Thematic and realistic sculptures

The earliest historical sculpture in India is of the Mauryan age in the 4th-3rd centuries B.C. It is a bold and massive style marked by a certain realism freely employing foreign elements from Achaemenid Persia. The great Buddhist Emperor Ashoka caused the erection of monolithic pillars of sandstone, 30 to 40 feet high, crowned by animal figures like the bull, lion and elephant, and had them inscribed with the Buddhist concepts of morality, humanity and piety, which he wished his people to follow.

The most remarkable of them all is the highly polished monolithic lion-capital found at Sarnath, which is now the Emblem of the Government of India.

It represents four roaring lions back to back facing the four cardinal directions. The round abacus is decorated with four dharmachakras or wheels of law, alternating with an elephant, a bull, a horse and a lion, all carved with masterly skill. The abacus is supported by a bell-shaped base consisting of a lotus with dharmachakra, which perhaps symbolized the victory of righteousness over physical force. The superb modelling of the figures executed in a realistic manner with a certain stylization, is invested with a great power and dignity, and reveals the aristocratic and international nature of Mauryan art.

To a distinguished sculptor, a close look at the capital will be highly rewarding. The four lions on top are highly formalistic and stylised. This will be evident from looking at the mane of the lions which is represented as little flame shaped bunches of hair, not at all naturally done, but in a stylised manner. Again, the upper lip of the lions has been shown by three incised lines which is formalised and stylized. We must remember that it was only Ashoka who started making extensive use of stone for sculptures and great monuments whereas the previous tradition consisted of working in wood and clay .

A close look at the animals on the abacus will reveal that these animals are not static or rigid. They have been very keenly and lovingly observed in nature and are very naturalistically represented, full of life.