It is impossible to miss the many references to Ashoka in New Delhi. As a name and symbol, the spirit of the Mauryan Emperor seems omnipresent in India’s capital city, from the many references to the Ashokan emblems adopted by the Republic of India - the Ashoka Chakra and the Lion Capital of Ashoka, the roads named after Ashoka, the Government-owned Ashoka Hotel… the list is long. But did you know that there are not one but 3 Ashokan era remnants - 2 pillars and an edict in Delhi ? They are all almost forgotten!
Go beyond Nehru Place and Kailash Colony in south Delhi, and you will find a hillock with a fairly unattractive concrete canopy on it, dwarfed by the neighbouring ISKCON temple. It is hard to believe that this structure protects an actual Ashokan edict, put here over 2000 years ago.
Known to historians as ‘Minor Rock Edict I’, in which Emperor Ashoka talks about how he accepted the ‘Dhamma’ (the Buddhist faith) around two and a half years before this edict was installed and his efforts to propagate the faith.
Minor Rock Edict I is along an ancient trade route connecting Peshawar and Bengal
The location of this edict, away from the historic heart of Delhi, might puzzle many. However, historian Dr. Upinder Singh, in her book ‘Ancient Delhi’ explains that this south Delhi locality was once an important settlement on the Uttarapatha or the ancient trade route, which connected Taxashila near Peshawar with the ports of Bengal.
You’d be amazed to known that today the National Highway - NH 19 connecting Delhi with Kolkata, passes through the same area, marking the importance and relevance of this ancient route!
Today most people know ‘Feroze Shah Kotla’, because of its famous cricket stadium. But serving as a backdrop to the stadium, are a mass of ruins which were the actual ‘Kotla’ or ‘Palace-Citadel’ of Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq.
Looming large over the ruins is a pillar, the second Ashokan connection with Delhi. This pillar was erected by Emperor Ashoka, sometime between 273 and 236 BCE in the village of Topra Kalan, in the Yamunagar district of Haryana and was transported here by Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq in 1356 CE.
Firuz Shah believed this pillar was the Pandava Bhima’s walking stick!
The journey from Topra Kalan to Delhi by Firuz Shah, narrated by his court historian Shams Siraj Afifi in ‘Tarikh-i-Firuz Shahi’ makes for an interesting read. The story goes that Firuz Shah noticed this pillar while out hunting once. He believed that it dated back to the time of the Mahabharata and was the Pandava Bhima’s walking stick! He was so awestruck by it, that he decided to transport it to Delhi and install it on top of his palace at his new city, Firuzabad, now called Feroze Shah Kotla.
On the Sultan’s orders, the soldiers dug out the pillar and laid it on a bed of silk cotton, which was specially prepared to encase it and avoid any damage during transport. They then encased it in reeds and raw hides and transported it in a carriage with 42 wheels. From there, it was loaded onto a barge on the Yamuna and taken to Delhi, where it was received by the Sultan himself. It occupied a pride of place in both the city and the Sultan’s heart and managed to amaze one and all. Sadly today, no-one even gives it a second glance.
Another Ashokan pillar was transported from Meerut and still stands today near the entrance of the Bara Hindu Rao Hospital on the Ridge.
This was not the only Ashokan pillar which caught Firuz Shah’s fancy. He had another Ashokan pillar transported from Meerut and installed at his hunting lodge, on the Ridge in Delhi. It was smashed to pieces due to a freak accidental explosion sometime during the reign of Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiyar (r. 1713-1719). It was reassembled and restored in 1886, and still stands today near the entrance of the Bara Hindu Rao Hospital on the Ridge.
Every day, thousands of Delhi natives pass through these sites, seemingly ignorant of the rocks and pillars that not only were the foundation of a significant period in Indian history, but also inspired the founding fathers of a new, free India.
It is time we had a closer look!