5, 000 years of Civilization & Culture
Prolific Pakistani author & travel writer Salman Rashid relates the tale of Prince Kunala, or Kunal, the circumstances that took him to Taxila where he was tragically blinded, and the intermingling of history and legend, all too inevitable with the passage of time. Till at least 1996, locals believed that the Kunala Stupa in Taxila was sacred, and people suffering from eye ailments went there to pray.
This article was originally published in The Express Tribune, March 13th 2011.
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.
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.