Pillar of Emperor Ashoka

India, about 238 BC

Pillar of Emperor Ashoka

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Massive freestanding pillars and their finely carved capitals are the most famous examples of Mauryan art, and are found across India and Pakistan.


They stand without a base and are topped with capitals in the shape of a gently arched bell of lotus petals. Normally they are crowned with seated or standing animals. They are usually carved from cream or buff coloured fine-grained hard sandstone with small black spots, quarried at Chunar near Banaras (Varanasi).

Amazingly, these huge pillars were transported from their quarry in eastern India to many parts of the subcontinent, in some instances more than 500 miles.

Some of them, like this fragment, carry inscriptions of Ashoka, the last emperor of the Mauryan dynasty (reigned about 265-238 BC). The inscriptions are in Brahmi and Kharoshthi, the earliest examples of deciphered scripts from India.

This inscription is in Brahmi, the ancestor of all modern Indian scripts. India must have had the technique of writing much earlier, but nothing readable survives, making these edicts important historical records.

The pillars themselves were highly symbolic and venerated. The text on this example is not specifically Buddhist, but refers to the Emperor's personal and beneveolent policy towards all sects and classes, which he calls dhamma, a word also used by Buddhists for their religion.

The best-known Mauryan pillar is at Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first sermon. Its crowning sculpture of the four-headed lion has been adopted as the symbol of the Republic of India, while the symbol of the chakra (wheel) that once surmounted it has been used as the central motif of the Indian flag.

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Object details

Probably from the Meerut Pillar, Uttar Pradesh,
Mauryan dynasty


Height: 12.2 cm
Width: 32.6 cm
Depth: 7.6 cm

 

Asia OA 1880-21

Room 33: Asia

     

    References

    W. Zwalf (ed.), Buddhism: art and faith (London, The British Museum Press, 1985)

    See this object in our Collection database online

    Further reading

    V.R. Ramachandra Dikshitar, The Mauryan Polity (New Delhi, 1993)

    J. Keay, India: a History (New York, Grove Press, 2001)

    H. Falk, Asokan Sites and Artefacts: A Source-book with Bibliography (Mainz, Philipp von Zabern, 2006)

    N.A. Nikam and R. Mckeon, Edicts of Asoka (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1978)

    R. Thapar, A'soka and the Decline of the Mauryas: With a new afterword, bibliography and index (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998)