Edict XII, lost & found

A few final words on the N-W Frontier, the upshot of finishing a co-written book on a late nineteenth-century archaeological enthusiast, Harold Deane, and then writing a review of a book on an earlier nineteenth-century archaeological enthusiast, Charles Masson, shortly afterwards. Both men were British and both found themselves in a place named Shahbazgarhi (شھباز گڑھی), but Masson was there in 1838, and Deane in 1888; and Deane, as we shall see, was perhaps responsible for the more illuminating discovery.

What both of them were doing at Shabazgarhi was studying an ancient inscribed text. Another difference between them, fifty years apart, was that Deane knew he was looking at the words of the great Indian emperor Ashoka.

With Luca Olivieri I’ve been editing over the last couple of years the manuscript draft of Harold Deane’s influential article on the archaeology of Swat and Peshawar, “Note on Udyana and Gandhara” (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1896). Deane was by 1896 a British Political Officer based at Malakand in Swat, and it was in the garrison at Malakand that Prof. Olivieri found the early draft of his “Note”.

One of the valuable things about setting this draft against Deane’s finished version in the Journal is the access it gives us to the more personal material that was lost as it was refined into an academic article. One such moment, in this instance crossed out in the editing process by Deane himself, traces the fascination for archaeology that he had developed during a series of postings in the vicinity of Peshawar: “I add here a few notes I have made from time to time regarding the adjoining Province of Gandhara [“the British District of Peshawar” added above] in which I was first led to taking an interest by discovering the 12th Edict missing from the large Asoka-inscription at Shahbaz Garha.”

We’ll come back to Deane, but let’s start with Charles Masson, whose visit to Shahbazgarhi came at an important juncture in his complicated and remarkable life. A deserter from the army of the East India Company, Masson had settled in Kabul, safely beyond British jurisdiction, and from there investigated Buddhist sites and the plain of Begram, where the huge collection of coins he gathered allowed him to identify it as the location of the city of Alexandria ad Caucasum, which as Kapisa, the coin record told him, survived for well over a thousand years after Alexander. Masson’s archaeological activities were interrupted by events preceding the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839. He left Afghanistan in 1838 and went back to what he was most comfortable doing, discovering antiquities:

“Released from the thraldom in which I had been kept since 1835, I then made an excursion to Shah Baz Ghari in the Yusef Zai districts, to recover some Bactro-pali inscriptions on a rock there, and was successful, returning with both copies and impressions on calico.” (Narrative Of Various Journeys In Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab and Kalat (1842-4), Vol. 3, 493)

A few years later, in 1846 in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Masson gave a fuller account of his “excursion from Pesháwer to Sháh Báz Ghari” in October 1838. He indicates that he is following the guidance of Claude-Auguste Court, a Napoleonic veteran who was in the service of Ranjit Singh, Maharajah of the Punjab, and whose description of the environs of Peshawar (with the map at the top that Masson may well have been using) had been published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal for 1836, including a reference (pp. 481-2, and pl. XXVIII) to this inscription.

Masson traces his route from Peshawar across what is now the city of Mardan, his arrival in Shahbazgarhi and the welcome he received from the senior Malik of the village. (Masson’s account acknowledges quite well the help he received from locals in Peshawar and along the way.) He then describes his efforts to record the inscription, written on both sides of a rock, both by copying the text by hand and by coating it with ink and then catching as much of the engraved text as he could imprinted in reverse on calico—around 50 yards of it in total. This material he gifted to the Royal Asiatic Society on his return to Britain in 1842.

All Masson really knew about the inscription was that it was big and its script was the same as that on coins he had found in Afghanistan, some of which bore the script, now known as Kharosthi, on one side and Greek on the other. But from the copies that he had taken others, E. Norris and J. Dowson in this same issue of the journal (calling it the Kapur-di-Ghiri inscription), were able to decipher enough of the text to recognise that the inscription at Shahbazgarhi was substantially the same, although written in a different script and with some slight linguistic differences, as two other inscriptions at Girnar in Gujarat, western India, and Dhauli in Odisha (Orissa), eastern India, one side of which is beautifully carved into the shape of the front end of a royal elephant.

It was left to H.H. Wilson, a scholar closely associated with Masson and Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, to collate all three inscriptions at Girnar, Dhauli and Shabazgarhi, and translate the Shahbazgarhi text alongside the others. Wilson confirmed the essential similarity between them, but also highlighted one peculiarity: the text was divided into fourteen sections, all of them represented at Girnar, but Shahbazgarhi lacked the twelfth.

The inscriptions at Dhauli, Girnar and Shahbazgarhi have these days been joined by quite a few more, and they are now identified as copies of decrees issued by the Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC. The subset of a larger corpus of Ashokan inscriptions to which they belong is referred to as Ashoka’s Major Rock Edicts, and their location when plotted is clearly significant: as a group they ring the territory controlled by Ashoka’s Mauryan Empire, marking its boundaries: at Kandahar they were written in Greek.

Yet the Twelfth Edict of Ashoka, as I’ve mentioned, was missing from the inscription recorded by Charles Masson at Shahbazgarhi. Harold Deane’s contribution half a century later was to find it, on a separate rock fifty yards away from the main inscription. But the difficulty of finding Edict XII at Shahbazgarhi tells us something quite interesting about it. The same Twelfth Edict seems to be given special status on another inscription on the N.-W. Frontier at Mansehra, a few miles from Abbotabad. As at Shahbazgarhi the Mansehra Edict XII is inscribed separately, and in both places it is more carefully engraved than the other edicts, and in larger letters (É. Senart, Journal Asiatique 11, 1888, pp. 516-7). In other collections of the Edicts, at Girnar and at Khalsi in the hills near Mussoorie, Edict XII just quietly takes its place in the sequence I to XIV; while at others again, at Dhauli and Jaugada (also in Odisha), the Twelfth Edict doesn’t feature at all.

The natural conclusion is that Edict XII was particularly pertinent to the part of Ashoka’s empire represented by Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra. It is known as the Toleration Edict, and essentially enjoins mutual respect between religions. Here is an excerpt from Amulyachandra Sen’s translation in Asoka’s Edicts (Calcutta 1956):

“Whoever praises his own sect or blames other sects, all (that is done) out of devotion to one’s own sect (with this thought), viz. ‘That we may glorify our own sect’. But by doing so, one injures one’s own sect all the more severely.

Therefore it is intercommunion that is commendable, that is to say, that (people) should listen to and respect the doctrines of one another.”

It’s easy enough to suppose that this frontier region in the North-West supported an unusual variety of religious traditions, and that Ashoka considered Edict XII especially important for his subjects in this location to hear.

The two Britons I’ve been concentrating on in this blog are in many ways very different figures. Masson was at times a strident critic of British imperial activity, while Deane ended up as the first Chief Commissioner of the newly constituted North-West Frontier Province (NWFP; now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). One of the most important observations in our work on Deane is how inseparable his interest in the history of this area was from the information gathering that was of the essence of his role as a Political Officer on the frontier, maintaining colonial control over territory in as discreet a manner as possible.

Between them, nevertheless, Masson and Deane made an important historical document available to the less adventurous scholars who could read it, while in Deane’s case a piece was added to the puzzle that shed light vividly on the character of the N-W frontier of Ashoka’s empire more than two millennia ago.

There’s a nice account of a recent trip to Shahbazgarhi here. I meanwhile have a new pipedream, visiting all of Ashoka’s Major Rock Edicts across India and Pakistan.

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

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