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Sunday March 3rd 2024

Asoka (Ashoka the Great) | 2001

Asoka film location: Fort Ahilya, Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, India
Asoka location: the riverside palace of ‘Magadha’ where Asoka grows up: Fort Ahilya, Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, India | Photograph: Wikimedia / Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Santosh Sivan elaborates the story of Prince Asoka, ruler of the Magadhi empire in the 3rd Century BCE who transformed from a vicious warlord to become a proponent of Buddhism and pacifism, with a full-on Hollywood-style love story and the inevitable musical numbers. The long and bloody epic seems to have been a stylistic influence on Oliver Stone’s Alexander.

Historically Asoka was a prince of Magadha, a region of northeast India, one of sixteen Mahajanapadas (Great Countries), south of the Ganges, including most of Bihar and Bengal, eastern Uttar Pradesh and Odisha. Its first capital was Rajagriha (now Rajgir), then Pataliputra (now Patna).

Kalinga, the empire of Asoka’s love interest Princess Kaurwaki, lay to the south, the eastern coastal region now encompassing a large part of Odisha and northern part of Andhra Pradesh.

The film was made, however, mainly around Madhya Pradesh in Central India.

The huge riverside palace of ‘Magadha’, where Asoka (Shah Rukh Khan) vies with his ambitious brothers to take over the throne, is Ahilya Fort, Ahilya Wada, in Maheshwar.

The imposing 18th Century fort, with its dramatic flight of wide steps leading down to the Narmada River, has now been converted into a heritage hotel.

After attempts on his life by jealous brother Susima (Ajith Kumar), Asoka is persuaded by his concerned mother to go into reluctant exile. Travelling in the guise of Pawan, a humble soldier, Asoka journeys to the green hills of Pachmarhi, about 180 miles east of Maheshwar. It’s here he comes across Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor), a princess of neighbouring 'Kalinga' who is also in exile, along with her younger brother Arya, heir to the Kalingan throne.

Asoka/Pawan is instantly captivated by Kaurwaki’s singing and dancing in the San Sananan number.

He watches her as she bathes in Apsara Vihar (Fairy Pool), near Pandav Caves, at the foot of the Apsara Falls, just a little to the southeast of Pachmarhi.

After some initial flirting and sparring, Pawan is soon teaching Kaurwaki the art of swordfighting at Reechgarh Caves, just west of Pachmarhi, toward Dhupgarh.

Romance naturally blossoms and, when Asoka is obliged to return to visit his mother in ‘Magadha’, Kaurwaki waits for her ‘Pawan’ to return while calling out his name on a dramatic peak at Dhupgarh itself.

Located in the Satpura mountain ranges, Pachmarhi is an idyllic hill station about 130 miles southeast of the Madhya Pradesh capital, Bhopal. The nearest railway station is Pipariya, about 20 miles to the north.

Asoka film location: Marble Rocks, Jabalpur, India
Asoka location: Kaurwaki rafts along the river: Marble Rocks, Jabalpur, India | Photograph: Wikimedia / Travel Miles With Smiles

Still yearning for ‘Pawan’, Kaurwaki and her women sing Raat Ka Nasha as they drift along on a raft along the Narmada River, through the rugged white canyon of Bhedaghat near Jabalpur, around 100 miles to the northeast.

A popular tourist destination, the Marble Rocks is a two-mile gorge carved by the Narmada through the soft, white marble, which is mined and carved into figures to be sold all over India.

Asoka film location: Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves, Bhubaneshwar, Odisha, India
Asoka location: General Bheema reveals to Kaurwaki that she's adopted: Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India | Photograph: Wikimedia / Vidhi180184

The pillared terrace where Kaurwaki’s faithful bodyguard, General Bheema (Rahul Dev) reveals to her that she’s a foundling and not of royal blood, is the double-storeyed Rani Gumpha, the Queen’s Cave, one of the Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves, on the Khandagiri-Chandaka Road, about four miles southwest of Bhubaneswar, Odisha. It's not far from Dhauli, which was the old capital of the real Kalinga.

These ornately carved caves, dating from the 2nd Century BCE, were built to house Jain monks. Don’t confuse this location with the similarly-named Udaigiri Caves at Vidisa, back in Madhya Pradesh.

Asoka meanwhile has been sent to quell a rebellion in ‘Ujjaini’. Wounded in battle, he recuperates in a Buddhist monastery, supposedly at Vidisa in Madhya Pradesh. The target of another assassination attempt by the envious Susima, Asoka’s life is saved by bride-to-be Devi (Hrishitaa Bhatt) who, by killing the assailant, forfeits her own impending wedding.

Asoka film location: Chaitya Cave, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai, India
Asoka location: Asoka recuperates at the Buddhist monastery: Chaitya Cave, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai, India | Photograph: Wikimedia / Sreejithsh

This peaceful retreat is far across India in the west, on the outskirts of Mumbai.

It’s the Kanheri Caves, a temple complex chiseled out of basaltic rocks, deep in the green forests of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, east of Borivali, a northern suburb of Mumbai.

The entrance seen is the Chaitya Cave (Cave 3), the largest and most-visited and documented cave at the site. Inside the cave you'll find the enormous carving of a standing Buddha which is seen in the film.

The Park's main gate can be reached from Borivali East station, and from here it's about three miles to the cave. There's a bus service every hour.

The caves at Kanheri (the name comes From the Sanskrit word Krishnagiri meaning black mountain) date from way back in the 1st Century BCE to the 10th Century CE.

Asoka film location: Mukteshwar Temple, Old Town, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India
Asoka location: ‘Toshali’, where Kaurwaki prepares for Asoka's attack: Mukteshwar Temple, Old Town, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India | Photograph: Wikimedia / Amartyabag

‘Toshali’, the capital of ‘Kalinga’ where Kaurwaki prepares for the attack of the feared Asoka (not realising it’s Pawan), is Mukteshwar Temple, Old Town, Bhubaneswar, not far from the Udayagiri Caves in Odisha.

One of the city's prominent tourist attractions, Mukteshwar is a 10th-century Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, dating back to 950–975 CE.

It’s only after the tragedy of this final, bloody battle that ‘Evil’ Asoka renounces war and devotes himself to peace to become ‘Dharma’ Asoka. Peace and love are not quite as cinematic ans war and bloodshed, so this most important part of Asoka’s life is summarily dismissed with a voiceover.