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Asoka Pillar

Name of a series of columns found throughout northern India, often in strategic sites, such as on trade routes, but especially at locations of historical importance to Buddhism. They were erected by the Mauryan King Asoka after his conversion to Buddhism, in order to propagate the teachings of the Buddha. Many of them are inscribed with his edicts, in the Prakrit language and written in the Brahmi script. The columns are made up of polished sandstone and are –or were– all crowned with a capital in the form of an animal chiseled from another single piece of stone, usually a single lion (fig.), though the most distinguished pillar had a capital with four lions, portrayed seated back to back. The latter crowned a ca. 15 meter tall column (fig.) erected at the site of the Buddha’s first sermon in Sarnath (fig.), in order to propagate the teachings of the Buddha. The four lions are sometimes interpreted to represent the four directions in which the teachings of the Buddha are spread. The lions are perched on a circular platform (fig.), engraved with four small animal figures, i.e. an elephant, a bull, a horse and a lion, which are separated by dhammachakka wheels with twenty-four spokes. Whereas the lions are considered to be the protectors of the dhamma, the four animals represent the Four Stages of Life or the four ashram in the life of the Buddha, with the elephant referring to the White Elephant that appeared in the dream or subinnimit of Siddhartha's mother Maha Maya (fig.); the horse referring to Kanthaka, the snow-white horse of the prince (fig.), that was born on the same day as its master and carried him away from the palace during the Great Departure (fig.); the bull representing the animal used in the Royal Ploughing Ceremony performed by his father when Siddhartha was 7 years old and where he for the first time was confronted with the suffering of another being, i.e. a worm that was accidentally cut in two by the ploughshare, and which initiated his search to end all suffering in the world, and additionally the bull represents the constellation that corresponds to the day of the full moon in the month Visakha, the month of the Phrasut (birth), Enlightenment and Parinippahn (passing away) of the Buddha; and the lion being the protector of the dhamma, although some believe it may also be the symbol of the Sakya clan. The platform itself rests on an inverted lotus flower, a Buddhist symbol of Enlightenment. Reminiscent of the Garuda in Thailand, the capital of the Asoka Pillar is the national emblem of India and is depicted on official government documents, such as the Indian passport, as well as on all banknotes and coins. The Indian national emblem also has an inscription of the words ‘Truth Alone Triumphs’ inscribed, in Devanagari script. Reproductions of the Asoka capital are sometimes found in Buddhist temples across Thailand. See THEMATIC STREET LIGHT.