Re-searching Ashoka in Thailand

THE QUEEN’S TRIBUTE: Local legend has it that when her war elephant died, Camadevi built a commemorative stupa on the outskirts of Lamphun, in which she got his tusks buried.  — PHOTO: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

THE QUEEN’S TRIBUTE: Local legend has it that when her war elephant died, Camadevi built a commemorative stupa on the outskirts of Lamphun, in which she got his tusks buried. — PHOTO: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

For those who seek him, Emperor Ashoka can be encountered in all kinds of places in Thailand. Ordinary folk there don’t know much about the great ruler, and certainly not in the way that they know the Buddha, who is revered in practically every corner of their country. Or even Mahatma Gandhi who is readily identified, especially on Indian currency notes. Still, his name figures on the Asoke Skytrain station and in street names like Soi Asoke in one of Bangkok’s business districts, at Asoke temples across Thailand, and in the mixture of politics and Buddhism of the vegetarian Santi Asoke (‘Peaceful Ashoka’) group which participated in anti-government protests that led to the storming of Bangkok’s international airport some years ago. Chamlong Srimuang, a former army general and a key leader of that protest, was a follower of this sect.

If one ponders about which parts of the world early chroniclers thought about, unlike ancient India’s annalists who rarely wrote accounts in which rulers and places of other lands figure, Thailand was much less insular. In pre-modern chronicles, there are compelling details about Ashoka. Unlike Indian kings that are mere names in a litany of rulers, Thammasokorat — the Thai name for Ashoka, which means ‘Dharmashokaraja’ — became a local title there.

Nayanjot Lahiri

Even among rulers who did not bear his name, there were those who desired to be like him. The Chiang Mai Chronicle recounts the deeds of a 15th century ruler in north Thailand called Tilokrat, who was consecrated in a way that his royal power would subdue continents “like King Ashoka”. This was the very king who built a temple in Chiang Mai that was modelled on the Mahabodhi temple of India. One wonders whether he knew that the original one, expansively renovated by the time of Tilokrat, was supposed to have been built by Ashoka several hundred years ago.

Sarnath to Chiang Mai For an archaeologist, there are relics with an Ashokan aura. The sculpted dharmachakras of the first millennium CE resonate with such connections, especially since some of them are said to have crowned pillars. Could this have been in imitation of the Indian emperor’s partiality to setting up pillars? India’s most famous pillar bearing the “wheel of law”, after all, is none other than the one that Ashoka set up at Buddhist Sarnath. By the time it was discovered in 1904, though, the pillar was broken and the wheel no longer crowned its capital.

Exceptionally, in Thailand, a standing pillar bearing such a wheel survived. Numerous friends and websites had pointed towards a 13th century specimen that imitated an Ashoka pillar. It graced the forested Buddhist establishment of Wat Umong (‘wat’ means a temple complex) in the foothills of Chiang Mai. It was in search of it that I went to Thailand this summer. As it is, the idea of researching around a historic city was mesmeric enough. To be able to see an Ashokan-inspired relic there made the prospect irresistible.

Photographs of the column standing within a railing, crowned with four lions standing back to back bearing a dharmachakra, made it look remarkably similar to Ashoka's handiwork at Sarnath. Since Wat Umong was thought to have been built in the 13th century, it was assumed by many that the pillar was put up during the time of King Mangrai of the Lanna dynasty. This raised a question. Mangrai was a restless conqueror and builder whose wars and constructions consistently figure in texts. Why was there no mention of him putting up a pillar at Wat Umong?

On the brink of discovery There were more questions still. If Mangrai did set up this pillar in the vicinity of a monastic complex, how was such a faithful reproduction produced? Did a local Thai architect travel with monks to Sarnath to size up that monolith, and what was the technology used for producing such a masterful copy? The thought that some answers would be forthcoming in Chiang Mai was an exciting one.

On reaching the environs of Wat Umong, the excitement became more muted. The pillar was certainly a reproduction of the Sarnath Ashokan column, but (alas!) a modern reproduction of it. This could neither be dated to the 13th century, nor did it have any connection with a king of the Lanna line. The cement and concrete replica was set up some decades ago on the initiative of the Buddhist monastic community and its patrons at Wat Umong. They also got copies made of sundry sculpted panels from Buddhist sites in India.

Several of these can be seen in a building very close to the pillar, while others are scattered around the temple grounds. These were people with a penchant for pillars since several of these reproductions are of Indian reliefs that record pillar worship. In any case, the practice of producing and acquiring replicas is an old tradition in Thailand, as it is many other parts of Asia — and as these reproductions underline, it continues to be a popular one.

Could there be an earlier invocation of something Ashokan elsewhere? This appeared unexpectedly and in an unlikely place. In a small town called Lamphun which was once the capital of the old kingdom of Haripunjaya, a queen called Camadevi had become its ruler in the 10th century.

One of my students has spent much of her working life looking at India’s women rulers, and the idea of learning about a comparable Thai queen was enough motivation to go to Lamphun. Apparently, in establishing her authority, Camadevi had to fight off all kinds of attacks, and her success depended in no small measure on the valour of her war elephant. One of Camadevi’s enemies, after having seen “the dazzling red rays on the tip of the tusks of the white elephant”, was so frightened that he “fled from there unable to remain in the battle-field”. When this elephant died, local legend has it, she built a commemorative stupa on the outskirts of Lamphun, in which she got his tusks buried. A stupa which stands there attracts much worship. The regular offerings of sugarcane stalks and bananas are such that any elephant, even the spirit of a dead one, would hugely enjoy.

More Ashokan than Ashoka

But coming back to Camadevi, in this she was even more Ashokan than Ashoka himself. While both are remembered for their compassion to animals, she took it to a new level by immortalising a little- known four- legged loyal creature. Ashoka, on the other hand, built stupas over the relics of someone who was already haloed, the one and only Buddha.

We Indians are prone to puff up our chests about belonging to a subcontinent where the likes of the Buddha and Gandhi were born. Ironically, instead of imbibing their compassion, we continue to perpetrate cruelty on animals. The massacre of dogs in Tamil Nadu and the slaughter of nilgai in Bihar are only the most recent instances. While Camadevi may be separated from us by geography and chronology, this virtue of the queen of Haripunjaya is one from which India can learn a thing or two.

Nayanjot Lahiri is Professor of History at Ashoka University. She is the author of Ashoka in Ancient India (Permanent Black and Harvard University Press, 2015).

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Printable version | Sep 21, 2022 8:20:51 pm |