Journey of a pillar

The 3rd century Ashokan pillar at Topra was moved to Delhi and raised there with great ingeniousness some 600 years ago by Firoz Shah Tughlaq

I had only a vague memory of something I had read about a long time back — how an Ashokan pillar had been moved to Delhi by a Tughlaq king some 600 years ago — but, reading an article about it recently, brought it all back. The director of the famed Khuda Bakhsh Library at Patna, Dr Imtiaz Ahmad, was, in that article, writing on an illustrated manuscript in that library — a 1593-94 copy of the Sirat-I Firoz Shahi, written originally ca. 1371 — and citing passages from it that treated of the re-installation of that pillar.

The account that I had read had figured in a different work — Shams-i Siraj Afif’s Tarikh-i Firoz Shahi — but, wherever it is told, and in whatever manner, it is a remarkable story. Something that needs to be told again, most of it in the words of Afif who was possibly a sharper witness to the times.

Firoz Shah Tughlaq, one recalls, was the Sultan of Delhi, from 1351 to 1388: an orthodox believer, who succeeded the better-known Muhammad bin Tughlaq, and an account of whose rule was the theme of Afif’s work, the historian being in the inner circle of the Sultan and accompanying him on many of his hunting expeditions.

Transporting the Ashokan column. Illustration from a copy of the Sirat-i-Firoz Shahi, 1593-94. Khuda Bakhsh Library, Patna
Transporting the Ashokan column. Illustration from a copy of the Sirat-i-Firoz Shahi, 1593-94. Khuda Bakhsh Library, Patna

Transporting the Ashokan column. Another illustration from a copy of the Sirat-i-Firoz Shahi, 1593-94. Khuda Bakhsh Library, Patna
Transporting the Ashokan column. Another illustration from a copy of the Sirat-i-Firoz Shahi, 1593-94. Khuda Bakhsh Library, Patna

Fond of making excursions ‘in the neighbourhood of Delhi’, as Afif records, the Sultan heard of ‘two stone columns’, one in the village of Tobra — modern Topra Kalan, now in the district of Yamunanagar in Haryana — and the other at Meerut in Uttar Pradesh. He was told that "these columns had stood in those places from the days of the Pandavas", memories of Ashoka, the great Mauryan emperor, who had them raised in the 3rd century BC, having faded by then.

The Sultan’s curiosity about these massive ‘obelisks’ having been aroused — "these columns had... never attracted the attention of any of the kings, who sat upon the throne of Delhi, till Sultan Firoz noticed them" — he decided to have them transported to Firozabad, the new city he had built, now Feroze Shah Kotla in Delhi. The intriguing folk legend he heard about them must have fascinated the Sultan further: that these columns were, in fact, the herding sticks of Bhim the Pandava’s, so powerful was he. ‘Filled with admiration’, he resolved to remove them to his capital as ‘trophies’, a "memorial to future generations".

From this point on, Afif gives a detailed account of how the column at Topra was actually moved, and it is best to recount it in his words. Orders were issued "commanding the attendance of all the people dwelling in the neighbourhood, within and without the Doab, and all soldiers, both horse and foot". They were all directed not only to bring suitable implements, but also "parcels of the cotton of the Sembal (silk cotton tree)", quantities of which "were placed round the column, and when the earth at its base was removed, it fell gently over on the bed prepared for it."

Next, the "pillar was encased from top to bottom in reeds and raw skins, so that no damage might accrue to it. A carriage, with 42 wheels, was constructed, and ropes were attached to each wheel. Thousands of men hauled at every rope, and after great labour and difficulty the pillar was raised on to the carriage. A strong rope was fastened to each wheel, and 200 men pulled at each of these ropes".

With enormous effort, eventually, the carriage was brought "to the banks of the Jumna" where the Sultan came to meet it. "A number of large boats had been collected, and some of which could carry 5,000 and 7,000 mans of grain, and the least of them 2,000 mans."

With great ingeniousness, thus, the column was transferred to these boats and eventually conducted over the Yamuna river to Firozabad "where it was landed and conveyed into the kushk (a part of the palace) with infinite labour and skill."

To get the pillar was one thing, however, and to raise it again was another. That took "the most skilful of architects and workmen". It was got up by stages: step by careful step; when the column reached the intended height, "other contrivances had to be devised to place it in an erect position. Ropes of great thickness were obtained, and windlasses were placed on each of the six stages of the base. The ends of the ropes were fastened to the top of the pillar, and the other ends passed over the windlasses, which were firmly secured with many fastenings." And so on.

When it was in place, "straight as an arrow, without the smallest deviation from the perpendicular", it shone and glistened in the sun, the high Mauryan polish obviously unharmed. The column was now designated and came widely to be known as the Minara-i Zarrin: the Golden Column.

Something about the column, however, continued to puzzle the Sultan. On its base, as Afif noted, "were engraved several lines of writing in Hindi characters".

Many people were invited to read them, but — the characters being in Brahmi — no one was able to. Then follows the courtly historian’s flourish:

"It is said that certain infidel Hindus interpreted them as stating that no one should be able to remove the obelisk from its place till there should arise in the latter days a Muhammadan king, named Sultan Firoz ...."

I have stated it briefly, but thus, in substance, ends the remarkable story of the journey of a massive pillar over a distance of some 200 km. It is told in 24 pages in the Sirat-i Firoz Shahi, the description quite close to Afif’s contemporary chronicle but also building on other sources, oral or written, through an accretive process. However, what this manuscript of the Sirat does — and through doing this scores over any available manuscript of Afif’s history — is to add illustrations to the account of this colossal undertaking. How accurate the visualisation is might remain open to question, but the enterprise of the illustrator/scribe can only elicit admiration.