The ‘Lion Capital’: a Buddhist symbol that became India’s National Emblem

In adopting symbols from the Ashokan period, the modern nation of India was borrowing it's ideals and values from a rich and glorious past. Take a deeper look at the Lion Capital kept at the ASI Sarnath Museum, and it's replica at the Rashtrapati Bhavan Museum.

The National Emblem, India’s most visible symbol of national identity, reflects the country’s reaffirmation of it’s ancient ideals of peace and tolerance. Adapted from the design of the Lion Capital of an Ashokan pillar, it was officially adopted on January 26, 1950 along with the motto “Satyameva Jayate” which has been taken from the Mundaka Upanishad and translates to “truth always triumphs”.

A replica of the Lion Capital of Sarnath at Rashtrapati Bhavan Museum. The capital is about 7 ft in height. | Photo: The Heritage Lab

On 22 July, 1947, just before India’s independence, Jawaharlal Nehru proposed a resolution, before the Constituent Assembly, for the design of the new Flag and Emblem. Both of these, as Nehru noted, referenced the golden rule of the Mauryan King, Ashoka. In adopting national symbols from the Ashokan period, the modern nation of India was borrowing it’s ideals and values from a rich and glorious past.

“Now BECAUSE I have mentioned the name of Asoka I should like you to think that the Asokan period in Indian history was essentially an international period of Indian history. It was not a narrowly national period. It was a period when India’s ambassadors went abroad to far countries and went abroad not in the way of an empire and imperialism but as ambassadors of  Peace and culture and goodwill.”

– Jawaharlal Nehru at the Constituent Assembly

Design & Significance

The Animals

At first glance, you notice the four majestic lions, roaring and facing the four cardinal directions. They represent power, courage, pride, confidence. The Mauryan symbolism of the lions indicate “the power of a universal emperor (chakravarti) who dedicated all his resources to the victory of dharma”. In adopting this symbolism, the modern nation of India pledged to equality and social justice in all spheres of life.


The lions sit atop a cylindrical abacus, which is adorned with representations of a horse, a bull, a lion and an elephant, made in high relief. While some art historians believe that these animals symbolically depict various stages of Buddha’s life, others claim that they represent the reign of Ashoka in the four quarters of the world; the open-mouthed lions facing different directions, suggest the announcement of Buddha’s message to the world.

Close up image source: Prof. Frederick Asher, Univ. of Minnesota | Source:

The Wheel with 24 Spokes : Ashok Chakra / Dharmachakra

The animals are separated by intervening chakras (having 24 spokes). The Chakra also finds representation on the National Flag. This chakra, or the ‘Wheel of Law’ is a prominent Buddhist symbol signifying Buddha’s ideas on the passage of time. Dharma (virtue), according to belief, is eternal, continuously changing & is characterized by uninterrupted continuity. It is also said, that the 24 spokes align with the 24 qualities of a Buddhist follower, as defined by the Buddha in his sermons.

From the Sanchi Stupa : a representation of the Lion Capital (Satavahana period) Source: Wikimedia Commons

These 24 qualities are: Anurāga(Love), Parākrama(Courage), Dhairya(Patience), Śānti(Peace/charity), Mahānubhāvatva(Magnanimity), Praśastatva(Goodness),
Śraddāna(Faith), Apīḍana(Gentleness), Niḥsaṃga(Selflessness),
Ātmniyantranā(Self-Control), Ātmāhavana(Self Sacrifice), Satyavāditā(Truthfulness)
Dhārmikatva(Righteousness), Nyāyā(Justice), Ānṛśaṃsya(Mercy), Chāya(Gracefulness)
Amānitā(Humility), Prabhubhakti(Loyalty), Karuṇāveditā(Sympathy), Ādhyātmikajñāna(Spiritual Knowledge), Mahopekṣā(Forgiveness), Akalkatā(Honesty). Anāditva(Eternity), Apekṣā(Hope)

The Lotus

At the base is an inverted lotus, the most omnipresent symbol of Buddhism, and India’s National Flower. This is however, not part of the Emblem.

The Lion Capital at Sarnath

The Lion capital was originally a part of the pillar constructed by Ashoka, the great emperor of the Mauryan dynasty who created the largest empire of ancient India. After the bloody conquest of Kalinga which claimed more than 1,00,000 lives, a deeply distraught Ashoka found solace in the teachings of Buddha. It wasn’t long before Buddhism directly began to influence the politics of the period, as clearly seen in the pillar constructed by Ashoka at Sarnath.

Ashoka’s administration became known for it’s strong ideals of social justice, compassion , non-violence and tolerance ; he instated a legal code based on Buddha’s teachings and had these inscribed on columns erected all across his kingdom. These edicts (inscriptions on pillars, boulders and even cave walls) focused on social and moral codes that were part of Buddhist beliefs (and not the religious philosophy).

Inscription on the base of the pillar at Sarnath. It reads bottom to top | Source

The pillar at Sarnath bore special significance because it was believed that it was here that Buddha gave his first sermon and stated his famous ‘Four Noble Truths’.

Ashokan Pillars: the cornerstone of Mauryan Art

Ashoka’s Pillars, 30-40 ft in height are considered to be the first monumental stone-artworks in India. These pillars extended deep into the ground, and were located across pilgrimage routes, sites associated with the Buddha, and roads leading to Pataliputra (present day Patna). These pillars also had elaborate capitals crafted out of a single block of sandstone. Take a look at this one, for instance:

Bull capital of an Ashokan Pillar at the Rashtrapati Bhavan

Art historians have often referred to a Greek influence on the design and craftsmanship of these capitals. In the Lion Capital below, the abacus is decorated with geese.

Lion Capital at the Indian Museum Kolkata | Source: Biswarup Ganguly for Wikimedia Commons

While most capitals featured a single animal, the Lion Capital at Sarnath (believed to have been erected in 250 BC) was the most elaborate. It was excavated in 1905 by a German-born civil engineer, Friedrich Oscar Oertel.


He started excavating the area following the accounts of the Chinese travellers who visited Sarnath in the early medieval period. Like everything else, the excavated pillar too had deteriorated over time and had broken into three pieces. Fortunately, the Lion Capital had remained intact with its glimmer still visible. It is currently kept at the Sarnath Museum where you can still admire its exquisite craftsmanship.

An ancient symbol for a modern nation:

The question still remains : how did the Lion Capital become the national emblem of India? In 1947, as independence seemed nearer, Nehru and other nationalist leaders realized that their soon nation-to-be lacked a national emblem. Art schools all over India were called for suggesting designs, but nothing suitable could be found. Eventually, Badruddin Tyabji, a civil services officer, and his wife Surayya Tyabji, proposed the usage of the Ashokan capital for the emblem. Years later, Laila Tyabji, their daughter, writes:

So, my mother drew a graphic version and the printing press at the Viceregal Lodge (now
Rashtrapati Niwas) made some impressions and everyone loved it. Of course, the four lions have been our emblem ever since.” She further says, “My mother was 28 at the time. My father and she never felt they had “designed” the national emblem – just reminded India of something that had always been part of its identity.

Source: The Wire

Artist Dinanath Bhargava, then a student at Shantiniketan was later tasked with designing the final emblem; he then sketched it onto the first page of the Constitution under the able mentorship of Nandalal Bose.

Source: Arun Kumar Singh for Wikimedia Commons

The Lion Capital or the National Emblem is a ubiquitous image in India. You don’t need to go far to fathom its pervasiveness; just open your wallet and you will find it right there – embossed over every coin and every currency note that you possess. Not only this, it’s presence in all prominent government documents and buildings as well as in all our school textbooks or passports has turned it into a symbol that evokes emotional attachment and a sense of national identity.

Classroom Connections:

How can symbols express our values? Can you think of any symbols in your personal life that represent your beliefs / values?

Why is Ashoka relevant to 20th century modern India?

When Le Corbusier designed the modern city of Chandigarh, he asked Nehru for help on symbols. Nehru is believed to have told the French architect to come up with his own symbols instead of referencing India’s known symbols. That is when the ‘Open Hand’ was introduced by Corbusier as the emblem of Chandigarh. Imagine if you were to create symbols for your city (or India) that would represent it’s ethos. What would you create?

Liked reading? Sign up for more!

Share your reaction!

Loading spinner
The Heritage Lab
The Heritage Lab
The Heritage Lab presents stories and resources from museums with a focus on South Asia - featuring its art, culture, history and heritage.

Click Culture!

Submit a photo of your favourite object from a museum collection to help us improve the coverage of Indian culture, art and heritage related content on the internet beginning with Wikipedia.