Whose History Is It?

The Pillar That Devanaampiya Ashoka Commissioned To Be Built

My son and I got involved in researching on the history of Ashok Nagar, a locality in Chennai where I lived with my family; it was the place where I grew up. After marriage I moved to Hosur where my son was born. Then we went to Baroda and when my son was eight we moved back to Chennai and Ashok Nagar.

Ashok Nagar spreads on the four sides of a tall pillar which is an accurate modern day replica of the pillars built during Ashoka’s time. The pillar was the launch pad for our research. The pillar made of concrete, is definitely a serious architectural project. The pillar seems built with great expertise and precision. Who commissioned the pillar to be built? I have no clue how to trace the person/s who built it. I can for sure say that no political party was involved in this project as there is no reference to anyone/ party near the pillar, which is always the case. If an individual commissioned the pillar, s/he should have obtained permission from concerned authorities. And the person/s has chosen to remain incognito. Or I did not try enough to find whose philanthropic gesture it was to create a landmark that reminds us of a great emperor of India.

Why was Devanaampiya Ashoka invoked so far from his birth place? I am not very surprised at this because Ashoka is one of the few historical heroes who are part of our collective consciousness. The career of Ashoka as the ambitious prince and king, the bloody Kalinga war, the remorse of the emperor at the brutal killings, conversion to Buddhism and the path of pacifism has been followed and absorbed effectively by us as students despite the dispirited and monotonous presentation by school history textbooks. Moreover capital of Ashoka’s pillar has been taken as the national emblem. Every civics book for schools carries this piece of information.

Our first engagement in researching on the history of Ashok Nagar took us 2000 years back in time to 300 B.C. My son had read enough about the Mauryas. Chandra Gupta is more favoured by my son than Ashoka. My son goes again and again to the episode of the precious lesson that Chandra Gupta learnt from a mother chiding her child not to eat the food from the centre of the plate, but to start from the periphery where the food is cold. Chandra Gupta adopted this as his political strategy for empire building. My son is very impressed with this anecdote and this was his entry point to the study of Indian history. He justifies why Chandra Gupta is a better emperor than Ashoka, my son remains unimpressed by the map that shows the large extent of Ashoka’s empire. According to him Chandra Gupta is the emperor in the truest of sense as he left a legacy that could outlive him. He reminds me that the Mauryan Empire collapsed less than fifty years within Ashoka’s death, while Chandra Gupta with his preceptor Kautilya left a strong empire for his successor Bindusara, Ashoka’s father.

We regaled our knowledge of the three great emperors of the Mauryan empire, the conscious efforts made by Ashoka to spread his philosophy of pacifism, non-violence and vegetarianism by commissioning pillars made of polished stone be erected in various parts of his kingdom. These pillars bore edicts that expressed his philosophy and beliefs; he further encouraged monks to travel across his kingdom and beyond it through land and sea route to spread Buddhism.

Ashoka’s son Mahindra has gone down in history for reasons that his father, as a true Buddhist would have been proud of. Mahindra along with Sanghamitra, Ashoka’s daughter, became Buddhist monks. They travelled to Ceylon to spread Buddhism. There are evidences that point that the Ceylon king Tissa and Ashoka were friends and that Mahindra was sent initially by Ashoka for Tissa’s coronation. Later Mahindra might have gone not on a diplomatic mission but to spread Buddhism, a source says that Tissa’s queen was ordained as a monk.

Buddhism spread to the southern outreaches beyond the Mauryan Empire, to the Early Sangam kingdoms. Buddhist monks, traders and merchants brought Buddhism to the Tamil kingdoms. It is a matter of pride that the Sangam kingdoms remained impenetrable. It did not fall a prey to the political design of Ashoka. However trade, both inland and overseas flourished between the Sangam kingdoms and the Mauryans. While monks traveled along the river valley, the Deccan plateau was deemed unsafe by merchants and traders to essay with their goods. They preferred the sea route. Nagapattinam was a busy port where ships from the Mauryan port of Tamralipti docked. Mylai and Mallai were small villages that served as quiet ports for small time merchants and traders.

Our engagement with facts stopped there. From thereon our wings of conjecture took flight. My son and I, as we stood close to the present day Pillar wondered if Buddhist monks traveled close to the spot where we stood, did they carry tales of the great emperor. Why did Mahindra and Sanghamitra not consider going en route Sangam kingdoms to Ceylon? Or did they? There are no evidences for that. Did Buddhist merchants and traders crisscross with their wares close to the place of my origin?

This exercise to construct connection between the Ashok Pillar of modern day with Devanaampiya Ashoka is based on certain assumptions. There is the assumption that the strong and dominant culture of the Mauryas impinged on other cultures. There is even a subconscious yearning to be a part of the greater forces, the larger history. Aren’t histories of individuals not valid? Can’t we construct our own histories – history as we live and see it?

The Pillar That Bears My Personal History

During the 70s Ashok Nagar, a suburb in Madras, was just developing. The Housing Board was constructing new flats in this locality; there were not too many takers. T Nagar, Mylapore and Nungambakkam were the residential areas in South Madras that were highly sought after. My parents were staying in dismally small houses in Nungambakkam and T Nagar when they decided to buy their own house. In those days there were not many flats; people lived in independent houses with a garden all around to grow Thulasi, Parijatham, Karuveppalai and Malli. My maternal grandfather’s house in Mylapore was a typically traditional living space with rezhi, mitham, koodaram and thaavaram, a back yard with maa maram, nelli maram and vazhai maram. 70s was a transition period, charm and pride attached to living in Mada veedhi of Mylapore and Triplicane were passé for the Brahmin families, and the younger generation bought houses in T Nagar, Alwarpet, Nungambakkam, Mandavelli and Raja Annamali Puram. Santhome was for Anglo Indians, Vadapalani was OK for lower middle class Brahmin families, and Kodambakkam had a mix of Brahmin households and a liberal sprinkle of Christians. Those who had been habitating in these parts of Madras knew of places like Kellis, Purasaiwakkam in North Madras and Adayar, Saidapet in South Madras only by their names. Places like George Town, Mount Road, and Parry’s Corner were commercial hubs of Madras. Ashok Nagar was totally unheard of; it could have been in Timbuktu.

That was what everybody expressed when my father announced that he was booking a housing board MIG (Middle Income Group) flat near Ashok Pillar in Ashok Nagar. Relatives and friends looked at my parents like as though they were moving to a British outpost in Africa. They looked up facts about the suburb, they were thankful that a subway in Mambalam and an overhead bridge in Kodambakkam span over the railway track to connect the rest of the world with Ashok Nagar. They gave a tick. Next, they checked the bus services available. There were two buses from Ashok Nagar to Mylapore – 12 E and 12 F (my mother’s parents lived in Mylapore); two buses to Nungambakkam – 25 B and 17 D (1. My father’s uncle lived in Nungambakkam; 2. I a
nd my brother studied at PSBB School in Nungambakkam; 3. My mother worked as a teacher in the same school). 25 B and 17 D plied my father to George Town where his bank was located. No other connectivity mattered – so a double tick. Every one thought it was not so bad after all.

That was only until they visited Ashok Nagar for the first time. My mother’s parents, her brothers and sisters got down from bus near Ashok Pillar, to find themselves in wilderness. There was a very tall concrete pillar, picturesquely flanked by eucalyptus trees on all sides. Deserted roads diverged on all the four sides from the Pillar. They took the road going south; eucalyptus trees and gul mohar trees cast long shadows on the kutcha red earth road. There was no sign of civilization. They hopefully walked on, confident that they were on the right track; their confidence waned the moment they encountered a thick grove of mango trees. It appeared like the Congo forest to them, they were not prepared for this sort of adventure at all. My parents always forgot to mention the large expanse of Mango grove that spread between Ashok Pillar and their flat as a valuable landmark. It was always a practice for us to cross the grove and bring home our visitors. It was akin to going to the gate to welcome guests; except that this type of welcome ceremony entailed a half a km walk across the dark grove, which I loathed doing alone even on the sunniest and brightest of days. I always ran through the grove; even the juiciest of mangoes from the trees did not entice me when I was alone.

My father briskly emerged from the grove and led my grand parents, uncles and aunts through the cool shade of the trees, jewels of sunlight sparkled through the leaves. My mother’s family was down to earth, a no-nonsense clan from Mylapore; they had no poetry in their souls to appreciate the quiet copse that through its emerald haze filtered shafts of sunlight. They were more worried about leaving the place before sunset.

They were however happy with the flat; it was large, well ventilated with enough space in the front and back to nurture a garden. There were only four rows of flats that ran parallel; there were 10 blocks in each row, with four houses in each block. The roads between the rows of flats were broad, our flat, thankfully for me, was the farthest from the grove. Across the road there were empty plots of land, a narrow lane cut from the road and lead to a raised land that we called medu. Along this lane spread a large colony of huts; our milkman, flower seller and house cleaner came from this colony which was a criss cross of lanes and by lanes which I always enjoyed exploring.

This lane that lead to the medu was my favourite haunt. There was a nadar kadai where goli soda, kadalai urundai, butter biscuit and kamarakat were sold. The nadar kadai proved handy for my mother and grandmother too. The nadar sold vegetables and provisions, everything we bought there had the dank smell of dark, moist and closed spaces; the tamarind and the salt most of all carried this. Though my mother favoured a slightly bigger shop on the medu, for urgent needs I was made to dash across to the nadar, an errand that I enjoyed carrying out. The nadar kadai was useful for my uncle too as he went there to buy his cigarettes. He stood at the shop chatting up with his friends while they smoked. There was always a coir wick burning at its edge for people like my uncle to light his cigarette.

I studied K1 and K2 in PSBB, Nungambakkam. The school was in its nascent stage; due to lack of space it worked in shifts. My brother and I attended the morning shift while my mother who taught for the high school attended the noon shift. My days in PSBB were a blur, probably because I was bathed and packed to school even before I woke up for the day. I studied grades 1 -3 in a school called Annie Besant located in Ashok Nagar. A woman called paal kara Lakshmi (she was a milk woman who doubled into a helping hand during the day) took me to school and brought me back home, she helped me carry my school bag. I crossed the mango grove twice a day en route school and back. I do not remember clearly when the grove was cleared, the grove existed during the years I attended Annie Besant school, which was my sixth and seventh year. The grove was razed to ground in no time. The open space gaped angrily at us. Now after thirty years the place is unrecognizable, the grove has become a tale that I tell my son; there is always a tinge of shame and guilt in my tone that I never valued the grove and took pleasure in its vastness and quietness.

The highlight in the history of Ashok Nagar was the building of a large shopping complex near Pillar. Those were not the times of shopping malls or shopping complexes. We were used to strings of shops in Mylapore opposite the temple tank or rows of shops along the road in Luz corner; a building complex constructed exclusively to house shops was a new concept for us. It took almost six to eight months for the complex to be built and at about 1974 it was completely operational. The shopping complex was a fairly large structure with two floors. On the ground floor were shops, there were provision stores, tailor shops, a medical shop, a stationery shop and a launderer. There were TUCS (Tamilnadu Urban Cooperative Society) and the Ration shop where commodities like pulses, cereals, sugar, oil and kerosene were sold at subsidized rates. The Ration shop was a busy outlet, people stood in long queues to buy their rations against the cards that were issued to them. Other than these shops there was the Indian Bank on the ground floor and Housing Board office on the first floor.

Older than the shopping complex was the Ashok Nagar Recreation club. This was an asbestos roofed bluish green structure, located at the edge of bramble filled open space that extended west of Pillar. There was another access to the club from my flat. The club was located on a broad road on the west of the mango grove. We skirted the mango grove on its western periphery to reach the broad road that we called the 5 E road as the only bus that plied on the road was 5 E. I have not been inside the club. My father’s cousin lived next door. Her husband and my friend’s father who lived in the flat above ours frequented the club. My father told me that these two men went there to play cards (sittu kutcheri). As children we were not interested in the club, we preferred to explore the thickly over grown space around the club. My brother played cricket with his friends in the open space across the club and I learnt cycling on the broad 5E road. The road was quiet with no traffic, an ideal place for playing cricket and learning cycling.

Adayar River runs south of Ashok Nagar, in those days it was a murky stream tugged down by domestic and industrial wastes. The only time the river appeared panoramic was soon after good rains; it flowed carrying in its swift current broken twigs and dry leaves – no there were no polythene bags. I am talking about pre–plastic proliferation era when there were thankfully no plastic carry bags, so no ugly bags ballooning in the water to besmear the face of the earth.

Spanning the river was a low bridge which submerged in the river every other monsoon. The road that extended from the bridge led to Guindy where there was the industrial estate; the estate was itself in its embryonic stage and there were few small industries tucked behind clusters of trees. This stretch of road from the bridge to the estate was quiet; my father went here for long walks in the mornings.

Beyond the bridge, on the right, about a kilometer down south a brief detour took us to Defence colony, a posh neighborhood with large houses and tastefully maintained garden. We explored this quiet neighbourhood many times, walked all the way on hot summer afternoons to play and loiter in the shady avenues. We knocked doors and asked for water to drink, the red dust from the earth that settled on our hair made us look like urchins and vagabonds.

When my cousins visited us during holidays, we packed food and went picnicking to St Thomas Mount which was five kms away from home. To reach the mount we had to pass through the Defence Colony and beyond it through paddy fields and mango groves. It took us about three hours to reach the mount. We left at dawn before the sun rose high in the skies, we ate the goodies that my mother had packed for us, relaxed under trees, played about in the fields and reached the mount dog tired and dirty. It was late morning by the time we reached the foot of the hill, we then dragged ourselves up the steps with no energy left in us to jump the rocks and trek up. All our exhaustion vanished the moment we reached the top of the hill. The view from the top was breath taking. On the west stretched a rocky terrain, on the south the brown runway of the airport posed a contrast to the green trees that rolled on the east. Roads leading south were black lines that could be viewed between the crops of trees. Beyond the trees on the east were the rocky hills. As we inhaled the fresh air we realized how we had left the dust and crowd at the foot of the mountain and had stepped onto a reified realm where a collage of earth brown, greys and greens cooled our eyes. We turned north-east and searched for the Ashok Pillar, it emerged majestic out of clouds of greyish green trees and the houses and buildings that seemed crawled out from our height were blurs of grey. We pointed at the buildings spread close to the Pillar and claimed that was our house; it was a pleasant sport for me to close my eyes facing the north- east direction and visualize my mother at home attending some late morning chore.

The face of Ashok Nagar kept changing through all these years. A marriage hall in mid 70s, Udayam theatre in late 80s, the ESI hospital and Maya hospital built at about the same time, more flats and independent houses, Government Girls High School, private schools big and small made Ashok Nagar a busy place and far from an outpost.

Thirty odd years since my parents moved into their own home and 2000 odd years after Mauryan traders walked in the same neighbourhood, the locality has changed beyond recognition. Would the traders, merchants and monks of Ashoka’s time be able to make sense of the mayhem that this locality has turned out to be – the traffic, the dust, noise and crowd?

History has been carried down the centuries; Ashoka, his empire building acumen and his ideology has reached us through various sources – archaeological sources, literary sources and folklore. Ashoka has been appropriated in the nation building agenda in post independence India. In present times something inspired a person to build a tall pillar in what was a quiet suburb, a pillar modeled meticulously after the pillars that Ashoka built. I and many people like me have participated with this individual and with Ashoka in making the history of the locality happen. This goes to underline the point that we have to move away from the overbearing shadows of great heroes and acknowledge the histories that common man/woman make.

3 thoughts on “Whose History Is It?

  1. Ashok pillar in Ashok Nagar is quite modern and I think established in late 1950s or early 1960s in the Madras presidency. As far as I know it has not historical connectivity to Asohka, the Maurayas or Buddhists monks. It is likely established after the Indian government elevated the importance of Ashokan symbols to imply secularism. No archeological or inscriptions have been found in the Ashok Nagar area regarding this. Wishful thinking unfortunately don’t make history :). But keep up the good work on your blog otherwise.

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