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    Sanchi Pillar and Capital

    Map Academy

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    The Sanchi Capital refers to a polished, monolithic, sandstone Ashokan pillar and capital, surmounted by four lions with their backs to each other, found at the Buddhist site of Sanchi, in modern-day Madhya Pradesh. The pillar is located towards the southern entrance of the Sanchi Stupa and was possibly erected around the middle of the third century BCE, possibly at the same time as the stupa. The site was thought to be abandoned since the twelfth century CE, until it was discovered by the British East India Company in 1818. Proper excavations were only carried out after 1851, under the supervision of Alexander Cunningham. His colleague, Lieutenant-Colonel FC Maisey made several drawings of the site including one of the erect pillars and another of the lion capital, which was found lying on the ground near it. Thus, they were found in a damaged state, the pillar having been reduced to a stump and the lion figures of the capital partially defaced.

    The Sanchi pillar bears a Schism Edict on its shaft, discouraging any efforts by the Buddhist community that might create a division, marking it as one of Ashoka’s significant attempts to spread the dhamma and assert his sovereignty. It also confirms the site’s preeminence as a sacred, Buddhist location. The column has a gentle bulge in the middle, that suggests the aesthetic inspiration of the Graeco-Buddhist style. There are several deep incisions on the pillar, possibly due to the craftsmen attempting to cut the block into smaller segments. The original height of the pillar may have just exceeded 31 feet, but, presently, the stump stands at a height of 42 inches (or 3.5 feet).

    The capital is made in the typical loti form bell-shape, with a round abacus underneath the four lions, which are about four feet high. The abacus is decorated with pairs of geese, alternating with a motif of honeysuckle flowers. Additionally, there are two echinus rings between the loti form and the abacus – one plain and the other featuring thick twists, such as in a rope. Early excavators had suggested that there was no dharmachakra (the Wheel of Law, or dharma) mounted on it, but others have since argued that it probably was present on the original pillar and has since disintegrated into too many pieces to be authentically restored. Scholars have contrasted these elements with the capital at Sarnath, for instance, which features other animals on the abacus, leading some to suggest that the Sanchi capital was probably a copy, or that it was made before the more perfected form was devised at Sarnath.

    The pillars at Sarnath and Kausambi-Allahabad are the only other pillars that have Schism Edicts inscribed on them, whereas the one at Lauriya-Nandangarh has a similar abacus iconography on its capital, although the geese are singular and linear there, rather than in pairs. The lions – the ubiquitous symbols of the shakyasimha – after reconstruction, appear to be similar to the ones on the Sarnath capital and were the ones that were ultimately adopted as the National Emblem of India. It is thought that the damage to the site may have been caused by an earthquake, although some scholars have suggested that the pillar was probably broken off and used by a local landowner in the past. Although Cunningham had recommended its removal to the Indian Museum in present-day Kolkata, the structure was not removed until John Marshall, who was the Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), had most of it reinstalled at the present-day Sanchi Archaeological Museum. The shaft, however, still stands at the site.


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