Nayanjot Lahiri’s first effort at narrative history, Finding Forgotten Cities (2005) – about the discovery of the Indus Civilisation almost exactly a hundred years ago – has inspired many students of Indian history to focus on our ancient period. In that book, she showed the entire arc of discovery by Tessitori, Daya Ram Sahni, Rakhaldas Banerji, John Marshall, and others as the piecing together of a giant jigsaw puzzle. By showing how the pieces fell into place, she revealed the possibility of looking at much of archaeology and ancient history as the unravelling of a mystery which could be narrated by borrowing some of the methods used crime fiction writers.

Lahiri also wrote her subsequent books, including one Ashoka in Ancient India, and another on small incidents and artefacts that open out larger themes in ancient Indian history (Time Pieces), to be accessible and entertaining for students. And now, she has taken this approach further with her latest book, Searching for Ashoka: Questing for a Buddhist King from India to Thailand. She spoke to about, among other things, her books, her writing, and her intriguing and unusual decision to be both highly scholarly and completely accessible. Excerpts from the interview:

In your writings on Ashoka you emphasise on what makes him such a fascinating character: his desire to be remembered as a flesh-and-blood human, with emotions and flaws. What is it about his personality that intrigues you the most. If you could meet the emperor himself, what would you ask him?
Rulers who enjoy tremendous power over large territories, as the Emperor Ashoka (269-232 BCE) did, are all compelling figures, no matter what their eventual legacy. But what makes Ashoka different from many long-lived ancient kings and emperors was that he was not a faceless ruler. He made himself visible through his words. What intrigues me is the contrast that exists in his epigraphic signature – on the one hand a king with a strong sense of self, and on the other that this same king had an ego robust enough to acknowledge that his actions were impacted by people and circumstances beyond himself.

Every edict was a personal message constantly reminding his subjects that his public communications were about him – as a ruler and as an individual. ‘Devanampriya speaks thus’ is how his first edicts (the minor rock edicts) begin, with the first person ‘I’ constantly figuring in them. While in the major rock edicts it is in the third person that ‘Devanampriya’ figures (along with the ‘I’), it is back to the first person self-referential form in the pillar edicts.

The Minor Rock Edict of Maski mentions the author as "Devanampriya Asoka", definitively linking both names, and confirming Ashoka as the author of the famous Edicts.

Simultaneously, Ashoka’s self-image includes an ability to accept where his actions have not quite succeeded. In his last publicly communicated message, he admits having tried two ways of getting people on the path of dhamma – by regulations or by converting them to his ideas. He recognises that persuasion has worked better than diktat. This is a big admission because several of his edicts sound like diktats.

It is this interplay between Ashoka’s interventions on the ground as recorded in his words, and his admission of partial success, also in his own words, that fascinates me.

If I were to meet Ashoka, I would ask him what he thought of the various Ashokas that have been floating around for the last two thousand years or so. I can see myself in this dialogue as a female Upagupta (the character in the Ashokavadana who takes Ashoka on a pilgrimage to see the residual signs of the Buddha, about which Ashoka knew very little). He would see Sanchi, where he was shown his place by the Samgha – to which he had spoken sternly in his lifetime. The Samgha chose to get Ashoka sculpted in a way that revealed the limits of his power.

At Kanaganahalli, where Ashoka put up his edicts, he would see how later Buddhists imaged him – with his queen, even as his physical presence was drowned by the traffic of later rulers and their spouses. Then, in countries to the east of his empire which had actually never interested him, he would see, as in Thailand and Myanmar, that he had become an ideal Buddhist king worthy of emulation, with many kings who were his namesakes, with names like ‘Si Thammasok’ or ‘Ashoka Dhammaraja’.

I suspect Ashoka would be thrilled by such futuristic sightings of his own afterlife. He would see the immortality that he had craved for, never mind that later rulers who reinscribed him were neither his immediate successors nor remembered him in line with the inscriptions within his own edicts.

In your book you mention that Sanchi was known locally as ‘saas bahu ka bitha’ and that a carved stone at Kanaganahalli was used as a base for a temple icon. What do these incarnations and reincarnations of histories say about the way one should view interactions between the past and the present? How would you relate this placement and displacement and replacement – which has gone on for centuries, and not just in India but everywhere – to the current majoritarian interest in deploying a historically common process for political ends?
There is a difference between histories of construction and the reception of histories of monuments and antiquities. Within religious practice, it is quite common for structures and sculptures of ancient and medieval times to be reused and worshipped later in another form.

In a village called Kuthiala, not far from my present field area in Bandhavgarh (Madhya Pradesh), there is a high cylindrical stupa that is today a ‘Devisthana’. This immediately reminded me of the Nageshwarnath temple in Ayodhya, where an Ashokan capital functions as the ‘gauri patta’ or base for the Shivalinga worshipped there.

How far back can we trace this practice? In Madhya Pradesh, where I am working at presentl, it would be the early medieval period (8th century onwards), when 2nd century CE cave shelters in the Bandhavgarh tiger reserve, created by travellers and kings of ancient times, were repurposed as Hindu shrines dedicated to Shiva.

These different religious strands and layers are an integral part of our past and living civilisational heritage. It is a pity that now institutionally backed groups want to reconstitute our eating habits and our world of beliefs and worship by proclaiming cultural homogeneity. As the Sanchi and Kanaganahalli examples that you mention highlight, heterogeneity in practices and traditions has been the norm.

You often highlight the ways in which the ASI botches the conservation of archaeological sites, as seen in, for instance, the sorry state of Ashoka’s Queen at Kanaganahalli. What might be a way of reducing this damage to the scattered and still fairly extensive remnants of ancient India? How would you change the philosophy and functioning of the ASI if you were its director? Is greater funding and collaborative participation by the private sector an idea worth pursuing?
Heritage conservation needs to undergo a major overhaul. The deplorable deterioration of principles and standards, despite the increasing amounts of government money being spent, makes it obvious that it is not lack of resources but of accountability that is responsible for the present state of affairs. There is no universally agreed protocol for conservation in India – the same government department does different things at different sites. The corruption that conservation work has generated is also worth addressing.

In fact, conservation weighs like a millstone around the neck of the ASI, where its personnel are more concerned with the remunerative aspects of conservation than anything else. There should actually be a powerful body vested with overall conservation responsibilities on the lines of a National Heritage Commission. Certainly such a body should be integrally engaged with the private sector, but the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that respectable standards of conservation are maintained should rest with it.

Above all, there should be public accountability. How and why conservation work along particular lines has been undertaken at different monuments must be in the public domain. Simultaneously, it is time that professionals and experts outside government regularly prepare a report on the state of India’s archaeological heritage.

Assessments of many spheres of government are regularly made; these help articulate policy and legislation. If the exercise is extended to monuments and sites, it would help generate pressure on those who are paid to preserve our past. The more pressure generated on the institutional guardians of India’s archaeological heritage, the more likely that these guardians will cease living in denial. India’s archaeological heritage, as I have often said, deserves better than what has fallen to its lot.

You establish that different regions and groups have their own versions of Ashoka. How did colonial historians envision him, and how did this impact the way history in general views him today?
Colonial scholarship on Ashoka was broadly along two lines. First, in 1837 James Prinsep, building upon earlier pools of epigraphic knowledge, uncovered the key that unlocked Ashoka. He deciphered the script which made it possible to read the emperor’s inscriptions. Second, there were scholarly writings on the emperor, of which the most influential were those of the colonial scholar-civil servant Vincent Smith, who put together the first modern biography of him under the title Ashoka – The Buddhist Emperor of India. He was of the firm conviction that no king, east or west, could match Ashoka, the only ruler to combine in himself the duties of a monk and a monarch. Coming from Vincent Smith, an administrator and scholar of imperial inclinations and views, such unambiguous approval was a refreshing surprise.

There are many ways in which this scholarship impacted how the emperor’s history was subsequently written. For one, as in Smith, epigraphic sources became the inevitable and desirable guide when depicting him. While using epigraphs as the bedrock for Ashoka and his times is entirely understandable, there is often an implicit belief even today, as in Charles Allen’s work (and the view goes back to the 19th century), that this ruler of ancient India was pretty much a forgotten entity until the British discovery of the extinct Mauryan Brahmi script.

King Ashoka visits Ramagrama, to take relics of the Buddha from the Nagas, but in vain. Southern gateway, Stupa 1, Sanchi. | Image credit: Photo Dharma from Sadao, Thailand / CC BY 2.0.

Actually, there was a continuous textual tradition, and epigraphs too, from Kashmir to Thailand, in which Ashoka figured. For another, a lot of the secondary writings – like colonial tracts – do not dig into vernacular writings, and thus pay less attention to Indian scholarship on Ashoka. One figure who was discovering Ashokan edicts in Maharashtra and Rajasthan around the same time as Alexander Cunningham and his assistants was Bhagwanlal Indraji. But his discoveries were much less recognised than Cunningham’s because the bulk of his early writings were in Gujarati. The supremacy of the language of the day, English, and of the colonial antiquarian over the Indian, were responsible.

Ashoka has captured the imagination of many – you discuss the ways in which Buddhist rulers used him and the Buddha as dynastic anchors to legitimise their rule. What is it about this specific aspect of a religion that emphasises compassionate and humane governance that makes Ashoka, like Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, an international icon and links him to dissidents such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King? As a historian of the ancient world, could you tell us about other historical figures in Chinese, Christian, and Islamic civilisations who in your view embody the kind of focus on the ‘kingdom of humanity’ that Ashoka does?
What links Ashoka with contemporary icons is entirely different from what links him with premodern Buddhist rulers. In the case of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King and others of that kind, it is their emphasis on moral force and ethical principles that resonates with Ashokan ideas. Common to them is also a sense that there are alternative non-violent ways of engaging with people, whether it is your subjects or those who you are resisting or your followers.

In Ashoka’s case, there is, though, a recognition that a king would have to use coercive force when needed, if moral persuasion did not succeed. It is important to recall that Ashoka is not only all about compassion. A monarch 2,000 years ago had to scheme and control in order to sustain his rule; the exercise of power inevitably entailed the use of force. Even when a king turns vegetarian, the outward radiation of his power compels forms of everyday submission in his immediate household and following: those around Ashoka are hardly likely to have continued gorging themselves on meat when the monarch had conspicuously renounced it and frowned on cruelty to animals.

Buddhist rulers in general gave Ashoka a visibility that was novel and abiding, but South East Asian, Sri Lankan, and other such rulers more specifically emphasised his achievements as a Buddhist proselytiser and builder of shrines. His novel modes of governance and public messages were never a part of what was retrospectively imagined as central about the emperor. This was because they wanted to align their own rule as Buddhists with the Buddhist avatar of the great king. So, the historical Ashoka of the edicts that impressed subsequent rulers was not central to the ways in which they invoked him.

Kanaganahalli inscribed panel portraying Asoka with Brahmi label 'King Asoka'. | Image credit: Ministry of Culture, Government of India.

It is difficult to make comparisons with other historical figures elsewhere because it is rare to find a royal change of heart so radical. What Ashoka does post-Kalinga is, as I suggest in my biography of him, the snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory, and the idealisation of that defeat insofar as it shows him so entirely turning over a new leaf. In relation to his subsequent humane ideas of governance, Constantine has often been mentioned but the Roman emperor’s conversion to Christianity was strategic and did not stop him from getting into battles.

Geok Yian Goh looks at King Anawrahta in Myanmar in great detail and points to how, in the fashioning of that king’s image, there are similarities that were highlighted – from the importance of a Buddhist conversion of both monarchs by monks to the Buddha’s predictions about them. But these, as her work points out, are in their reconstructed lives that circulate many centuries after their time. Both, though, were portrayed as moral kings.

Your book is especially engaging because it is a historical travelogue: your essay on living antiquarianism in Ballabgarh and Ghaziabad felt like a similar work. How does time spent in archives and libraries contrast with actually experiencing the places the sources describe, and how does this impact your vision of Ashoka?
What I have written has on many occasions begun outside libraries and archives. Working in the field and digging into textual sources are entirely different experiences. Going into the field and studying sites and their surroundings is a vastly enjoyable experience and one that always provides insights rarely available in texts and archives.

Since you mention Ballabgarh, my primary focus there was to reconstruct the area’s early settlement history through a grassroots village-to-village documentation. At the same time, those field visits opened up an entire universe of worship and belief there that could not be explained by using texts.

It was in Ballabgarh that I first observed the widespread worship of broken sculpture. While such vestiges form the only evidence for the existence of early medieval Hindu and Jain temples there, equally significant was that these archaeological remnants of ancient high culture survived as a body of historical evidence because they had been preserved in a dramatically visible way by folk worship.

Such worship showed how little scriptural sanctions strictly forbidding homage to broken and mutilated images mattered on the ground. Actually, my own education had not prepared me for the disjunction that I encountered between notions of religious space in the textual tradition and the constitution of sacred geography on the ground. The field and the various people I met in Ballabgarh opened a window that helped somewhat in making up for the deficiencies in my education.

So, a lot of my work has actually been seeded in the course of pleasant wanderings around all kinds of places, monuments, and museums. Some of my research on John Marshall’s early years in Simla, for instance, happened during the summer of 1997 when my family and I searched out the buildings that housed Marshall and his office establishment.

Again, my essay on the history of the 1857 landscape owes much to various visits made to the monuments of old Delhi when my son was a young boy. During those excursions his questions and comments made me realise important facets that then crept into what I was writing: for example the fact that while the British conquest created a landscape of imperial sacrifice and bravery, the Indian perspective by contrast – thousands of citizens dead fighting the British, or hanged on charges of treason and sedition – was practically invisible in the city.

That a teacher and researcher of ancient India should be looking at material and issues arising out of modern history never bothered me. Whether it was the modern histories of ancient Sanchi and Bodh Gaya or the memorialisation of 1857, I ignored the walls that separate ancient, medieval, and modern. ‘All history is modern history’ the American poet Wallace Stevens famously said, drawing attention to the fact that while there is a reality out there, there are specific historical conditions which influence what we make of that reality. So, while artefacts and monuments have certainly been for me a kind of archive of ancient human activity, the conceptions, contradictions, and conflicts of modern India which impacted them have been equally important.

You get into the minds of the characters you discuss – in one section you talk about the similarity in ‘princely’ world views of Sultan Jahan Begum and Ashoka, who, although separated by over 2000 years, recognise what they want remembered about themselves. What is your process for putting yourself in Ashoka’s shoes? This is, typically, the kind of thing that novelists do. Some of the techniques you seem interested in lie outside the usual interests of historians – for example, your pursuit of Tessitori in Finding Forgotten Cities, and your pursuit of Marshall throughout your writings, are quasi-biographical and seem to include an interest in threading your histories as highly readable and popular page-turning stories. What has taken you in these unusual directions despite being a solidly archival and academic historian?
Let me tell you the story of how this began. When I wrote the first couple of draft chapters of what was eventually published by Permanent Black as Finding Forgotten Cities, my editor Rukun Advani sent back the chapters to me saying that a story about the discovery of the Indus Civilisation cannot be recounted in this dry academic way. His view was that while it should be seriously researched, it needed to be written to capture the excitement of the process, showing the right and wrong turns along the way that the premier explorers of those times took.

Having earlier written wholly for peer groups and readers of scholarship, I first found this a very tall order. Eventually, I think if I managed to write that book, and others too, combining archivally researched work and fieldwork in a form appealing to general readers of history, the impetus came from the editorial suggestions I got – the reshaping of my research as narrative history was the result of an evolving collaborative process with Rukun.

I have often told my students that there is a lesson in this for them. They should pay a lot of attention, right from the beginning of their research careers, to writing well and writing accessibly. It is much easier to do so when you are young, and one way of doing this is to follow what I was recommended. Rukun said I should try shaking off the shackles of the inelegant and uninspiring writing style of a lot of Indian academia. He made me read fine fiction and elevated literature to imbibe superior English skills. It meant putting myself through a self-taught school of writing that combined the gravitas of Amitav Ghosh with the raciness of Peter Hopkirk.

You write about the Barabar caves and Ashoka’s patronage of the Ajivikas, a fatalistic sect with beliefs almost wholly contrasting the Buddhist doctrine. Does Ashoka display some of the modern-day ideas of ‘secularism’? What can one learn from Ashoka in today’s political scenario?
Ashoka’s statements in his twelfth rock edict expand on what I have described as proto-secularism. This has been generally seen as the supreme proclamation of tolerance for all religious and philosophical sects. Its core feature is the belief that at the root of dhamma is a public culture in which every sect honours every other (they ‘should learn and respect one another’s Dharma’). This tolerance is not articulated by him as a passive virtue entailing cordial disregard of the Other, but rather a positive effort at a concord recognised as mutually beneficial. Thus, the king stated that he bestowed ‘men of all religious communities with gifts and with honours of various kinds, ascetics or householders.’

But were these just ideas or do we find religious shrines and communities that support these ideas of Ashokan patronage to all religious communities? At Barabar, there were two caves which were benefactions intended for the Ajivika sect. On the other hand there is a cave, now known as the Karna Chaupar cave, which was a rain shelter where Ashoka did not mention any specific sect. It could have been used by all kinds of mendicants, including Ajivikas.

As for the Lomasha Rishi cave, the architrave on its exterior, with elephants and stupas, has strong Buddhist overtones. Certainly, a kind of inter-faith coexistence is attempted by Ashoka at Barabar, of the kind that was proclaimed in his edicts. As far as structures elsewhere go, it has to be said that Ashoka as a devout Buddhist is much more visible, from Lumbini in Nepal to Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh.

While I am not in the business of learning lessons from the past, what I have personally grasped in studying Ashoka is that there are antique political figures who can straddle the world of action and thought. While we think of a Gandhi or a Nehru as straddling both worlds long before them, Ashoka appears in that mould.

He was an extraordinarily cerebral man who chose to chart his own shifting mental horizons about what kind of ruler he had been and what he became over time. And this, of course, makes me wonder whether there is something to be learnt from the way Ashoka dealt with Kalinga and his remembrance of Kalinga, and accepting the guilt of the blood on his hands. Is it possible for the Indian state to make a similar gesture towards Kashmiri people?

Finally, you go over several incarnations of Ashoka over thousands of years and much of South and South East Asia. Do you think you found traces of the historical Ashoka in the stories told about him long after his death? In other words, did you find Ashoka? Or would it not be more accurate to say that since Ashoka only exists in his edicts – and since histories of him only began to be written several centuries after his death – what historians of the very ancient world are doing is basically only pure speculation deriving from knowledge of context? Are your books about Ashoka not ultimately saying that every attempt to give us a living Ashoka is no different from Shakespeare showing us a Macbeth unknowable except via speculative dramatisation?
It would be good to put this question within the larger frame of the past, history and memory. If history is about grasping the past, it is also different from the past. It is an approximation of what happened in the past. The past is like the present – chaotic and uncoordinated – and while a great deal survives, an equal amount does not, and history is about making sense of that mess.

In the case of Ashoka, we learn a great deal about how he wanted to appear to his subjects and to the generations that followed. But how his subjects reacted to his ideas of governance, to his new morality, and to so much else, we know very little. That has not survived in the same way as his own self-crafted image immortalised in his own words. So, yes, to that extent, it is a fact that a great deal of what we know of Ashoka comes from his own words in his edicts.

But then, there is memory, how individuals and cultures are remembered. This is always a reconstruction based on our existing expectations and the way we think. As I show in the case of Ashoka, when we say he was remembered across the centuries we are also saying he came to be reinvented.

Earlier, I used to think that these reinventions have to do only with the ancient past because so little survives. But I now realise that it is equally true of the modern past. So there is a historical remembrance pattern which I have looked at in relation to this one king in antiquity, Ashoka, but it happens to be true for all periods of history.

I did not find a great deal of the historical Ashoka in that remembrance. However, there is still the basic fact of there having been a Buddhist king – this is common both to the historical figure and to reconceptualisations of him.