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Upon This Rock

What the stone edicts of Ashoka tell us about India’s great Buddhist ruler

THERE IS NOTHING ESPECIALLY STRIKING about the cluster of rocks which crowns the edge of a low hilly ridge near the village of Erragudi in the Andhra region. From a distance, the cluster appears unremarkable, while the ridge on which it sits is somewhat bare, rising out of a patchwork of cultivated fields and sparsely dotted with vegetation. The rocks on it stand a mere 30 metres or so above the plains.

Cascading down the rocks is a dramatic waterfall of words. More than a hundred lines in the ancient Brahmi script are imprinted across several of the boulders. Large portions of this scrawl are exceedingly clear, the characters boldly etched across the rock face. Some segments have deteriorated, while a few of the lines have been defaced by modern graffiti. Yet not even the English and Telugu scribbles of contemporary visitors can diminish the overwhelming impression of messages from antiquity created by the profusion of these ancient words. This copious transcription is part of a royal enunciation. The words and phrases that comprise it were composed by and inscribed at the instructions of Ashoka, the sorrowless one, the third emperor of the dynasty of the Mauryas, and ruler of a terrain that stretched, at one point, from Taxila in the north-west to Kalinga in the east.

Some 2,200 years ago, Ashoka made himself visible through the words that he caused to be inscribed at Erragudi, as well as at scores of other places across India and beyond. They represented an extraordinary democratic innovation—no ruler before him appears to have thought it necessary, or found the technology, to speak directly to his or her subjects. In keeping with Ashoka’s territorial ambitions, the scale of this project was truly imperial. The edicts were inscribed and installed across his lands, often in more than one language. A large and adept provincial administration helped carry his voice out to his subjects. They may even have reached those on the borders of the empire, an important consideration for a monarch who had undergone a religious conversion—one of the most famous in world history—and wished to reassure all people that the path of his dhamma was open to anyone who wished to follow its precepts with the right morals and true zeal. He transformed the way in which the state communicated with its people; in doing so, he hoped to transform the state itself.

These inscriptions also represent a kind of historical daybreak, ending a long phase of faceless rulers in the Indian subcontinent. In approximately 600 BCE, kings emerged out of the realms of tradition to set up and rule over several kingdoms stretching from the highlands of the north-west frontier to the lowlands of the Ganges, and southwards across the Vindhya mountains to the Godavari River on the Deccan Plateau. There were kings of greater or lesser power, rulers who were aspirants to the appellation “chief king of all kings,” and influential confederate clans.

Nayanjot Lahiri is a writer and professor at Delhi University. She is the author of several books, including Finding Forgotten Cities: How the Indus Civilization was Discovered (2005) and The Decline and Fall of the Indus Civilization (2000). 

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