The Allahabad Pillar refers to a single, polished sandstone pillar, situated in the Allahabad Fort in modern-day Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh. It is about 10.7 metres high and rises in a taper, so that the lower end of the column has a diameter of about 0.9 metres, while the narrower end at the top measures about 0.7 metres. It is assumed to be one of the many pillars set up under the orders of the Mauryan king Ashoka in the third century BCE, although several scholars have argued that its origins lie before Ashoka’s time. Several of his edicts, including an edict by his queen Karuvaki, have been found inscribed on it, along with many dates and texts that were engraved at other times. Of the seven major pillar edicts inscribed by Ashoka in the twenty-seventh year of his reign, the Allahabad Pillar carries six, along with some minor ones. They amount to substantial documentation of Ashoka’s notions of dhamma and his efforts to discourage schisms within competing Buddhist sanghas (sects). Taking possible inspiration from similar structures in Achaemenid Persia, the pillar was also intended to project the king’s sovereignty over his empire.
In the mid-fourth century CE, the Gupta king Samdudragupta had one of his court ministers and poets, Harishena, write several lines on the Allahabad Pillar in honour of his kingship, suggesting that the Allahabad pillar had become a template for inscribing royal authority in pre-modern north India. These prose and verse inscriptions have been subjected to extensive literary analysis. The other important segment of inscriptions was composed in the Persian language and engraved in a fine nastaliq script during the Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s reign. It provides genealogical details for the emperor and establishes his legitimacy as an Indian ruler, with his empire stretching towards Central Asia to the west. These inscriptions also cut into the earlier Ashokan edicts, supporting the argument made by scholars that the edicts were no longer legible to the people of India by then, even though the symbolic power of the pillar as a sign of royal authority was still prevalent.
Scholars have also suggested that the pillar was moved to its present location during Akbar’s reign in the sixteenth century CE. Preceding the inscriptions made by Jahangir, are some engravings made possibly by Akbar’s courtiers, such as the Raja Birbal, who had recorded his visit, perhaps to commemorate the event of a bath in the sacred river nearby. These suggestions have been refuted by scholars who hold the view that the pillar is situated where it always has been because there is a lack of textual and literary evidence that can support the claim of its removal.
When Allahabad passed into the administrative control of the British East India Company in 1801, troops had been taken into the fort to garrison them and military engineers, led by Colonel Kyd, ended up uprooting the pillar and leaving it in broken fragments. Later on in the nineteenth century, the British started their surveys and studies of the monument, and a stone capital was built showing the loti form, abacus and a lion, which has since gone missing. Although the loti form was judged to be inferior in quality by later administrators like Alexander Cunningham, the abacus displayed an elegant band of alternating lotus and honeysuckle flowers, set upon a beaded and reeled astragalus. Since the stone material of the abacus was different from the one used for the loti form, some scholars have suggested that it was not a part of the British reconstructions. In spite of its Buddhist iconographic elements, owing to its location at a sacred zone of confluence in former Allahabad – where the rivers Yamuna, Ganga and the mythic Saraswati are supposed to join – has allowed some scholars to argue that it was probably used originally, or appropriated at a later time, for Hindu devotional worship and hence could have also carried a bull atop, instead of a lion.
The pillar, thus, has an extensive history of reuse and re-inscription, usually by kings following Ashoka’s reign. Ever since the conversion of the Allahabad fort into a military base, the Indian army has occupied the site and one needs permission in order to view the pillar.
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