The lion capital is on top of an Ashokan pillar at Sarnath, in the outskirts of Varanasi
where Lord Buddha
had preached his first sermon. The capital, made of highly-polished sandstone is more than two meters in height. The lion capital has been carved out from a single block of sandstone. The capital comprises four lions placed back to back on a round slab or what is called an abacus resting atop an inverted bell-like form carved like a lotus. Historians date this capital to sometime around 250 B.C. On the side of the abacus are carved four animals. They are lion, elephant, bull and horse moving in a clockwise fashion. The animals are interspersed with four wheels or chakras which represent the Buddhist concept of the wheel of law.
History records that Ashoka
was a mighty king who reigned during the 3rd century B.C. He was the grandson of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya
, founder of the Maurya Dynasty. Ashoka`s turning point came in the eighth year of his reign after the dreadful battle of Kalinga
where thousands lost their lives and were taken in bondage. Witnessing the senseless bloodshed, Ashoka had experienced a change of heart. He adopted as his life`s mission the Buddhist path of righteous living and took it upon himself to spread Buddha`s teachings of peace and non-violence far and wide in his kingdom and outside it. It has been said that Ashoka had inscribed edicts about Buddha`s lessons on the right path on rock faces and pillars and the lion capital at Sarnath
was one such example.
In Sarnath there is a stylization in the depiction of the lions. The lions which are present in Sarnath certain characteristics of the fierce animal are captured artistically. Wonderful stylization has been depicted in the gaping, roaring mouths, in the wavy hair of the mane, in the curling whiskers. About the animals in Sarnath it can be said that compared to the majesty of the lion, the animals on the abacus are done with great naturalistic energy. The inverted bull represents a stylized carving.
The stylized lion may have been Persian in influence, but the bulls, elephants, geese were naturalistic and very Indian in their treatment.