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The Pillars of Ashoka

The pillars of Ashoka are columns that are erected by the great Mauryan king Asoka during his reign in the 3rd century BC. He created them once he converted to Buddhism after witnessing the dreadful carnage of the Kalinga war. They are a series of columns that are dispersed throughout the Indian subcontinent and carry inscriptions addressed to monks and nuns. Of all the pillars erected by him, there are only 20 of them that still survive. Out of these 20, only seven well-preserved animal sculptures are present.

The Mauryan king Ashoka inscribed and erected the pillars which are a series of columns dispersed throughout the Indian subcontinent during his reign in 3rd century BC. Today, only nineteen pillars survive with inscriptions and only seven complete animal capitals-- five with lions, one with an elephant and one with a zebu bull. One of them, the four lions of Sarnath, has become the State Emblem of India

Ashoka was a great Mauryan king who many believe was an early convert to Buddhism, his decision to change religion coming with the change in heart after witnessing the carnage that resulted from his conquest of the village of Kalinga. He adopted the teachings of the Buddha known as the Four Noble Truths, referred to as the dharma (the law): Written on these pillars, intertwined in the message of Buddhist compassion, were the merits of King Ashoka.

Averaging between 12 to 15 m (40 to 50 ft) in height, and weighing up to 50 tons each, the pillars were dragged, sometimes hundreds of miles, to where they were erected. The type of writing used for the inscription is known as 'Brahmi' and forms the basis for all later Indian, Tibetan and South-East Asian writing. All the pillars were built at Buddhist monasteries, many important sites from the life of the Buddha and places of pilgrimage. Some of the columns carry inscriptions addressed to the monks and nuns.

Several of the pillars were relocated by the Mughal Empire rulers and the animal capitals were removed. Firuz Shah Tughlaq relocated two pillars to Delhi. The pillars average between 12-15 m and weight upto 50 tonnes each. The pillars were dragged through a vast amount of distance before they were erected. The pillars were meant to commemorate the presence of the King at that place. Most of the pillars erected were monolithic i.e., they were carved out of one stone. The most amazing feature of this Mauryan art is the crowning animals that are shown either seated or standing. Ashokan pillars contain animal capital as opposed to the Persian pillars that had human figurines.

India's national emblem which has a carving of four lions and is used in almost all the government documents was once at top of the Ashoka's pillars at Sarnath.


By: Neha Maheshwari




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