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Bygone Doon: Kalsi, Romancing a Stone

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By Pradeep Singh

From being on the high road of an ancient empire to being the capital of a late medieval Indian kingdom and then, finally, receding into obscurity of a rustic hamlet is in a sentence the time travel of Kalsi. When a mighty and enigmatic ancient emperor ruling across South Asia thought of passing his enlightened thoughts for the guidance of the people, he thought of Kalsi as an apt place. Knowing well the shortness of human life and even shorter mankind’s memory, he deemed it proper that his people-oriented and morally surcharged edicts should be etched on a most permanent of God’s elements, a rock. Emperor Ashoka, the lodestar of the Mauryas, who ruled from 268 BC to 232 BC, had the clairvoyance to know that historians would be fickle and the ink in their pens no less delible, hence he left no stone unturned, literally and metaphorically, to see his message inscribed for posterity.

Ashoka’s Empire with its Buddhist ethos itself descended into obscurity in the coming centuries and the rock edict at Kalsi like its illustrious patron, too, faded away from public memory and was engulfed in the ubiquitous foliage that characterised the banks of the Yamuna. The edict is evidently the first tangible evidence in writing about Buddhism. Inscribed on a quartz rock 10 feet high and equally broad and tapering a bit at the bottom, it carried the message of tolerance towards other living beings and non-violence in personal conduct and emphasised the value of honesty and ethical behaviour and charity as a way of life. One also learns the recorded names of five ancient Greek kings and near contemporaries of Ashoka: Antiochus, Ptolemy, Antigonus, Magas and Alexander. But all became wrapped up in the depths of history.

As an aftermath of the Anglo-Gurkha War of 1814-15, the border between the two adversaries was drawn up by the victors who got the benefit of huge swathes of erstwhile Gorkha possessions in Kumaon, Garhwal and Himachal. While the Rajas of Sirmour and Garhwal were reinstated on their thrones, they too had to relinquish large tracts of land to the East India Company. In these political rearrangements, Kalsi was hived off from Sirmour along with Chakrata and added to the Doon Valley portion of the East India Company. Thus a culturally distinct region was appended to the Doon.
With the acquisition of Jaunsar- Babar, Chakrata gradually became a cantonment of the British Indian regiments and Kalsi became the camping grounds for those heading to the higher reaches of the new cantonment. With opening up of this area to administrative attention, the Kalsi Rick edict was stumbled upon in 1860 by one Mr Forrest, who found the surface of the rock encrusted with lichen and moss but his instinct guided him to look beneath. On painstaking removal of the green patina, the surface of the rock shone like marble on which the edicts were still visible. The script was finally deciphered by the British antiquarian, James Princep. It was inscribed in the Brahmi script but the language used was Prakrit with a Magadh dialect that was popular in much of the Gangetic Plain.
While the rock edict lay hidden at Kalsi, the town itself enjoyed some degree of political visibility, though somewhat erratically, between the twelfth and the mid-seventeenth century. The place was well located on the confluence of the Yamuna and its chief tributary, the Tonse. It enjoyed a measure of trade with the upper regions of the Himalayas including Tibet. Salt, borax, turmeric, wool and woollen cloth, certain precious stones, etc., were the items of import, while produce of the mainland including grains, jaggery, oil, wax, honey and cotton textile were carried out by the traders from the hills. On account of this and its strategic location on the border with Garhwal, Kalsi functioned as the capital of the rulers of Sirmour from time to time.
The western portion of the Doon Valley was often the battleground for the princely houses of Garhwal and Sirmour. The neighbours shared not only the border but also a love-hate relationship. Any weakness was easily an invitation to the other for extending their domain. Nahan was the capital of Sirmour at other times till finally Kalsi was abandoned in 1621 when Raja Karam Prakash made Nahan the permanent capital. Consequently, the economic decline of Kalsi was speeded up when its mercantile community moved to Chuharpur, then also a part of Sirmour.
Today, Kalsi is still a lesser known part of the Doon Valley. In ways not known to many but the locals, their town has many positives too. The pace of life is free from the frenzy of more urban Dehradun. The cost of living is reasonable and the low pollution levels are an added boost to a healthy life and the nostalgic charms of a bygone Doon are still to be seen in its natural surroundings. Its heritage is rock solid. Optimism abounds for its future.

(Pradeep Singh is an historian and author of the ‘Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehradun’ and ‘Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehradun’.)