Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

In the throne room of Gondophares

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One day in the long ago year of 44 of the Common Era (AD, as it was once called), Apollonius, the Greek philosopher, and his friends walked up the broad, tree-lined main street of Taxila (of the ruins now called Sirkap). Among his retinue, Apollonius had Damis, a native of Nineveh (Mesopotamia), a brilliant linguist and diarist. Damis recorded everything he saw in the company of the philosopher and it is because of him that we know what transpired in the city in that long ago age.

They had entered Taxila from the main gate in the north and worked their way up the main street. En route they paused at the temples and the several stores they passed. Apollonius now neared the palace of the king for he had been granted the audience he had sought. It must be remembered that only two decades before Apollonius' visit, Taxila had changed hands between the Scythians and their distant cousins the Parthians. And now the city and indeed most of Punjab was under the sway of Gondophares, the Parthian.

The palace of the king where Apollonius and his friends were headed lay at the southern extremity of the city to the left side of the road. Having seen the two impressive temples, and noted the richness of the commerce in the stores of Taxila and also because he was aware from earlier Greek writers that Taxila was the richest city between the Sindhu and the Jhelum rivers, Apollonius must have come to expect a show of extreme grandeur in the king's palace. But that was not the case.

Damis' diary informs us that the court of Gondophares was remarkably simple. Apollonius — a follower of Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school — was pleased no end with the lack of display, a pleasant contrast to the pomp he had seen in Babylon and Persia. Damis tells us that the palace showed no 'extraordinary magnificence, and was just like the house of any citizen of the better class'. There were no guards, a few servants and three or four persons waiting to speak with the king.

Sycophancy was however alive and kicking: in the presence of the philosopher and his attendants, a cringing courtier came up to the king and in a most obsequious manner attempted to place a jewelled mitre on the king's head. Damis writes that the king strongly rebuked the flatterer because, one, he did not approve of such flattery, and secondly because he did not wish his guests to get the wrong impression about him. The great store we lay by flattery and toadyism shows what a long way we have come in the last two thousand years.

The guest waited as the king finished his business with the persons already in audience. At length they sat down and after the preliminaries, Apollonius asked the king about his 'mode of life'. Gondophares explained that as a vegetarian and a keen gardener, he grew his own vegetables and fruit. Damis does not say so, but it seems as if the visitors were given a glimpse of the garden, which might have been right outside the audience hall. One wonders if the king also tried his hand at the now barely remembered sungtara orange that grows to this day in the last surviving sungtara orchards just a kilometre from the king's palace.

The king also said that he hunted only for exercise and all that he bagged he gave away to his followers. And as for drinking, he drank most abstemiously. This temperance was an old Taxilian tradition for we hear from those who came here with Alexander that the people of Taxila frowned upon drunkenness. We are told that folks did appreciate a local rice wine, but were rarely found intoxicated. Taxilian society was evidently very cultured back then and we could surely learn a few things from it if we were to study it in any detail.

Gondophares had thus far conversed with Apollonius through an interpreter. Of a sudden, he broke into chaste Greek. (The Parthians were great admirers of Greek arts and learning and the language would have been to them much as English is to many Pakistanis). 'Oh Master!' said the king to the philosopher, 'grant me honour by inviting me to dinner.' Apollonius was taken aback. Why, he was the visitor, an outsider, yet the king was begging to be invited instead of taking the privilege himself. 'Why do you ask me to invite you, oh King, when it is entirely your prerogative as the host?' a perplexed Apollonius asked.

'Because I look upon you as the better man; for wisdom is above royalty,' the king is reported by Damis to have said. And in thus responding his humility must have floored the philosopher. Time was when teachers were respected. Time was when men of learning were looked up to even by kings, for it was Alexander who, having conquered Corinth, went a-seeking the great cynic master Diogenes.

He found the philosopher on the beach sprawled out stark naked and sunbathing. Alexander went up and stood reverentially by to ask if there was anything he could do for the master. The aging philosopher, who had not deigned to be present at the victory parade earlier in town looked up, regarded the young blond and quite handsome man for a moment. Then with a wave of his hand told the king to stand to one side, out of his sun.

Alexander was only twenty years old at that time, the sort of age whose very epitome is arrogance. But this was no ordinary man; he wasn't to be called 'the Great' for no reason. And the years that Aristotle had spent with him had not gone waste. Young Alexander immediately withdrew to permit the sun to fall full on the philosopher's naked form. Even in Taxila, three hundred and fifty years before Apollonius and Gondophares met, Mandanis, the town's most renowned philosopher, had rebuked Alexander.

The conqueror had asked him to present himself in court and Mandanis had responded: 'Mandanis has no need for aught that is yours, and therefore will not go to you, but if you want anything from Mandanis come you to him.' And Alexander did go to the philosopher. But that is a digression.

Meanwhile, back in the palace of Gondophares, the king was begging the philosopher to invite him to dinner. And what a great meal it was that the king ordered. There were 'fish and birds, the carcasses of lions and goats and sows and tiger loins.' Damis points out that only the hind parts of the tiger were eaten because it was believed 'that at its birth it raises its fore-paws to the rising sun.' Wine was served in gold and silver goblets and as the party ate and drank, acrobats and marksmen entertained them.

But the jugglery did not interest the philosopher for he was held in thrall by the king's discourse on philosophy. In learned Greek Gondophares held forth that it was essential for the preservation of the purity of philosophy to prevent pseudo-philosophers from dabbling in it. In his kingdom, he went on, a man proposing to take up the study of this subject had to prove first of all that he and three generations before him were free from any taint on their character! This proof concerning the characters of dead forebears could be obtained from official records. And in order to prevent any doctoring of the records, the government ensured that a functionary found guilty of misconduct was barred from public service for life.

What a country Taxila must have been. And here we are, two thousand years later, recycling crooks and blackguards so that they may never pass out of public service.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 13 April 2015 at 11:45, Anonymous Nadeem Akram said...

Wow, excellent, informative and eye opening!

At 13 April 2015 at 21:53, Blogger Brahmanyan said...

Vidya dadaati vinayam ( knowledge begets humility) says an old Sanskrit saying. How true it is in the case of these two great rulers.Thanks for taking us to the great Taxila.

At 14 April 2015 at 08:28, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

"Vidya dadaati vinayam". This goes on the wall here in my study. I tell you, sir, whenever I walk down the main street of this part of Taxila (locally called Sirkap) I get goose bumps. I become very overcome with emotion. And in the palace of Gondophares - the ruins sit at the south end of the street to the left - I can just see it happening.

At 14 April 2015 at 10:20, Blogger Brahmanyan said...

Rashid Sab, You are lucky to use the opportunities bestowed on you by God Almigty wisely. Not every one will get chance to visit Taxila (Takshashila), the place where world's earliest knowledge center (University) existed. You are doing great service in shariing your experiences in writing Books and aricles, which is the purpose of seeking knowledge. It is said that "like money,the value of knowledge enhances only when it is spread ".
Today is our Tamil New Year, Let me convey my Greetings to you on this happy day.
Warm Regards,

At 8 September 2015 at 21:30, Blogger historicus said...

Gondophares it seems had wanted to build a great palace but an ideology of service that he accepted prevented him from going forward with that enterprise.? The frequent earthquakes in the Punjab, because of the collision of the land mass with the Himalayan (tectonic plates) area had forced the king once to contemplate a palace along the western lines. But that was not to be. (cf. George Menachery, "Kodungallur....'', Azhikode, 1987/2000.)


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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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