Zarmanochegas: The monk who lies in Athens

How a Buddhist monk from India, Zarmanochegas, ended up in the court of Greek emperor, Augustus
Keremeikos cemetery, Athens
Keremeikos cemetery, Athens

Kerameikos is the most important cemetery of Ancient Athens which came into existence in the 12th century BC. It derives its name from the old community of Kerameis, who settled on the banks of the river Eridanos. When the Eridanos River flowed through here, it produced an orange-red clay ideal for pottery (keramos in Greek). The community of pottery artisans and their style of elaborately painted earthenware was called kerameikos (Greek for ceramic). 

The 11-acre archaeological site is filled with tombstones and statues. One of these tombs is that of an Indian Buddhist monk. On his tomb is this inscription: “Here lies Zarmanochegas, of Barygaza, who according to the ancestral custom of the Indians gave himself immortality.”

Tamil or Punjabi

Scholars have been debating whether Zarmanochegas, a part of the mission to the court of the Romans via Athens, was sent by a Tamil king or a Punjabi king of India. Pakistani journalist Majid Sheikh mentions in his article in Dawn: “In my student days while hitch-hiking through Europe, I stumbled across a mysterious tomb of Porus’ (King of Punjab area, now divided between India and Pakistan) ambassador.” History tells us that ‘Zarmanochegas’ was a Rajput Khokhar from Lahore and reached Athens along with his 85 slaves. He was honored with a tomb.

As per RN Dandekar in his research paper, Some Aspects of the Indo-Mediterranean Contacts, published by Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a Pandya embassy, under the leadership of Zarmanochegas (Sramanacarya), had left Bhrukaccha (Barygaza) in 25 BC and waited upon Augustus at Sumos with presents for the emperor which are said to have consisted, among other things, of a gigantic python, huge tortoises, and an armless boy who could shoot arrows with his feet.

Pandyas were a Tamil dynasty of Dravidian origin, hence, if what Dandekar mentions is right, then Zarmanochegas was part of a Tamil mission to Roman court via Athens.


As per Kim Han-Sang, a Research Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, South Korea, self-immolation refers to ascetic Buddhist practises that include the voluntary termination of one’s life or the offering of parts of one’s body usually by setting oneself ablaze. 

In both the Northern (Mahayana) and Southern (Theravada) Buddhist traditions, self-immolation has been considered a heroic bodhisattva act to end one’s life.

<em><strong>Mosaic depicting the battle of Issus between Alexander and Darius III of Persia</strong></em>
Mosaic depicting the battle of Issus between Alexander and Darius III of Persia

Kalanos and Zarmanochegas

Zarmanochegas was not the first Indian monk to self-immolate in front of ancient Greeks. Long before him, Alexander’s friend Kalanos, or Swami Kalyan, also did it. When the Macedonian army reached north-western India, Alexander met gymnosophist Dandamis. Alexander wanted him to come with him back to Greece, but he refused. One of the Gymnosophistai there, a man named Kalanos (Indian Kalyana), followed the conqueror to the West. The story is described in the Anabasis by the Greek author Arrian of Nicomedia. It was in Persia that Kalanos mounted the pyre and with due ceremony laid himself down. 

We read in Nearchus’s account of this incident that at the moment the fire was kindled there was, by Alexander’s orders, an impressive salute: the bugles sounded, the troops with one accord roared out their battle cry, and the elephants joined in with their shrill war trumpetings.

Zarmanochegas’ Mission

At least nine embassies from India are known to have visited Roman emperors up to the time of Constantine. The purpose must have been both diplomatic and commercial. Indian philosophy seems to have made a tremendous impression on the thinkers of the Graeco-Roman world.

As per Roman History ‘Book LIV’ by Cassius Dio, “The people of India, who had already made overtures, now made a treaty of friendship, sending among other gifts, tigers, which were then for the first time seen by the Romans, as also, I think by the Greeks. One of the Indians, Zarmarus, for some reason, wished to die—either because, being of the caste of sages, he was on this account moved by ambition, or, in accordance with the traditional custom of the Indians, because of old age, or because he wished to make a display for the benefit of Augustus and the Athenians—he was therefore initiated into the mysteries of the two goddesses, which were held out of season on account, they say, of Augustus, who also was an initiate, and he then threw himself alive into the fire.”

The mission of Zarmanochegas was an attempt to create a stronger relationship between India and Rome, but his self-immolation astonished the Greeks like that of Kalanos several years before him had astonished the Macedonian soldiers. 

(This article was originally published on  

Related Stories

No stories found.