Excavation photo of Ashokan Pillar Capital at Sarnath

In the historical journey of India, Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan dynasty is the most shining icon to be credited with creating Indian History. The evergreen creeper of world-peace in the form of Buddhism, the fragrance of flowers of that still permeates the cultures of Japan, Myanmar, China, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, etc., prospered on the sturdy stem of his triumph of religio-cultural delegations and edicts. The Lion Pillar of Sarnath is a living testimony to the inimitable thought and action of Ashoka the Great. The emperor propagated his religious preaching and administrative edicts among the masses through numerous such pillars.

The human heart is a rumbling ocean of feelings and emotions that are expressed through some art or poetry. The Lion Pillar of Sarnath is an exquisite example of the artistic acumen of Mauryan sculptors whose works encapsulate the deep seated convictions of the rulers and the prevailing thoughts of the Indian populace of that era.

Painting of Huen tsang

Sarnath is situated next to Varanasi in the North. As mentioned by Huen tsang, this pillar was raised precisely at the spot on the Western side of the river Varanasi (Po. Lo. Na.1 ) (however, inaccurately perceived by him, because Varuna flows from West to East the site being on the Norther Side) where the Buddha had delivered his first sermon.

Nearly 2500 years ago there was no match to the sculpting skills of Indian artisans. Their architectural techniques are a mystery even today. The Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath, adorned with a quadruple lion-head and an imposing wheel at the top, is a unique example of art.

“The art and architecture of the period of Ashoka find their most creative expression in the lion-headed pillar of Sarnath. From the perspective of aesthetics too, this massive sculpture is of exclusive significance. Be it the Brahmasshutra, the right angle or the balanced layout of its sides, its sculptors have exhibited exemplary dexterity. The layout of its parts was visualized along the four cardinal directions. The sculptor manifests his skills through a composite weaving of his four dimensional conception. The complementary alinement of its directional lines, hypotenuses and upper co-ordinates is indicative of the skills of a divinely gifted sculptor, who had impeccable mastery in the art of sculpting and invoking emotions. The salient feature of this lion-headed sculpture is those spiritual meanings that are evoked by it.”, as the Great Savant of Indian art-history Vasudev Sharan Agarwala has expressed.2

Vincent A. Smith has expressed his views as: “In this work the skills of the artisan reached their zenith. Now in the 20th century, display of such art is an impossible task. These sculptures, 30-40 feet in height, carved out of Chunar sand stones, exude such aura that no one in the world today is privy to their mystery.”3

The other art historian J. Marshall writes – “The Sarnath capital, on the other hand, though by no means a masterpiece, is the product of the most developed art of which the world was cognizant in the third century B.C.E. the handiwork of one who had generations of artistic effort and experience behind him. In the masterful strength of the
crowning lions, with their swelling veins and tense muscular development, and in the spirited realism of the reliefs below, there is no trace whatever of the limitations of primitive art. So far as naturalism was his aim, the sculptor has modelled his figures direct from nature, and has delineated their forms with bold, faithful touch; but he has done
more than this: he has consciously and of set purpose infused a tectonic conventional spirit into the four lions, so as to bring them into harmony with the architectural character of the monument, and in the case of the horse on the abacus he has availed himself of a type well known and approved in western art. Equally mature is the technique of his relief
work. In early Indian, as in early Greek sculpture, it was the practice, as we shall presently sec, to compress there life
between two fixed planes, the original front plane of the slab and the plane of the background. In the reliefs of the
Sarnath capital there is no trace whatever of this process; each and every part of the animal is modelled according to
its actual depth without reference to any ideal front plane, with the result that it presents the appearance almost of a figure in the round which has been cut in half and then applied to the background of the abacus.”4

This work of art, belonging to the tradition of brightly polished pillars made out of the sandstones of Chunar for engraving royal decrees and religious edicts, in the initial period of its commissioning, was nearly 50 feet tall. Suffering the ravages of time, it now adorns its place of origin as a pillar of barely 6 feet 8 inches height, with the rest of its pieces scattered around. Fahiyan, 4th century C.E. Chinese traveler, describes the presence of four large Stupas (topes) and five Viharas (places of dwelling) in Sarnath (the Mrigadava of those days).

In 6th century C.E., led by the commander of the Mihir dynasty, the Huns attacked and pillaged Sarnath. In the first half of the 7th century, Huen tsang had observed a total of 30 Buddhist Viharas and 100 Hindu temples there. When Mahmood Gaznavi attacked on India his commander Qutubuddin Aibak’s general Mu’izz-ud-din Muhammad ibn Sam reached up Banaras in 1196-97 C.E. and devastated several religious centers of the city. As a result nearly all the buildings and artifacts got destroyed.

In 1794 Jagat Singh, the chief minister of Chet Singh the ruler of Benaras, used the bricks of one of the topes for establishing the locality of Jagatganj. The contents of two marble urns, containing the mortal remains of Mahatma Buddha, that were recovered during the act of digging for bricks, were consigned to the waters of the Ganges. The empty urns are now part of museum. In 1854 the Government of India bought Sarnath from Fergusson, an indigo trader.

In an excavation by the Archaeological department, remainders of cooked rice and pulses in earthen pots were
discovered. Maybe owing to the sudden attack of Qutubuddin’s general, the local inhabitants were constrained to
flee away to safety in a jiffy.

The Quadruple Lion Capital of the Ashokan Pillar is kept safe in the Archaeological Museum of Sarnath.

The State Emblem of India is an adaptation from the Sarnath Lion Capital of Ashoka. Originally, the Lion Capital contains four lions mounted back to back, on a circular abacus. The frieze of the abacus which rests upon a bell shaped lotus is adorned with sculptures in high relief of an elephant, a galloping horse, a bull and a lion separated by intervening Dharma Chakras.

The profile of the Lion Capital was adopted as the State Emblem of India on January 26, 1950 with few changes. The
Full Vase with inverted Lotus petals was omitted and the motto (‘सत्यमेव जयते’)5 – Truth alone triumphs – written in
Devanagri script text from Mundka Upanishad in a little modified form was added below the profile of the Lion Capital.

Parts adorning the top of the pillar are found in ÿigvedic tradition also. In the Vedic tradition all the deities and divinities always perch on some pillar or post.

According to tradition, Prajapati fabricated the original column in order to support the world on it. Later on replicas of this column got perpetuated in the commemorative pillars of fire sacrifices. Still later it developed into the post of the cremation ground or the pyre commemorative. As per Buddhist Texts, the pillar is a religious symbol. Its presence would serve to remind an all-conquering king regarding the nature of his ethico-religious dutifulness. According to Satapatha Brahmana, the foundational portion of the pillar belongs to demons, the midriff to humans, the upper part (till the spot where the peg for tethering the sacrificial animal was installed) to gods and the topmost part represents the abode of the Supreme.7 It is indicative of the healthy social tradition of worshipping the pillar, where the latter was considered to represent divinity. It is an extant social tradition till date. At many places people worship a pillar-like figure in the name of Baba (the ancestor) or Vira (the valorous).

Such pillars were depicted to rise up from beneath, breaking out of the crust. As per this belief, they represent the birth related traditional conception of creation. The Rigveda describes that Indra raised the Cosmic Pillar in order to separate the earth from the celestial dome above. Based on this perspective, the practice of erecting the pillars dedicated to Indra was a usual feature in the Vedic period. These were emblematic of the Cosmic Pillar. Initially they were made of wood. With the passage of time they gave way to pillars cast in stone. The pillars preceding the period of Ashoka belonged to this category. The elephant figure mounted on their apex is reminiscent of Airavata, the vehicle of Indra. These pillars were objects of worship and hence were examples of religious architecture. It was for this reason that Ashoka selected them for engraving his religious edicts. In his writings he calls them Dharmastambha (pillar of faith). It indicates that the stone-pillars of Ashoka were part of the Pillar-cult.

According to Percy Brown, flag pillars, rock pillars or pillar structures were the precursors of the abodes of our divinity and temples.9 In the Udayambakam copper plate of Krishnadeva Rai, establishment of the pillar before founding a city has been reckoned to be the bestowed of abundance to the earmarked area.10 In the Harshacharita the pillar have been said to be a representation of Shiva (Mula stambhaya shambhave).11 Here we can see the Vedic practice of raising the staff commemorative of the fire-sacrifice, conducted for the welfare and fortune (Saubhagaya) of the populace.12

The base of the pillar consists of a solid slotted stone having a length and breadth of 6 feet × 6 feet and a thickness of 1.5 feet. The act of providing a solid base to the lower part of the pillar-structure is an innovative contribution, marking the acumen of Indian sculptors. In the Meghaduta of Kalidasa, a pillar cast in gold (Kanchani vasayashti) fastened to a base of quartz stone (sphatika phalaka) finds mention.13

The diameter of the Sarnath pillar at its base is two feet four inches, while the diameter at its apex was one foot ten
inches as could be gleaned out from the lower part of quadruple lion capital. The pillar carried three inscriptions.14

The Ashoka’s edict in Brahmi script on the Sarnath pillar relates that the king has ordered to those male or female monks who are found fomenting division in the Sangha or castigating it, would be made to wear white clothes and expelled from the Sangha. The second inscription belongs to the Kushana period and was ingrained in the fortieth year
of King Ashvaghosha. The third one belongs to the Gupta period and enlists the mentors of the congregational division.

Perching on top of the pillar is the full pitcher (Purna Kalasha) which is flanked by outwardly flowing lotus petals. Western scholars consider it to be an inverted bell, which doesn’t seem appropriate. Reckoning it as the absolute pitcher is acceptable to one and all ranging from the Rigveda to the Buddhists, including the followers of the Jain and Brahminic beliefs. The use of the sacral pitcher on auspicious occasions was ubiquitously prevalent among all sects. The complete lotus was a traditional symbol of good fortune. The frolicking swan and the lotus have been symbols of grace and auspiciousness in Indian literature since the Vedic period.

Indian artisans very successfully sculpted the petals of this upside-down lotus. The rationale behind their choice must have been that Indian image whose reflection we discover in the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita. In it, the world has been compared to an upside-down tree of ficus religiosa (peepal). In this image the skywards roots of the tree are indicative of God being the source of the genesis of the world, while the Vedic hymns are its leaves (Chhandasi yasya Parnani).15 In the Buddhist period the lotus along with the stem becomes the symbol of Buddha’s birth. The description of the hundred leaved lotus as an umbrella is prominently done by Kalidasa in his Raghuvamsa. 16

The goddess Lakshmi (as She Lotus) had assumed an invisible form to provide shade to the forehead of King Raghu
using a lotus as umbrella.

On the subterranean platform of Stupa no. 2 Gajalakshmi is depicted sitting on an inverted lotus. Four lions are shown sitting on their haunches on the platform. They sit in a natural posture, with their backs resting against each other. They are reminiscent of the fame and grandeur of the Maurya king Ashoka. Their manes and tufts of hair have been sculpted in such fineness that they are without a parallel, be it Indian or world art.

The chariot wheel at their forehead represents the turning of the Wheel of Dharma by Mahatma Buddha at Sarnath.

Several views have been expressed about the oval tambour. According to T. Bloch,17 they represent four gods, i.e. Indra, Shiva, Surya and possibly Durga. The depicted animals were the vehicles of these four gods; the aim of the sculptor being to mark the four gods as being under the control of the Buddha. This view as such may be a supposed one, but their support is beyond reproach. A. Foucher had shown them to be related to four events of Buddha’s life: the bull for his birth, the elephant for Mayadevi’s conception as she had seen a white elephant in her dream, the horse representing Buddha’s sallying forth from home as a trigger to his quest and the lion meaning the Buddha himself.18 In Dayaram Sahni’s view the four animals were related to the four entry doors to Buddha’s divine pool.19

In this sculpture the four wheels and the foursome animals are symbolic of man being a sentient creature, because they remind one of the units of social organization and their sub-divisions.


  1. Samuel Beal, SI-YU-KI Buddhist records of the Western World, Vol. II, London, 1884, p. 45
  2. Vasudev Sharan Agarwala, Bhartiya Kala, Varanasi, III edition, 2000, p. 111
  3. Vincent A. Smith, Fine Art in India and Ceylon, p. 19
  4. The Cambridge History of India, Vol. 1, Cambridge, 1922, p. 620-21
  5. Mundaka Upanishad, 3.1.6
  6. Atharvaveda, 10.7.7
  7. Satapatha Brahmana,
  8. Rigveda, 3.31.12
    Rigveda, 6.47.5
    Rigveda, 6.72.2
  9. Percy Brown, Indian Architecture (Buddhist and Hindu), Bombay, 1956, p. 9
  10. Epigraphia Indica, Vol. 14, pp. 168-175, Shloka 22 onp. 172
  11. Harshacharit, Nirnaya Sagar press ed., 1925, p. 10
  12. Rigveda, 3.8.3, 2.88
  13. Meghduta, Uttaramegha, 19
    Kalidasa-Granthavala, edited by Brahmanand Tripathi, Varanasi, 2005, p. 312
  14. A Guide to Sarnath, B. Majumdar, Delhi, 1937, pp. 53-54, 78
  15. Srimadbhagvadgita, 65.1
  16. Raghuvamsa, 4.5
    Kalidasa-Granthavali, ibid., p. 31
  17. T. Bloch, Supplementary Catalogue of the Archaeological Collection of the Indian Museum,
    Calcutta, 1911.
  18. A. Foucher, Beginnings of Buddhist Art and other Essays in Indian and Central-Asian
    Archaeology, London, 1914, p. 70
  19. Dayaram Sahni, A Guide to Buddhist Ruines at Sarnath, Archaeological Survey of India, Delhi,
    1911, pp. 28-2