalwan monastery of Taxila. The combination of a stupa shrine with the vihara was present in Gandhara even in the latter half of first century A.D. and the credit of its introduction in Maharashtra has to be given to Indraggnidatta, the Yavana door of Cave-XVII.

Pillar (fig.7)


The above discussion of the evidence of an attempt to combine chaitya and vihara which is seen for the first time at Nasik. The beginning of the second century A.D. marks an important phase in the development of rock-cut chaityas. This was the period of the Kshtrapa supremacy over the whole of Western India; they had conquered some of the Satavahanas territories and were slowly getting naturalized in their adopted land.

The Kshatrapas were themselves of foreign origin and brought in their trail peoples of different nationalities such as the Persians and Parthians whereas Greeks and Romans were already here. These people patronized Buddhism as is evident from their records in Western Indian cave temples. Some of the foreign elements in decorative motifs such as those at Nasik and Junnar can be credited to them. To a certain extent, these donors of foreign nationalities appear to be responsible for introducing changes in the layout of the earlier chaityas. The best example of this is Nasik cave XVII which marks the first attempt at combining a chaitya shrine and a vihara, which is later to be seen in the Mahayana Viharas at Ajanta (India). Unfortunately, the cave is unfinished but we can nevertheless form a fair idea of the final shape it would have taken if completed. It is not without significance that the cave was the gift of one Indragnidatta a Yavana, who hailed from Dantamiti (Demeterias) in Sind or Gandhara region.

Acknowledgement: Mohini Pundlikrao Gajbhiye (Architect) Nagpur.           

References / Bibliography:

Brown, Percy, ‘Indian Architecture –Buddhist and Hindu Period, Bombay-1965.

Burgess, James and Indraji Bhagwanlal, Inscriptions from the cave Temple of western India, ASWI, IV (Varanasi, 1970).  Dhavalikar M.K. ‘Late Hinayana Caves of Western India, Poona-1984.

Dhavalikar M.K. ‘Nasik- A Yavana Centre’ Jr. of Asiatic Society of Bombay, Dr. Bhagwanlal Indraji Vol.

Dhavalikar M.K. ‘Evolution of the Buddhist Rock-Cut shrines of Western India” Jr. of the Asiatic Society of Bombay, Vols. 45-46. 1974.

Dhavalikar, M.K. “Beginning of the Mahayana Architecture at Ajanta,” in M.S. Nagaraju Rao (ed.) M.N. Deshpande felicitation Volume, Delhi, 1981.

Deheja Vidya, “Early Buddhist Rock_Temple_Archaeological Study, London, 1972. Epigraphica Indica. Vol.-VIII.

Gokhale B. G. Buddhism in Maharashtra- A History, Bombay, 1976.

Marshal John, ‘Taxila, Vol.-I & Vol.-III, (Indian reprint) Delhi. 1975.

Torn W.W., ‘Greek in Bactria and India’ Cambridge, 1957.                                                                         

Vassiliades, demetrios Th. “The Greeks In India” New Delhi, India, 2000.

* Dr Akash Daulatrao Gedam is an Assistant Professor in Yeshwantrao Chavan College of Engineering, Nagpur. Dr. Akash has (12years) teaching experience at Dept. Applied Mathematics and Humanities.

A Master degree holder from R.T.M. Nagpur University, Maharashtra (India) in Ancient Indian History Culture & Archaeology (Gold Medalist) and Sociology. NET qualified, PhD in AIHC & Archaeology: Topic: “Yavana’s (Graeco-Roman) Contribution to Buddhism in India” (B.C. to 8th C. A.D.) with JRF. Recently, research in Rock-Art in Vidarbha, Maharashtra, India.

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