The Ashoka pillars are a series of columns dispersed throughout Northern India by King Ashoka during his reign in the 3rd century BCE. At an average of 40-50 feet in height and weighing up to 50 tons each, only 19 pillars survive with inscriptions. Many are preserved in a fragmentary state.
These pillars were carved in two types of stone. Some were of the spotted red and white sandstone, the others of buff-coloured fine grained hard sandstone usually with small black spots. The uniformity of style in the pillar capitals suggests that they were all sculpted by craftsmen from the same region.
The inscriptions on the pillars described edicts about morality based on Buddhist tenets. Out of all the pillars, the most famous is the Ashoka pillar located at Sarnath. Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath: The appearance of the pillar is quite imposing. At the base of the pillar is an inverted lotus flower which forms a platform for the pillar. At the top are four lions sitting back to back facing the four directions. Other illustrations on the pillar include the Dharma Chakra with 24 spokes.
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 centre of India’s National Flag.
Ashoka built the Sarnath pillar to commemorate the site of the first preaching of Lord Buddha, where he taught the Dharma to five monks. The Sarnath Lion Capital is replete with symbolism inspired by Lord Buddha’s life. The four animals in the Sarnath capital are believed to symbolize different phases in Lord Buddha’s life. The Elephant is a representation of Queen Maya’s conception of Buddha when she saw a white elephant entering her womb in a dream. The Bull represents desire during the life of the Buddha as a prince. The Horse symbolizes Buddha’s departure from palatial life and the Lion represents the attainment of Nirvana by Lord Buddha.
Pillar at Sanchi: The Ashoka Pillar in Sanchi is reflective of the Greco Buddhist style of Architecture. It’s most remarkable quality is that it is very well proportioned. It is quite intricately carved and bears resemblance to the pillar at Sarnath but the lions of this pillar do not support the wheel of law or Dharmachakra.
Pillar at Vaishali: The pillar has a single lion capital, facing north. The location of this pillar is adjacent to the site where a Buddhist monastery and a sacred coronation tank stood.
Pillars at Lauriya-Areraj and Lauriya-Nandangarh: The column at Lauriya-Nandangarh, 23 km from Bettiah in West Champaran district, Bihar has a 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 is presently devoid of any capital. There are two Ashoka Pillars in Delhi.
Ashoka Pillar near Hindu Rao Hospital: In the year 1356, Feroze Shah Tughlaq, the third sultan of the Tughlaq dynasty ordered the transfer of this Ashoka Pillar located in Meerut to Delhi because he liked the structure and was extremely fond of collecting antiquities.
Built of polished sandstone, the pillar is 14 feet high. There are seven main inscriptions and many minor inscriptions in this pillar, all written in the Brahmic script.
Unfortunately in the year 1713 the pillar broke into five pieces because of a gun powder explosion. Hindu Rao then donated all these pieces to the Asiatic Society in Kolkata. Finally in the year 1867 a group of enthusiastic people joined these pieces together and re-erected it. It was restored in its entire original architectural splendour for all to admire. However due to little conservation care its condition is deteriorating.
Ashoka Pillar at the Feroz Shah Kotla: This 13 meter high sand stone pillar was transported from Topra in Ambala district. This pillar edict records the ten commandments of the Buddha in Brahmi script. These Ashoka Pillars are among the country’s greatest monuments, representing its rich cultural heritage.