Ashoka’s honorable days begin…
Some kings are remembered for the battles they fought and won, others for the wisdom of their administration and statesmanship and yet others for their unique contribution to the fostering of art and architecture. History makes space for them in the annals of remembrance. But there are some who are remembered not only for their impact on the kingdom that they ruled but far beyond, not only during the times they ruled but on the future too. King Ashoka (c. 3rd century BCE) is one of them.
To demystify and unravel the story of his life, we will need to draw on the edicts that he installed at various places in the country and beyond as well as from literary sources – Pali and Sanskrit (Northern tradition). Unlike the proclamations of the Achaemenian Emperor Darius I, inscribed on stone slabs, King Ashoka’s were differently structured and driven by a new concept.
The war that gave him life
The Kalinga war proved to be a turning point in Ashoka’s life, which led him on to become ‘Dhammasoka’. The earliest Major Rock Edict, which was inscribed in the 8th year after his coronation, narrates the disaster – ‘many thousands have died, many were slaughtered and many were deported …’ In sadness, he confessed that ‘it was a very painful and a very censurable act of mine.’ This terrible event seems to have constantly weighed on his mind so much so that even after twelve years he could not forget it.
At the end of this edict, he writes, “Do not be victorious about the conquest, know that the victory lies in an exposition of Dhamma and it will be a victory for this world and the next world, too.”
Gossip- The ladies in his life
Literary sources inform us about Ashoka’s queens. His first wife was Vidishadevi, mother of Mahinda and Sanghamitta and his chief-queen-consort was Assandhimitta, perhaps the first official Queen.
In an edict known as Queen’s Edict, we come across his second wife Karuvaki, mother of Tivara. She had donated a mango grove and charity-house and bestowed other gifts which were considered charity.
Another queen mentioned is Padmavati of whom we have perhaps the least information, except in Divyavadana and Asokavadana (Northern tradition). These treatises tell us that she was the mother of Prince Dharmavardhana, who was later known as Kunala. And later, Ashoka, in his old age, married Tishyarakshita, a woman of humble birth but he raised her to the position of his queen.
This apart, one cannot forget King Ashoka’s valuable contribution to art and architecture. His grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, had first introduced stone art in India. He had built an assembly hall resembling that of the Persian Emperor Darius I and fortified the city of Pataliputra. Ashoka, in his footsteps, carried his dream forward, adding his own.
He erected stone pillars that were not only imitations of Persian architecture, but he improvised further. Ashokan pillars were tapering, monolithic and with a capital crowning on them. The animals studded on the capitals revealed the skill and knowledge of animal anatomy. These pillars were erected near stupas and places of pilgrimages and were beautifully surrounded by gardens attached to them.
Besides pillars, the king had also shown an interest in the construction of stupas. In fact, he enlarged the stupa of Konagamana at Nigliva, to double its size.Three rock-cut caves excavated at Barabar and Nagarjuni hills revealed Ashoka’s edicts inscribed on their walls. These rock-cut caves perhaps made a great impact on Maharashtra. Kondivite (Mahakali caves in Mumbai) cave is a copy of the Sudama cave of Barabar hills.
This piecing together of information has given us a fairly clear picture of the royal personage, vision, and commitment of King Ashoka, as revealed through his life’s activities. They are like glow signs in the dark suggesting the greatness of the man and the influence that he exercised over the region during his lifetime and after. Though his Empire crumbled and dissolved after merely half a century of his passing, the essential spirit of his beliefs endured.
Writer- Meena Talim Photographs- Archaeological Survey of India, Suresh Vasant, Hemant Patil, Amol Bankar,Dr. Jitendra Kshirasagar, Manjiri Bhalerao Copy Editor- Ankita Badoni