Taxila is the name of an ancient city and a sobriquet for an archaeological site. When Taxila figures in the intrigues and ambitions of conquerors and kings like Alexander the Great and the Mauryan emperor Asoka, it is a single city that comes to mind. The archaeological site is an ensemble of several sites - three city sites and the ruins of many Buddhist stupas and monasteries. Of these, it is the city site situated on the Bhir mound that is specially old. This is where the Mauryan city of Taxila was situated and its ancient ruins offer vivid glimpses of real people and the challenges they faced.
Among those ancient challenges happens to be one that is fuelling enormous discontent in modern India: land acquisition. Not many realise that the first example of a partially successful land acquisition comes from Taxila.
This becomes evident from the plan of Taxila. Usually, the impression of a city depends upon the harmony that exists between the geometry of its streets and lanes in relation to the residential and public blocks of structures that flank them. In the case of Taxila, the plan is a curious combination of one main street which was wide and straight, in the midst of many oddly aligned winding streets and lanes. The main street would have impressed many who came to the city. Because its average width, at 22 feet, is so much more than other streets, 'First Street' is what it is fittingly called. On the other hand, visitors would have wondered about the other streets and lanes, which rarely ran in straight lines. These subsidiary streets, much narrower than the main street, are, in fact, an odd combination of straight and winding segments. Take the 'Second Street', for instance, which begins as a straight alignment that, less than half way through the city, moves by several feet towards the west, and again, after intersecting the 'Third Street', lurches in a wide curve towards the east.
What makes this mishmash surprising is that the main street of Taxila was the city's thoroughfare since the establishment of the first city, some two centuries before the time of the Mauryas. We know this because there are no debris of collapsed or demolished structures of earlier strata underneath it. Instead, there is "only a deep accumulation of small boulders and river pebbles that had been used to pave the street or had been dumped there from time to time when it became necessary to raise the level". On the other hand, practically all the other streets and lanes, those awfully asymmetrical ones, were created during Mauryan times. Many modern observers, incidentally, have been disappointed with their asymmetry, especially since textual images raise our expectations about Mauryan times. So, for instance, the hypothetical way in which the layout of the Mauryan city was supposed to be and was described as such in the Arthashastra - city space demarcated by six roads, three running from east to west and three from north to south - is what many associate with those times. The reality, though, of Mauryan urban spaces, as Taxila reveals, was far less regimented.
But the question that remains to be answered with relation to Taxila is this: If the city administrators undertook this radical programme of public works and helped create a new communication network from scratch, why did they configure the streets in such an irregular way? The answer is unclear, but from the evidence that has surfaced below the streets and lanes, it seems that the city government had to clear structures in the areas through which the streets were to be laid, and it is possible that their clearing programme was resisted by a section of the citizens. To put it another way, some house owners, shopkeepers and commercial proprietors seem to have been willing to allow their properties to be 'acquired', and presumably, they must have been compensated for their loss. Equally, however, there seem to have been other citizens unwilling to let the city administration cut through their land and homes for the sake of straight streets.
As it is, Taxila was a city with a restive populace, prone to rebel for all kinds of reasons. Asoka, in fact, had been sent by his father, when he was a mere prince, to quell a rebellion in the city against its local administrators.
Therefore, my hunch is that the city planners of Taxila may well have wanted to design the city arteries as straight alignments, in the way that the Arthashastra prescribed, but decided it was more prudent to let the geometry of subsidiary streets and lanes be determined by the availability of land rather than by a drawing board gridiron. The streets that resulted from this compromise are winding and haphazard, but this was at least a citizen-friendly solution. This was also a solution that the crafty Kautilya would have approved of since the interests of the subjects were central to his scheme of what should prevail in the State. He is known to have recommended that "in the happiness of the subjects lies the happiness of the king and in what is beneficial to the subjects his own benefit".
Is there a lesson here for the Indian State? If the mighty Mauryas were unwilling to ride roughshod over Taxilans, surely, a government that is now grappling with a new land acquisition bill may well be advised to follow suit and listen to the voices of the people who it is supposed to represent.
Nayanjot Lahiri is professor at the Department of History, University of Delhi.
The views expressed by the author are personal