This article is a part of our series where we invite contributions from Delhi lovers. This article has been penned by Sanchita Srivastava, who is a student of history at the Delhi University, and loves to write.
You may wonder as to what could be so fascinating about a mere column in Delhi that would make you sit up and take notice. I mean, it doesn’t even feature in Google’s ‘Must Visit Places in Delhi’! But the Ashokan pillars are more than just stone columns. They are, in fact, one of the most crucial sources of information regarding the reign of one of the greatest kings India has seen- Ashoka “the Great” of the Mauryan dynasty, who ruled almost the entire country in the 3rd century BC. For a glance at the extent of his empire, click here. Ashoka’s pillars are basically a series of pillars that are spread all over the northern part of the Indian sub-continent. They are monolithic (carved out of a single piece of stone,) and are made of sandstone quarried at Chunar (Uttar Pradesh).
Let us go a little back in time now. The imposing Ashokan Pillar in Delhi was a gift to the city by the third Sultan of the Tughlaq dynasty, Feroze Shah, who ruled here in the 14th C and was known for his penchant for structures of sorts, so this Ashokan pillar at Topra (in modern-day Haryana) must have caught his fancy! Curious to know how the transportation of the Pillar from Topra occurred? Read on.
It is said that the transportation of the Delhi-Topra pillar involved wrapping up of silk cotton around it, after which it was lowered on a soft bed, encased in reed and raw skins and placed on a 42-wheel carriage. And I am still wondering what a 42-wheel carriage would have looked like! Two hundred men (yes, that’s the number!) pulled the carriage with strong ropes to the bank of the river Yamuna. The column was then transferred to large boats and carried down to Firozabad (the part of the city where Emperor Feroze Shah Tughlaq reigned from) and then into the royal palace.
There are actually two such Ashokan pillars in Delhi. One of the pillars, as we’ve already seen, was transported from Topra on Feroze Shah Tughlaq’s orders, but was originally developed by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka in between 300BCE- 200BCE. That’s how it derives its name as the Delhi-Topra Pillar. The other, brought from Meerut, is installed near the North Campus of the University of Delhi. Although the reason for their being selected as the sites for the installation of the Pillar Edicts remains uncertain, it would appear that both sites were important stopping places on the road from Pataliputra (then capital city of the Mauryan Empire, today better known as Patna in Bihar), to the north- west passes of the Himalayas.
Interestingly, there are some scholars who believe that the Delhi-Topra pillar is in fact one of the missing altars of Alexander the Great! But that’s not accepted by most historians.
The 13-meter high pristine polished sandstone Ashokan Pillar on a three-tiered pyramidal structure with Ashoka’s edict stands a testimony to the history of this old city in ruins which has seen many rulers over the years. Like all Ashokan Pillars, the Delhi-Topra Pillar, too, served the purpose of spreading Ashoka’s renowned policy of Dhamma (which can be best translated as ‘Piety’). The Edicts numbering I to VII, which were written in Brahmi script on this Pillar, conform to the doctrines of Dhamma, and the inscriptions show Ashoka’s plea to his people, encouraging religious tolerance, peace and community welfare. Contrary to popular belief, the Ashokan Pillar was more than a mere symbol of majesty. Some historians suggest that it might have even symbolized the axis of the world that separated heaven and earth.
So people, next time you dismiss the Ashokan Pillar as just another ‘pillar’, do take out a couple of minutes to think about the rich legacy of the Mauryas that is embedded in it. Though made of sandstone, it was so polished that till date it looks metallic. The best time to see the pillar is in the afternoon on a bright day as the pillar glitters like gold when the sun rays fall on it.