The Symbol of India

Peter Symes

When you think of Indian banknotes, what is the first image that comes to mind? It is possible that Mahatma Gandhi, King George VI, or even King George V might be images that are recalled, depending on your familiarity with Indian banknotes. However, more than likely, the image most probably recalled and associated with the banknotes is a sculpture that is commonly called the ‘Ashoka pillar’ or the ‘Ashoka column’ (sometimes spelt ‘Asoka’). These descriptions of the sculpture are inaccurate, as the statue is more properly called the ‘Lion capital of the Sarnath pillar’.

            The Lion capital is a polished sandstone carving of four lions atop an abacus (the slab forming the top of a column). The lions are facing in four directions and on the abacus are eight images. Immediately below each lion is a dharmachakra, or wheel, with twenty-four spokes. This wheel has been incorporated into the national flag of India. Between the wheels are four animals – a lion, a horse, an elephant and a bull. Falling from the abacus is an upturned, bell-shaped lotus flower.

            The Lion capital appears on the banknotes of India, both as a printed image and as a watermark, because it has been adopted as the national symbol of India. Until independence in 1947, the King of England appeared on the banknotes of India. However, as soon as India was able to release a new series of notes after independence, the portrait of the monarch was replaced by the Lion capital. The sculpture has appeared on every note issued in India since independence, although in later years its prominence on the notes has been reduced. In depicting the Lion capital as the national symbol, two adaptations have been made. The bell-shaped lotus flower falling from the abacus has been omitted and the words Satyameva Jayate are inscribed beneath the abacus in Devanagari script. Satyameva Jayate means ‘Truth always triumphs’ and the words originate from the Mundaka Upanishad. While the upturned lotus flower has been omitted from the national emblem, it is apparent on the 5-rupee note issued in the first series of the Reserve Bank of India, and this is the only depiction of that part of the Lion capital on any banknote.

            The Lion capital comes from a column at Sarnath, a column reputedly raised by Ashoka, the Mauryan king who flourished in the third century BC. Ashoka was the third of the Mauryan Kings, the son of Bindusara and grandson of Chandragupta Maurya. During his father’s reign he was a governor of Ujjain and Taxila and was ultimately crowned emperor in 273 BC. Ashoka proved to be an able commander and extended his empire to cover most of modern-day India (except for the deep south), as well as parts of central Asia. Today Ashoka is considered the ideal ruler, but he also knew what evil lurked in the hearts of men.

            According to tradition, in 261 BC Ashoka conquered Kalinga in a bloody war that cost one hundred thousand lives. Appalled at the slaughter that his conquest had caused, Ashoka turned to Buddhism and renounced war. The administration of his empire then became based on the teachings of Buddha and he ruled in an enlightened period of peace and prosperity. His rule became legendary for its beneficence and righteousness, with some historians recording evidence of a welfare state. It is also claimed that the spread of Buddhism to Syria, Egypt, Macedonia, Central Asia and Burma occurred while Ashoka ruled his empire.

            During his reign, Ashoka ordered the raising or a number of pillars and the creation of a number of stupas. According to tradition, the pillars were raised at various points on the trail of a pilgrimage that he undertook in the twentieth year of his reign. Of the pillars that he caused to be raised, only ten are extant. One of the pillars was at Sarnath and it was on this pillar that the Lion capital originally stood.

            The pillars were quite tall and usually carried edicts from the emperor. The pillar at Sarnath was fifty feet tall and carried a Schism Edict addressed to the mahamattas at the monastery at Sarnath, which read ‘No one shall cause division in the order of monks’. The monks and the monastery have long since disappeared, but Sarnath remains an important place for Buddhists, as it is the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon.

            Modern scholars argue about the provenance of the pillar, with some claiming that its design may have been influenced by Alexander the Great. Because lions are not generally part of Indian culture, it is suggested that there is a Hellenistic influence at work in the design. Countering this argument, is the assertion that Buddha was sometimes known and represented as a lion in the era before he was depicted as a man. Another school of thought says there was originally a wheel (dharmachakra) on top of the capital, supported by the four lions. That the capital was originally crowned with the wheel is attested by Hsuan Tsang, a seventh century Chinese traveller who recorded his visit to the pillar.

            While debate continues over the origin and structure of the pillar at Sarnath, the lion capital is now firmly entrenched as the national symbol of India, having appeared on the banknotes, coins and postage stamps of India. On the banknotes, it has taken several forms, with the most recognized form being found on the early notes. However, the Lion capital was redrawn on some of the later notes, becoming smaller and with less depth in the image. On these later images the motto in Devanagari script has appeared below the Lion capital. As Mahatma Gandhi has grown in importance as a national symbol in India, his image has replaced the Lion capital, both as the principal image on the banknotes and as the watermark. However, the Lion capital remains as a small device on the front of the latest issues, still with the motto.

            The Standard Catalog of World Paper Money continues to describe the Lion capital as the ‘Asoka Column’ and this misnomer is repeated in many reference works. The correct reference should be: the Lion capital of the Sarnath pillar raised by Ashoka. It is not a pillar, but the pillar’s capital; it is not the capital of the Ashoka pillar, because Ashoka raised many pillars; and it is the ‘Lion capital’ because there are capitals in the form of animals for many other pillars raised by Ashoka. However, what ever name may be applied to the capital, it is the symbol of India and should remain on its banknotes for many years to come.

This article was completed in March 2003
© Peter Symes