It’s a rare book that I finish without having sketched out the outline of my review of it. Ashoka (the search for India’s Lost Emperor) by Charles Allen falls into this category.
Starting with one of the greater tragedies to befall this oft-blighted subcontinent – the destruction of Nalanda university by Muslim invaders – Allen takes us on a journey of discovery. Follow him as he meanders through the Tughlaqs to the Mughals, narrating discoveries of one strange artefact after another; each seeming to point to a past unknown but glorious, hinting at a forgotten history. Beginning with the European colonial rule, the journey picks up speed and despite bottlenecks it moves inexorably towards a re-discovery of a script, a language, a plethora of ruins, and a fabled king.
And not merely a king, but an emperor who ruled over a greater tract of the Indian subcontinent than any monarch or government before or since.
From weed-covered rocks to earth-entombed stupas, the story of Ashoka is written across India and Allen takes us on an almost detective-like hunt for the man behind the letters, behind the stories, behind the mists of time.
And it is truly a story worth decoding and reading. On rocks, on sandstone pillars (still polished to a mirrored shine after 2 millennia of depredations), on stupas lie scattered fragments of a man far ahead of his time, whose message of peace, acceptance and understanding rings true even today. Two centuries before Christ, here was a king who talked of conquest through hearts and minds, victories of love and peace, and a rule of compassion, not fear. How remarkable Ashoka was, especially given the time he was born in, has to be read to be believed.
Allen recounts the innumerable men whose efforts, targeted or accidental, brought out – piece by piece- the story of Ashoka. He lets the reader puzzle over Firoz Shah’s pillar, with inscriptions no one can read; the musings of Jehangir who knows no better than to carve his name on another similar pillar; the passion and fervor of a handful of East India Company engineers and draughtsmen who keep finding mounds and caves and pillars and rock inscriptions till James Prinsep finally deciphered the script and for the first time in two thousand years, read out loud the words of Devanampriya Ashoka Priyadarshi Maurya.
It is a fantastic read, and to a student of history almost as gripping as a murder mystery. The sheer number of people involved in rediscovering Ashoka, the extent and number of sites associated with his edicts, the geographical range of the textual material that fleshed out his story – all these are breathtaking in their scope. And all of these, taken together, showcase the exhaustive research Allen has undertaken for this book. It is a labour of love and gives forth the most pleasing fruit.
The only thing missing was an inquiry into the causes and circumstances around the wholesale destruction (and occasional abandonment) of Ashokan edifices and how he came about to be forgotten by Indian history. Apart from this niggle, the book is almost flawless. Give it a read if you are interested in Indian history, you will not be disappointed.