Ancient message on an Indian rock

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It was a long walk through a hilly landscape mottled with green where bristly bushes wormed their way between brown boulders. There was nary a soul in sight but every so often, the clear sound of a goatherd calling to a stray member of his herd came wafting through the air, followed sometimes by a line of goats crossing our path, nosing and grazing their way through the scrub. It was an idyllic scene and I was almost loath to reach our destination. Almost, but not quite, for at our destination lay one of the country’s oldest written records.

We were in Palkigundu, near the town of Koppal, on the trail of an inscription of Emperor Ashoka, one of the world’s most remarkable rulers.

Despite the arrows painted on some rocks that pointed out the way, it took a few wrong turns, some backtracking, and the help of a goatherd, before we finally stood at the base of two huge boulders, the pair topped with a flat-shaped rock forming a canopy over both. It was this rock canopy that had given rise to the name Palkigundu, meaning palanquin rock, for the two boulders bore the rock canopy like a palanquin. Steep, roughly-laid steps led us to the top of the pair of boulders, and then at last, we stood in front of a message that had been incised onto the rock some time in 258 BC.

The inscription itself was barely visible and it took us a few moments to distinguish it from the natural patterns in the rock. Gazing at the 2,300-year-old writing, I thought about how quite possibly, people elsewhere might at that very moment be reading the same message of peace that I was, for the exact same edict is found in 17 places in India. In fact, the most recent one was discovered just a year ago. Earlier in the day, we had been to see the closest of these other sites, which is actually just 2.5 km away from Palkigundu, east of Koppal, at Gavimath....

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