Ashokan Rock Edicts - Dhauli

Ashoka’s Rebirth And Rediscovery At Dhauli

Dhauli Hill is located on the left bank of the river Daya, an unimpressive tributary of the Mahanadi river that quietly flows next to this small green hill, just 10km south of Bhubaneswar.

More than 2,250 years ago on the bank of this river and the foot of Dhauli hill, a fatal war was fought that changed the course of Indian history. The region was then known as Kalinga, and the Maurya dynasty king’s conquest was achieved at the expense of unimaginable loss of human life. Up to 200,000 people were either slain or died shortly afterwards, turning the river red with human blood.

The Kalinga war of 261 B.C. was a turning point for that king, who renounced violence and adopted a doctrine of welfare to the common people, promoting Buddhism across ancient Asia. That king’s name was Ashoka.

Image of Ashoka (center), at Sanchi Stupa 1, Madha Pradesh

To communicate and spread his new found beliefs across his vast empire, Ashoka carved out his mission statements in a unique and quite literal way. Across his length and breadth of his kingdom he carved edicts on natural rock faces and purposely built stone pillars. Here at Dhauli, Ashoka chose a rock near to the battleground to carve out a number of his declarations, signifying a new direction and a very new journey for the king.

Buddhism continued to flourish in India until the 6th century A.D. when the influence of Hinduism took center stage. subsequently Islamic invaders arrived and placed their authority over much of north India. The time of Ashoka and all that he achieved was long forgotten, sentenced to oblivion, banished from history.

And so this remained, until the early 19th century when an employee of the East India Company with a passion for history and archaeology enters the scene. James Prinsep was head of Asiatic Society of Bengal, with a particular interest in the pre-islamic history of India. His close friend Andrew Stirling had heard of some carvings on a rock in the jungle of Dhauli in 1817, it took a further 20 years before James Prinsep was able to explore this rumour further. Prinsep contacted Markham Kittoe, who was working for the East India Company in Orissa seeking out new coal fields in 1837. Kittoe was also a keen historian and antiquarian, so unsurprisingly he leapt at the chance to become a Victorian Indiana Jones.

Kittoe’s attempts to explore the hill did not get off to a good start. He was faced with strong resistance from the local people, finally being assisted by a man from Varanasi who, during the night and with a burning torch, took him to a rock covered with etched text. Kittoe knew immediately that these edicts were excellently preserved and potentially incredibly important.

At daybreak a few hours later, Kittoe hurriedly returned to the rock only to be attacked by a mother bear and her two cubs who were nesting nearby. Kittoe panicked and frantically climbed up the rock, and from above shot the mother bear dead. On that very spot up on top of the rock, Kittoe made a surprising discovery. Right beside where he was standing was a carving of an elephant sculpted into the rock.

Kittoe climbed down and got to work copying the script carved on the 5m x 3m rock face. It was written in Magadhi Prakrit language in Bramhi script, at the time the text had not been deciphered, so what was actually being declared on this rock was completely unknown. Prinsep received a copy of the edict text from Kittoe and spent the following year researching this and other similar mysterious edicts that had been discovered on rocks and pillars throughout India and beyond.

Prinsep was ultimately successful, and the great Indian king Ashoka was once again known to the world. His name was getting traced not just in India, but also in Nepal, Sri Lanka and most notably by the Chinese Buddhist monk-scholar Xuanzang (also known as Hiuen T’sang or Husan Tsang) who explored north India widely between 634 and 645 A.D. and documented his travels.

The Dhauli Ashokan Rock Edict is today protected by a modern structure that allows visitors to get up close to the text. The only other Ashokan rock edicts I have seen in India was in Delhi, this example at Dhauli is far more impressive and is incredibly well preserved.

Rock Edicts numbering I-X and XIV are found here. Edicts XI-XIII are missing, replaced by two special edicts known as Special/Kalinga Edict I and II. The missing rock edicts XI-XIII are found at every other rock edict of Ashoka, but the secular subject matter is covered by the some of the preceding declarations and so perhaps it was not deemed necessary to repeat them here.

The omission of edict XIII is very interesting. It mentions about the Kalinga war and heavy death toll that occurred. In Ashoka’s own words :

“One hundred and fifty thousand persons were thence carried away captive, one hundred thousand were there slain, and many times that number died.” 

It’s easy to understand why Ashoka may not have wanted this edict to be included in his newly conquered territory. Refreshing painful memories about that deadly war at the cost of unimaginable loss of life would clearly go against his political wishes. Another Ashoka edict found in Orissa near Beherampur also had this particular edict missing, so clearly he is being sensitive to the local population.

The two separate Kalinga/Special edicts are unique to Dhauli. They record specific instructions from Ashoka to his local officers on maintaining their conduct in his newly conquered territory. In order to earn trust among his conquered subjects, Ashoka instructed his officers to avoid any harassment, unjust punishment, or forceful subjection.

Here is a brief summary of each of the edicts carved at Dhauli:

IProhibits animal slaughter. Bans festive gatherings and killings of animals. Only two peacocks and one deer were killed in Asoka’s kitchen. He wished to discontinue this practice of killing two peacocks and one deer as well.
IIArrangements were made both for human and animal beings for medicinal treatments and plantation of medicinal herbs both in his and bordering kingdoms. Planted trees and bug wells on the road sides.
IIIOrdered his officials to set on tour every five years to propagate moral codes among his subjects.
IVOrdered his officials to promote the practice of morality and compassion among his subjects and wished that these practices would be followed by his descendants.
VAppointed Mahamatras from all sects to establish and promote morality. Every Human is my child.
VIOrdered his officers to report on his matters of administration related to the affairs of the people at all times and at all places.
VIISelf control and purity of mind are objects of attainment for all sects. Tolerance for all religions.
VIIIOn the tenth year of his anointment, he went out to Sambodhi which was followed by visit to Brahmanas and Sramanas, helped the poor and propagated morality.
IXRecommended the practice of morality consisting of courtesy to slaves and servants, reverence to elders, gentleness to animals and liberality to Brahmanas and Sramanas.
XProclaimed that morality is the only act of fame and glory.
XIVInscribed way of morality at various places in his vast empire according to the subject matter and places.
SRE_IAddressing the Mahamatras of Samapa, Ashoka proclaims that all his subjects are just like his own children and he wishes their welfare and happiness both in this world and the other as he desires for his own children. He orders his officials to be free from anger and hurry so that nobody will be punished without trial.
SRE_IIHe ordered the Mahamatras of Samapa to assure his piety to the unconquered border territories of the forest region (Atavikas).
Summary of the Dhauli Ashokan Rock Edicts

The rock carved elephant that Markham Kittoe accidentally found in 1837 above the Ashokan edicts is incredibly interesting. It is not the elephant in full, instead the front half of the elephant is protruding from the rock face, as if the animal is emerging from the rock itself.

There have been many interpretations around this carving. One theory is that it’s a symbolic representation of Buddha’s birth out of his mother’s womb, although others argue that it may in fact be a much later sculpture executed by local people. The carving could be described as a little crude, not up to the quality of other Mauryan animal carvings that can be seen at places like Sarnath. It is however completely unique, no other rock sculpture exists like this anywhere in the world.

Of all the various attractions on and around Dhauli hill near Bhubaneswar, the Ashokan Rock Edict has to be top of the list. Here Ashoka’s greatness is almost palpable – a king reborn and a discovery that changed the history of mankind and cemented Buddhism as a religion in India.


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12 replies »

  1. Nice article. I want to know the following-
    (1)Though you have mentioned the word “Ashoka” in SRE_I summary, I request you to verify the presence of the word “Ashoka” in the inscriptions.
    (2)Pease tell me whether the empire’s name was mentioned or not in the inscriptions?
    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Mukut.

      1) Ashoka is never mentioned by is actual name in any of the edicts as far as I’m aware, instead he calls himself Devānaṃpiya (“the Beloved of the Gods”), or Priyadarśin (“He who regards everyone with affection”). I think it is the Chinese Buddhist monk-scholar Xuanzang (also known as Hiuen T’sang or Husan Tsang) that helped associate those names with Ashoka himself. Note that the summaries are just that, there’s no literal translation going on with them.

      2) I haven’t studied the edictsin any great detail, although the ones I have read do not mention specifically the empire’s name.

      Thanks for your comment and for stopping by my blog.

      Liked by 1 person

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