The Lives And Times Of The Asokan Pillar At The Delhi Ridge

Tourists are people in a hurry; they want to pack-in a city in two days, even a city that has taken more than a thousand years to grow. Tourists see buildings as structures, frozen in time, standing aloof, without being part of the ebb and flow of life. Travellers on the other hand come searching for the feel and the spirit of the city. Looking for the lesser known the less explored and the uncelebrated, for it is here that one may find untold histories that lie sheltered under each stone that awaits the explorer.

Beginning with the story of a large piece of rock we launch into an exploration, or shall we say recapitulation, of the almost forgotten stories connected with the less touristy structures and ruins that have been witness to the unfolding of the many histories of Delhi. We begin this series with one of the Two Asokan Pillars erected at Delhi. The pillars were erected at Delhi, not by Asoka who commissioned them in 3rd Century B.C, but by a king who ruled Delhi in the 14th century.

Firozshah Tughlaq (1351-1388 A.D) caused the pillars to be moved to Delhi. One of the pillars that was brought to Delhi, probably from near Ambala, sits atop a large structure next to the Jami Masjid inside Kotla Firozshah. Kotla Firozshah is the popular name of Firozabad – the new capital built by Firozshah Tughlaq in 1354 on the banks of the river Yamuna. The second pillar was located near Meerut and is now installed opposite the Hindu Rao Hospital on the North Delhi Ridge.

Shams Siraj, a recounter of those times, has left behind a detailed description of the transfer of one of the pillars to Delhi and its installation at Kotla Firozshah. Though I have not seen such a detailed account of the transfer of the second pillar, it can safely be assumed that a similar effort must have also gone into bringing it to Delhi.

Siraj’s account makes for fascinating reading and an abridged version is being reproduced here. The full text is to be found in Bashir-ud-Din Ahmed’s monumental work, Waqeat-e-Dar-ul-Hukoomat Dehli (1919).

The king came across the pillar while he was travelling through this region and decided to shift it to Delhi. He thought for a long time about how to affect the transfer and then he issued orders that all those who live in the neighbourhood should gather at the site of the pillar along with all the cavalry and the foot soldiers. They were ordered to bring with them implements for digging. They were also asked to bring with them bales of cotton, quilts and mattresses. Piles of these were spread all around the pillar and digging commenced. Eventually the base of the foundation was exposed and it was seen that the pillar rested on a square base. The pillar and the base were both dug out and lowered on to the piles of cotton. The pillar was then wrapped in bulrushes and uncured hides to protect it from damage during its transfer to Delhi.

A huge cart was made with 42 wheels; each wheel was attached to a huge rope. Ropes were also tied around the pillar and it was gently lowered on to the cart. Each of the ropes attached to the wheels was pulled by 200 people and the cart was dragged to the bank of the Yamuna. The king arrived on the river bank to personally oversee the transfer of the pillar from the cart to a huge barge fashioned out of scores of huge boats. The barge was then taken to Firozabad. A special two storey structure was built next to the Jami Masjid and the pillar installed on the roof.

The same technique must have been applied to transfer the second pillar from Meerut to the north Delhi ridge in 1356. Transferring the second pillar from the river to the top of the ridge would have required another cart to carry it on top of the ridge. Once the pillar reached its destination, it was erected next to the Kushk-e-Shikar, popularly known as the Shikar Gah or the hunting lodge of Firoze Tughlaq. The pillar stayed there for 357 years till it broke up into five pieces as a result of an explosion in the royal magazine during the reign of Farrukhseer (1713 to 1719).

The pillar is 33 feet high, the British scholar Burt who drew a sketch of the pillar in 1833 was of the view that the pillar was originally 2 feet longer but the top 2 feet were broken and lost. According to details given by Bashir-ud-Din Ahmed, the pillar is not as tall as the one erected atop Firozshah Kotla but it has a larger circumference, near the base it is 82 inches (210 cm approximately) and 29.5 inches (75 cm approximately) near the top.

The land on which the shattered pillar lay was bought by William Fraser, the Governor General’s agent in Delhi, to build a bungalow for himself in 1830. According to some accounts Fraser did not build the house himself but bought it from Sir Edward Colebrook, the British resident at Delhi who succeeded Metcalf, and was in financial difficulties. Upon Fraser’s assassination, the bungalow was bought by Hindu Rao, who was an influential Maratha noble in Delhi and the brother-in-law of Maharaja Daulat Rao Scindia of Gwalior.

Fraser was assassinated in 1835 on the orders of Shams-ud-Din Khan – the Nawab of Firozpur Jhirka in Haryana. Shams-ud-Din was cut up with Fraser because he sided with his younger brothers in a property dispute, despite knowing that Nawab Ahmad Bakhsh Khan had appointed his eldest son Shams-ud-Din as his sole successor.

Shams-ud-Din went to Fraser’s house to argue his case but was thrown out of the house on Fraser’s orders. Shams-ud-din could not stomach this insult, especially because Fraser was a friend of his father’s and Shams-ud-Din looked up to him as a father figure.

The result was a carefully hatched plan to assassinate Fraser. Fraser was killed, while returning late one night from a party at Hindu Rao’s House in 1838. Shams-ud-Din and his Hired Assassin, the sharpshooter Karim Khan, were executed on 3rd October 1835 and the Bungalow was bought by Hindu Rao in that year.

Fraser’s bungalow was described as a kind of a fortress believed to have been located at or near the exact site where Tamerlane (Taimur, the Lame) had pitched his tents when he laid siege to Delhi in 1398, at the fag end of the Tughlaq Dynasty.

The original building has seen many alternations and additions and the complex now houses the Hindu Rao Hospital. One can still see the sweeping staircase, paved with huge slabs of red sand stone that led from the ground floor to the floor above. The first floor now houses the plastic surgery department of the Hospital and all that remains of the grand porch now are three arches with occasional benches and steel chairs scattered about.

Here and there, you find the typical arches so common to the colonial buildings and traces of pillared verandahs that supported the high ceilings with their wood and glass ventilators. The building had a cellar or a basement as well that was used for the residents to escape the searing heat of the Delhi summers. During the revolt of 1857, many Europeans took shelter in the bungalow which was later also used as a sanatorium for British officers and their families.

A few years ago while labourers were busy digging the foundations for a new block behind the bungalow they unearthed a Baoli (stepped well) that had been written and talked about but had seemed to disappear. From the design and material used in the building one can easily see that it is a Sultanate period structure. It is possible that Firoz Tughlaq had got the building commissioned since he had also built his Hunting Lodge nearby.

Incidentally this is one of the few Baolis in Delhi that continues to get a trickle of water from its subterranean sources and if serious efforts are made we might in fact succeed in reviving at least one of the scores of Baolis scattered all over the city. Traces of a tunnel that runs for almost 200 meters, with in-lets for fresh air to pass through have been found in one of the broken down walls of the Baoli.

Initially Hindu Rao used his newly acquired property as living quarters for his pet Cheetas turning it later into his own residence a few years later. Some time after moving into the bungalow he discovered the pieces of the Asokan Pillar in the bungalow grounds. Hindu Rao wrote to the Asiatic Society about his find and offered them as a present to the society.

The engineer who was asked to arrange for the transport of the pieces came to the conclusion that transporting all the pieces will be an expensive proposition and decided to saw off the piece that had the Asokan inscriptions on it and dispatched just that piece to Calcutta.

When the piece arrived in Calcutta, it was installed near the statue of the well-known archaeologist James Princep. In 1866, the piece was eventually returned to Delhi and the British engineer, Mr. Campbell put all the pieces together and erected the pillar at its present site, opposite the bungalow of Hindu Rao. A plaque carrying an abridged and expurgated history of the pillar was affixed to the base of the pillar in 1867 and it says:

“This pillar was originally erected at Meerut in 3rd century B.C. by King Asoka. It was removed thence and set up in the Koshak Shikar Palace near this by the emperor King Firozshah A.D. 1356. Thrown and broken in five pieces by the explosion of a powder magazine, A.D. 1713 – 1719, it was restored and set up in this place by the British Government A.D. 1867”.

One pillar that links Asoka to Firoze Tughlaq, Farrukhseer, Fraser, Hindu Rao, The Asiatic Society, Engineer Campbell, a pillar commissioned by Asoka to spread his message of Love and able Governance, stands reduced now, despite a court order to the contrary, to being a stand for chopped bananas and sundry other titbits for feeding the unruly mobs of monkeys that throng the Ridge Reserve Forest.

Both ends of the Ridge, the Northern and the Southern, shelter many such treasures and Delhi that lies between these two ends and beyond hides many more. We hope to explore quite a few of them in the months and years to come.

[The article first appeared in LANDSCAPE, A Monthly Travel and Culture Magazine, published from Delhi the magazine’s can be reached at peoples.media@gmail.com.]

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