Four lions standing back to back, with mouths wide open, their tongue sticking out, and their teeth seem to be as pointed as spears, the claws are protruding from their paws.
The well-formed veins and mane of these four lions look very beautiful. These lions roaring in all four directions are undoubtedly a symbol of strength, power, and royalty. To a large extent, it is possible that the warning of Emperor Ashoka in the context of people trying to divide Buddhism is inscribed on the top of the pillar and these four lions are an attempt to embody the warning and make the warning relatively more effective. From the structure of the eyes of the four lions, it appears that the circular structure of these eyes must have been studded with precious stones.

What is the meaning of Ashoka Pillar Sarnath?

The pillar in Sarnath on which the warning given by Emperor Ashoka to the divisive forces in Buddhism is inscribed is called the Ashoka Pillar of Sarnath.

Where is Sarnath situated and what is it famous for?

Sarnath is situated at a distance of about 12 km from the main city of Varanasi. Lord Buddha gave his first sermon here in Sarnath. DHAMMA CHAKRA PARIVARTAN (TURNING THE WHEEL OF DHARMA).

Buddhist monasteries, temples, pillars, and some stupas were built here by Emperor Ashoka during his reign. Afterward, Sarnath was completely destroyed by the Muslim invaders.

What is meant by Lion Capital?

LION CAPITAL:- The top (crown) of the Ashoka pillar found at Sarnath is known as the Lion Capital. This is a figure with four lions. After the independence, FOUR-FACED LION (LION CAPITAL) was adopted as THE EMBLEM OF INDIA.

THE LION CAPITAL was excavated from SARNATH, and this was a part of ASHOKAN PILLAR The emblem of India reflects India’s traditions, glorious history, and heritage. Undoubtedly, this statue of four lions is a unique example of ancient sculpture in India.

It can be seen as the emblem of the Government of India on all the major buildings, medals of honor,(Param Veer Chakra, Shaurya Chakra, Ashok Chakra), passports, etc. It can also be seen on the currencies issued by the Government of India, present slightly above the bottom right corner of each note beside its value.

As per our convenience, we can divide the Ashoka Pillar into three main parts.





A schematic reconstruction of the lion capital of Ashoka at Sarnath using the measurements and estimate of the excavator F. O. Oertel (Reports of the Archaeological Survey of India, 1904-1905), published in 1908, and pictures of a replica at Wat Umong


During the archaeological excavations at Sarnath in 1905, Mr.F.O. Oertal found the remains of a square temple on the west side of the Dhamekh Stupa.

Broken pieces of the Ashoka pillar were found a few feet away from the main wall of this temple.

These square room-like structures were the ruins of the huge Mulagandha Kuti Vihara temple. The Mulgandha Kuti Vihar Temple was built at the place where Gautam Buddha used to meditate during his stay at Sarnath.

One part of the Pillar was embedded in its base. Other broken parts of the pillar were also found near it. The Ashoka Pillar is made of sandstone found in Chunar, some distance away from Varanasi.

There are no joints or fixes anywhere in the pillar, so the pillar must have been cut from a huge piece of stone. combining all the broken pieces of the Ashoka Pillar received at present, its length is 17.5 feet. This shows that a large part of the column is missing.


Kushan( second century A.D.) and Early Gupta period (300AD) inscriptions.

The Ashoka column also bears two other inscriptions of later dates.

One of them which continues, as it were, the last line of the Ashoka inscription is dated in the reign of a certain RajaAsvaghosha in the fortieth year of the era of Kanishka.

The other inscription which is assignable to theearly Gupta period, that is circa 300 A. D., was recorded by the teachers of the Sammitiya sect, to which a reference has been made above. Ashoka’s warning have been inscribed in Brahmi script.


The Ashokan period inscription on the pillar shows that Emperor Ashoka was not very happy about the divisive forces arising within Buddhist Sanghas. And for this reason, in this very inscription, Emperor Ashoka has warned the monks, and nuns who try to divide Buddhism and the Buddhist Sangha.

Whoever creates a deity in the Sangha, whether a monk or nun, will be forcibly put on white clothes and thrown out of the Sangha.

Emperor Ashoka’s warning to those who tried to divide the union.

THE TEXT IS IN BRAMHI AND THE LANGUAGE IS PRAKRIT. Pali was the vernacular language in those days. And so the warning was provided in this language itself so that the maximum no. of people can understand it.

Even in this warning given by Emperor Ashoka, there is no glimpse of violence from anywhere, this warning shows the extent to which Ashoka had assimilated the Buddha’s teachings of non-violence.

According to the Chinese traveler XUANZANG there was a huge Buddhist monastery at this place, about 1500 Buddhist monks and nuns resided in this monastery, perhaps this is why Ashoka has written this inscription for this monastery at Sarnath mentioned by Xuanzang . Presently the remains of this ancient Buddhist monastery are spread over a wide area around the Ashokan Pillar.


Lion Capital can be mainly divided into three parts.

A. Bell-shaped vase covered with inverted lotus.

B. Abacus

C. Capital


During his visit to India, between 627 AD to 643 AD, XUANZANG came to Sarnath (also known as MRIGDAV, ISHIPATTAN) and was astonished by the grandeur of the Ashoka Pillar.

Lion Capital preserved in the Museum of Sarnath

A. Bell-shaped vase covered with inverted lotus

Bell-shaped vase covered with inverted lotus:- Lotus flowers are found all over India. Since ancient times, the lotus flower has been given special importance in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religious texts.

The images of Gautam Buddha found at Sarnath and other places in India depict Lord Buddha sitting, standing, meditating, and preaching on a lotus flower as well as it is also a sign of the womb of Buddha’s mother Mayadevi. Seeing the importance of the lotus flower in Indian culture, it also has the distinction of being the national flower of India.


The abacus structure bears living replicas of four animals and four wheels with 24 spokes. These animals are lion, Bull, Horse, and Elephant.

A wheel with 24 spokes is shown after each animal. There are different opinions among historians regarding the figures of animals built on the abacus.

If you look closer at the center of the Ashoka chakra (the 24-spoked wheel on the abacus, shown in the above image) you will find that it looks peculiarly rough and eroded relative to the surrounding regions which are extremely smooth and polished. Daya Ram Sahni believed that this was done intentionally. He believed that there probably would have been precious stones placed in the center of the four Ashoka chakras.

The centers were made rough so that the stone sticks better and more firmly at place.

MR BELL believed that the four animals built on the abacus are symbols of the animals living on the four corners of the ANOTATTA lake.

DAYARAM SAHNI also got a glimpse of the Anotatta lake in these animals.

ANOTATTA LAKE:- This lake is located in the Himalayas and according to Buddhist scriptures is the focal point of the world. Many historians consider that the present Mansarovar lake is the one that is referred to as the Anotatta lake in some places.

The rivers Ganges, Vankshu, Indus, and Sita are believed to be originating from this lake. This lake is considered one of the holiest places for Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains.

BRIJ WASI LAL. :- According to B.B Lal, (Renowned archaeologist of India) the Rakshastal near Mansarovar Lake, also known as Ravantal, was known as Anotatta Sarovar in ancient times. The Sutlej river originates from the Rakshastal or Ravanatal.

DR. BLOCKH:- He believed that these four animals are symbols of INDRA, SHIVA, SURYA, and DURGA From the depiction of these animals on the Ashokan pillar, he concluded that these three Gods and Goddesses had accepted the greatness of Gautam Buddha and had come under his shelter.

DR. FOGEL:- He believed that all these animals are just ornamentation, and they have been used on the abacus of Ashokan Pillar only from the point of view of art.


B. MAJUMDAR:- The most detailed, practical explanation of the animals carved on the Ashoka Pillar has been given by Majumdar, which also seems to be the most appropriate one. According to him, the lotus is not only a sacred flower described in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist religions, as well as it is a sign of the womb of Buddha’s mother Mayadevi. Similarly, the four animals engraved on the abacus, and the 24 spoked wheels represent major events in the life of the Buddha.

ELEPHANT:- Elephant is a symbol of the dream of Mayadevi, (mother of Buddha).

From this dream, Mayadevi realized the arrival of Buddha in her womb. According to this story, Maya Devi, the mother of Buddha, had a dream before he was born. In the dream, Mayadevi saw a white elephant, which is entering her womb from the right side with a white lotus in her trunk.

The queen discussed the dream with the king. The king mentioned this incident to all the astrologers in his court, and wanted to know more about this dream, all the astrologers unanimously called this dream auspicious and something very special.

GALLOPING HORSE:- The horse is a symbol of the temporary royalty of the Buddha.

LION(THE ONE ON ABACUS):- A lion with a twitching tail, Lion symbolizes Gautam Buddha being Shakya Simha. (Lion of a Shakya clan )


TAURUS:- It is the symbol of the birth sign of Buddha. Some historians associate it with ancient plowing and seed sowing. (Here it symbolizes the planting of new ideas by the Buddha).


Twenty-four spoked wheel of the MORAL LAW. The twenty -four spokes on the spinning wheel symbolize the twenty four Pratyay (teachings) of Buddhism. The spinning wheel in the middle of the national flag of India is also taken from here.

It is known as ASHOKA CHAKRA because it was built on the Ashokan Pillar. Note that these four, twenty-four-spoked wheels are the ones that are made on the abacus facing the four directions and not the 32-spoked wheel at the top.

Also note that the 32-spoked wheel cannot be seen on the actual lion capital which is kept in the Sarnath archeological site museum because it was found broken, though its fragmented pieces might be seen which are kept in such a manner to illustrate how it might have looked and this is also the reason why the 32 spoked wheel might sometimes be seen in the replicas of the capital.


The famous four addorsed lions. The figure of four lions is built on top of the abacus. These four lions are standing with their backs to their backs.

The jaws of these lions are open and the tongue is sticking out and their teeth seem to be as pointed as spears, the claws are protruding from their paws. The well-structured venison and mane of these lions are shown very beautifully.

From the structure of the eyes of the four lions, it appears that the circular structure of these eyes must have been studded with precious stones.

To a large extent, it is possible that the warning of Emperor Ashoka in the context of people trying to divide Buddhism is inscribed on the top of the pillar and these four lions are an attempt to embody and make the same warning effective.

Lion capital with 32 spokes wheel, only a few fragments of this wheel were found in the excavations at Sarnath which are preserved in the Sarnath Museum.


Remains of 32 spoke wheel in Sarnath Museum


This wheel (The symbol of Buddhist law), originally adorned the ‘Lion Capital as a crowning member, supported on a short stone shaft. The stone shaft was not discovered from excavation but the thickness can be estimated from the mortice hole, 20.5 cm. In diameter, drilled into the stone between the heads of the four seated lions.

Four fragments of the rim portion of the wheel and spoke remains were found. The total number of spokes was presumably 32. These 32 spokes perhaps indicate the 32 chief signs of a Great Man (Mahapurusha Lakshana) as described in the Buddhist text Lakkhan sutta of Dighnikaya.

I personally believe that the Ashokan Pillar found in Sarnath is not only the national symbol of India, but the it is the embodiment of the entire heritage of India. Ashokan Pillar is a symbol of Buddha’s teachings, Ashoka’s welfare state, and a symbol of India’s civilization and its gradual development. Even from the point of view of ancient Indian sculpture, the Ashokan Pillar is incomparable among all the ancient artworks.

Author: nitinsingh

Postgraduate in International relations. Experience in writing in various journals, from BBC WORLD NEWS SERVICE to India's one of the oldest hindi daily. I like to write on international relations, religion, religious conflict. Social media has bridged the distance between writing and reading. Now writing is not just the expression of one's own thought, but also knowing the expression of people on various subject.


  1. That was a great description of the Ashokan pillar-its history & its importance ,Nitin Singhji !You have very painstakingly gone into minute details of the subject for the benefit of your readers!We feel very grateful to you for great post!Thank you Sir for sharing๐Ÿ’•

  2. In continuation of the last post, it has added further value to Sarnath, particularly with reference to Lion Capital and Ashokan Pillar. Well penned ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ’

  3. Even in translation it reads perfectly! How we miss ESTABLISH A PUBLIC WELFARE STATE now. Studying history now, you always face violence. If it was possible otherwise, then this is the gold of all times.

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