Saturday, May 21, 2011

In Search of Peace

The following is a 500-word story I wrote about my travels as part of a Travel Writing Scholarship competition on World Nomads.

In Search of Peace

‘Where can I find Ashoka’s rock inscriptions?’

The photographer glared at me. I was interrupting his business. A couple waited impatiently. Behind them, the white pagoda of the Shanti Stupa loomed.

I was at Dhauli, eight kilometres south of the capital city of Bhubaneswar in Orissa, India. Around 261 BC, Ashoka The Great – the legendary Mauryan Emperor whose vast empire covered present-day India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan in their entirety – waged the bloody Kalinga War at this site. Over a quarter of a million people were either killed or deported. Appalled by the bloodshed he had caused – the nearby Daya River is said to have turned red with blood – Ashoka devoted the rest of his life to Buddhism. He propagated his dharma by inscribing his edicts on a rock face.

In 1972, the Japan Buddhist Sangha built a Shanti Stupa (Peace Pagoda) atop the hill overlooking the sprawling farmland countryside, and Dhauli became a tourist destination. People flocked to the Stupa in droves, prostrating before and clicking photographs of the four idols of the Buddha. Stalls sprung up selling film rolls, deep-fried snacks and water bottles. Behind the Stupa stood the reconstructed Shiva temple and Ganesha shrine, where priests yelled at devotees and tourists alike to go here, do this and pay so much. It was a racket and I wanted out, fast.

Asking for ‘the big rock with things written on it’ drew blank shrugs, until a taxi-driver believed it to be at the base of the hill. I walked the few hundred metres, rounding a bend and leaving the ruckus behind. Three cattle egrets fluttered ahead of me, catching the sun on the yellow-orange brushes on their plumage. I came upon a garden where a uniformed caretaker was sweeping dried leaves.

‘Where can I find Ashoka’s rock inscriptions?’ I asked.

He turned and pointed to a grill-protected, glass-fronted building, about ten feet high and fifteen feet wide. An elephant was carved above, into the side of the rock. ‘This is it,’ he said.

I pressed my nose against the glass. Ashoka’s eleven edicts were scrawled into the sloping rock in the ancient Brahmi script of the Pali language. A nearby signboard translated them into English, starting with prohibiting the killing of animals in the royal kitchen, and including gems like ‘officials should be free from anger and hurry’. The sculpted elephant, considered to be the earliest rock-cut sculpture in India, symbolised the birth of the Buddha.

Buses raced past. This featured on no tour operator’s itinerary.

I wandered into the sprawling garden attached to the rock edicts, maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. The air was hot and still with monsoon humidity. A solitary Myna chirped. The gardeners’ stiff brooms, made from the spines of coconut leaves, scratched at the grass. Their shears clipped rhythmically. Under the shade of a flowering patoli tree, I sat cross-legged and meditated. I searched for peace in the same place Emperor Ashoka had, 2,270 years ago.

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