(This is part of the series Make History Fun Again, where the writers introduce historical facts, events and personalities in a fun way for parents to start a conversation with their kids.)
By Archana Garodia Gupta and Shruti Garodia
We’ve all heard about the first empire that united India, the ancient Mauryan Empire, from its courageous founder, Chandragupta Maurya, to his grandson Ashoka’s embrace of non-violence and Buddhism. But here are some quirky facts you probably didn’t know about the Mauryas.
The most splendid city in the world
As the imperial capital of the vast Mauryan Empire, Pataliputra (today known as Patna) was perhaps the largest city in the world at the time, stretching 15km along the river Ganga and 2.5km deep. This 35km circumference was absolutely huge; Rome, at its greatest, had a 14km circumference! A vast wooden wall surrounded the city, with a ditch around it for added defence. This wall had a whopping 570 watchtowers and 64 gates, which were closed at night.
Chandragupta Maurya’s wily advisor, Chanakya, wrote the famous Arthashatra, which advises (wannabe) kings how they should gain, keep and even regain power, as well as their duties and responsibilities towards their subjects. It recommends extreme watchfulness, extensive pre-planning and total control.
But the Arthashastra is not just about the mechanics of manipulation and strategy. Amongst other tidbits, it tells you how to precisely poison people, how to light your body on fire without hurting yourself, how to create an army of spies ranging from young children to monks, and also how to get women to secretly spy on male enemies using the “honey trap” method, much like Mata Hari spied for the Germans during World War 1!
An emperor’s fancies
Chandragupta’s son, Emperor Bindusara was an intellectual, a man of wide interest and taste. Greek sources mention that he asked the king of Syria, Antiochus I, to send him some sweet wine, lots of dried figs…and a Sophist (very clever Greek debaters who invariably defeated their opponents in argument). The Greeks go on to say, “As Aristophanes says, There is really nothing nicer than dried figs…” but Antiochus wrote back, “The dry figs and the sweet wine we will send you; but it is not lawful for a Sophist to be sold in Greece…”
Emperor Ashoka wanted to spread his message of Buddhist love beyond the borders of his own empire to shift from open, violent conquest in battle, to winning over hearts and minds with “dhammavijaya”, a spiritual conquest through the Buddhist dhamma.
He sent out many Buddhist missions to other kingdoms, like Sri Lanka and Burma, but also as far as Egypt, Syria, Libya, Macedonia and Greece. In fact, it is even speculated that the first Christian monasteries were inspired a few hundred years later by the Buddhist monasteries in the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria!
After his transformation, Ashoka started caring for the welfare of not just his people, but also the animals in his kingdom.
The Girnar Rock Edict shows us how the emperor valiantly (if unsuccessfully) tried to become a vegetarian:
“Formerly, in the kitchen of King Piyadasi, hundreds of thousands of animals were killed every day to make curry. But now with the writing of this Dhamma edict only three creatures, two peacocks and a deer are killed, and the deer not always. And in time, not even these three creatures will be killed.”
(For more fun journeys through India’s history, check out the newly released two-volume set, The History of India for Children Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, published by Hachette India, which is now available online and in bookstores across the country.)