This piece first appeared in The Hindu.
After winning the fierce battle of Kalinga, the land none of his predecessors could capture, a satisfied & content Ashoka stood atop Dhauli Hill to survey his newly acquired kingdom. He had expected to see lush green farms flanked by the pious Daya River and rich coconut groves, what he witnessed instead was death & devastation. The river, clean and pure until some weeks before, had turned red with blood; the farms no longer had crops, just dead, decomposed bodies. The sight transformed the ruthless emperor forever and he embraced Buddhism then & there.
I reach Dhauli on a bright, warm Sunday Morning expecting it to be full of tourists & travelers, but am pleasantly surprised at the emptiness of the place. Other than a few shops selling locally packed food, I see no trappings of a tourist centre either.
A small flight of stairs leads me to a landing. Flat & large, it looks like just another temple courtyard, not a hilltop. On one side of the courtyard is a small enclosure with a Buddhist temple. The large blue board outside the temple declares the connection between the temple and Buddha’s predictions from 2,500 years ago. The temple doors however are shut, but I find the window open and peep in.
Inside the compact room, banners of Na-Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyu hang between two pillars, and the ceiling is festooned with red, blue, and yellow buntings. Numerous idols of Buddha are placed on a high platform along with prayer books, bells, candles; a drum stands on the side. I want to ask someone when will the temple open but can find no one around. Disappointed I walk towards the Stupa.
Located just off the Bhubneswar-Puri highway, the imposing white Pagoda is visible from afar. While the hill, and the history associated with it, dates back to 261 BC and even has relics from Ashoka’s time, the Stupa is fairly recent – it was built in 1972 by the Japanese Buddhist Sangha and is the current face of Dhauli. The same foundation has also built the temple in the courtyard.
By now, the hitherto quiet surroundings of the hill have started to stir. Some tourists have arrived in a mini bus and a few local couples on bikes. While the tourists soon start doing touristy things – lighting incense sticks, clicking pictures with the family, talking in high pitched voices – the couples get busy doing couple things. I spot one sheepish pair trying to steal a kiss under a golden lion, in no mood to spoil their reverie I look away.
It is evident that the place has had a glorious past. The Stupa, adorned with murals depicting scenes from Ashoka’s life, idols of Buddha, and large golden lions perched atop tall columns, must have looked resplendent in its hay days, presently though it is in shambles. The plaster is coming off from places, idols are defaced with graffiti, and paint is peeling off at several places from the walls. The golden lions have turned pale too as if mourning the neglect.
What strikes me though is the peace and quiet of the place – despite the crowd & clamour there is a sense of serenity here that is hard to miss.
As more and more people fill the narrow corridor of the Stupa up, I retreat into a corner and look at the panoramic view of the Kalinga valley. From where I am I can only see shades of green and blue, and a silver Daya river winding across the fluorescent expanse. Some stray clouds meanwhile float in the deep blue sky even as soothing breeze fills the place up. I try to imagine how Ashoka would have felt when he looked at the river of blood & the carpet of bodies from the same spot, but fail. The positivity here overpowers every negative emotion. I am reminded that it is this peace & tranquility that both Buddha and Ashoka had intended to achieve by spreading the faith; they certainly seem to have succeeded in doing that.