Asian Art History
Maurya Dynasty: Sarnath Lion Capital
Mauryan Empire of India lasted from 4th to 2nd century BCE. According to
Coomaraswmy, an Indian historian, Mauryan art had three phases. The third phase was
considered the beginning of brick and stone sculpture and architecture. The pillars of
Asoka would consider such example, which are free standing carved animal capitals
created in the time of Asoka empire. There are 20 known pillars that Asoka
commissioned. These pillars are made out of shafts of sandstone and display Buddhist
symbols. Asoka had a sculpture of four lions placed on top of one of his pillars, knows
as Sarnath Lion Capital. These lions were portrayed as power and still remain a national
symbol of India. The art elements portrayed in this sculpture define the meaning and
characteristics that had important significance during Mauryan dynasty.
The Sarnath Pillar’s composition has more abstract relation than schematic
portrayal. The capital contains four lions, standing back to back, mounted on an abacus
with a frieze carrying sculptures of an elephant, horse, bull, and a lion. In this way, four
rivers of India is represented. The animals are separated by elapsing wheels, which
symbolizes time. Because wheels are also mentioned in Buddhist religion, it can be
explained as spiritual purpose as well. Since the sculpture has a schematic relation, it is
hard to understand the main point at the first sight.
The sculpture is volumetric with few high relieves. The animals and wheels can be considered as high relief where as the lion’s top portion would consider three
dimensional. Overall sculpture itself is considered as free standing, since it can be
viewed from all angles.
The proportional relationship to the size of animals in reality is more abstract than
realistic. The animals at the bottom portion of the sculpture, are much smaller than...