The Scent Of A Flower: The Forgotten Genius Of Colonel Chopra - Part I

Anand Ranganathan and Sheetal Ranganathan

Jan 21, 2019, 01:09 PM | Updated 01:09 PM IST

Ayurveda medicine (Art of Living)
Ayurveda medicine (Art of Living)
  • This is part one of a three-part article on the genius and legend of Colonel Ram Nath Chopra.
  • The Age of Reason

    The dark green palette of the Takshshila hills is breaking into vivid hues. Spring is here.

    Lost to the chatter of fellow students returning to the valley with their day's firewood, Jivaka drops his stack to take a breather, flopping down at his favourite spot, a grassy mound that offers a panoramic view of the Takshshila valley. A student of chikitsa-shilp, Jivaka comes here often to brood whenever his gruelling schedule allows it. Outside of the learning hours, if he isn't assisting his Acharya on patient calls, or tending to in-patients at the ashram clinic, there is always the never-ending routine of mixing herb extracts with mineral concoctions to prepare and test the aushadhis.

    Beset with anxiety, Jivaka mutters, looking into the distance, “How much longer before I get back to my beloved Rajagriha – my country, my home.” Seven years of his youth rush past the window of his mind. Seven long years and that arduous crossing on foot along the Uttarapath from Magadha to Kashmira-Gandhara. A boy, all of sixteen, carrying within him a burning desire to learn medicine and surgery at Takshshila, the greatest university in the world.

    Jivaka recollects the joy of being accepted as a student by the great sage Atreya, the Disapramukhya Acharya. He smirks and shakes his head. Those early morning recitals of the Atharvaveda against the gurgling percussion of the Jhelum; the late nights spent mastering the sharir-sthana coordinates; the praise; the punishments. Seven years and seven springs and here I am welcoming another.

    Takshshila as discovered by Sir Alexander Cunningham (Classical Art Research Centre)
    Takshshila as discovered by Sir Alexander Cunningham (Classical Art Research Centre)

    Jivaka’s eyes sparkle as he remembers the friends he has made, boys his age with dreams in their eyes just like his own; boys from Mithila, Kosala, Benares, Ujjaini and some from faraway kingdoms outside of Bharat. Many have left already, to begin their working lives after graduating as shilpa-snataks in their chosen discipline of sippas (science and technical subjects) or of warfare, elephant-lore, theology, even mysticism. A few have opted to stay back as Pitthicharyas (Assistant Professors), while others, such as he, are somewhere in the middle of their learning years.

    An hour has passed. The valley is bathed in twilight. Soon, shloka chants join in the merry whistling of roosting birds as the university town glides into the humdrum of evening classes and activities. A thin haze of smoke hurries past, leaving the air redolent with incense and burning oil. Jivaka looks up. The valley is carpetted with flickering oil lamps. It is time for the evening clinic.

    Jivaka is going to be late. He pulls himself up and dashes down the hill. Depositing his firewood with Guru-mata in the kitchen of her spartan but spacious cottage, he heads straight to the clinic, relieved to discover a solitary patient. Sage Atreya is busy on his writing desk, correcting the early drafts of his magnum opus, one that would be known to the future generations as Charaka Samhita. He looks up distractedly and signals Jivaka to examine the patient. Jivaka checks the old woman’s pulse. He concludes, recording his observations on a palm bark: “Your fever is a manifestation of intestinal constriction. I will make you a medicine that you must consume as I direct. Collect it tomorrow.”

    The woman nods and gets up to leave, placing her palm on Jivaka's head in gratitude. Jivaka bows. He catches Atreya’s stoic face melt into a faint smile, with a nod of approval for his diagnosis. Jivaka folds his hands in humility, and gathers up courage to address his guru.

    “Acharya," says Jivaka, "I thank you for training me to heal the sick. How far am I from my Adhyayanantagah?”

    “Well now, my dear Jivaka," smiles Atreya, "Here is an assignment for you. Take a round of Takshshila – a yojana (eight miles) on all sides. Bring me samples of all those plants that have no medicinal use for humans.”

    Baffled, Jivaka sighs and leaves the room. He skips dinner and heads straight to the aushadhishala to prepare the sick woman’s medicine. On his way back to the student dormitory, he notices Acharya’s silhouette against the flickering clinic lamps, working late at his desk. It is past midnight.

    Before dawn, Jivaka leaves for the hills. He returns empty-handed. He tries again the next day, and the next, and for many days that follow. Mortified but without recourse, he makes up his mind to let the results of this exercise be known to the Acharya. That evening, soon after the last patient has left, and just before the Acharya has in mind to head back to his writing desk, Jivaka confronts him, head down, hands folded in reverence. The Acharya smiles. He knows the reason for Jivaka's disquiet but wants to hear it himself.

    “Acharya," says Jivaka, "I couldn’t find a single plant within a yojana around Takshshila that wasn't identifiable already as having curative benefits. Not one.”

    Acharya’s face lights up. He holds Jivaka’s hands gently, as though trying to lift them, and says, “You are trained, my boy. This last assignment proves your supreme knowledge of Ayurveda’s nighantu (Materia Medica). You have acquired the skill and the art to become a great healer. This is the moment of your Adhyayanantagah at my school.”

    Jivaka is overwhelmed; speech deserts him.

    The Acharya pulls out a pouch hanging from his waist and places it in Jivaka’s hands. “Here," he beams, "Keep these shatamanas , and ask guru-mata to pack some food for your journey. You are free to return to Magadha. Dedicate now your life in the service of the sick and the needy. Your skill in surgery and your knowledge of internal medicine is unparalleled. May your work bring you fame. May your fame bring you humility. May your humility bring you peace."

    Jivaka’s eyes well up. He prostrates on the floor and touches Acharya’s feet. Later that very day, taking leave of his guru and guru-mata, and bidding his farewell to his many friends, Jivaka sets off on the Uttarapath for Rajagriha. Little does he know then, that his guru’s blessings would stand the test of time; that fame, humility, and peace would be his constant companions till his dying day.

    Jivaka spends the rest of his life in Rajagriha, firmly establishing himself as the most renowned physician of his era. His feats in complex surgeries of the abdomen and the brain earn him fame and respect beyond Bharat. Powerful kings are his patrons, including Magadharaj Bimbisara – cured of his long-standing fistulae, and Avantiraj Pradyota – helped out of his, what we now understand to be schizophrenia. Remaining true to his guru's parting words though, he is self-effacing and humble, even after taking up the exalted position as the personal physician of none other than Gautama Buddha. King Bimbisara gifts him a large mango orchard up in the Gijjhakuta hills, extending beyond the eastern gate of the Rajagriha city walls. He donates the orchard to the Sangha for the construction of a Vihara.

    Jivaka garden (Earth Trip)
    Jivaka garden (Earth Trip)

    Jivaka’s orchard, just like his story, would be told, retold, and cherished for centuries, beyond his lifetime; beyond Gautama's lifetime. As for Takshshila, her gentle hills would continue to not only charm and entice scholars from Bharat, but also invaders from the west. And yet, undaunted amid the ruins, like a meditating sarsen taken over by vines of passing time, disfigured by bloody battles, vandalised by wars and marauders, undaunted and proud, she will simmer ceaselessly with radical ideas that would yield cutting-edge breakthroughs in science, medicine, mathematics, politics, war-strategy, languages, and philosophy. Takshshila, the land where ethnicities, culture, knowledge, and wars would blend, at times violently, would go on to chisel unforgettable visionaries and their colossal works, like the Charaka Samhita (Atreya), Ashtadhyayi (Panini), and Arthashastra (Chanakya).

    To stand the test of time is to have conquered it.

    Only until after the collapse of the Mauryans and the relentless plundering by the invaders would Takshshila turn into an unidentifiable ruin, and then, too, only because it offered to the assailant a bewitching opening to a much bigger treasure – the untold wealth of Bharat itself.

    The Age of Conscience

    The vivid hues of the Takshshila hills are crumbling to deep mustard, as the valley traps ferocious dust storms, then guards them as they die. Summer is peaking.

    So is Raja Todarmal's temper.

    “How could I be so reckless," he laments, "Lord Krishna will never forgive me.”

    Rummaging through his belongings, Todarmal's mind harks back to the moment their kafila trudged off for Kabul from Agra. He tries to recollect where and when he last saw his Balagopal, his isht-devata. Wherever his call of duty has taken him, from Qandahar in the west to Chittagong in the east and all along the length and breadth of the vast Mughal Empire, never has he been without his beloved Balagopal, the palm-sized silver idol of little Krishna, cushioned in cotton, wrapped carefully in a yellow silk pouch.

    The haze lifts. During their ten-day halt at Shambhu Sarai, just before Sirhind, Todarmal had set up a small temple in his room, with the silver idol mounted on an elevated platform. Sirhind carries a special place in Todarmal’s heart. It is the district that returns the highest revenue for his ministry. It is also, for many devout Hindus like him, one of the most prominent and active seats of Vaishnavism in the empire. His every evening on this trip has been spent in the company of Hindu families that have arrived in their droves from the adjoining paraganas of Nabha, with the Shambhu Sarai echoing amid the chanting of the Bhagwat Katha and devotional epics composed by Bhakti saints, all under the approving gaze of the naughty-eyed Balagopal.

    Raja Todarmal (Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium) 
    Raja Todarmal (Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium) 

    The loss is distressing. “Is this a sign of something untoward about to happen?" Todarmal says to himself. "I must pay a penance for my deeds."

    As Todarmal, eyes tightly shut, sieves the time spent at the sarais, the baolis, and the halts along the Sadak-e-azam, his spell is broken by a familiar voice.

    “Diwan-i-Ashraf, Wazir-i-Hindostan, Todarmal ji, welcome to Jalal Sar.”

    A faint smile appears on Todarmal's sullen face as he rushes to receive Raja Man Singh into his khema. "What a pleasant surprise, Man Singh ji," he says, trying to hide his glumness.

    Man Singh embraces his friend, then holds him by his shoulders, keeping him at arm's length admiringly. "Todarmal ji, you are a genius. This year's zabti has been phenomenal. Your Aini-i-dahshala has brought enormous cheer to the farmers. They are calling you a taxman with a heart – ever heard of that combination?”

    Todarmal cannot bring himself to smile at the adulation. “What use," he says to himself, "Hindostan’s head of wazarat, the architect of bandobast-e-nizam, couldn’t even keep a piece of silver safe with him. What use.”

    Man Singh catches the distress. The overrun in Todarmal’s voice is uncharacteristic of the haughty war general and the craftiest of finance ministers he has come to know and admire. Raja Todarmal’s temper, he knows and admires, too, is dreaded by one and all, his peers included. Abul Fazl, to name just one rival, has complained openly of Todarmal’s arrogance to the Shahenshah, citing his hot-headedness and unyielding refusal to convert from Hinduism to Din-i-illahi. Fazl doesn’t expect reprisal, aware of Todarmal’s special position in Akbar's court. What Fazl views as petulance and sacrilege, Akbar sees as obduracy of a warrior. Todarmal has more enemies than he has friends. But in that list of friends is a name that matters most. The Emperor's.

    To lighten Todarmal’s mood, Man Singh insists the Wazir join him for a walk in the Hasan Abdal Bagh – the first building project undertaken by him in his current posting as the Governor of the north-western province. Nestled in the middle of hills with dense forests and natural springs, the garden is set for inauguration by the Emperor, arriving in a week’s time from Ajmer.

    The tree-dotted avenues along the many canals that drain in to the central pool of the Hasan Abdal Bagh evoke an intense feeling in Todarmal’s heart – of being in a dwelling perfect for Hindu Gods as defined in the Vedas. He closes his eyes and sees Krishna. Looking up at the heavens he tenders an apology for having misplaced the idol. His mood now lightened, both by the beautiful surroundings and an expectation that the lord has forgiven him, Todarmal confesses to Raja Man Singh the reason of his grumpiness. He also declares that he will observe a month’s fast as punishment for his carelessness. Alarmed, Raja Man Singh quietly calls for the shiqdar of the nearest dakchowki at Rawat to deliver an urgent message to his sister Jodhabai, also Akbar’s wife.

    Sleep evades Raja Todarmal that night. Before dawn, he leaves for the nearby hills of Takshshila with a sickle and a bag. Not many are aware of another craft that Todarmal possesses immense knowledge in – Ayurveda. The season works in his favour. Summer is when Ashwagola is in full bloom and ready for harvest. He returns by noon with a bagful of the wonder-herb that should last him a fortnight. Consuming small quantities of this mucilage-rich fibrous husk, he has discovered, keeps him away from hunger pangs. The only challenge now is to escape the observant eye of the Emperor, his indulgent friend and frequent dinner host. Meanwhile, the village of Jalal Sar is getting ready for Akbar’s arrival. Todarmal carries on with the business of the day, taking rounds of the neighbouring villages with the district’s Amal Guzar and his team of patwaris, amins, and quanungos. He lets them into his secret: “Trust the peasants and they will deliver; trust the powerful, instead, and they will deceive.”

    Running on Ashwagola and water for more than a week, Todarmal, unlike the animated Man Singh supervising last minute arrangements, wears a pale look as he waits at the gates of Hasan Abdal Bagh to welcome the Emperor. Akbar’s arrival is announced shortly, to the throes of rapturous applause and the beating of nagadas. Taking in the ovation, Akbar inspects the garden and its canals. He is spellbound but as is customary hides his enthusiasm well, displaying it from time to time with timid exultations of "Wah". At the lavish feast that follows the inauguration, the Emperor notices the absence of his friend Todarmal. Man Singh comes to the rescue, citing stomach-ache as the reason for Todarmal’s indisposition.

    Meanwhile, the news of the emperor's reaction to the dreamlike garden has spread far and wide. It has picked up a sobriquet already – the Wah Bagh. The next morning, taking note from Man Singh of Todarmal's continued absence, Akbar remarks, while devouring a chausa: “Is there not a thing in this world that the smell and taste of these heavenly mangoes can overcome, except our Todarmal’s headstrong resolve? Mirza Raja, had it been anyone of you, my talking would have helped. Why just me – Vazir-e-alam’s will, I fear, is unyielding even for Birbal’s wit to soften.”

    Man Singh smiles in agreement. He hands the Emperor a small packet marked with the Queen’s seal. “Aalampanah," he says, his eyes looking down, "Only you can achieve the impossible. The pouch contains all that you will need. Raja Todarmal has just left for the Takshshila hills for his herbs. I am certain that you will bring Todarmal along for a grand Panjabi lunch in his honour.”

    Akbar agrees, delighted. “If only I get a generous helping of chausas for lunch, too. They are as good, if not better, than the maldahs of our Lakhi Bagh in Darbhanga."

    Mughal garden feast (The British Museum)
    Mughal garden feast (The British Museum)

    Down by the hills, Todarmal, nearly done with his harvesting, hears the clip-clop of an approaching mount. He turns around, and is greeted by the sight of the Emperor.

    Akbar acknowledges the bow with a playful nod. “I have confidential state matters to discuss. Does my friend know of a quiet place in these hills?”

    Todarmal’s queasiness evaporates. He mounts on his horse, flinging across the saddle in the same movement the sack crammed with Ashwagola. “Shahenshah," he responds cheerfully, "Every little rock and every little shrub in these parts is known to me – all the way up to Qila Rohtas. Spent seven years of my youth here. Before you were born. Follow me.”

    The men share a good laugh and gallop off to nearby Sirkap. Todarmal’s horse draws to a halt at the foot of a scenic rock overlooking a lake. They walk their horses uphill. Todarmal takes this time to update the emperor on the condition of peasants and farm-workers of Awadh, and the easing of the taxation laws that has lowered the number of defaulters. The revenue collection has quadrupled.

    “Delighted to hear that," exclaims Akbar. "What is next up your sleeve, I wonder."

    “What I want to do next could shake up the empire – all for the good, I assure you”, says Todarmal.

    Todarmal proposes that all Hindu officers in his ministry learn Persian. He wants government accounts and bookkeeping to be carried out only in Persian. He desires the Hindus to be on an equal footing with their Muslim colleagues. Armed with Persian, he feels, they would not only be able to interpret government documentation by themselves, but also be at par as far as hiring or promotion were concerned.

    “Approved," says Akbar. "If you can convince the Hindu co-workers, I shall manage Abul Fazl and the rest. You know already of his displeasure at my latest project for Mian Abdul Qadir Bada’uni at the makhtab khana – to translate Ramayana and Mahabharata into Persian."

    “Yes. I have come to know of it."

    Both men turn pensive and shift their gaze at the valley and the lake below. They do not know yet, that this very moment would become the reason for the birth of a beautiful dialect, one that would flourish later into Urdu.

    "What better than a chausa to mark the occasion of this important resolution, Diwan-i-ashraf?”

    As the Emperor pulls out a ripe yellow mango from his pouch, Todarmal looks away. His uneasiness returns. He can’t cheat on his penance, and neither can he refuse Akbar’s treat.

    “What are you searching for, Todarmal? Not this, surely," quips Akbar, trying hard not to laugh.

    Todarmal turns around. Held for show in Akbar's extended palm is a shimmering Balagopal. “Jodhabai’s gift for you, straight from her temple,” smiles Akbar.

    Teary-eyed, Todarmal closes over the Emperor’s palm with his hands. "I cannot even begin to-" he utters, stunned.

    "Come, come," cajoles Akbar, as they race downhill, “I desire something in return, if you will allow me. You claim to know all the plants and the trees in Takshshila, don’t you. Well, then. Let me hear you name all those that we cross.”

    Todarmal begins rattling off the names, much to Akbar's amazement. “This is the land of the Ayurveda, Jahanpanah," says Todarmal, now having got into the mood. "This is where Sage Atreya once lived. He possessed the most complete knowledge of diseases and medications known to man. Those invaluable records are accessible as three treatises of Ayurveda, the so-called Greater Triad: Charaka Samhita, Susruta Samhita, and Astanga Sangraha. I am no expert in Ayurveda, mind you. The local vaids are the real masters, but it is no longer a desirable profession, sadly. And that is such a pity, for we will lose this treasure just as surely do kings lose their kingdoms.”

    Akbar reins in his horse. "Todarmal," he exclaims, "I may lose my kingdom but we shall not this treasure. Let the tabibs, hakims, and vaids flourish, you make sure of that."

    Todarmal’s joy knows no bound. He discloses to the Emperor his dream project – to revitalise traditional Hindu knowledge, lost or restricted to a few patrons and practitioners because of repeated invasions. Unmindful of the scientific renaissance peaking in Europe – with, among other earth-shaking events, Copernicus’ open challenge to the geocentric view of the universe – Todarmal, in his own small measure, is about to start one in India – the revival of Ayurveda.

    The new venture, sanctioned by the Emperor, has invigorated Raja Todarmal. He is well aware of the colossal task ahead. Most original texts are no longer available, and those that have survived the cruel passage of time are in a mutilated form. Todarmal decides to make Kashi his second home, spending most of his time away from regular work in the company of eminent Sanskrit and Ayurvedic scholars. Meanwhile, his Lahore house on the banks of Beas, known for its picturesque, airy architecture with the celebrated baradari, turns into a centre for scholarly discourses on shastras and sanskriti. Reliving its millennia-old history, Uttarapath or Sadak-e-azam, has once again become a route frequently travelled by thinkers and scholars from various schools of Hindu philosophy – Advaita followers from the matths of Kashi, Nyayikas from the tolis of Mithila, and the Navya-nyayas of the Navadvipa school in Bengal. The soul of Bharat is being rejuvenated; its wisdom reconstructed.

    First page of Todarnada
    First page of Todarnada

    Decades pass, until at long last, the unique intellectual conjuring results in Todaranada, an exquisite literary composition running into twenty-three volumes. It is a tour de force, of the kind previously unseen. Each volume lovingly carries a name suffixed with ‘Saukhyam’, or happiness. Owing to Todarmal’s deep interest in medicine, the Ayurveda Saukhyam is the most comprehensive of all. The singular pleasure Todarmal has had in its creation is reflected in the nomenclature tailing its contents. Each chapter is called Harsha, or joy, and begins with a mangalakarna (auspicious invocation). The Ayurveda Saukhyam carries an enviable storehouse of knowledge, gleaned from authentic, centuries-old primary sources and their skills and practices. It covers the Materia Medica; the iatrochemistry of herbs and minerals; human physiology; anatomy; patient examination techniques; disease prognosis stages and treatment; principles of public health and hygiene; and finally the doctrine of healing science. Astoundingly, in parallel, Todarmal also slips in for the publishers a lucid commentary, Manojna on Ashtanga Hridaya.

    The year is 1589. In another continent, another world, another golden age is about to dawn. Elizabeth I has won English hearts after having crushed the Spanish Armada; the young mathematician Galileo has started on his teaching career in Pisa; and a playwright who goes by the name of Shakespeare has seen his Henry VI performed to tumultuous applause. As India sleeps, the world has awoken to a heady renaissance.

    Closer home, the Portuguese are stealthily reinforcing their might along the Western coast, near Malabar, by seizing small territories through coercion and then converting the natives to Christianity. Annexation followed by Amen. And it is devastating. The locals stand no chance. Both Hindus and Muslims are consigned to the bottom of the class pyramid in Portuguese settlements, of which Goa enjoys a prime status, holding as much political importance and civic privileges as Lisbon. The city now boasts of a medical college and an associated royal hospital. Strangely, Ayurveda has not been dispensed with; it coexists with the European system of medicine.

    The Portuguese elite, including the Archbishop and the Viceroy Manuel de Sousa Coutinho, routinely consult unconverted Hindu medical practitioners when unwell. They have over decades realised, much to their ire, that European medicines have proven to be ineffective at treating local illnesses. It doesn't take long for genuine interest to turn to envy and soon, much along the lines of Todarmal’s Ayurveda Saukhyam, Garcia da Orta, a physician and botanist posted in Goa, amasses a compendium on Indian medicine gleaned from his personal friendships with Malayali-speaking Ayurvedic physicians from Kerala, as well as through his professional interactions with Hindu healers of Goa, Ceylon, Bombay, and the Deccan. Taking help from a Konkani-speaking slave girl for collecting specimens within Goa, and with an eye on creating a market to stimulate demand for Indian medicines in Europe, he catalogues his observations and notes in Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs and Medicinal Things of India. The book is an immediate bestseller. Translated into English, Latin, French, and Italian, the Europeans can't stop talking about it. Orta’s readership widens, and the knowledge of India’s indigenous medicinal plants makes its way in to Europe.

    Meanwhile, Todarmal has rested his pen and renounced his state duties. In mourning, at the passing away of his close friend Birbal, he has shifted his base to Kashi. Akbar, also dealing with Raja Birbal’s loss, persuades Todarmal to resume work, calling it an act more virtuous than meditating on the banks of Ganga. Todarmal agrees but hesitatingly. He returns to Lahore, but with no zest for life left in him, dies a few months later. His legacy, of cultural enrichment and the revival of Ayurveda, is soon forgotten. Ayurveda flourishes for another forty years, until Jehangir’s reign, not beyond.

    Todarmal, till today, is remembered only for his revenue reforms. Economy over education, money over mastery – that has always been the way of the world.

    The Age of Misery

    Time hurtles on. A hundred years beyond Todarmal and Garcia da Orta, the Mughal empire has expanded up to Ahom in the east. It now also includes Bang (Bengal) lying across the Brahmaputra. In the west, following intense wars with the Marathas, the annexations have swallowed the Deccan up to Bijapur and Golkonda. The year is 1689. And the man who rules over the plains and the hills of Hindostan with a reign of terror as yet unseen and unheard, is none other than Aurangzeb. He calls himself Alamgir, the one who has seized the world. His militant enforcement of Sunni Islamic laws is a complete departure from his great grandfather's inclusive policies. Parsis and Shias, too, cannot escape the barbarity. Navroz is banned. Thousands of temples are reduced to rubble, millions converted and killed.

    If buildings are the first casualty of war, wisdom is the second. The Hindus are prohibited to practice or teach their “wicked science". Ayurveda is no longer heard of except in Malabar, the Dutch territory bordering the Mughal empire. A few vaids in Aurangzeb’s empire, who continue to hold secret allegiance to Ayurveda offer their consultation to a limited number of patrons, purely on the side, in hiding, while practicing the Unani-Tibb system in their shifakhanas (hospitals) to make a living. Often, they consult cow-herds and forest dwellers to scout for herbs and methods to make therapeutic formulations. The Dutch, on the other hand, have inducted Brahmin scholars, and even the “lower-caste” Ayurvedic physicians and plant gatherers to capture indigenous medico-botanical knowledge in the Malabar region. Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede, governor of the Dutch East India Company in Malabar is directly supervising their effort to prepare an exquisitely illustrated botanical manual. In 1693, Governer Rheede releases a massive compendium spread over twelve volumes. It is called Hortus Indicus Malabaricus. The book carries a detailed account of all medicinal plants of Malabar, and it will remain the fountainhead of discovery for the next few centuries. A stolen treasure is still a treasure in the eyes of those who haven’t seen the original.

    Hortus Indicus Malabaricus (Minneapolis Institute of Art)
    Hortus Indicus Malabaricus (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

    Meanwhile, in the north-western parts of Aurangzeb’s empire, Punjab has turned into an intense war zone. The Sikhs have transformed themselves into a warrior race, with the single aim to uproot Islam and rule over Punjab as an independent kingdom. Gobind, their overarching leader, has been building and training his army of Khalsa soldiers for twenty years ever since his father Teg Bahadur was cruelly beheaded at Sis Gunj in Delhi on the orders of Aurangzeb for his refusal to convert to Islam in 1675. The Sikhs have taken on an alias, Singh, a fearless lion born to conquer. They continue to fight Aurangzeb’s army till the fiend's death in 1707. But the fall of the Mughal Empire after Aurangzeb doesn’t bring respite to Punjab. By 1765, it has become a collection of fourteen small warring regions called misls, of which twelve are under Sikh rulers. It is as though a permanent mist of blood has descended upon this holy land.

    As for Takshashila, the old citadel of knowledge in Punjab, it lies buried deep under the layers of time, her chest stomped repeatedly by wars, and bearing mournfully the cultural transformation at the hands of dynasties that have come and gone, she awaits silently, awaits the passing of another century under sand till the new rulers of India, the British, arrive, awestruck by a location they would exclaim as “studded with ruins more thickly than even the Campagna of Rome”.

    The year now is 1861. India has lost its first war of independence. Major General Alexander Cunningham of the Royal Engineers convinces Viceroy Canning, as to the need for “the enlightened ruling elite” of India to unearth the history of the region, for if they do not, the chattering classes of Europe would fault them for neglecting the genesis of human civilisation. After all, the British aren't unmindful of scientific advances even as they preoccupy themselves with expanding the Empire. Science is the bayonet in front of the Snider-Enfields that has helped them maim foreign lands. Exploration precedes expansion that precedes exploitation, and the on-going Great Trigonometrical Survey of India is the greatest example of their exploratory spirit. Cunningham strengthens his imperialist argument by calling it of the utmost political and religious importance, to present a proof from history of why must India be kept divided in chief-ships.

    “Whenever, " writes Cunningham, "India came under one ruler, she has repelled foreign conquest with determined resolution”. Truth be told, one need not look much further than Punjab. Disintegration of the Sikh empire after Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839 had made it possible for Henry Lawrence’s men to win the Anglo-Sikh wars of 1848 and '49. But for the Maharaja of Jammu Gulab Singh’s treachery and betrayal of the war tactics of his fellow Sikh chieftains, the British would have found it that much more challenging to overpower Punjab. As a reward, Gulab Singh is offered an exclusive deal to acquire the mountainous region east of Indus and west of Ravi. He buys the Kashmir valley for 7.5 million Nanakshahee Rupees.

    Cunningham makes a fervent case for excavations. He wants to be remembered not only as a general but also as an explorer, a surveyor, a scientist, a historian, and the living, breathing embodiment of the crown itself. And he knows; he knows only too well that history written by the victors is peddled by the vanquished.

    Cunningham is ready with the first draft. Brahmanism, he asserts, does not have unchangeable tenets that have stood firm since time immemorial. “It has constantly been receiving alterations and additions; facts that prove that the establishment of the Christian religion in India must ultimately succeed,” he writes. Cunningham’s arguments are noted. He wins the project for himself and is appointed the archaeological surveyor to the Government of India. History is about to be rewritten.

    Alexander Cunningham (
    Alexander Cunningham (

    The year is 1864. On the trail of the itineraries left behind by Fa Hian and Hwen Thsang, the Buddhist pilgrims from China, Cunningham zeroes in on Rawalpindi as the location of the ancient city of Takshshila. As a result, the next twenty years transform this mofussil town of goat herders into the headquarters of the British Northern Command. The ageless centre of learning, the cynosure of the world, brimming constantly with sages and philosophers of antiquity, is now the largest garrison of the British Empire within India.

    Books and wisdom have surrendered to battles and wars. From Takshshila would battle lines be drawn and battle plans decided; from Takshshila would take wing the insatiable desire of the British to conquer and subjugate anything and everything that entered their line of sight.

    And from Takshshila would emerge, also, a man who would change forever the way the world looks at Ayurveda. Yes, he would soon be forgotten, just as so many before him and so many have after, but before he disappears into the mist of time and tragedy that swallowed Takshshila, this man, this Indian, would usher in the one age that counts for most. The Age of Discovery.


    Authors' note: This is part I of a three-part article, an introduction that would open up to the genius of Col. Chopra in the later parts. For this reason, and to bring alive the history, we have dramatized the events, dialogues, incidents, interactions, while keeping true to the dramatis personae and the locations that are all real and referenced herein.

    Anand Ranganathan is the author of three novels, most recently ‘The Rat Eater’ (co-authored). A product of St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and Pembroke College, Cambridge, he is a scientist based in Delhi, and the consulting editor of Swarajya.Sheetal Ranganathan a graduate from AIIMS and XIM. She is a columnist covering topics on global health and science outreach. Her writings have appeared in Mint, Daily_O, India Today Aspire, Swarajya, and CIO-Review. She is also the Vice President and Global Head of Life Sciences Operations in a multinational professional services firm.

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