Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Punjabis in Central Asia

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We must remember that Kunala's stewardship of Taxila and Xuanzang's visit are separated by a full nine hundred years — time enough for the accretion of folklore to colour real history to a degree almost beyond reality In the spring of 630 CE, Xuanzang, the pious Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, set out from the monastery of Chang'an (Xian on modern maps). He travelled across the sandy wastes of Turkistan, over the dangerous snow-draped passes of the Hindu Kush Mountains to Afghanistan and eventually fetched up in what is today called Pakistan.

Here, among other places, he spent some time in a city that he renders in his language as Ta-ch'a-shi-lo.

That was Takshasila — as Taxila was known to its educated natives. Since Xuanzang was on a pilgrimage collecting Buddhist texts and relics, he visited the various monasteries sprinkled around town and mentions the one to the south-east of Taxila.

This, he tells us, was built on the site where they put out the eyes of prince Kunala, the eldest son of the great Asoka. Today it is still known as the Kunala Monastery and sits on the low hill to the south of ruins of Sirkap.

The pilgrim's story is that Kunala, 'the son of the rightful queen', a right handsome and upright man, was slandered against by his step-mother. 'Following her wild and foolish preference, she made proposals to the prince; he, when she solicited him, reproached her with tears, and departed, refusing to be guilty of such a crime.' Xuanzang writes. 

Rejection filled the wicked women with extreme wrath and she contrived to have the prince banished from the capital. The capital, incidentally, was Patliputra (Patna) at that time.

And so when a new governor for distant Taxila was needed, the queen with malice in her heart advised the king that there could be no more trustworthy a candidate than his own righteous son whose good 'fame is in every mouth.'

Kunala was thus despatched to Taxila, in the pilgrim's words 'to establish order.' But before sending him off, Asoka is said to have told his son, that all royal orders were to be sealed and in order to preclude forgery, the seal would be the mark of the king's own teeth.

Not long after he had reached Taxila, the queen, yet filled with hatred, wrote out a letter accusing the prince of misconduct. The order for his ministers was to put out his eyes and banish Kunala to the mountains. Then while Asoka slept, she surreptitiously put the warm wax seal in his mouth and fixed the teeth impression upon it. When the letter was received in Taxila and came to the notice of the prince, he ordered his minister Chandala to immediately do the royal bidding.

The story goes on to tell us how the blind prince and his wife eventually ended up in Asoka's presence and how Gosha, the great eye doctor of Taxila, restored Kunala's eyes. That is part one.

Then, on his way back to Chang'an, Xuanzang tells us of his sojourn at Khotan and again brings up the story of the pathetic Kunala. Now he tells us that Asoka was 'very angry' at the blinding of his son's eyes and sent his deputies to Taxila to order the 'chief of the tribes dwelling there [and responsible for the blinding] to be transported to the north of the snowy mountains and to establish themselves in the midst of a desert valley.'

It is of great academic interest that the 19th century translator of Xuanzang's account Samuel Beal and the commentator Thomas Watters treat the Khotan story simply as a yarn without offering any comment. That was a time when the great, inimitable Aurel Stein had not yet made his epic discoveries on the fringes of the Takla Makan desert. It was not until 1902 that this remarkable scholar, adventurer and plunderer of ancient art discovered the sand-buried cities of Dandan Uilik and Niya.

There he found a good deal of written material on wood, leather and parchment in almost pristine state because of the very dry desert conditions. Interestingly, the wooden slats (now in the British Museum) are shaped exactly like the takhti that is used to this day in practicing calligraphy in vernacular primary schools.

The texts were all in the Prakrit (from which modern Punjabi derives) that was spoken in Taxila and much of northern India in classical times. The script used was Kharoshthi, again the very one they used in Taxila from the 3rd century BCE.

For the first time since pious Xuanzang had mentioned the banishment of some tribes from Taxila did the story make any actual historical sense. Stein wrote that the old yarn about Khotan having been conquered and colonised by immigrants from Taxila which had been 'scarcely credited' until then had finally received historical context.

So what exactly would have happened way back in or about the year 270 BCE? We must remember that Kunala's stewardship of Taxila and Xuanzang's visit are separated by a full nine hundred years — time enough for the accretion of folklore to colour real history to a degree almost beyond reality.

Kunala certainly was in Taxila and though history does not tell us what actually transpired, Xuanzang does give us an idea that something was amiss: he writes that Kunala was sent to Taxila 'to establish order.' Something had gone very wrong; the country of Taxila was in a state of foment and Asoka wanted it set right.

However, it is evident that Kunala was incapable of controlling the intrigues of his courtiers as well as the chiefs of neighbouring settlements that Xuanzang says were expelled north of the mountains. In his notice on Khotan the pilgrim also notes that Asoka was 'very angry'. For Xuanzang the cause of anger was of course the blinding — which actually never happened and is merely the accretion of time — in reality Asoka's annoyance was that his inept son was incapable of handling what was obviously a rebellion.

The king's answer to his own son's incompetence was to send out a force to expel the ring leaders of the uprising. And so it was that the Potoharis of Taxila made the long and arduous journey through Kaghan, over the Babusar Pass into the Hunza valley and then by the Mintaka Pass to Kashgar and thence to the southern fringes of the Takla Makan. I mention this route for this would have been the easiest and shortest journey to what is now Chinese Turkistan. There they established the flourishing cities that were over time laid low by the encroaching desert.

The texts they left behind to be discovered by Aurel Stein two thousand years later were nearly all of a secular day to day nature. It was entirely to the good fortune of those who study history that the arid climate of Takla Makan preserved the otherwise perishable leather and wooden takhtis. Had that not taken place, we who read Xuanzang's travels today would have taken the tale of Kunala as nothing more than that: a yarn.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 14 June 2014 at 16:57, Anonymous muhammad athar said...

Its a great countdown regarding uprising/ development in Taxila reagan and the role of Kunala.Sir though it is a great work to collect the historical background of any area however if the same is linked through Mape of the area , it could be easy for understanding & assimilation

At 14 June 2014 at 19:44, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Taxil that had seen some great time is reduced to nothing in present time. What an urooj-o-zawal!

At 5 February 2019 at 21:47, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent article Sir ! Reminds me a saying in Rajasthan. " Meenakh jive bheeth hoon ar geet hoon " . Means a person ( Meenakh ) gets life in memories of people through "Bheeth " ( wall or construction ) he does or through his deeds which remains in folk lores ( Geet ).

With regards


At 6 February 2019 at 15:05, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Himanshu, for this very beautiful Rajasthani saying.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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