Pillars of Ashoka
The pillars of Ashoka are a series of columns dispersed throughout the northern Indian subcontinent, erected or at least inscribed with edicts by the Mauryan king Ashoka during his reign in the 3rd century BC. Originally, there must have been many pillars but only nineteen survive with inscriptions. Many are preserved in a fragmentary state. Averaging between forty and fifty feet in height, and weighing up to fifty tons each, all the pillars were quarried at Chunar, just south of Varanasi and dragged, sometimes hundreds of miles, to where they were erected.
The columns that bear the edicts of Ashoka include the two pillars at Delhi (originally located at Meerut and Topra in Haryana and were brought to Delhi during the reign of Firuz Shah Tughluq in 1356), the pillar at Allahabad (is believed as originally located at Kaushambi) and the pillars found at Lauriya-Areraj, Lauriya-Nandangarh, Rampurva (with lion capital), Sankissa, Sanchi and Sarnath. The columns bearing dedicatory inscriptions were found in Lumbini and Nigalisagar. The pillars found at Vaishali (with single lion capital) and Rampurva (with bull capital) do not bear any edict.
These pillars were carved in two types of stone. Some were of the spotted red and white sandstone from the region of Mathura, the others of buff-colored fine grained hard sandstone usually with small black spots quarried in the Chunar near Varanasi. The uniformity of style in the pillar capitals suggests that they were all sculpted by craftsmen from the same region. It would therefore seem that stone was transported from Mathura and Chunar to the various sites where the pillars have been found, and there was cut and carved by craftsmen The pillars have four component parts. The shafts are always plain and smooth, circular in cross-section, slightly tapering upwards and always chiselled out of a single piece of stone. The capitals have the shape and appearance of a gently arched bell formed of lotus petals. The abaci are of two types: square and plain and circular and decorated and these are of different proportions. The crowning animals are either seated or standing, always in the round and chiseled as a single piece with the abaci.)
Description of the pillars 
Pillar at Sarnath 
The most celebrated pillar is the pillar with the lion capital at Sarnath (Uttar Pradesh) by Emperor Ashoka circa 250 BC. also called as "Asoka Column" . Here, four lions are seated back to back. At present the Column remains in the same place where as Lion Capital is at the Sarnath Museum. This Lion Capital of Ashoka from Sarnath has been adopted as the National Emblem of India and the wheel "Ashoka Chakra" from its base was placed onto the center of the National Flag of India.The four lions symbolize power, courage, confidence and pride .
The pillar at Sanchi also has a similar lion capital. There are two pillars at Rampurva, one with bull and the other with lion as crowning animal. The pillar at Sankissa has an elephant as crowning animal. Five of the pillars of Ashoka (two at Rampurva, one each at Vaishali, Lauriya-Areraj and Lauryia-Nandangarh were possibly marked the course of the ancient Royal highway from Patliputra to the Nepal valley.
Pillar at Vaishali 
There exists in Vaishali, a pillar with a single lion capital erected by Ashoka. The location of this pillar is contiguous to the site where a Buddhist monastery and a sacred coronation tank stood. Excavations are still underway and several stupas suggesting a far flung campus for the monastery have been discovered. This pillar is different from the earlier Ashokan pillars because it has only one lion capital. The lion faces north, the direction Buddha took on his last voyage. Identification of the site for excavation in 1969 was aided by the fact that this pillar still jutted out of the soil. More such pillars exist in this greater area but they are all devoid of the capital.
Pillar at Allahabad 
In Allahabad there is a pillar with inscriptions from Ashoka and later inscriptions attributed to Samudragupta and Jehangir. The pillar is located inside the Allahabad Fort, built during the 16th century by Akbar at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. As the fort is occupied by the Indian Army it is essentially closed to the public and special permission is required to see the pillar. It is generally assumed that the pillar was first erected at Kaushambi an ancient town some 30 kilometres west of Allahabad that was the capital of the Koshala kingdom. The Ashokan inscription is in Brahmi and is dated around 232 BC. A later inscription attributed to the second king of the Gupta empire, Samudragupta, is in the more refined Gupta script, a later version of Brahmi, and is dated to around 375 AD. This inscription lists the extent of the empire that Samudragupta built during his long reign. He had already been king for forty years at that time and would rule for another five. A still later inscription in Persian is from the Mughal emperor Jahangir. The Akbar Fort also houses the Akshay Vat, an Indian fig tree of great antiquity. The Ramayana refers to this tree under which Lord Rama is supposed to have prayed while on exile.
Pillars at Lauriya-Areraj and Lauriya-Nandangarh 
The column at Lauriya-Nandangarh, 23 km from Bettiah in West Champaran district, Bihar has single lion capital. The hump and the hind legs of the lion project beyond the abacus. The pillar at Lauriya-Areraj in East Champaran district, Bihar is presently devoid of any capital.
Erecting the Pillars 
The Pillars of Ashoka may have been erected using the same methods that were used to erect the ancient obelisks. Roger Hopkins and Mark Lehrner conducted several obelisk erecting experiments including a successful attempt to erect a 25 ton obelisk in 1999. This followed two experiments to erect smaller obelisks and two failed attempts to erect a 25 ton obelisk.
Languages and script 
Alexander Cunningham, one of the first to study the inscriptions on the pillars, remarks that they are written in eastern, middle and western Prakrits which he calls "the Punjabi or north-western dialect, the Ujjeni or middle dialect, and the Magadhi or eastern dialect." They are written in the Brahmi script.
History of discovery 
The first Pillar of Ashoka was found in the 16th century by Thomas Coryat in the ruins of ancient Delhi. Initially he assumed that from the way it glowed that it was made of brass, but on closer examination he realized it was made of highly polished sandstone with upright script that resembled a form of Greek. In the 1830s James Prinsep began to decipher them with the help of Captain Edward Smith and George Turnour. They determined that the script referred to King Piyadasi which was also the epithet of an Indian ruler known as Ashoka who came to the throne 218 years after Buddha's enlightenment. Scholars have since found 150 of Ashoka's inscriptions, carved into the face of rocks or on stone pillars marking out a domain that stretched across northern India and south below the central plateau of the Deccan. These pillars were placed in strategic sites near border cities and trade routes.
Background of construction 
Ashoka ascended to the throne in 269 BC inheriting the empire founded by his grandfather Chandragupta Maurya. Ashoka was reputedly a tyrant at the outset of his reign. Eight years after his accession he campaigned in Kalinga where in his own words, "a hundred and fifty thousand people were deported, a hundred thousand were killed and as many as that perished..." After this event Ashoka converted to Buddhism in remorse for the loss of life. Buddhism didn't become a state religion but with Ashoka's support it spread rapidly. The inscriptions on the pillars described edicts about morality based on Buddhist tenets. Legend has it that Ashoka built 84,000 Stupas commemorating the events and relics of Buddha's life. Some of these Stupas contained networks of walls containing the hub spokes and rim of a wheel, while others contained interior walls in a swastika shape. The wheel represents the sun, time, and Buddhist law (the wheel of law, or dharmachakra), while the swastika stands for the cosmic dance around a fixed center and guards against evil.
Alternative theories 
The Ashoka pillar at Wat U Mong near Chiang Mai, Thailand showing Dharma Chakra prevails over beasts (lion). A similar four "Indian lion" Lion Capital of Ashoka atop an Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath which was destroyed during Turk invasions of India missing the larger Dharma Chakra / Ashoka Chakra atop the four lions, now preserved at Sarnath Museum has been adopted as the National Emblem of India and the smaller Chakra in the base on which the lions are standing has become a part of the National Flag of India.
See also 
- Lion Capital of Asoka
- Edicts of Ashoka
- List of Edicts of Ashoka
- Ashokan Edicts in Delhi
- Ashoka pillar in Southern India
- Ashoka Chakra
- National Emblem of India
- National Flag of India
- List of megalithic sites
- Mauryan art
- Harry Falk, Asokan Sites and Artefacts: A Source-Book with Bibliography (Mainz am Rhein, 2006).
- Reference: "India: The Ancient Past" p.113, Burjor Avari, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-35615-6
- Singh, Upinder (2008). A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. New Delhi: Pearson Education. p. 358. ISBN 978-81-317-1677-9.
- Mahajan V.D. (1960, reprint 2007). Ancient India, S.Chand & Company, New Delhi, ISBN 81-219-0887-6, pp.350-3
- Thapar, Romila (2001). Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryan, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-564445-X, pp.267-70
- "Destinations :: Vaishali".
- Bihar Tourism
- Time Life Lost Civilizations series: Ramses II: Magnificence on the Nile (1993)p. 56-57
- Inscriptions of Asoka by Alexander Cunningham, Eugen Hultzsch. Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing. Calcutta: 1877
- Time Life Lost Civilizations series: Ancient India: Land Of Mystery (1994) p. 84-85,94-97
- Oliphant, Margaret "The Atlas Of The Ancient World" 1992 p. 156-7
- Ranajit Pal, "An Altar of Alexander Now Standing Near Delhi", Scholia, vol. 15, p. 78-101.
Further reading 
- Singh, Upinder (2008). "Chapter 7: Power and Piety: The Maurya Empire, c. 324-187 BCE". A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. New Delhi: Pearson Education. ISBN 978-81-317-1677-9.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Ashoka pillars|
- Archaeological Survey of India
- British Museum, collections online
- Columbia University, New York - See "lioncapital" for pictures of the original "Lion Capital of Ashoka" preserved at the Sarnath Museum which has been adopted as the "National Emblem of India" and the Ashoka Chakra (Wheel) from which has been placed in the center of the "National Flag of India"]