The pillars of
Ashoka are a series of columns dispersed throughout the
Indian subcontinent, erected or at least inscribed with edicts by the
Ashoka during his reign in the 3rd century BC. Of the
pillars erected by him, twenty still survive including those with
inscriptions of his edicts. Only a few with animal capitals survive of
which seven complete specimens are known. Two pillars were
Firuz Shah Tughlaq
Firuz Shah Tughlaq to Delhi. Several pillars were
relocated later by
Mughal Empire rulers, the animal capitals being
removed. Averaging between 12 to 15 m (40 to 50 ft) in
height, and weighing up to 50 tons each, the pillars were dragged,
sometimes hundreds of miles, to where they were erected.
2 Complete list of the pillars
2.1 The capitals
2.2 Minor Pillar Inscriptions
3 Description of the pillars
3.1 Pillars retaining their animals
3.2 Pillar at Allahabad
3.3 Pillars at Lauriya-Areraj and Lauriya-Nandangarh
3.4 Erecting the Pillars
3.5 Languages and script
5 Background of construction
6 Similar pillars
7 See also
10 Further reading
11 External links
Abacus of the Ashokan
Rampurva capital, 3rd century BCE.
The Pillars of
Ashoka are among the earliest known stone sculptural
remains from India. Only another pillar fragment, the Pataliputra
capital, is possibly from a slightly earlier date. It is thought that
before the 3rd century BC, wood rather than stone was used as the main
India architectural constructions, and that stone may
have been adopted following interaction with the
Persians and the
Ashoka's pillar capital of Sarnath. Ashokan capitals were highly
realistic and used a characteristic polished finish, giving a shiny
appearance to the stone surface. 3rd century BCE.
All the pillars of
Ashoka were built at Buddhist monasteries, many
important sites from the life of the
Buddha and places of pilgrimage.
Some of the columns carry inscriptions addressed to the monks and
nuns. Some were erected to commemorate visits by Ashoka. The
traditional idea that all were originally quarried at Chunar, just
Varanasi and taken to their sites, before or after carving,
"can no longer be confidently asserted", and instead it seems that
the columns 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.
A possible source of inspiration:
Achaemenid column with lotus capital
and animals, Persepolis, 6th-4th c. BCE.
The pillars have four component parts in two pieces: the three
sections of the capitals are made in a single piece, often of a
different stone to that of the monolithic shaft to which they are
attached by a large metal dowel. 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 lower parts of
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 masterpieces of
Mauryan art, shown either seated
or standing, always in the round and chiselled as a single piece with
the abaci. Presumably all or most of the other columns that
now lack them once had capitals and animals.
Left image: Vaishali lion of Ashoka. Right image: Assyrian relief of a
Nineveh (circa 640 BCE). Many stylistic elements (design of
the whiskers, the eyes, the fur etc...) point to similarites.
Currently seven animal sculptures from
Ashoka pillars survive.
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. It is also possible that some of the stone pillars predate
Ashoka's reign. There has been much discussion of the extent of
Achaemenid Persia, where the column capitals supporting
the roofs at
Persepolis have similarities, and the "rather cold,
hieratic style" of the
Sarnath Lion Capital of
Ashoka especially shows
Achaemenid and Sargonid influence". Hellenistic influence
has also been suggested.
Ashoka Pillar discovered at Lumbini,
Five of the pillars of Ashoka, two at Rampurva, one each at Vaishali,
Lauria Nandangarh possibly marked the course of the
ancient Royal highway from
Pataliputra to the
Nepal valley. Several
pillars were relocated by later
Mughal Empire rulers, the animal
capitals being removed.
Complete list of the pillars
The two Chinese medieval pilgrim accounts record sightings of several
columns that have now vanished:
Faxian records six and Xuanzang
fifteen, of which only five at most can be identified with surviving
pillars. All surviving pillars, listed with any crowning animal
sculptures and the edicts inscribed, are as follows:
Geographical spread of known pillar capitals.
Delhi-Topra, Feroz Shah Kotla,
Delhi (Pillar Edicts I, II, III, IV, V,
VI, VII; moved in 1356 CE from
Topra Kalan in
Yamunanagar district of
Delhi by Firuz Shah Tughluq.
Delhi (Pillar Edicts I, II, III, IV, V, VI;
Firuz Shah Tughluq
Firuz Shah Tughluq in 1356.
Lauriya Araraj, Champaran,
Bihar (Pillar Edicts I, II, III, IV, V,
Nigali Sagar (or Nigliva, Nigalihawa), near Lumbini, Nepal. Pillar
missing capital, one
Ashoka edict. Erected in the 20th regnal year of
Ashoka (c. 249 BCE).
Rummindei, near Lumbini, Nepal. Also erected in the 20th regnal year
Ashoka (c. 249 BCE), to commemorate Ashoka's pilgrimage to Lumbini.
Capital missing, but was apparently a horse.
Uttar Pradesh (originally located at
probable moved to
Allahabad by Jahangir; Pillar Edicts I-VI, Queen's
Edict, Schism Edict).
Rampurva, Champaran, Bihar. Two columns: a lion with Pillar Edicts I,
II, III, IV, V, VI; a bull without inscriptions. The abacus of the
bull capital features honeysuckle and palmette designs derived from
Sanchi, near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, four lions, Schism Edict.
Sarnath, near Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, four lions, Pillar Inscription,
Schism Edict. This is the famous "Lion Capital of Ashoka" used in
the national emblem of India.
Lauriya-Nandangarth, Champaran, Bihar, single lion, Pillar Edicts I,
II, III, IV, V, VI.
Vaishali, Bihar, single lion, with no inscription.
Sankissa, Uttar Pradesh, elephant capital only.
A few Ashokan capitals were also found without their pillars:
Kesariya (capital). Only the capital was found in the Kesaria
Vidisha (capital only at the Udayagiri Caves, visible
here). Attribution to
Ashoka however is disputed (ranging from the
2nd century BCE
Sunga period, to the Gupta period.).
Frieze of the lost capital of the
Allahabad pillar, with two lotuses
with multiple calyx, framing a "flame palmette" surrounded by small
rosette flowers, over a band of beads and reels. This motif can also
be seen at the front of the Diamond throne, built by Ashoka, in Bodh
There are altogether seven remaining complete capitals, five with
lions, one with an elephant and one with a zebu bull. One of them, the
four lions of Sarnath, has become the State Emblem of India. The
animal capitals are composed of a lotiform base, with an abacus
decorated with floral, symbolic or animal designs, topped by the
realistic depiction of an animal, thought to each represent a
traditional directions in India.
The horse motif on the
Sarnath Lion Capital of Ashoka, is often
described as an example of Hellenistic realism.
Various foreign influences have been described in the design of these
capitals. The animal on top of a lotiform capital reminds of
Achaemenid column shapes. The abacus also often seems to display a
strong influence of Greek art: in the case of the
Rampurva bull or the
Sankassa elephant, it is composed of honeysuckles alternated with
stylized palmettes and small rosettes. A similar kind of design
can be seen in the frieze of the lost capital of the
These designs likely originated in Greek and Near-Eastern arts.
They would probably have come from the neighboring Seleucid Empire,
and specifically from a Hellenistic city such as Ai-Khanoum, located
at the doorstep of India. Most of these designs and motifs can
also be seen in the
Diamond throne of
Bodh Gaya is another example of Ashokan
architecture circa 260 BCE, and displays a band of carvings with
honeysuckles and geese, similar to those found on several of the
Pillars of Ashoka.
Known capitals of the pillars of Ashoka
The "Lion Capital of Ashoka", from Sarnath.
Four lions, and possibly a wheel, at in Sanchi.
Lauria Nandangarh lion.
Minor Pillar Inscriptions
These contain inscriptions recording their dedication.
Lumbini (Rummindei), Rupandehi district,
Nepal (the upper part broke
off when struck by lightning; the original horse capital mentioned by
Xuanzang is missing) was erected by
Buddha was born.
Nigali-Sagar (or Nigliva), near Lumbini, Rupandehi district, Nepal
(originally near the
Buddha Konakarnana stupa)
Description of the pillars
Ashoka lions at Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh
Pillars retaining their animals
Main article: Lion Capital of Ashoka
The most celebrated capital (the four-lion one at
Pradesh)) erected by Emperor
Ashoka circa 250 BC. also called the
Ashoka Column" . Four lions are seated back to back. At present the
Column remains in the same place whereas the Lion Capital is at the
Sarnath Museum. This Lion Capital of
Sarnath has been
adopted as the National Emblem of
India and the wheel "
from its base was placed onto the centre of the flag of India.
Depiction of the four lions capital surmounted by a
Wheel of Law
Wheel of Law at
Satavahana period, South gateway of stupa 3.
The lions probably originally supported a
Dharma Chakra wheel with 24
spokes, such as is preserved in the 13th century replica erected at
Wat Umong near Chiang Mai,
Thailand by Thai king Mangrai.
The pillar at
Sanchi also has a similar but damaged four-lion capital.
There are two pillars at Rampurva, one with a bull and the other with
a lion as crowning animals.
Sankissa has only a damaged elephant
capital, which is mainly unpolished, though the abacus is at least
partly so. No pillar shaft has been found, and perhaps this was never
erected at the site.
Front view of the single lion capital in Vaishali.
The Vaishali pillar has a single lion capital. 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. 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
Allahabad pillar and
Allahabad Stone Pillar Inscription
of Samudra Gupta
Allahabad there is a pillar with inscriptions from
Ashoka and later
inscriptions attributed to
Samudragupta and Jehangir. It is clear from
the inscription that the pillar was first erected at Kaushambi, an
ancient town some 30 kilometres west of
Allahabad that was the capital
Koshala kingdom, and moved to Allahabad, presumably under
Muslim rule. The pillar is now located inside the
also the royal palace, built during the 16th century by
Akbar at the
confluence of the
Yamuna rivers. As the fort is occupied by
Indian Army it is essentially closed to the public and special
permission is required to see the pillar. The Ashokan inscription is
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
Ramayana refers to this tree under which Lord
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
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
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 25ton obelisk in 1999. This followed two
experiments to erect smaller obelisks and two failed attempts to erect
a 25-ton obelisk.
Languages and script
Brahmi inscription on a fragment of the 6th Pillar of
Meerut, British Museum.
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
The "minor" Ashokan pillar at Lumbini, Nepal.
A number of the pillars were thrown down by either natural causes or
iconoclasts, and gradually rediscovered. One was noticed in the 16th
century by the English traveller
Thomas Coryat in the ruins of Old
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.
Sanchi pillar was found in 1851 in excavations led by Sir
Alexander Cunningham, first head of the Archaeological Survey of
India. There were 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 the Lion
Capital of Ashoka, the most famous of the group, 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.
Background of construction
A pillar at the 6th-century tomb of Xiao Jing in China.
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 (卐)
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.
According to Huu Phuoc Le, the 6th century pillar at the tomb of Xiao
Jing is similar to the
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^ The pillars "owe something to the pervasive influence of Achaemenid
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^ Le, Huu Phuoc (29 October 2017). "Buddhist Architecture". Grafikol.
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^ "Reflections on The origins of Indian Stone Architecture", John
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^ Buddhist Architecture, Huu Phuoc Le, Grafikol, 2010 p.240
Wat Umong Chiang Mai". Thailand's World. Retrieved 26 November
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^ "Destinations :: Vaishali ::
Bihar State Tourism
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^ "NOVA Online - Mysteries of the Nile - August 27, 1999: The Third
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^ Time Life Lost Civilizations series: Ramses II: Magnificence on the
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^ Time Life Lost Civilizations series: Ancient India: Land Of Mystery
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^ Oliphant, Margaret "The Atlas Of The Ancient World" 1992 p. 156-7
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