LOOKING FOR ASHOKA

 

Really, my only intention was to get out of Dehli as fast as possible, after the food poisoning at Hotel Amax Inn. The temperature at 40C (105F) or more, the air so polluted that my self-tanning glasses didn't change colour at all, and no need for a sun-blocking cream, even in high daylight. I was just back at my feet after the food poisoning. (The real thihng, with 47 hours in fever, and an uneasy sleep between the frequent toilet visits.) Now, there was this travel bureau agent, who tried to convince me that I really didn't want to go to Sikkim, but rather to Kashmir. According to these travel bureau touts, Sikkim was very dangerous, filled with terrorists, while Kashmir was the most peaceful place on earth. (This was just five weeks before the summer 1999 clashes). For me, who am not very streetwise in a large city, the only way to get away from these guys was, to sneak out of the hotel, get an autorickshaw guy to drive me to the Air India office at Connought Place. Of course he knew where this office was situated. Of course, but when we kept circling the Connought Circus, he started to look back at me: "Her sir? Office here sir?" So, in the end he just drove me in towards some office building, got his rupees, and left me.

Now, where's the Air India office? No Air India sign anywhere. Then a businessman in a hurry stopped: "You need any direction, sir?" He wore a clean, blue shirt, and was very polite. In a few minutes, wandering in and out of cool offices and hot roads between the houses, we were in what proved not to be the Air India office, but nevertheless, a real, modern IATA-certified travel agency. No Kashmir, just a counter and a nice lady in a green sari behind the computer; a man who operated a desktop calculator, and one to staple the ticket. In minutes I had my ticket to Baghdora, and went out, searching for Tibet House.

It is impossible to wander a long time in New Dehli without getting offers for help. "No sell, just help, where are you going, sir?" After a few attempts to find my own way, one young boy got me into a taxi. "Just drive to Emporium, sir, five rupees." I said: "No Emporium, I want Tibet House." "OK, sir. Tibet house Emporium, ok. No problem, sir." This was my first ride in the classical high official car in India, the Hindustan Ambassador. Painted US yellow cab style. Driving in quite the wrong direction, then stopping at a basement Emporium "This isn't Tibet house!" I said. "Yes, here Tibet Emporium. Just have look, very nice, sir."

They get three litres of gasoline for every customer they bring to these places. I went a short trip into the first, followed by a man trying to convince me that I wanted carpets. I said: "Is this Tibet House?" "No, sir, this much better. Very nice carpet, sir. You like look at this, sir?" "No." "What you like to look at, sir." "I want to go to Tibet House!" "Why you come here, sir? Not want look?"

The guy was getting very eager and showing the first signs of irritation. I went out, and he followed. "Why you not want look, sir?" I looked at him, pointing to the taxi driver: "He said this was Tibet House." After a short quarrel, in some Indian language or other, the driver entered the taxi. "Now take you to another Emporium, sir." "No, I better go to the bank. Do you know where the hotel Imperial is?" "OK, but on the way there is nice Tibetan Emporium, sir." "No, go straight there."

A few minutes, and many back alleys later, we arrived in the front of the Hotel Imperial, and the Thomas Cook bank. A tall man, in traditional Indian costume, stood guarding the door. The driver wanted 50 rupees; I started at five as agreed, but handed him twenty, and got out. He was raving mad. Even more mad was the self-appointed guide. "Bakseeesh, sir. I take you to Emporium, you give me baksheesh!" I turned towards him, as he came out of the taxi. He stopped, as I am a tall man, and he smallish, even for an Indian guy. "You promised to take me to Tibet House, and I never got to Tibet house. No baksheesh!" "But sir, I take you for an hour or more now, basheesh, sir, bakseesh!"

I got so mad; I don't remember what I said. The large doorman was still laughing when the taxi and the tout was long out of sight.

The Hotel Imperial Thomas Cook bank is a good place to start being acquainted with Indian Bank Bureaucrazy. They are only mildly mad, but tried to trick me for one hundred rupees. Not a lot of money, but nevertheless. It took the real boss to sort it out. She wore a sari, and posed as a secretary. No need to embarrass your male employees. In the end I got my hundred rupees. And a nice visit to a cool, clean toilet. No bugs. Just clean tiles.

 

Outside I decided to look for the Ashoka Rock Edicts. I went over to the taxis waiting under the shady trees outside the hotel. For the first time I did it right: I picked my own taxi. This, I was told later, is basic wisdom in India: Never get into a taxi unless you pick it yourself. Choose the guys who just sit there, without trying to offer you something.

This was another Ambassador. All black. Out in the blazing sun again. And the traffic! I asked: "Do you know where the Ashoka Rock Edict is?" Wrong question. The phrase "Don't know," doesn't exist for an Indian taxi driver. Never. After a while he said: "Kalkaji Temple, sir?" I produced my map from the Rough Guide, and he got even more convinced. The Rock Edict is close to the Kalkaji Temple. Or was it the Bahai temple? That's close too, according to the map. I insisted on the Rock Edict, and when we came close, he started asking. Everywhere we got some directions, and kept driving. Until I noticed we went in circles around the Bahai Temple. We stopped to ask the guards outside. They just shook their heads. I had to be looking for the Kalkaji temple. Everybody wanted that one. I decided to go into the temple. The Bahai's should know. One of the Rock Edicts is probably the first written statement regarding religious freedom and mutual respect. The Bahai's, if anyone, had to know.

 

The Kalkaji Temple in the background

The Bahai World temple

The gardens around the white, lotus bud like temple was green and clean. Nice pathways leading in towards the basement. I entered the basement, and found an office just to the right. There was an Indian lady sitting behind the desk. "I wonder, do you know where I can find the Ashoka Rock Edict?" She started to talk a lot. Her English was very Ind-english. I didn't understand half she said. Then she said: "Please sit down, sir. We bring cool water, sir." But even then, after I had my drink of cool, clean water, I was hot in my head. After a while I said: "But you Bahai's of all, and you Indians, should know about the great Emperor Ashoka. He made these Rock Edicts, and one of them should be right here, somewhere." "You mean archaeological site, sir?" I didn't know. I wanted the Rock Edicts, and that's all I knew. "Just a moment, sir." She made a phone-call, and asked me to sit in the other end of the room. "A man will come for you, sir." There, in the glassed bookshelves were books by Baha'ullah. In every conceivable language; even in Norwegian. I used to know some Norwegian Bahai's. One Iranian. The room was cool and clean. It was almost like home. Quiet.

Then came this large African American. He knew at once. "Of course, The Ashoka Rock Edicts, that's just at the other side of the temple. You keep left, and then it will be behind a high concrete wall.

So we drove on. Over a small hill, where I spotted a young western girl in a sari; she was living in some Ashram. All dirty. She looked very unhappy, and then disappeared through a very small doorway.

 

 

In the afternoon, the sun and the heat and the pollution are at the top in Dehli. Why did I bother? Still searching for the Ashoka Rock Edict. The Indians didn't care about it. They knew the Ashok Pillar; it's in the Firoz Shah Kozla, as a pillar in a pyramid like construction. There, Hindus and Muslims pray side by side. The Indians are wonderfully pragmatic people most of the time. When the fundamentalists of both sides are kept quiet. In principle, it looks like the Muslims are allowed to pray where they prefer it; the Hindus are prohibited to make their pujas where they want to do so. And the Buddhists mainly come to look, and remember the great Ashoka. The greatest king of all. For some, he is still the Universal Monark of mythology, the Chakravartin.

In the end we found the Ashoka Rock Edict. It's behind a two-and-a-half metres high ugly concrete wall. There is the tiniest of signs, and you can't be too fat to get through the opening. Once inside, you have to walk among the rubbish, up to a cliff, overlooking the Jamuna River.

There is a small concrete roof erected over the carvings, and a hinged metal bar covering them. There was a padlock, but it was not locked. The boys that were hiding for the sun in the shade of the roof, just lifted it up, to show me.

At this place, the ancient roads met. I'm certain that the great emperor Ashoka was here, probably more than once. And perhaps, even the greatest teacher of them all. The Buddha, Siddharta Gautama, Sakyamuni. The Tathagata. I sat down to have a rest. Like they probably did, back then.

I had a look around before I left. The white Bahai temple. The pink Kalkaji temple. A while Ram temple. A street running down towards the Jamuna. Flats, small shops, pharmacies. The taxi driver is eagerly telling the young boys: this man really have been searching for this place for hours. "There never comes anybody here," they say. "There's nothing here to see. Oh, yes, there was someone, a month ago. Or perhaps two months. There really is nothing here."

 

The Ashoka Rock Edict cliff

Litter on the road to the Ashoka Rock Edict

 

We were standing by one of the most important sites of Indian history. One of the main symbols for modern India is the Ashoka lion.

But he is also an embarrassment. To remember him, can make someone remember the Hindu executions of Buddhists after his time. Or, from a Buddhist point of view, that those coming after him, failed in preserving the Buddhist understanding of the world. Better forget all about it. Just an embarrassment. After all, the two new temples are much more to look at. "You want to see Kalkaji temple now, sir?"

The Ram temple

 

 

The Ashoka Pillar in Firoz Shah Kotla (Overl left)

Ruin mosque (Over)

Man praying in mosque (Left)