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Friday, November 12, 2010

The most ancient place in Delhi

The date: 23 centuries before.
Approximately 230 B.C.
A group of heavily armed soldiers come down the jungle path, from the East of the land, from Pataliputra. They come to a kind of intersection in that primeval dense forest, where the path from the East to the West meets the track from the South to the North. There is  a crag at this ancient crossroads, rising out of the green roof of the jungle, a tiny spur of the Aravallis. It is not much, but it will do :  with its cliff face inscribed, it will act as a billboard for travellers along the busy route to the south, the Daksina-patha, advertising the new faith of the Chakravarthi, King Ashoka.
The soldiers carry a palm leaf inscription with them, and in their party are stone-inscribers, experienced in etching on the hardest of granite, using little more than water and a few simple tools. They climb the crag, and inscribe the long message of Compassion and Purity that their Monarch had dictated to them, which they have recorded in the palm leaf manuscript. It takes them a few days, but the winter sun of Indraprastha is pleasant on their faces as they work, guarded by soldiers. Their work done, they depart, to inscribe the Edicts of their King in some other place...
The centuries pass, the jungle covers all, and the inscription, and its message is forgotten. Indraprastha falls, empires rise and fall. Finally the City of New Delhi arises around the place, the place which was the crossroads in the jungle.

The modern ugly locality called Kalkaji arises there, and the hillock is used as an open air toilet by the poor of the place. Yards away, is the busy Outer Ring Road. Finally, sometime in the 60s, serendipitously, someone stumbles on to the inscription, realises that this is one of the Minor Rock Edicts of Ashoka, and that the site is 23 centuries old, and the ASI, in desperation, builds an ugly iron cage around the Edict, and a concrete shed to shelter the inscription.. The photo above shows what the site looks like.

Of all the historical remains of Delhi, this is probably the most ancient, arising paradoxically out of the brashest and most modern part of Delhi.

The idea fascinated me: this juxtaposition of ancient crossroads with the modern flyover, this magical crossover place from our age to the Ashokan era. So one day a few months back, I went there.

I went to the ISKON temple, crossed it, and went past a huge garbage dump. Holding my nose, I crossed over the gate of the Park that had come over the hillock. Kids were playing cricket all over and around the hillock, and they guided me on the route to the top.

I went up and gazed at the highly weathered, and faded inscription through the iron bars. Despite the grim concrete of the shed, and the noise from the busy highway, I could picture the scene, 23 centuries back...the rat-a-tat of the chisel, the thunder of hooves in the forest, the sense of mission of the leader of the group, and the solemnity that comes with the act of creating a time-capsule, to be opened and read in a distant future, when the language itself and the King was forgotten

That act of deciphering the lost language and reading would be done by a young Brit, James Prinsep, twenty one centuries later...but that, ah, is another gripping story....

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