Lion Capital at Sarnath
The Mauryan pillar capital found at Sarnath popularly known as the Lion Capital, which is now our national symbol, is considered to be the finest example of Mauryan sculptural tradition.
The capital originally consisted of five component parts:
- The shaft, which is broken in many parts now
- A lotus bell base
- A drum on the bell base with four animals proceeding clockwise
- The figures of four majestic lions
- The crowning element, Dhammachakra, a large wheel, was also a part of this pillar. However, this wheel is lying in a broken condition and is displayed in the site museum at Sarnath. Chakras were also made on the circular drum under the feet of the lions.
The capital without the crowning wheel and the lotus base has been adopted as the National Emblem of Independent India.
The four voluminous roaring lion figures firmly stand on a circular abacus which is carved with the figures of four animals – a striding elephant, a galloping horse, a walking bull and a prancing lion. Four lions placed back-to-back face the cardinal directions, indicating the spread of dharma. These are formal and stylised and are reminiscent of the Persian tradition.
The four lions on the Sarnath pillar originally supported a large chakra, or wheel. The chakra is an important symbol of cosmic order in Upanishadic thought. In Buddhism, it represents the Dhammachakrapravartana (the first sermon by the Buddha), which has become a standard symbol of this great historical event in the life of the Buddha.
Four other animals were also shown proceeding clockwise around the drum, suggesting the movement of the wheel of dharma. Unlike the lions above, these animals are made in a highly naturalistic manner.
The precision with which this capital has been carved shows that the Mauryan sculptors had considerable mastery in the sculptural techniques.