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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C

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Tamil Militarism

Dolmens & Hero Stones

Dolmens, Hero Stones and the Dravidian People - Dr. R.Nagaswamy
Self-Sacrifice or NavaKantam - Dr.S.Jayabharathi
Pallava period Hero stone unearthed in Vellore District, 2001
2,300-year-old hero stones found in Theni district, 2006
18th Century Hero stone unearthed in Madurai, 2006
Village Gods and Heroes - Worship of Hero Stones in Tamil Nadu, India - Dr.R.Nagaswamy

Dolmens, Hero Stones and the Dravidian People - Dr. R.Nagaswamy

They are found mostly grouped together or in isolation outside the habitation sites

South India is rich in megalithic burials, which are generally dated to 7th and 8th centuries BC, if not earlier.

These monuments are in the form of dolmens, cist burials, cairn circles, menhirs etc. Connected with these are the Urn burials with sarcophagus in some instances. They are found in such large numbers, particularly in Tamilnadu that they are associated with the Dravidian people, though some scholars question this theory. Inside these burials an impressive number of funerary deposits like pots, iron implements, beads, metal wares and charred grains are found. Some such burials also yield bones of the dead to whom these were erected. The pottery found inside is a special variety, named "Black and red ware" 1. The interior and the rim or mouth portions are black in color while the body outside is red and hence the name Black and red ware. They are always associated with iron and hence are also called Iron Age pottery. The dolmens of Tamilnad are found mostly in northern districts though stray occurrence of them is found in other parts.

The dolmens consist mainly of three upright slabs covering three sides with a capstone and an opening oriented towards the south. The flooring is also made of stone in many instances. There are several varieties of these structures. They are found mostly grouped together or in isolation outside the habitation sites suggesting that they are located in the cemetery area. Excavations have revealed that not all of them contain bones and clearly some were memorials to the dead. These dolmens go by different names in different localities... A burial urn in one instance contained a Roman coin attesting to the fact that it belonged to 2nd c. CE or later. Though the dating of these Dolmens are mainly based on typology and pottery, it is now increasingly clear quite a number of them might belong to post 4th or 5th c. CE.

The Tamil Nadu department of Archaeology under the direction of this writer undertook an intensive survey and brought to light several hundred hero stones2, both inscribed and uninscribed in the North Arcot and South Arcot Districts of Tamilnad. This survey opened up a new vista for the study of Ancient Tamil culture. The hero stones found were erected in memory of heroes who laid their life, defending their territory or making some form of supreme sacrifice for the sake of the community or the region. Usually these stones, now called by scholars as "Virakkal" or Hero stones, show the figure of the hero carved with inscriptions, giving details of the hero, the battle, the king in whose time the battle took place and the person who erected the stone. Either they stand alone or in groups and are usually found outside the village limits, nearby a tank or lake.

Some of the hero stones with inscriptions were exactly in the form of Dolmens with three upright slabs and capping stone. The figure of the hero is generally carved on the back slab facing the entrance as if it is a temple shrine and the figure of the hero, an image of a god. Plain dolmens were also found without any figures or writings by the side of such hero stones, indicating that they were contemporary with the nearby hero stone. Such inscribed hero stones have been found from almost 3rd c. CE to the 16th c. CE attested by inscriptions. Obviously the tradition continued till very late. (A separate article is required to go into various types of such hero-stones, their contents etc, which can not be attempted here.)

The ancient Sangam literature refers to a large number of hero stones and the circumstances under which those were erected. The Sangam works, mainly the Purananuru 3 anthology, refer to the memorial stones as "na·ukal" or simply "kal" in the context.

The erection of memorial stones are mentioned in many poems of this work. We might examine only one in this article. The celebrated chieftain, Atiyaman Netuman Añci who is extolled by all the great poets of the Sangam age died in a battle ....was besieged in his own fort at ... the modern Dharmapuri, and killed by Malaiyaman Tirumutikkari. The Great Poetess of the Sangam age Avvaiyar, was an eyewitness to this battle. She praises the valour of Atiyaman and his liberality in a song.

Avvaiyar has a song on his death. She says that "when ever Atiyaman got small quantity of liquor he gave it to the bards, but when it was in sufficient quantity he used to partake the same, happily in the company of bards. He always used to take food after distributing it to the poor and the poets. There is no comparison to his liberality. Such a great man is now dead, pierced by the spear of his enemy. The spear that pierced him did in fact not only pierce his body but the poor minstrels who sought presents from him, and the tongues of the poets who sang beautiful Tamil Poems. Where is that great patron gone now! There remains no poet to sing Tamil poems any more and there is no more a patron to make liberal gifts to the singers".

Avvaiyar records in another poem that his body was consigned to the flames. She has a moving poem on the flames consuming his body in the cremation Ground. She moreover also says that a memorial stone in the form of a Dolmen "itam pirar ko¥¥a ciru vari" was erected and that food offering was made to him. She says that he was offered liquor from a small pot and that too it was filtered by the fibres of the palm tree and sprinkled in small quantity. She pities this great man now accepting even the small quantity of sprinkled liquid in front of the dolmen.

The Poetess Avvaiyar makes three important points. The Chieftain died in a battle. His body was cremated in fire and finally a dolmen erected to him, in front of which offerings were made. It is a clear pointer to the fact that dolmens were erected not only on the remains of the dead but also those who were cremated. The Sangam classics also refer to the offering of pitas (cooked rice made into a ball) placed on darbha grass to the dead.

Tolkappiyam, the earliest Tamil grammar describes the complete stages of erecting memorial stones to the dead heroes in the PuÉattiºai section. The PuÉapporul Veºpamalai 4, another early work, also gives the rules for erecting such memorials to the hero. The stages mentioned are generally, "Katci, Kal k­l, Nirppatai, Natutal, Perumpatai, Varttal".

The first stage in the erection of a memorial is the selection of a suitable stone for the memorial by the village community, which goes by the name Katci i.e to select. (kaºutal). The villagers go to a nearby site to obtain a stone and after selection usually from a rock, sprinkle water over the stone with a prayer that all the spirits that have been inhabiting the place all long may depart so that the stone may be acquired for the memorial. The second stage (Kal k­l) is offering flowers and incense and praising the stone, for it is "the stone" that is going to carry the name and fame of this great hero. Then the stone is quarried and placed on a cart and is brought to the village to the accompaniment of music and dance.

The third stage is keeping the stone soaked in clean water for a number of days or specified time. It is held that since the stone remained all along exposed to vagaries of weather, like hot sun and rain, the stone is kept immersed in water, called Nirppatai.

The hero's figure is carved and his exploits inscribed on the stone, after which it is ceremoniously planted (Natutal) in an appropriate place. This is also called Il-koºtu-pukutal. A careful study of the texts shows that it is virtually equated to a temple consecration. "Il" is "k­-il" in this context. A great food offering is made to the hero, which is a rite called Perumpa·ai. Finally the hero is praised and prayers are offered for the bestowal of prosperity on the village community.

The Purananuru and PuÉapporu¥ veºp¤ m¤lai have ancient poems illustrating each of these stages. The erection of memorial is a strong cultural trait of the Tamils.

The great Tamil epic Cilappatikaram 5 gives in several chapters the erection of a temple to the heroine, Kannaki, mentioned as Vira-ma-Pattini. Incidentally all these chapters are titled as "katci katai", "kalk­¥ katai", "nirppataik katai", "natukaÉ katai", "vaÈttuk katai", the titles given in Tolkappiyam, to various stages in erecting memorials to the heroic. The fame of Kannaki according to Cilappatikaram was so great that the stone brought from any place other than the great famous Himalayas was considered not quite appropriate for carving the image of Kannaki. Similarly that it was kept immersed in the waters of the Ganges river than in any other waters for the nirppatai rite, is the poetic suggestion of the greatness of Kannaki. At the end, the image carved on the stone was enshrined in a temple, that would show that the Dolmens or the hero stones erected as memorials to the dead were considered as temples in ancient Tamilnad .

Constructions of temples are dealt with in a body of literature called agamas and almost all temples in Tamilnad follow the procedures laid out in these of texts. The Agamas deal with the carving of images, construction of temples for them, consecration, daily and periodical rites, festivals, repairs etc. A careful study of the text reveals that the process of selection of a stone for carving the image of a god, the process of carving the image, the consecration and other rites are the same as found for the memorial stones.

Dolmens - Hero Stones
A Hero stone of the Pallava age, 605 CE, Chengam Taluk. with paper rubbing on it

The quarrying of stone, keeping it immersed in waters, planting the carved image, invocation, offering of great food - maha naivedya - and prayers in the end, correspond absolutely with the process mentioned in Tolkappiyam for the erection memorials to the dead. Viewed from the angle of the builders of the memorials, the dead is a God.

Mention has been made of a number of hero stones with inscriptions found in Tamilnad. The hero stones of the 5-6th centuries erected under the Pallava rulers of Kanchipuram still survive, some in the form of dolmens.

The tradition is seen continued in Chola times in the 10th -11th c. CE. Two such Hero stones are illustrated here.

Dolmens - Hero Stones
10th c. hero stone found in Palamankalam near Erode in Coimbatore district

Dolmens - Hero Stones
11th c. Hero stone from Kodumudi, near Erode in Coimbatore district

One is a 10th c. hero stone found in Palamankalam near Erode in Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu, while the other is from Kodumudi, also near Erode in the same district

The former preserves the portrait of the hero and his exploits inscribed in beautiful poetry in Tamil characters of 10th c. The other is dated in the reign of Rajendra Chola the conqueror of Ganges and Kadaram region. The figure of the hero is carved on the stone facing the entrance. In both the instances the inscriptions say that the heroes fought against their enemies, won victories and gave up their lives in the process. To give up ones own life was the supreme sacrifice the heroic-death. What is of importance for the present study is the dolmen form of the hero stone resembling a small village shrine. These are even now adored and worshipped periodically by the remote descendants of the heroes. Such dolmen like hero stones of later period have also been found.

Dolmens - Hero Stones
Hero stones give rise to stucco images of the heroes
who are later identified with popular Gods

Dolmens - Hero Stones
A stucco image of a Village God, near Viluppuram

It is this worship of the hero-stone that led to some of the cults of village gods When the heroic death was famous, the hero came to be celebrated in ballads and his fame spread to nearby regions. Also wherever the people of that region migrated they took the worship of that hero with them. From a small village to a wider region, his cult spread and now he becomes the saviour of that region or even the country. It is how the cult of some celebrated heroes in the Tamil country spread as for example the cult of Maturaiviran, Karuppaººacami, AººaÊmar, Matacami and Nallata³kal etc., around whom there are fine ballads.

In this connection a contemporary practice may also be studied. In this case the dead was a woman whose funerary rites will come as revelation. After the cremation of the body of the dead, stones are planted at two places, one at the banks of a river or lake, and the second at the entrance to the house of the deceased. The former is called nadi-tira-kuº¹a and the latter the gÁha-dvara-kuº¹a. In both the instances three small pebbles are tied by darbha grass and planted. For ten days the sons, descendants and relatives offer water and sesame seeds to the stones planted at the river bank. Water is also sprinkled from a wet towel over the stones accompanied by a chant. The chant says that, "I so and so, offer to so and so who is dead, this Towel-water (vasa-udaka) and sesame-water (tila-udaka) to cool down the heat of the body consumed by fire during cremation." Each day the number of this offering increases till the tenth day of death.

Dolmens - Hero Stones
Dolmen like pandal at the entrance of the house of the dead;
the three stones are planted beneath

At the entrance to the house stones are planted, either in a pit or a newly thatched temporary pandal that looks like a dolmen (Foto). After the offering is made at the river bank, the sons and relatives return to the entrance of the house. The sons repeat the offering (Foto) to the stones. In addition cooked rice rolled into two balls, one large and the other small (called piº¹as) are offered to the stones invoking the dead. The daughters prepare this cooked rice and piº¹as in front of the stones (Foto). Milk, honey, ghee, tender coconut are other offerings (Foto). Of the two balls of rice one is big and the other is small, the big one is meant for the dead to eat as day time meals and the small for the night. A pot full of drinking water is placed over the stones. A small hole in the pot allows the water to drip throughout the day (Foto). A lamp is kept burning throughout. This may be compared with what Avvaiy¤r sings of chieftain Atiyam¤Ê getting sprinkles on his dolmen.

Dolmens - Hero Stones
The great offering consisting of Rice, iddly, appam, vadai, and other food is called pra-bhuta-bali . the Tamil term Perum-padai mentioned in Tolkappiyam is exactly the same in the case of heroes. In temple parlance it is called the maha-naivedya

On the tenth day a great food offering is made to the dead. Huge quantity of cooked rice, sweet meats, cooked vegetables etc. and other things that were liked by the dead while alive, are offered. This is called prabhuta-bali This is an exact equivalent of perumpadai of the Sangam classics. On the eleventh day, the dead who was called for the first ten days "preta" ("mane") is united with his/her ancestor and is no more called preta but hence forth "pitA" ("the ancestor"). A great offering is also made in a pit to the god Yama and also the dead on that day. Finally on the 13th day an auspicious rite is held which purifies the sons and relatives and a prayer is addressed to the dead to bestow blessings on the family (There are other rites which need not detain us here.).

The dead in this case was a woman belonging to a Brahmin family. Erection of a dolmen like structure, planting stones and offering food and water more or less in the same manner as mentioned in the Sangam literature, would show that this custom was not confined to only heroes or warrior class but to all classes of people, including women. A very large number of dolmens and cairn circles in ancient megalithic sites show that almost all the people received such honours in the beginning but later the custom was confined to men of great valour and fame. The custom continued in a symbolic manner for other people. The planting of stone continued but in a small scale without the figure or writing, and was removed after the 10th day and the stones were thrown in deep waters..

It may be mentioned that the cult of planting stones found in Tamilnad is not exclusive to this region. The cult was found to be pan Indian in character, which was demonstrated in a seminar organized by Dr. Sontheimer and Dr. Settar at Dharvar6. I have shown that this custom in a symbolic way continues among the Brahmins of South India for women as well.

The disposal of the dead is dealt with in the Dharma Sastras which are legal treatises. There are elaborate rules prescribed, including the selection of stone, the person authorized to do the death rites to the deceased etc. These are dealt with in the Dharma sastras for the reason that they deal with inheritance rights. The person who performs the rites has claim over the property of the dead. (These and other points are dealt with in detail in my forthcoming article on the disposal of the dead). The question that comes up now is whether erection of dolmens could be associated exclusively with the Dravidian people? This needs to be examined separately7


(1) Nagaswamy, R., Ce³kam natukaÉkal, Tamilnadu State Dept. of Archaeology, Madras, 1972

(2) Nagaswamy, R., Seminar on Hero stones, Tamilnadu State Dept. of Archaeology, Madras.

(3) Purananuru, ed. U. V. Caminatha Aiyar, UVS Iyer Library, Thiruvanmiyur, Madras.

(4) Purapporul Veºpamalai, ed. U. V. Caminatha Aiyar, UVS Iyer Library, Thiruvanmiyur, Madras

(5) Cilappatikaram of Ilanko Atikal, ed. U. V. Caminatha Aiyar, UVS Library, Thiruvanmiyur .

(6) Settar, Memorial Stones, Dharvar University.

(7) The photographs published in this article are by the author. Researchers are permitted to use them with due acknowledgements.

The above is picture of a Virakkal dedicated to a warrior who performed self-sacrifice. He is wearing a scabbard in his waist. He is also wearing the "Vattudai" a garment worn by warriors. He grabs his hair with his left-hand and smites his neck with a sword which is held with his right hand.

This statue is found in the Puumaayi Amman Temple of Tiruppathur, Sivagangai District, TamilNadu, South India. The temple is situated at the south-western part of the town. As such it was at the outskirt of the giant fortress that was there. It is actually a temple dedicated to Sapta Matrikas -the Seven Mothers. Puumaayi Amman is Vaishnavi or Vishnu Sakthi. She is in the centre of the row of the seven Matrikas.

Such statues are also found in Mamallapuram(MahaBali Puram), Thiruvaanaikkaa, and some other places. I found one such broken statue in a temple of Vadakku Vaasal Chelvi Amman in Kalappur, near Singampunari-same region as Tiruppathur. It is in the northern boundary of the "Lost City of Aruviyur".


Self-sacrifice or Navakantam was an ancient practice among the Tamils in which a person sacrifices his own self with his own hands. It is a form of ritualistic suicide. Though outwardly resembling the Japanese Hara-Kiri, it differs in several ways from it. In Hara-Kiri, sometimes, the best friend cuts the head off, while the Samurai warrior slices his abdomen with his dagger. But the Tamils did it absolutely unassisted.

This custom was prevalent among the ancient Tamil warriors.

It was usually carried out as a fulfilment of a vow. There were various reasons for this.

Some examples:

Scenario 1: A war with a mighty enemy against tremendous odds. There is no chance of winning. Divine intervention is besought. The warrior or warriors make a vow to offer their heads to Durga - the Goddess of War and Victory.
Victory is attained. The warriors offer their heads to Durga.

Scenario 2: The ancient Tamil kings had personal body-guards. They were the "VeLaikkaarap padai" of the Cholas and the "Thennavan AabaththudhavigaL" of the Pandyas. The latter were more fiercesome. Marco Polo who met them calls them, the " King's Trusty Lieges". The Pandya king is very ill. One of the body-guards makes a vow for his king's recovery. He offers his own life in place of the king's. The king recovers. So he gives his life as offering.

Scenario 3: A person suffering from terminal illness or untreatable disease. He decides to end his life. He chooses to sacrifice himself and attain Vira-Sorgam.

Scenario 4: A criminal is condemned. The king, however, gives him a choice. The criminal chooses to perform the rirualistic self-sacrifice. Thus his sins and crimes are washed away. He attains Paradise.

Scenario 5: A person is about to die of grievous wound or disease . But he has certain unfinished duties to carry out . He asks a particular deity for a postponement of death . He lives and finishes his task. After that, he voluntarily lays down his life to the deity as he promised.

Scenario 6: A man undergoes a great insult. He does not wish to live. But he does not wish to die a cowards death. So he performs the ritualistic suicide.

The Ritual:

When a person wishes to perform this ritualistic suicide, he calls all his friends and relatives for a very grand celebration. A festival is held in honour of the occassion. He is attired befittingly. There were certain rites which were performed at his house. It was funerary in nature. He takes leave of every-one. Then everybody goes in procession to the temple of the deity for whom the ritual is to be performed.

In the temple of the deity, the necessary rites are performed.

The self-sacrificer attains the proper posture on the ground.

A rhythmic beating of drums are accompanied by other musical instruments. While the priest is chanting the appropriate Mantras, the self-sacrificer grabs his hair and holds up his head with his left hand and holds a sword with his right hand.

Then, with a swift stroke, he smites his head off.

There was another variety called Nava Kantam. In this the sacrificer cuts off eight parts from his body. The ninth and last part to be cut off, is the head. Hence, the name, "NavaKantam". In this ritual, the sacrificer has to do it unassisted. Since it is an elaborate rirual, it is time-consuming. So the whole process takes place slowly. The Zamorins-Saamudhiri Kings- of Calicut used to perform this.


The warriors are usually honoured with a Hero-stone called "Viirak Kal".


Literary References:

This custom is mentioned in ancient Tamil literature like the Maduraik Kaanchi, Chilappadhikkaaram, alingaththup ParaNi, etc.

In the Chilappadhikkaaram, the warriors who won a victory for their king Karikaala Cholzhan are seen to scarifice themselves to the Chadhukka Bhutham of Kaviri Pumpattinam. The Bhutham was one of the guardians of the city. In another place, it perform for Durga.

In the Kalingaththup ParaNi, we it being performed for Kotrravai who is KaLi.

Foreign References:

Marco Polo who visited the Pandya country in the 13the century A.D., was an eye-witness to such an event. Friar Jordanus , Nicolas de Conti, and others have mentioned about it in their travellogues.

Pallava period Hero stone unearthed in Vellore District
Hindu 24 November 2001

VELLORE, NOV. 23. A 9th century `herostone' built during the region of the Pallava King, Dantivarman, has been unearthed recently at Balekuppam in Katpadi taluk.

History has it that Dantivarman ruled Thondaimandalam with Kancheepuram as the capital for about 50 years from 796 A.D. to 846 A.D.

The war of Thellar took place during the reign of Nandivarman III, son of Dantivarman. `Marpidugu Eri' (lake) and `Swastik' well at Thiruvellarai, both in Tiruchi district, were constructed during Dantivarman's regime.

According to Mr. M. Gandhi, Curator of the Government Museum, Vellore, a feudatory called Mavali Vanarayan, under Dantivarman, ruled the area around modern Thiruvalam.

Vanarayan's headquarters was Vanapuram. The `herostone' belongs to this vassal's period.

The `herostone', which was erected during the regnal year of Mavali Vanarayan in 816 A.D., has a height of six feet and is four feet wide.

The hero, shown in relief work, rides on a galloping horse. He has a beautiful turban on his head. He throws a spear with his right hand and a dagger dangles from his waist band.

A thick `hara' adorns his neck. There are 34 lines of inscription on three sides of the figure. The inscription has been chiselled in Grantha and Tamil.

The hero named Pennan, son of Arikanri, died heroically defeating his enemies while they raided Palai Udai Pymur. Therefore the `herostone' was installed with a donation of land to be utilised by his relatives. Mr. Rajendran of Balekuppam, an M.Phil student, informed Mr. Gandhi about the presence of the `herostone'. With the permission of Dr. R. Kannan, Commissioner of Museums, and the Department of Archaeology, Mr. Gandhi and Mr. P. Venkatesan, a PG assistant, Government Higher Secondary School, Kaveripakkam, studied the herostone.

The 'herostone' which has been unearthed recently at Balekuppam in Katpadi taluk.

2,300-year-old hero stones found in Theni district
Hindu, 5 April 2006

THANJAVUR: Hero stones over 2,300 years old and inscribed with the Tamil Brahmi script have been discovered, for the first time, at Puliyamkombai in Andipatti taluk of Theni district.

V.P.Yatheeskumar and S.Selvakumar of the Department of Epigraphy and Archaeology of Tamil University, Thanjavur, found the stones on March 23 and 25 on the banks of the Vaigai, about 19 km south of Vattalakundu. They are functioning under the department head K.Rajan.

"These are the oldest among the hero stones in India so far," Vice-Chancellor C.Subramaniam told reporters here on Tuesday. "... They will pose new challenges to archaeologists of Tamil Nadu."

The three-foot high stones seem to be a part of urn burials found in large numbers in the area. In recent years, they were removed from their original position when the ground was levelled for cultivation. The area is known as Veppamarattukadu.

Dr.Rajan said the research was part of a project on the archaeology of the Vaigai valley, funded by the University Grants Commission and a project on the historical atlas of South India, funded by the Ford Foundation.

The first hero stone has three lines that read, "Kal pedu tiyan antavan kudal ur akol," which means it has been put up in memory of Tiyan Antavan of pedu village, who died in a cattle raid at Kudalur. The second stone is partly broken. The inscription says it is in memory of Atan. The full name of the village and the man could not be ascertained as the stone has been damaged. The inscription on the third stone reveals that it is in memory of Patavan Avvan of Velur.

The last two inscriptions can be dated to the third century BC. The first inscription seems to be older than the other two. According to Iravatham Mahadevan, an expert in the Tamil Brahmi script, the writings and orthography are similar to the cave inscriptions of Mangulam. This is the earliest inscription found so far in Tamil Nadu.

18th Century Hero stone unearthed in Madurai
R. Sairam, Hindu, 22 July 2006

The `hero stone' on display
at the Government Museum in Madurai.

MADURAI : The Madurai Government Museum has a new inmate - `hero stone.' It was recently unearthed at Pappapatti in Usilampatti taluk. The four-foot-high and two-foot broad statue depicts an ancient warrior in a heroic posture, along with his wife holding a flower.

"This statue depicts a warrior, probably of the 18th century, and belongs to the post-Nayak period, around 200 years ago," said P. Sam Sathiaraj, Curator, Government Museum.

Statues of this kind had been found all over the southern parts of India and most of them depicted warriors, who had earned a name for themselves in battles, he added. He said that from the architectural features of this statue, it was seen that it could have been worshipped by the people in the ancient times.

Making of these `hero stones' had been prevalent since the Pallava period, dating back to 1,400 years, to the Nayak and post-Nayak period, around 200 years ago.

Most of these statues have detailed inscriptions, which mention the warrior's heroics, achievements and even the cause of his death but this statue does not contain any inscription, according to Mr. Sam. The age and period of these statues can be deciphered from their unique features, like the flower in the woman's hand, which is considered an auspicious symbol.

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