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The True Chronology of Aśokan Pillars Author(s): John Irwin Reviewed work(s): Source: Artibus Asiae, Vol. 44, No.

4 (1983), pp. 247-265 Published by: Artibus Asiae Publishers Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3249612 . Accessed: 28/03/2012 19:25
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JOHN IRWIN

THE TRUE CHRONOLOGY OF ASOKAN PILLARS

tudents of ancient India have been brought up in the belief that the nation's earliest sculpturedmonuments- so-called'A'okan' pillars- had been inspiredand erectedby Aioka, first Buddhistruler of a united India. This belief continues to be perpetuatedup
to the present day by leaders of the Archaeological Survey of India, fully aware that it was

born andnurturedunderthe Britishrajover the last 15o years.From the very firstmoment of Independence, officialopinion in Indiahas clung tenaciouslyto the old beliefs,reluctant - set to think the problem afresh. The first Indian Director - the late N.P. Chakravarty the tone in 1947 by declaringthat 'it is impossible to suppose that the pillarswere raised by anyone except Asoka'.1 Twenty years later, the same opinion was repeatedby his - a statesuccessorA. Ghosh, who insisted that any other conclusion was 'unthinkable'2 ment apparently intendedto silence those independentscholarswho had vaguely mooted the possibilitythat some of the pillarsmight have been alreadystandingwithout inscriptions before Aioka came to the throne. None, however, had offered, or even dreamtof the possibilitythat some pillarseventuallybearingAgokaninscriptionshad been standing with plain shafts before he ruled. This is surprising,for in the first Minor Rock Edict, at Rapndthand at Sahasrim,attributedto the eleventh year of his reign, Aioka ordered that his edicts should be engraved on stone pillars if therewerestonepillars (available). In the seventhPillarEdict, issuedin the 26th year,he makestwo separate references to pillars:
in line
23

saying that for the purpose of propagating his Law (dhamma), he has erected

Pillars of Law (dhammathambani); and in line 32, that in order that his message should
endure it should be engraved wherever pillars or stone slabs are available. Here it is

importantto recognize that two unrelatedthings are being said: in line 23 that for the purpose of spreadinghis message he has erected a certaintype of pillar (without saying
how many, or where, or when); and in line
32,

that quite apart from those pillars that he

himself has erected, he wants his edicts engraved on stone pillars already existing - by implication, not erected by himself. Soon after beginning research in the 196os on the origin and meaning of the so-called Adokan pillars, I reached the conclusion that there was no rational basis to the claim that all of them were Aiokan, or even Buddhist monuments, but much evidence to the

N. P. Chakravarty, 'The Rock-edicts of Asoka and some connected problems', AncientIndia,, Bulletin of Archaeologi1 cal Survey of India, no. 4, 1947-48, P. 25. The author added: 'There is no room to doubt that the pillars are Buddhistic and were therefore set up by Aloka himselfand no other ruler' (ibid, p. 25). 2 A. Ghosh, 'The Pillars of Adoka- Their Purpose', East and West, Is. M. E. O., Rome, Vol. 17, 1967, PP. 273-75.

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contrary.3Among the sculptures so mis-attributedwas the great Bull capital (fig. i) excavatedat Rdmpirva in 1908, which had been characterised by Sir John Marshall,the Director of Archaeology at that time, as 'an inferior piece of sculpture',and as 'wholly alien to the spirit of Indian art'.4 A chance to make my indignation felt came in 1947-48 when, in a junior role as organisingsecretaryof the British Royal Academy'sgreat Winter Exhibition of TheArt of IndiaandPakistan(the first major exhibition of Indian art ever held, intended in this case to celebratethe handing over of power), I was able to use what influenceI could to ensure that the Bull capitalwas included among loans from India.
Moreover, I was even able to ensure that it had pride of place at the entrance to the

exhibition. A pre-Aiokan attribution was rejected for the catalogueS;but it gave me
pleasure when, on the return of the sculpture to India, it was singled out by the new

Governmentfor an honouredplacein the portico of the President'sPalaceat Delhi, where it remainsup to the present day - still displayedas an 'A'okan capital'! A second masterpiece belonging to the same art historicalcategory,but less honoured in position, is the SankisdElephant (fig. 2) - now imprisoned behind iron bars at its originalsite of excavationin I8626, where its qualityeludes the camera(hencemy dependence at fig. 2 on a faded photograph taken at the time of discovery, damaged and incomplete). Bull and the SankisdElephant are, in my opinion, masterpieces Both the Rampfirvd of underestimated antiquityand importance.Both sculpturesare unquestionablyof preAiokan and even pre-Buddhistorigin, as I suggested a decade ago in my Burlington Magazineseries (see fn. 3, above). Since then, these conclusionshave met with opposition in the West as well as in India; from Buddhistsas well as non-Buddhists(althoughnone has stated a case for his opposition). It is only now that public opinion is readyto listen. A decisive moment of changecoincidedwith the publicationin Berlinof my 1979address to the Fifth Conferenceof South Asian Archaeologistsin WesternEurope, where I read a paper offering firm proof that the Allahabad/Praydga (formerly, 'Allahabad-Kosam') Pillar shown here in its present-dayform at fig. 3) had been anotherpre-AsokanBull(fig. 1)7. From this moment, letters from scholars pillar like the one found at Rampfirvd in other partsof the world identifyingthemselveswith conclusionsarisingfrom this thesis

3 Those ideas were first publiclyadvancedin my series of Lowell InstituteLectureson 'The Foundationsof Indian in four successiveissues of the Art' deliveredat the Museumof Fine Arts, Boston, in 1973, and later summarized of the London, vols. i15-118, 1973-76, under the title '"A'okan" Pillars: a reassessment Burlington MagaZine, evidence'. 4 Sir John Marshall vol. I, Calcutta,1939,pp. 89-90; and J.H. Marshall, and AlfredFoucher,TheMonuments ofSanchi, London, 1908, esp. p. io88. of RoyalAsiatic Society, Explorationin India 1907-08',Journal 'Archaeological 5 TheArt of IndiaandPakistan(edited by Leigh Ashton), being the Commemorative Catalogueof that Exhibition, compiledjointly by K. de B. Codrington,Basil Gray and John Irwin, London, 195yo. 6 The originalexcavationreportappearsin AlexanderCunningham's articleon 'Sankisa',Archaeological Reports Survey for the period I862-65 (Calcutta1871),vol. I, pp.xl-xli. 7 John Irwin, 'The PraydgaBull pillar: another pre-Aiokan monument?' included in Proceedingsof the Fifth Asian Archaeology editedby in WesternEuropeunderthe title South of South Asian Archaeologists Conference y979, Dietrich Reimer,Berlin, I981, Part II, pp. 313-340. H. Hdirtel,

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of pre-Aiokan begancomingin, andI thenfeltthatthebattleforrecognition would pillars be won. This,I believe,will be reinforced whenthesecond of thesis part myPraydga-pillar laterthis yearin theJournal AsiaticSociety, appears of theRoyal London,underthe title of thePre-A'okan Pillar-cult at Praydga to be followedby another, 'Origins (Allahabad)'8, entitled 'Buddhism andtheCosmic now in pressasanoffering to Felicitation Volume Pillar', in honour Tucci to be edited Prof. Gherardo Gnoli for the Istituto of Professor Giuseppe by
Italianoper il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, Rome, due to be presentedin June, 1984).

knowwereboth carvedanderectedby A'oka- whicharethey?The latterquestioncan be answered only afterwe areclearaboutwhichones theyarenot. Theydo not include thePraydga sincewe now knowthatthatmonument hadbeenstanding (Allahabad) pillar, PillarEdicts which were issued in 243B.C.9However,in additionto the latterwere two earlier edicts:the firstof thesehadbeenaddressed engraved by A'oka to the nearest or 'ministers of morality' locatedat the regionalcapital,Kosambi, dharma-mahimitras km. to the the second was one of those 'SchismEdicts'first discovered west; 30 and translated Alexander in facsimile by nine yearslater in 1870, andpublished Cunningham in the firsteditionof Inscriptions It is now to thatnobody of Aloka.lo important recognise - andthe reason beforeCunningham hadknownaboutthisinscription why.My inability to publishan actualphotograph, insteadon a reproduction of Cunningham's depending facsimile restrictions (fig.4), hasnothingto do with bureaucratic a camera in forbidding
with a plain shaft before A'oka instructedhis mahimitras to engrave it with his first six

Adokan.In other words our aim is to state clearlythe order and dates of those pillarswe

Here, I am leavingall that asideto embarkon a different course,which is to offer a definitive of A'okanpillar, thosewe now knowwereprechronology thetrue discounting

the Fort: the truth is that even if I had been allowed to take my camera,I could not have since it is too high and awkwardlyplaced on photographedthe inscriptionsatisfactorily,

the shaftto be takenfromthe groundwithoutspeciallenses.It is likewiseimportant to

function of a cosmic pillarand thinkingof it only as a 'victory column', went out of their way to re-installit on a specially-designed plinth that it was never meantto have. Up-todate knowledge about the ritualfunction of a cosmic pillar tells us that in ancient times they were erectedas if to appearrisingnakedlyout of the subterranean Waters,the Cosmic Ocean of the cosmogony. The presenceof a plinth could only serve as evidence that the older meaning had been forgotten.

original is thatwhenthe shaftwas height,wich was loweron the shaft.The explanation in 1837(afterlying for a long periodon the ground),the antiquarians re-erected of the the restoration, BengalAsiaticSocietywho hadplanned of the religious beingignorant

know that the height above ground-levelat which the inscriptionnow appearsis not the

John Irwin, 'Origins of the pre-A'okan Pillar cult at Praydga (Allahabad)', since published in the third part of the 1983 volume of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society,London. 9 P. H. L. Eggermont, The Chronology of the reignof Asoka Moriya, Leiden (Brill), 1956, p. 67, and Supplement III. o10 Alexander Cunningham, Inscriptions of Asoka, Archaeological Survey of India, Corpusinscriptionum Indicarum, Calcutta, 1879 (The 'Schism Edict' is reproduced in facsimile at Plate XXII under the heading 'Kosambi Edict').
8

249

at the presentstage of our thesisis that the The most important point that transpires 'A'okan'pillar (so-called) pillarnow turnsout to be thefirstsurviving Praydga/Allahabad
to have been inscribed;as we now know (see fn. 7, above), that it was alreadystanding

The 'SchismEdict'was in fact the firstpillar with a plainshaftwhen it was engraved. Its styleis not trulycalligraphic, of any kind knownto have beenexecuted. inscription or ladder. but the workof a relatively workingfroma scaffold engraver inexperienced the locationof the Prayaga/Allahabad At the time the 'SchismEdict'was engraved, by all pillarwas alreadyrecognisedas 'the holiest spot in India',and was venerated and footnotes in mytwo Praydga 8, above). 7 (see sects,as fullydiscussed papers religious the sacred two of Confluence the with coincided This spot rivers, Gangi and the Holy in cosmogonicmythwith the Spot at which which was in turn synonymous Yamund, 'in the beginning'(in illotempore). Heavenand Earthwere separated at fig. 5 shows the openingsectionof the Six PillarEdictsas they appear The facsimile Pillar.As long ago as 183 on the shaftof the Prayiga/Allahabad 5, JamesPrinsep (known of with facsimiles of Indianarchaeology') as the 'father side-by-side placedthis facsimile
and the same section as it appearson the pillarsat Lauriya-Araraj, Lauriya-Nandangarh,

with the fine versionwas crudein comparison noting that the Allahabad Delhi/Topra, cut letters such did him to ask: 'Why carelessly cuttingof the others.This prompted is as pertinent The question andpolished?' on a shaftso regularly to-day feature tapered
as it was in I8 35 when it was left unanswered.In the meantime,Prinsep'sre-discovery

was noneotherthanthe thatthe author revelation in his sensational of the scriptresulted India.In the for the studyof ancient greatAioka thuslayingthe firstfirmfoundations raised be never to and aside was the question put againforgotten, ensuingexcitement, untilnow, whenwe areat last in a positionto answer. The answerpresentsitself in the followingway. On everypillarnow knownwith
certaintyto have been both inscribedand erectedby Asoka, the letteringis neat and well-

to commemorate raised on the two pillars itselfmostclearly the evidence presents spaced: In 6a & B.C. in Buddhist the Aioka'stour of b). eachcase,the (figs. Holy Spots 257 and the erector.How, then, saysthat Aioka was both the inscriber actually inscription of thesetwo inscriptions, betweenthe lettering difference the conspicuous do we explain on the other? at Prayga/Allahabad, on the one hand,andthe crudeness
Before trying to answer, it must first be consideredexactly how stone-engraversin Aioka's time set about their task. We find that there were two alternativemethods, erection,or was accordingto whether a shaft was lying horizontallyon the ground before In the formercase, alreadystandingas describedin line 32 of the Seventh Pillar Edict.11 the answercan be suppliedby anybodykeeping their eyes open at building sites in India up to the presentday. I have the recordof many photographs.At fig. 7, for instance,we detailing a column to be built into a new Jain temple near see a master-craftsman knowledge, Ahmedabad,in Gujarat,where it was taken in I979, without the craftsman's in orderto illustratehis pose. Squattingis naturalto the Indianphysiqueand living habits.
Oxford, Indicarum, E. Hultzsch, Inscriptions of Asoka, CorpusInscriptionum 11 1925, P- 137.

250

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7 continues at a later date,

in the handsof anotherstonemason.After Janert

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Fig. I 5 The Lion capital of an A'okan pillar excavated at Rampurvi, Bihir. CalcuttaMuseum,photographed by the author

Fig. I6

Sdfichi Lion capital, bef

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Fig. 17 The <Schism Edict>, found as the only inscription on the Sdfichi pillar when excavated in 1913

By sitting astride a column and looking down at his work, the craftsmanachieves maximumcontrol of the chisel. This is the position traditionally employedwhen the lines of an inscriptionare short; but if the text to be copied is a long one, like the Six Pillar Edicts, anotherposition has to be sought, becauseafter cutting the first few words, the whole column would have to be rolled over, in order to bring a fresh surfaceto the top; and at the end of each line, it would have to be rolled back to the starting-pointfor the method, since it beginning of the next line. For a long text, this is a very unsatisfactory involves great labour, with at least four rollings for each line, and forty or more for the usual ten lines - no mean task for an A'okan column weighing some thirty tons! A simplermethodthereforebecomesdesirable,in orderto reducethe need for frequent and laboriousrolling. This can be achievedonly by keeping the lines to be copied as short as possible, to facilitateprogressfrom the end of one line to the next without any rolling at all. This is exactly what we find in the case of every pillar known to have been both inscribed and erected with the famous Six Pillar Edicts. The method characteristically adopted was to arrangethe lay-out of the text on what printersin their jargon call the to faceone of the four directions, 'verticalbox' system.In this way, eachedictwas arranged which meant that no shaft would need to be rolled on the ground more than four times. (An exampleof this lay-out is indicatedin the sketch at fig. 8). Switching your mind next from a shaft lying on the ground before erection, to one alreadystanding before it was engraved, the solution would then be the opposite. This is exactlywhat happenedwhen the Pray ga/Allahabad Pillarwas inscribed:there is every indicationthat the stonemasonhad been working from the shakyfoundationof some kind of ladderor scaffold, the lines of the text being long, and almost completelycirculating the shaft, thus minimizingthe number of changes in level.
There is no need to spend more time on this part of my thesis, since it is fully discussed and illustrated in my 1979 paper (see above, fn. 7). There is, however, one exception to

prove the rule, and here I allude to the Delhi-Toprainscription(figs. 9 and Io). In that case,the pillarbears- in additionto the famousSix Edicts- an even more famousSeventh, sometimescalled 'Aioka's Last Testament',becauseit was issued afterthe first Six, in the
last years of Aioka's long reign. Whereas the first Six had been engraved when the shaft was lying on the ground before erection, the Seventh was later added to the shaft when already standing. In this case only, the two methods were separately employed (fig. 9). Having started the Seventh Edict on the 'vertical box' principle described above, and illustrated here at figs. 8 and o, a sudden change follows at line 31 where his predecessor had left off, already starting to lose control of level and uniformity of lettering. Breaking off at that point (fig. Io), he continues the Seventh Edict by the second method, carrying the remainder of the text right round the shaft (fig. I1). In my final remarks, I should like to correct a misjudgement in my 1973 lectures (see above, fn. 3). Looking at the pillars with a less mature eye, I singled out, as high watermark of the series, the Sarnath Pillar (fig. 12). That choice I now recant. As I then put it, the great appeal of the Sarnith Pillar is a timelessquality, which I identified as 'worldly authority 263

idealised'. To-day, I see no reason to revise that description,since it fits with what we know of Aioka's political idealism.Yet, the world has since moved on, and many of us have now become innately suspicious of 'worldly authority idealised', and see it as a shallow compliment.Brilliantthough the executionof the Sdrndth capitalundoubtedlyis, we fall backon seeingit as essentiallyheraldic.The sentimentit expressesis correspondingly public, lacking in 'soul', as a mystic might say. It cannot on that account be placed in the highest categoryof creativeart, or on equaltermswith such pre-Aiokanmasterpieces as the Rdmpuirv Bull (fig. i) and the SankisdElephant (fig. 2). Nobody is likely to doubt that the Sdrndth capitalis Asokan. In our presentcontext, the most significant fact to be noted is that it is another of the 'Schism Pillars', as its inscriptionreveals (fig. I3). Therefore,we now know that it was carvedbefore any lionpillar bearingthe Six Pillar Edicts, which were issued in 243 B.C.; it was inscribedat a time when experiencein stone-engravingwas still minimalin India. The style of the Sdrndth inscription(fig. I 3) recallseven more forciblyPrinsep'squery about the Praydga/Allahabad engraving: 'Why such carelesslycut letters on a shaft so and Pillar,in common with regularlytapered polished?'We now know that the Sdrndth other 'SchismPillars'alreadydiscussed,is among the first pillarsinscribedby Aioka. Far from markingthe culminationof a truly Alokantradition(as I once supposed),it marked
the beginning. Moreover, as now seems to be clear, it was inaugurated under the tutelage

of craftsmen formerly employed in the Perso-Hellenistictradition of the Achaemenid been broughtto Indiaby Asoka especiallyfor that purpose.12 dynasty,who had apparently In patronisingthe first pillar to incorporatehis own conception of kingship, Aioka had brokenawayfrom the older, Indianconceptionsexpressedin pre-Aiokancapitals.It might even be supposedthat he was impatientof the earliermagico-religiousassociationsof the brahmanical pillar-cultbased on worship of Indra as 'king of the gods'. The latter had come into being when India was basicallytribal or semi-tribal.Now the earliercult was being challengedby conceptsof imperialsovereigntyAioka had takenfrom the Achaemenid example. Hence, the moustachioedlions of the Sdrndthcapital (fig. 12) belong to a totally differenttraditionof animalsculpture,not only aesthetically,but also in terms of anatomicalobservation(fig. 14). The Smrnth Lions cannot be comparedin any sense of Bull or the SankisdElephant(figs. I and 2) as repositoriesof the style with the Rdmpfirva true Indiangenius of animalart. We cannotescapethe observationthat the Sdrndth Lions were first in the series of Lion capitalsAioka was subsequentlyto commission,inscribe, and erect,terminating with the capitalexcavatedclose to the site of the famousBull (fig. I)
at Rampfirva, the Lion now being preserved in Calcutta Museum (fig. I 5).
12I would like at this point to pay belatedacknowledgement to my respectedfriendandcolleague,KarlKhandalawala, in this case in opposing his view (which on with whom I have sometimesexpresseddifferencesof interpretation, hindsight appearsto be entirely correct) that the Sdrndthpillar reveals the influencesof foreign (Achaemenid) influence.I hope this eminentart historianwill now acceptmy personalapology and withdrawal. On this particular issue I am readyto admitthat he was right,though I reservemy differences on otherissuesinvolving Agokanpillars. A furtherissue reflectinghis correctness is embodiedin the self-styled title A'oka used as the openingwordsof many of his inscriptions often translated as 'Beloved of the Gods'. A centuryago, this term was Piyadassi), (Devdanampiya FrenchIndologistEmile Senart,as borrowedfromearlierAchaemenid the brilliant inscriptions rightlyrecognisedby in Persia,yet since then ignored by all authoritieswriting on A'oka in English.

264

lion I do not believethatits famous Whenallhasbeensaidaboutthe Sdrndth monument, with other carvedon Indiansoil. In contradiction capitalwas the first lion sculpture of the shouldgo to carvers I havealwaysfelt thatcreditfor thatachievement scholars, seriesin 1973(see fn. 3, above). as arguedin partI of my Burlington Vais'li lion-pillar,
(I by-pass here what seems to me to be the specious case argued as recently as 1980 -

Surveyof ostensiblyby an officersigninghimselfas a memberof the Archaeological B.C. the PersoA'oka, after packingoff to their Iranianhomelandin 2z58 India.13) nextcommissioned of the Sdrndth tutorswho hadguidedthe creation Hellenistic capital, It was of a new Indiantradition. in whatwas to markthe beginning lion capital another in a carved this time erected at alsoanother 'Schism styleveryclose Pillar', (fig.16), Safichi withina few monthsor andclearly on the latter,perhaps to the Sdrndth modelled capital
a year. Yet, it is not improbablethat Perso-Hellenisticartists would have regardedas

of the Sdfichi abacuswith its Indianised some features lotus-eating geese unintelligible
on pre-Asokancapitals.In fact,it was only in India,andnever previouslyfamiliar (hamsas)

in Persia,thatgeesewereusedto represent the CosmicWaters which,as we learnfrom traditions in the Book of Genesis,I, 6-7) dividedthe othercosmogonic (e.g. as recorded fromthose below. abovethe firmament Waters It is no surprise to us that the Sdfichimonument was yet another'SchismPillar',
inscribedwhen it was already and beforethe existenceof any of A'oka's Six-Edict standing,

Pillars.14

Bulletin of the Archaeological 13Kalyan Priya Gupta, 'New evidence from Kolhua (Vaisali) Pillar', in Purdatattva, Society, New Delhi, 1979-80, pp. 145-47, with two pages of plates. Although he signs himself as an officer of the Archaeological Survey, the author's case is oddly compounded with a mixture of unacknowledged and distorted plagiarisms, inaccuracies, and absurdities (including the transposition of Prinsep - spelt 'Princep' - into the ISth century, long before he was born) and interspersed with amateurish archaeological sketches. I cannot afford space in this context to take it seriously, knowing that his 'new evidence' could not carry weight even with a first-year archaeological student. 14 It is very much to the credit of H. Cousens, as an officer in the Archaeological Survey of Western India, that he commented in i900oo: 'I think the (Sifichi) Pillar must have been engraved long after it was set up, the pillar simply offering a suitable surface for it. The lines are slanting and it is not by any means neatly engraved as it would have been in connection with the setting up of the pillar' (see fig. 17). H. Cousens, ProgressReportof theArchaeological Survey India, Government of Bombay, for the year ending June, 1900, p. 4. The only point on which disagreement of Western might now be expressed is in his interposition of the word 'long', since the interval is not likely to have been more than a few years (if as much).

265

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