Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Prince Kunal

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It is from a far-off time indeed that the name of prince Kunal shines through to us: from about the middle of the third century BCE. That was when we hear of an uprising in Taxila. Taking his eldest son to be a man of good sense and perspicacity, Asoka, who ruled the vast Indian kingdom from distant Patliputra (Patna, Bihar), sent out the prince to quell the disorder. Sources such as the seventh century Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang confirm that the prince was indeed celebrated across the kingdom for his great compassion, piety and humility.

A view of the Kunal monastery
The order for prince Kunal was to use his gumption to quell the rebellion. In case Asoka needed to send specific orders, they would be in a sealed envelope. And the seal, so said the king, would be the mark of his teeth, a copy of which he handed over to the prince to preclude any chance of forgery.

Taxila was a very rich city. This we know from Greek records kept by Alexander’s staff who called it the richest between the Indus and the Jhelum. Alexander Cunningham, a Victorian general and master archaeologist, authored a book that is a treasure trove for modern researchers. In Ancient Geography of India, Cunningham tells us that when Asoka rose to the throne circa 270 BCE, the treasury of Taxila held an unimaginably large sum of money.

If taken to be of silver, the 36 million coins of some unnamed denomination would, in the 1860s, when Cunningham wrote his treatise, amount to Rs90 million. But if the coinage was in gold, the sum could be ten times higher. In such a rich province, where lavish food filled the stomach, mischief would have come easy.

Though no source tells us what exactly was the intrigue in Taxila, one can adduce the possibility of an attempt to break away from the central government of Asoka. It appears that the governor of Taxila and his cabinet had ganged up to effect the change.

Kunal arrived in Taxila with his family. How long he remained here and what measures he took are nowhere to be found. There seems to have been some initial success in restoring order in Taxila. At some later point, however, trouble erupted again. This time, the rebels appear to have arrested Kunal, blinded him and turned him out with his family.

That was when Asoka would have sent an army to overpower the rebellious Taxilian government. And that was when he expelled them to the desert regions of Tartary beyond the Karakoram mountains. It is interesting that the perfectly plausible story of uprising for cessation acquires a veneer of myth by the natural accretion of time. Xuanzang tells us that Kunal’s stepmother, having failed in her attempt to win the prince’s sexual favours, conspired to have him sent away from Patliputra. Since there was some foment in that distant province, the king agreed. Thereafter, the vengeful queen having prepared a letter ordering Kunal to have himself blinded and turned out of the palace, contrived to fix the mark of the king’s teeth on the sealing wax.

When the letter arrived in Taxila, the dutiful Kunal told his minister to do the royal bidding. Blind and destitute, Kunal and his wife left the palace and wandered about the land until at length they arrived at Patliputra. The prince’s plaintive song attracted the king who was shocked to see what had become of his favourite son. The inquiry was swift and the libidinous queen was executed.

Legend, as preserved by Xuanzang, tells us that the prince’s eyes were restored by a Buddhist priest called Gosha. Other sources, however, tell us of the prince never regaining his eyesight and dying in Patliputra.

South of the ruins of Sirkap in Taxila, there rises a low hill atop which sit the remains of the Kunal monastery. In 1996, a man told me that those afflicted by eye trouble went up into its ruined monks’ cells to pray and be swiftly cured. This belief seems to have died in the past decade or so.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 9 September 2015 at 10:17, Blogger Swayam Tiwari said...

Fascinating Stuff , as always!

At 9 September 2015 at 17:51, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

A compleat knowledge it self

At 10 September 2015 at 11:35, Blogger Brahmanyan said...

This reminds me of an old Tamil film "Ashok Kumar" taken in 1941, that ran for more than 100 weeks, for its story and songs. The story is the same as that you have given. I give below the synopsis of the same as given in "wikipedia":
"The film is based on an age-old Buddhist folktale connected with Mauryan Emperor Ashoka's son Kunal. The Mauryan prince Kunal was courted by Ashoka's younger queen Tishyarakshita and when he rejected her advances, was falsely accused by the queen of trying to seduce her and was thrown into prison and blinded. The story, however, comes to a happy end with his eyesight being restored by Lord Buddha and the king acquits of all the charges."
I never knew it has historical support in Taxila. Thanks a lot for the revelation.

At 11 September 2015 at 16:21, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Wikipedia has it wrong. it was Gosha the eye doctor of Taxila who is said to have cured Kunal. Buddha had been dead for nearly 400 years at this time.

At 11 September 2015 at 16:30, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, sir.

At 5 April 2017 at 14:37, Blogger PARESH PATEL said...

I think he became Jain monk retiring. The one who was send thenafter was ashoka's most trusted general Tushappa who unrevealed this conspiracy. Buddha was not alive then


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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

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