The Lion Capital and Sanchi Stupa in Sarnath, India - Seeker's Thoughts

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The Lion Capital and Sanchi Stupa in Sarnath, India



 The Lion Capital and Sanchi Stupa in Sarnath, India


The Lion Capital is the grandest pillar capital left from Mauryan Emperor Ashoka's Mauryan empire. It features four Asiatic lions representing power, courage and confidence, sitting back-to-back.


The Lion Capital can be found atop Stupa 1. It is enclosed by a square railing known as harmika and has both a lower and upper pradakshina path for circumambulatory travel.


The Lion Capital


The Lion Capital is one of the finest examples of Mauryan sculpture, created by Emperor Ashoka at Sarnath - where Buddha preached his first sermon and where his image remains as part of India's National Emblem - during the Mauryan period. Comprising four Asiatic lions standing back-to-back, its original placement atop this pillar was later relocated to Sarnath Museum for permanent display.


Lion Capital depicts strength and power with its majestic lions that represent strength and power through their wide open mouth that roars, spread paws, wavy curled hair and magnificent mane. Each lion has been exquisitely carved so its roaring expression can be captured perfectly. Additionally, there is an abacus which includes depictions of chakras from all four directions with bull, horse and elephant on each of its surfaces - perfect additions.


While most pillars featuring lions only showcased them, this particular one featured a unique element. It incorporated the Dhammachakra or Wheel in the center as a symbolic representation of Buddhism that served to remind its adherents that Buddhism wasn't simply about peace but also social and political responsibility.


Emperor Ashoka of Mauryan Dynasty created one of India's greatest empires under his rule, but after witnessing a brutal battle at Kalinga that cost thousands of lives he embraced Buddhism as his new philosophy and issued decrees which promoted peace and non-violence throughout his empire; first being Sarnath Pillar as its landmark monument.


Friedrich Oscar Oertel, a German civil engineer born in Germany and inspired by accounts written about Sarnath by early medieval Chinese travelers, discovered its Lion Capital.


The Stupa


Sanchi Stupa, dating back to 3rd century BCE, is one of India's oldest stupas. Believed to house some relics of Buddha himself who preached four noble truths in order to help his followers attain liberation from suffering, Buddhist pilgrims regularly visit this monument and prostrate themselves or circle it clockwise numerous times as an act of prayer.


The Stupa was originally constructed by Mauryan Emperor Ashoka who ruled over much of north-central India in the 3rd century BCE. Following an intense battle, Ashoka turned to Buddhism, adopting its ideals of peace, compassion and nonviolence - with pillars bearing edicts proclaiming its virtues being placed across his kingdom to further spread this religion.


Stupas were initially simple mounds of earth, but over time have evolved into the more intricate structures we see today. The most sophisticated type of stupa features an anda, drum or other dome with an harmika chamber on top surrounded by railings or palisade fencing to enclose an inner space.


Above the relic chamber stands a spire or "kattla", made of gold, silver, bronze or other precious metals and representing both Buddha's wisdom, power and transcendent qualities. At its top lies 13 disks representing stages along his path to enlightenment - narrowing gradually at the peak and ending in a jewel at its summit.


As in the Lion Capital, no physical remains of Buddha can be seen within a Stupa, yet his presence can still be felt through imagery and sculptures depicting his life and teachings as depicted by toranas, gateways that flank it with auspicious symbols that depict scenes from Buddha's life as well as Jataka stories about previous lives and auspicious symbols carved upon their sides. Additionally, spirits or earlier fertility deities carved on these gateways demonstrate its welcoming spirit.


Stupa pillars are often decorated with lion capitals and geese below them as symbols of movement - representing Buddha (formerly Shakyamuni), members of his clan of lions; while geese represent movement between earthly and heavenly realms and connect these worlds through Veda symbolism.


The Archaeological Museum


Sanchi is famous for its lion capital and stupa. These stone sculptures were among the first notable works to appear after the end of Indus Valley Civilisation; Ashoka of Mauryan Dynasty ordered their creation. He ultimately led his empire until his own demise.


The Lion Capital is a lotus-form bell-shape featuring four lions in an open position to symbolize the four cardinal directions, and an abacus which may have once been mounted with a Dharmachakra wheel of law but which has since disintegrated. The mouths of each of the four lions open as though to indicate the spreading of Buddha's teachings across space and time. Some scholars speculate that originally it had a Dharmachakra wheel mounted to it but this has since disintegrated over time.


This carvings is a prime example of how Buddhist symbols, including animals and heavenly creatures, were adopted into Indian art. Additionally, these carvings demonstrate an advancement in sculpting techniques like high relief work. Their wide array of symbolism consists of plants, animals, Jataka stories (which tell tales from Buddha's previous lives), Jataka stories.


Stupa 1 at Sanchi is one of the finest monuments, featuring an intricate hemispherical tumuli with an inscribed, cubical relic chamber (harmika) at its base and two ambulatories for pilgrims to walk around it (pradakshina). Additionally, its railings include curved bands with twists that echo ancient Indian chariot-wheel designs.


The Lion Capital of Early Indian Architecture is an outstanding example of early Indian style architecture, and has inspired the design of many later Hindu temples and palaces - such as Rashtrapati Bhavan - including modern structures like Rashtrapati Bhavan. Additionally, this symbol serves as an invaluable resource of knowledge about its period's architectural style.


Misery befell the Lion Capital at Sanchi before its destruction; neither its architect, Emperor Kanishka nor travelers like Hiuen Tsang mentioned it when writing about India's holy sites. Yet its preservation remains essential to studying its ancient history and for exploring Buddhism history more generally. Both must-visit locations are highly important!


The Gateways


Sanchi is home to one of the finest examples of Mauryan sculpture. It consists of lower and upper pradakshinapatha or circumambulatory paths that surround a square railing on top of its stupa, featuring Ashoka's Schism Edict as an inscription. Furthermore, four intricate gateways (toranas) at its cardinal points feature exquisite carvings on both sides depicting a lion capital on either side.


This monument stands as one of the earliest and most refined examples of Indian freestanding Buddhist architecture and has survived from 3rd Century BCE until 1st Century CE without being damaged or rebuilt, making it an invaluable pilgrimage site for Buddhists all over the globe.


Ancient Indian kingdoms left behind an extraordinary diversity and sophistication of sculpture, from cave shelters to magnificent pillars and monumental shrines. Mauryan emperors played an instrumental role in spreading Buddhism, particularly Mahayana sect of it.


After suffering infamy in Kalinga's war that claimed many lives, Emperor Ashoka became deeply troubled and resolved to alter his ways of living. He decided to become a follower of Buddha and practice his teachings, creating a system based on social justice, compassion, nonviolence and tolerance across his empire; including creating a law code based on Buddhist principles as well as instating them into law codes in various jurisdictions by placing inscribed boulders across his kingdom proclaiming them publicly.


One such monument at Sanchi was the Lion Capital. Crafted of polished sandstone, its surface carved with images of lions holding an abacus, art historians have noted the influence of Greek sculpture in this monument's design.


The lion capital has long been an integral symbol of Indian identity. Its design has inspired several buildings in India - most famously Rashtrapati Bhavan. Jawaharlal Nehru even proposed adopting this motif as the state emblem but this proposal was ultimately denied at that time.

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