The Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Dynasty is one of the most intriguing figures in South Asian history. The celebrated story of a great warrior who ruled almost all of the South Asian Subcontinent but then had a spiritual awakening following his bloody conquest of Kalinga is a heartening one.
After his conversion to Buddhism, Ashoka decided to spread his ideology of pacifism across his realm. The stone and pillar edicts of Ashoka served this purpose and were mostly located at the edges of his empire and have been found in places as diverse as Nepal, Karnataka and Afghanistan. Three of these edicts are located in Pakistan. One of them was a pillar edict which has subsequently been lost to history, although fragments of it have been recovered, but the two stone edicts located at Mansehra and Shahbazgarhi, Mardan, are in remarkably good condition and are very easy to visit from Islamabad.
In the heyday of archaeology, during the Victorian era and the early 20th century, expeditions to ancient ruins often entailed long and exotic journeys by riverboat and camel caravan but in today’s Pakistan, most Gandharan sites are just a couple of hours’ drive from Islamabad. On the morning of the 8th of February, I left a still chilly Islamabad – although it is actually warmer than usual due to the dry spell – along with my merry crew including my henchman Faraz to photograph the rock edict of Shahbazgarhi.
To get to Shahbazgarhi you first take the Islamabad-Peshawar Motorway and then turn onto the Swat Motorway after crossing the Indus. You drive on the Swat Motorway up to the Ismailia interchange and then get off the motorway. The village of Shahbazgarhi is just a fifteen-minute drive from the interchange and then you will have to ask around for the archaeological site (Asaar Qadeema Ashoka), which is located on a small, solitary hill off the main road.
The site is quite well kept with a garden dating back to the British Raj and some ornamental gazebos and benches built during the 1990s. There are two rocks with engravings on them, one is at the base of the hill and the other a short climb up. The first one is the smaller of the two but it is better preserved and the writings etched upon it are clearly visible and would be easier to read. Those on the larger rock higher up are badly weathered.
None of the edicts refer to Ashoka by name but by his title of “Devanampriya Priyadasi” meaning “The Benevolent One Beloved by the Gods”
It is remarkable that they are so well preserved in spite of the extreme weather of the region, with a combination of freezing cold winters, harsh summers and monsoon deluges. The content of the edicts is similar at all of the locations throughout the erstwhile Mauryan Empire. None of them refer to Ashoka by name but by his title of “Devanampriya Priyadasi,” meaning “The Benevolent One Beloved by the Gods.”
They outline his social policies of treating the sick and poor with compassion and outlawing the slaughter of certain animals on certain days of the week. The language used was the Prakrit of the region they were written in, the ones in what is now Pakistan are in Gandhari Prakrit. The script used again differs upon the region. In most of India, Brahmi was used but the one in Shahbazgarhi is written in Kharoshti, the Aramaic-inspired script of Gandhara.
The Shahbazgarhi inscription is in fact one of the oldest of the Ashokan Rock Engravings and it has been claimed that it is perhaps the oldest written record discovered in South Asia after the Indus Valley Seals. This brings us to an interesting exchange between my Merry Men. My driver Sajjad wondered aloud about what language they were written in. My gunman Kashif intelligently guessed that they must be in Sanskrit. Then good old Faraz confidently added that the language used in the Ashokan Rock Edicts was, “Qadeemi Janduli Pokhto” or Ancient Janduli Pashto! Little does Faraz know that the East Iranic peoples who introduced Pashto to the region were probably still in the Pamirs or even East Turkistan at that time!
Overall the site of Shahbazgarhi is a nice place to visit if one is a fan of Mauryan and Gandharan history, but for the casual tourist there isn’t that much to see. But if you combine it with other nearby sites such as the Kushan-era remains at Jamalgarhi and the magnificent Takhtbhai Buddhist Monastery built by the Indo-Parthians, it would be quite a worthwhile trip.
Keep the time of year in mind, though. The Peshawar Valley has quite a harsh climate. It is hotter than the highlands on which Islamabad is located and due to the mass-scale cultivation of rice and sugarcane with flood irrigation, it is as humid as Thailand between the months of July and October. Again December and January are very cold and the spring months can be quite rainy.
The best time to visit would be on a dry day between February and May. Although winter would be a good time as well, especially if you want to partake in another of Gandhara’s specialties, chapli kababs
The best time to visit would be on a dry day between February and May. Although winter would be a good time as well, especially if you want to partake in another of Gandhara’s specialties, chapli kababs.
Shahbazgarhi is famous for two things, Ashoka’s edicts and chapli kababs. Baba Karhai (pronounced Ba-Bo in Pashto) is a chapli kabab restaurant located in the village that has been in business since 1919, making it one of the oldest kabab places continuously in business. After spending some time at the rock edicts we went to try out Babo’s chapli kababs. The restaurant is located about four kilometers down the road from the archaeological site. There is outdoor seating available across the road and the kababs are of fairly decent quality, but about average by the standards of Mardan District. One of the reasons for this may be because until the Swat Motorway was opened in 2019, Shahbazgarhi was off the main routes and thus only had a localized clientele, whereas Takht-i-Bhai being on the main thoroughfare to the Malankad Division received plenty of tourists. If you are just visiting Shahbazgarhi do try them but if you are going on to Takht-i-Bhai the kababs there are, in my opinion, much tastier.
Ashoka was perhaps the greatest indigenous Indic ruler to have reigned over the Subcontinent. His edicts are mostly located upon the edges of his empire, spreading a sense of pan-Indic identity and Buddhist ideology far beyond his Gangetic heartland.
The edicts at Shahbazgarhi remind us of the legacy of this great man and make for a convenient day trip from Islamabad or Peshawar. Visiting the archaeological site followed up by a chapli kabab lunch makes for an excursion that satisfies the eyes, intellect and stomach all at once! Shahbazgarhi truly deserves to be a better known location.
The author is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter: @FatehMulk