When I read about Ashoka the 3rd century BC ruler of much of India, my curiosity was aroused. Ashoka began as a warlord but felt remorse at the waste of life on the battlefield. He invited followers of the Buddha to teach him . As a result  he abolished the death penalty and recommended prisoners be treated with respect and wild animals protected and set about  the creation of  a kind of welfare state 250 years before Christ! Thanks to Ashoka spreading his edicts beyond India the religion we know as ‘Buddhism’  exists today.  But he was forgotten for 1000 years. How could that happen? The Madras Courier published my analysis of what happened. In my opinion it is poignantly relevant to the world today.


My second novel  Sculpting the Elephant  was partly motivated by a desire  for more people  to know about Ashoka  . Military conquests are celebrated and tyrants remembered but this example of an Empire spread peacefully through ideas and not armies was written out of history. The  contemporary plot of Sculpting the Elephant  is about a mixed relationship but it links to the story  of a nineteenth century  fictional polymath who becomes obsessed  about uncovering the lost  story of Ashoka .

The Bodleian Library is a location in Sculpting the Elephant  and its  director ,Richard Ovenden, has just published Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge . The sad thing is that it does not include Nalanda ! The destruction of the great library of Alexandria is well known  but the destruction of Nalanda was even more profound in its effect.  Ashoka founded the world’s first international university at Nalanda circa 250 BC. It spread over nine kilometres and had a huge library and 10,000 students.  When Mohammed  Bakhtiya invaded North India not  only did he burn it down but he destroyed all the books and murdered all the custodians of that knowledge. One monk was travelling with one book survived.

650 books had survived because the Chinese Buddhist explorer Xuanzang (602-664 CE)  was given them to take with him back to China.  The Great Wild Goose Pagoda was built to house them .  Thanks to him those books were later translated –  just in time. Another book burning episode not talked enough about in the West  is highlighted in my other novel Brushstrokes in Time.  In 1966  Mao and Lin Biao urged  Chinese teenagers  to ‘destroy the old.’ They obeyed and burned books including Daoist works of art  and the Buddhist books that Xuanzang had brought from India  .

We are living in a more connected world -these are stories that need telling! This is  picture is of the small section of the  great university of Nalanda that has been uncovered.