Lion Capital of Ashoka

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The original Lion Capital. Minus the inverted bell-shaped lotus flower, this has been adopted as the National Emblem of India, seen from another angle, showing the horse on the left and the bull on the right of the Ashoka Chakra in the circular base on which the four Indian lions are standing back to back. On the side shown here there are the bull and elephant; a lion and a horse occupies the other place. The wheel "Ashoka Chakra" from its base has been placed onto the centre of the National Flag of India. Sarnath Museum.

The Lion Capital of Ashoka is a sculpture of four Asiatic lions standing back to back, on an elaborate base that includes other animals. A graphic representation of it was adopted as the official Emblem of India in 1950.[1] It was originally placed on the top of the Ashoka pillar by the Emperor Ashoka, in about 250 BCE during his rule over the Maurya Empire. The pillar, sometimes called the Aśoka Column, is still in its original location, but the Lion Capital is now in the Sarnath Museum, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. Standing 2.15 metres (7 feet) high including the base, it is more elaborate than the other very similar surviving capitals of the pillars of Ashoka bearing the Edicts of Ashoka that were placed throughout India several of which feature single animals at the top; one other damaged group of four lions survives, at Sanchi.[2]

The capital is carved out of a single block of polished sandstone, and was always a separate piece from the column itself. It features four Asiatic Lions standing back to back. They are mounted on an abacus with a frieze carrying sculptures in high relief of an elephant, a galloping horse, a bull, and a lion, separated by intervening spoked chariot-wheels. The lion is symoblic of the 24th Tirthankara Mahavira's symbol - the lion. Further, the Bull, the Elephant and the Horse are sequentially symbolic of the first three Tirthankaras - Rishabhanatha, Ajitanatha and Sambhavanatha respectively. The whole sits upon a bell-shaped lotus. The capital was originally crowned by a 'Wheel of Dharma' (Dharmachakra popularly known in India as the "Ashoka Chakra"), with 24 spokes, of which a few fragments were found on the site.[3] A 13th-century replica of the Sarnath pillar and capital in Wat Umong near Chiang Mai, Thailand built by King Mangrai, preserves its crowning Ashoka Chakra or Dharmachakra.[4] The wheel on the capital, below the lions, is the model for the one in the flag of India.

Art history[edit]

The horse motif on the capital.

Currently seven animal sculptures from Ashoka pillars survive.[5][6] These form "the first important group of Indian stone sculpture", though it is thought they derive from an existing tradition of wooden columns topped by animal sculptures in copper, none of which have survived. There has been much discussion of the extent of influence from Achaemenid Persia, where the column capitals supporting the roofs at Persepolis have similarities, and the "rather cold, hieratic style" of the Sarnath sculptures especially shows "obvious Achaemenid and Sargonid influence".[7]

Very similar four, lion sculptures are on the capitals of the two columns supporting the south torana of the Ashokan or Satavahana enclosure wall round the Great Stupa at Sanchi. Like other Ashoka pillars, the one at Sarnath was probably erected to commemorate a visit by the emperor.


The Lion Capital on the ground at Sarnath, probably 1904–05
Ashok Stambha replica, Wat Umong, Thailand, 13th century

There was no surviving traces above ground of the Sarnath pillar, mentioned in the accounts of medieval Chinese pilgrims, when the Indian Civil Service engineer F. O. Oertel, with no real experience in archaeology, was allowed to excavate there in the winter of 1904–05. He first uncovered the remains of a Gupta shrine west of the main stupa, overlying an Ashokan structure. To the west of that he found the lowest section of the pillar, upright but broken off near ground level. Most of the rest of the pillar was found in three sections nearby, and then, since the Sanchi capital had been excavated in 1851, the search for an equivalent was continued, and it was found close by. It was both finer in execution and in much better condition than that at Sanchi. The pillar appeared to have been deliberately destroyed at some point. The finds were recognised as so important that the first onsite museum in India (and one of the few then in the world) was set up to house them.[8]

The Lion Capital served as the pedestal of a large stone Dharma-chakra with 32 spokes, which was found broken into pieces.[9] This Dharma-chakra was intended by three Constituent Assembly to be the symbol of India. However, mistakenly the smaller dhakrachakra with 24 spokes became the symbol. The mistake was pointed out to Jawaharlal Nehru, by Radha Kumud Mukherjee, historian, scholar and Rajya Sabha Member during Jawaharlal Nehru's administration; however, Nehru decided to stick with the 24-spoke wheel.[10] The symbol for the Supreme Court of India preserves the image of dharma-chakra on top of the Lion Capital.

Similarities with the Sanchi capital[edit]

The capital of the Sanchi pillar of Ashoka, as discovered (left), and simulation of original appearance (right). Sanchi Museum.[11] 250 BCE.[12]

A pillar of finely polished sandstone, one of the Pillars of Ashoka, was also erected on the side of the main Torana gateway at Sanchi. The bell-shaped capital consists of four lions, which probably supported a Wheel of Law.[13] The capital is located at the nearby Sanchi Archaeological Museum. The capital is rather similar to the Sarnath capital, except that it is surmounted by an abacus and a crowning ornament of four lions, set back to back, the whole finely finished and polished to a remarkable luster from top to bottom. The abacus is adorned with four flame palmette designs separated one from the other by pairs of geese, symbolical perhaps of the flock of the Mahavira's disciples. The lions from the summit, though now quite disfigured, still testify to the skills of the sculptors.[14]


  1. ^ State Emblem, Know India
  2. ^ Harle, 24
  3. ^ Allen, caption at start of Chapter 15
  4. ^ "Wat Umong Chiang Mai". Thailand's World. Archived from the original on 3 December 2013. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
  5. ^ Himanshu Prabha Ray (7 August 2014). The Return of the Buddha: Ancient Symbols for a New Nation. Routledge. p. 123. ISBN 9781317560067.
  6. ^ Rebecca M. Brown, Deborah S. Hutton. A Companion to Asian Art and Architecture. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 423–429.
  7. ^ Harle, 22, 24, quoted in turn; Companion, 429-430
  8. ^ Allen, Chapter 15
  9. ^ Vasudeva S. Agrawala (March 1964), "The Heritage of Indian Art: A Pictorial Presentation". Publications Division Ministry of Information & Broadcasting
  10. ^ Dola Mitra (18 January 2016). "32 Spokes Of Wisdom". Outlook India.
  11. ^ Drawing reconstruction by F.C. Maisey for reference
  12. ^ Described in Marshall p.25-28 Ashoka pillar.
  13. ^ Buddhist Architecture by Huu Phuoc Le p. 155
  14. ^ Marshall, "A Guide to Sanchi" p.90ff Public Domain text


  • Allen, Charles, Ashoka: The Search for India's Lost Emperor, 2012, Hachette UK, ISBN 1408703882, 9781408703885, google books
  • "Companion": Brown, Rebecca M., Hutton, Deborah S., eds., A Companion to Asian Art and Architecture, Volume 3 of Blackwell companions to art history, 2011, John Wiley & Sons, 2011, ISBN 1444396323, 9781444396324, google books
  • Harle, J.C., The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent, 2nd edn. 1994, Yale University Press Pelican History of Art, ISBN 0300062176

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