Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken . . .

— Keats, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”

There is no avoiding the figure of Ashoka (c. 304–232 bce) in the Thai city of Nakhon Si Thammarat. He swam into my ken there, an unexpected planet. I had gone in chase of him, expecting little, but then seen enough to become a Keatsian watcher of the skies.

At first glance Ashoka’s presence in southern Thailand may seem to the normal reader more than somewhat surprising. The third emperor of the Maurya dynasty of ancient India is, after all, separated from Thailand by his Indianness, several centuries, and the Indian Ocean. The first thing to do, it seemed to me, was to try working out why this very ancient Indian king was being remembered in this particular location so distant from modern Bihar, from where he had once ruled.

One aspect of the answer seemed to lie in geography: Nakhon Si Thammarat is a city in an isthmian region that partook of much that had happened in Asia between the South China sea towards the east and the Bay of Bengal on the west. Its artefacts and antiquities, its oral legends and textual narratives, all reveal remarkable connections between Thailand and India. To discover them, though, one has to look beyond the city’s modern façade.

Nakhon Si Thammarat is an urban centre with a provincial ambience. Nothing in its contemporary form – moderately sized clusters of restaurants and residences, hotels and movie theatres – specially stands out, and almost certainly no avataras of ancient Ashoka can be spotted within the uniform modernity that suffuses everything.

But only a short distance away, untroubled by new Nakhon, lies a charming historic hub where it is easier to see residual shadows and ghosts of things that once made up its history. It was these elements of a fascinating past, in fact, that had drawn me across the Malay peninsula to sojourn in Nakhon in the winter of 2017. The ambience of the old city owes much to its Buddhist wats (places of worship) and wihaans (image sanctuaries), representations of Hindu deities in temples and gardens, and those of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas (future Buddhas).

There is, above all, the presence of kings with names that would ring a bell in the mind of more or less any Indian historian – appellations such as “Si Thammsok” or “Sri Dharmashokaraja”, kings who ruled over territories here in the first half of the second millennium ce. The resonance of the earlier Indian Ashoka in these is almost a lesson in Thai political history, where the titles of rulers function emblematically. Thai dynasties sometimes sought to construct their history by invoking an ideal, even if that ideal was best conveyed by the name of a long dead Indian king.

Among all that is extraordinary about the presence of Ashoka in Nakhon Si Thammarat, the most remarkable and original is his representation in medieval chronicles composed around the city. These narratives centre on rulers who were described as having made Nakhon their capital – men who ruled there more than 1400 years after Ashoka. The texts speak of a letter carried to Thailand by a messenger from Sri Dharmasokaraja, who is described as a ruler of “Madhyadesha” – meaning“Middle Country” – a term used in antiquity for a large part of North India.

This Indian king – a ruler of immense merit who could translate from the Pali language with the expertise of monks – is said in these texts to have built some 84,000 holy reliquaries in which to house relics of the Buddha. However, while he had all these reliquaries ready for the relics, he lacked the relics! Empty vessels make most noise, and so the reliquaries were, in a manner of speaking, crying out to be filled: the letter to the Thai ruler of the Nakhon region was one such cry. The Indian Ashoka needed the help of his Thai counterpart to send him relics of the Buddha to enshrine.

To the embarrassment of the Nakhon Ashoka, the location within his city where these relics were meant to have been buried was a mystery – or at least a mystery to him. A treasure hunt was called for. Eventually, the Thai king succeeded in getting the correct burial spot identified by a couple of people who were in the know about such antique matters. The story ends happily: the Thai Ashoka recovered the Buddhist relics within his territories and dispatched them to the Indian Ashoka, where they presumably alleviated the emptiness of 84,000 reliquaries awaiting fulfilment.

For nearly a millennium and a half, it would seem from stories such as these, old legends had grown and new ones invented around Ashoka. And they had crept, filtered through, and made their way to distant lands – not just north to Tibet and China, but also east across an ocean. In their wake, six hundred or so years later, here I was on their tail, chasing tales.

By the time he came to be imagined in this part of Thailand, Ashoka’s persona had undergone a transformation more or less absolute. As we know – and this is something I had narrated a couple of years earlier in a book called Ashoka in Ancient India – during his rule the Indian emperor had issued many public communications, all inscribed on rocks that had been discovered scattered over Indian terrain from Afghanistan in the north-west to Karnataka in the far south. These edicts, as they are commonly called, are crowded around a few years in Ashoka’s life – from around 261 to 243 bce. In them Ashoka mentions several rulers and states to the west of his empire, from the Seleucid kingdom to Ptolemaic Egypt, from Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedon to Magas of Cyrene. But not a single ruler or region to the east of the Indian subcontinent – and not even in a generic sense – appears on these most antique intimations of lithography.

It was clear to me that neither Thailand nor any other part of South East Asia ever swam into Ashoka’s ken. Some of the texts about him that were put together centuries after his death – as for instance the Sanskrit legendary biography in Sanskrit called the Ashokavadana (c. second century ce) – did however associate Ashoka with the construction of stupas in which relics within earlier stupas were first exhumed and then reburied. In this part of Thailand, that ancient story had taken new shape: the Indian king was transformed into a supplicant seeking relics in a South East Asian region he very probably had no notion of. Ashoka, as he appears in medieval Nakhon Si Thammarat, is different in all but name from the kingly figure recorded in ancient South Asia.

This phenomenon, of making a historical figure visible while simultaneously reinventing him, and of adapting faint memories and echoes of him to new political or other purposes, has never ceased to amaze me across the many years that I have spent in the company of Emperor Ashoka. In this process of being transformed, of course, he is not exceptional. Poetry may emanate from emotion recollected in tranquillity, but history is more often political memory recollected in tumult; in both cases, the idea seems to be to transform what is being recalled. There is for instance Alexander, the fourth century bce Macedonian whose honorific “Great” rendered invisible the killings and pogroms in the trail of his conquests from Persia to India. And yet this ancient conqueror of Persia reappears as a Persian king in medieval texts.

Something similar happens to Sultan Saladin, founder of the Ayubbid dynasty, who recaptured Jerusalem from European Crusaders in 1187 ce. This Muslim sovereign was once turned into a Christian knight – supposedly through a genealogical link on his mother’s side – and at another time into a convert to Christianity secretly baptising himself without his entourage being in the know. In the world of art a most remarkable metamorphosis involves the black-haired Egyptian Queen Cleopatra being depicted by medieval and Renaissance artists as a “pale blonde because the pale blonde was their ideal of beauty”.

Human memory is notoriously selective. Psychologists have pointed out that what is played back is never an exact replica of events as they played out. Frederic Bartlett, famous for pioneering work on the character of remembrance, pointed out in Remembering that memory retains a “little outstanding detail” while the remainder is reconstructive. Changed contexts and alterations in outlook determine the nature of new images and perspectives on past figures and events.

Historians have highlighted this phenomenon in relation to the hoary as well as the relatively recent past. Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, was selectively remembered even within his lifetime: people saw him as they wanted or needed to see him, and ideas of him were very quickly reworked in the popular imagination. Within months of his visiting a particular area, what he said to his audience there – which is a matter of record – was a far cry from what many who heard him recalled him saying – which is also a matter of record. In such matters, obviously, time is not of the essence. Recollections manipulate and transform the image of a near contemporary, Gandhi, in much the way they do an ancient figure such as Ashoka.

Thinking about all these willed reincarnations and deliberate transformations made the Thai version of Ashoka seem to me part of a historical remembrance pattern. People remember what they please and as they please, and then a historian comes along to show what she sees as the original shape of a ruler, which is not exactly his original shape either, and she is then followed by his many distinctly differing manifestations in subsequent centuries and distant locations. An Indian Ashoka making an appearance as a new man altogether within a Thai relic redistribution saga was, you could say, almost de rigueur.

Searching for Ashoka: Questing for a Buddhist King from India to Thailand

Excerpted with permission from Searching for Ashoka: Questing for a Buddhist King from India to Thailand, Nayanjot Lahiri, Permanent Black and Ashoka University.