Before King Ashoka was known as righteous and tolerant ruler, he was branded as a cruel who built a torture chamber called Ashoka’s Hell.
Ashoka was the son of emperor Bindusara to one of his low ranking wives Dharmma. The older half-brothers feared Ashoka because he showed great makings to be a king. His older brothers convinced Emperor Bindusara to send him to Taxila (in modern day Pakistan) to suppress a rebellion. He successfully put down the uprising without bloodshed.
Once more, the older brothers incited their father to banish Ashoka for two years in the neighboring country of Kalinga. He met and fell unloved with a fisher-woman named Kaurwaki. However, when a violent uprising arose in Ujjain, Bindusara called Ashoka to deal with the insurgence.
Legends said that when the emperor died, Ashoka fought and killed 99 of his brothers, sparing his younger brother, Vitashoka and claimed the throne. He became the third ruler of the Mauryan Empire.
Ashoka was a cruel and brutal ruler. He conducted wars to expand his kingdom. Stories held that he tested the loyalty of his ministers. When the ministers questioned him, Ashoka in fury drew his sword and beheaded five hundred ministers.
It was also said that Ashoka ordered the construction of a torture chamber called ‘the beautiful gaol’ or ‘Ashoka’s Hell.’ Although the chamber looked like a beautiful and “inviting” palace full of amenities, whoever come inside would never leave alive. He ordered that prisoners should be laid open to all imagined and unimagined tortures.
The official executioner of his kingdom Girika was the architect of the chamber. He drew his inspirations from the five tortures of Balanpanditasutta.
According to legends, the torture chambers were full of sadistic and cruel instruments for mutilations, impaling through the anus, “prying open their mouths with an iron and pouring boiling copper down their throats.” There were furnaces to melt metal to be poured on the prisoners. Girika would stretched his prisoners on their backs on red-hot iron floor, he drove iron stakes through their hands, feet and heart.
When a Buddhist monk Samudra arrived into the palace, he was tortured to death by the executioner. However, Girika failed to hurt him. One account described how Samudra endured the agony in a cauldron of boiling water, human blood, bone marrow and feces. He meditated and the cauldron cooled down.
Samudra revealed himself to Ashoka telling him he was a Buddhist monk. Realized how the monk was unaffected by the tortures, Ashoka believed and intended to follow the Buddha’s teachings. Samudra then “departed from that place by means of his supernatural powers.”
However, Girika was the true terror of Ashoka’s Hell as he reminded him of his order to kill anyone who entered the chamber including Ashoka himself. The King then ordered his guards to burn Girika and demolished the torture palace.
He became known afterwards as Ashoka the Righteous.