India’s State Emblem: A 2,300-Year Journey

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    In the late 1940s, a young student of Visva-Bharati in Shantiniketan, West Bengal, was given an unusual assignment. He travelled 200 km, every day for a month, to observe the lions at the Calcutta zoo. The student, just 21 years old, was Dinanath Bhargava and his daily trips to the zoo were prep for what was probably the most important assignment of his career – he was to work on the final design of the State Emblem of India, a representation of the Lion Capital of Ashoka at Sarnath.

    Bhargava was among five artists chosen by Nandlal Bose, Principal of the Fine Arts Department at Viswa-Bharati, to illustrate the cover and the pages of the Constitution of India. In addition, this young artist was to make a representation of the Lion Capital of Ashoka that would grace the cover of this seminal document.

    The original Lion Capital, now in the museum at Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh, was commissioned by Emperor Ashoka, the great Mauryan King, in the 3rd century BCE, and is a powerful symbol of Buddhism. It is a magnificent, 7-foot-tall sculpture of four Asiatic lions standing back-to-back, representing power, courage, confidence and pride. They are mounted on a base or an abacus with a frieze of sculptures of a lion, a horse, a bull and an elephant separated by wheels or chakras. The abacus, in turn, is mounted on an inverted lotus, the universal symbol of Buddhism.

    In 1947, the year of India’s Independence, the country needed a state emblem that represented its ethos and what it stood for. The political leadership decided on the Lion Capital of Ashoka at Sarnath and it was officially adopted on 30th December that year.

    Its final version would be sketched two years later, by Dinanath Bhargava, an art student from Shantiniketan.

    In Bhargava’s two-dimensional adaptation, only three lions are visible. The Wheel of Law, or Dharma Chakra, appears in relief in the centre of the abacus, with a bull on the right and a galloping horse on the left. Outlines of Dharma Chakras are visible on the extreme right and left. The bell-shaped lotus beneath the abacus has been omitted and, instead, the motto ‘Satyameva Jayate’ (Truth Alone Triumphs) taken from the Mundaka Upanishad appears under it.

    It was only after Bose was completely satisfied with Bhargava’s rendition that it occupied pride of place on the cover of the Constitution of India. Thus, when the Constitution took effect on 26th January 1950, India adopted Bhargava’s adaptation of the Lion Capital as the State Emblem.

    What does the State Emblem mean?

    The Lion Capital of Ashoka at Sarnath was crafted on the orders of the great Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (r. 269 to 232 BCE), who famously converted to Buddhism after his conquest of Kalinga in present-day Odisha. The capital originally crowned a pillar erected at Sarnath, the site of the Buddha’s first sermon.

    While the lion is a symbol of royalty and power, the four lions here also reference the Buddha. Scholars say their open-mouthed stance suggests that they are announcing the Buddha’s message or Dharma to the world.

    The four animals on the abacus – the lion, elephant, horse and bull – represent the various stages in the Buddha’s life or, as some scholars believe, the four cardinal directions, that is, north, south, east and west.

    The Chakra or the ‘Wheel of Law’ is another powerful Buddhist motif, symbolising the Buddha’s ideas on the passage of time.

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