The Mauryas

Inscriptions of Ashoka

Pillar Edicts

Many pillars of the period of Ashoka have been discovered and reported. These pillars can be put into two categories, one carrying inscriptions and other without inscriptions. There are two distinct and important features which distinguishes a Maurya period pillar with other pillars.

The first feature is their characteristics almost mirror like polish on these stone pillars. This polish has baffled the modern masons and artists till now and it is a fact that we have not discovered any such specimen of later period after the Mauryas.

The second feature is the mechanism to attach the capital to the pillar shaft.  The capital was joined with the pillar shaft using a copper bolt, circular in shape. They used to bore holes into the shaft and the capital and insert a copper bolt which keeps both together. In all later period pillars, the capital was crafted not separately but was an integral part of the pillar material only.

We will discuss here all kinds of discovery and reports and try to find which all can be put into the category of Ashokan/Mauryan pillars.

Delhi-Topara – This pillar stands now at Firoz Shah Kotla in New Delhi and named as Dehli-Sivalik by Alexander Cunningham. G Buhler edited the edicts in Epigraphia Indica vol II. This pillar was moved to its present location from Topara by Firoz Shah Tughlaq in 1356 CE as evident from Tarikh-i-Firozshahi written by Shams-i-Siraj, a contemporary of Firoz Shah.

The identification of Topara is still not yet sufficiently done. Cunningham suggests that this pillar was brought from a place variously called as Topur, Topra, Toprasuk, Tohera, Tawera and Nahera. This place was located on the bank of Yamuna not very far from Khizrabad. But he later changed his position and suggests that Topara is a village located between Ambala and Sirawasa.

Cunningham estimates the total height to be 42 feet 7 inches, 35 feet of which is highly polished. Its upper diameter is 25.3 inches and bottom diameter is 38.8 inches. This pillar is the only pillar where all seven edicts are engraved, all other inscribed pillars have six only. The seventh edict is engraved on a separate face which suggests that this is a later addition.

Delhi-Mirat – Cunningham named this pillar as Delhi-Mirat as it is presently at Delhi but probably moved from Meerut to the present location by Firoz Shah Tughlaq. The exact spot where this pillar was standing at Meerat is not known still.

This pillar has an interesting story behind. It was broken in an accidental gunpowder explosion during the reign of Farrukhsiyar (1713-19 CE) and the broken pieces were put in the Asiatic Society Museum at Kolkata. These pieced were later joined with the original pillar in 1867 CE and the whole pillar was set up again.

Allahabad – This celebrated pillar is standing at present inside the Allahabad fort complex, near Ellenborough Barrack. It is 35 feet high with about 3 feet diameter at the bottom diminishing to 2 feet and 2 inches at the top. The capital is missing. The circular abacus has lotus and honeysuckle design. Cunningham mentioned that there was once a lion capital however it is no more there.

Cunningham suggests that this pillar have been grounded many times as various inscriptions on it are engraved on many different faces. His theory of this pillar being grounded many times is based upon various dates scribbled on it. He noticed not less than 30 different dates on this pillar. Jahangir erected it in 1605 CE, pulled down by General Kyd in 1798 CE, finally set up in 1883 CE.

As one of the edict on this pillar refers to the Mahamatras at Kaushambi, this made Cunningham to propose that the pillar was originally set up at Kosam (ancient Kaushambi) and it was moved probably by Firoz Shah Tughlak, who was also responsible to move two other Ashokan columns to Delhi. An another argument in this favor is that Fa-Xian and Xuanzang did not mention any pillar at Allahabad hence there was no pillar when these two Chinese pilgrims visited the site.

Cunningham called the last two edicts as the queen’s edict and the Kausambi edict

Sarnath – The inscribed Ashokan pillar is located south of the Dharmarajika stupa. Its lion capital became the national emblem of India. It was found in 1904-05 CE during F O Oertel’s excavation at the site.  The capital was found detached from the pillar but lying nearby it. The capital is 7 feet high. Several fragments of wheel were found nearby which suggests that there was wheel supported on the four lions seated their backs joined.

Lauriya-Araraj (Radiah) – Alexander Cunningham named this pillar as Radhia as it was close to the village of the same name. These days, this pillar is better known as Lauriya-Araraj as it is located in a small village named Lauriya, 1.5 km south west of the Araraj-Mahadev temple. Lauriya village is about 6 km east of south east of the village Radhia (Radhiah).

The pillar has no capital at present.

Lauriya-Nandangarh (Mathia) – Lauriya Nandangarh is a small village 14 km from Shikarpur and 28 km from Bettiah in Bihar state. The pillar is about 4.5 km north of Mathia and very close to the ancient site of Nandangarh which has a huge brick stupa of 26 m height. The pillar has lion capital on top.

Dr Bloch suggests that this is the site of the ‘Charcoal Stupa’ of Pippalvana. V A Smith suggests that these two pillars, Lauriya Araraj and Lauriya Nandangarh, were on the course of a royal road from the northern bank of Ganga to the Nepal valley.

Rampurva – A C L Carlleyle mentioned that there are remains of two pillars, 39.5 miles north of Bettiah and 20.5 miles to north by north east from Lauriya Nandangarh and 4 miles to the south of the Someshwar hills at the border of India and Nepal. Both had animal capitals, one with lion is inscribed and one with bull is not.

A H Longhurst argued that the remains of pillars indicate the existence of two Ashoka pillars here. Sahni did an excavation in 1907-08 CE and he found the lion capital on the brick platform of the Mauryan period. Except for the upper jaw, the capital did not have much damage.

The second pillar was found about 900 feet south of the first one. The brick plinth on which it rested was 11.5 feet from east to west and 9 feet from north to south. The surviving stump was 12.5 feet high, missing portion of the upper shaft was found lying on the floor. The bull capital was also found at the same level. The capital was 6 feet 9 inches high, including the 4 feet high animal.

Sanchi -

Rummindei – Rummindei is located about 1.5 km north of Paderia and 3 km north of Bhagwanpur. The pillar lies about 45 feet to the north west of the Rummindei Temple which is dedicated to the Rummindei (Rupadei), a local goddess. The upper portion of the shaft is missing along with the animal capital.

V A Smith asserts no doubts in identifying Rummindei with the Lumbini jungle where Buddha was born. He tells that the words Rummindei and Lumbini are almost identical. This site has witnessed excavations in large volumes. Khadga Shamsher and A Fuhrer excavated the site in 1896 CE, P C Mukherji in 1899 CE, Kaisher Shamsher in 1933-34 CE, Debala Mitra in 1962 CE, N R Banerji and B K Rijal in 1970-71 CE, B K Rijal in 1974-83 CE, T N Mishra in 1984-86 CE, B K Rijal with S Uesaka in 1993-95 CE.

The latest excavation sets the antiquity of the native temple back to NBP (north black ware pottery) period.

Nigliva (Nigali Sagar) – Nigliva is about 1.5 miles east of Sagarwa and noted for Nigali Sagar, a large tank of about a mile south of the village. The site is located in an area of rather closely packed archaeological sites, beginning with Tauliva or Taulihawa. Excavations by P C Mukherji puts the antiquity back to 600 BCE.

Two portions of Ashokan column, known locally as Loriki-Nigali or smoking-pipe, were observed on the western embankment of the tank. The upper part of the column is 14 feet and 9.5 inches long. The capital is missing now however the hole for copper fitting is present at the top. Mukherji mentioned that the present location was not the original location of the pillar as L A Waddell who excavated it earlier did not find any base or foundation of it.

Now we will look at the various discoveries of pillar remains, capitals and other artifacts. None of these discoveries have resulted in an inscribed pillar or stone.

Sikligarh – Sikligarh is located on the Pataliputra-Mahasthangarh route. L A Waddell published his report in 1890-91 CE about a stone pillar which stands at an angle of about 65 degrees after its nearby area was excavated by the Collector of the district some time back before his visit.

Waddell tells that at the appearance of the monolith, it was assumed that it might probably an edict pillar however no trace of any inscription was found after its excavation. The total length of the surviving portion is 20 feet of which 7.5 feet was above the ground. A gold coin of the Kushana king Vasudeva was recovered from its bottom.

D K Chakrabarty tells that the diameter, the quality of the stone and its polish clearly tells its Mauryan character. Apart from this, the hole on its top to hold the capital puts the stamp of Mauryan engineering.

Gotihawa/Gutiva – It is located about 4 miles SW of Tilaurakot. P C Mukherji mentions a stupa in the middle of the village on which outer rim stands a portion of a pillar of the Priyadarsi style. The upper portion of the pillar is gone, only a small portion above ground is visible, which is known as Phutesvara Mahadeva locally.

G Verardi assigned the antiquity of the stupa to 800 BCE associated with NBP period. The second phase of activities were assigned to 3rd-2nd century BCE.

Bansi Bell Capital – Bansi is located in Siddharthnagar district of Uttar Pradesh. An Ashokan bell capital was found here which at present is in the Lucknow Museum. This bell capital was discovered from the side of a tank by the side of the road coming from Kopia and going to Bansi market connecting Lumbini and Piprahwa.

The capital has a partly damaged abacus and remains of two lion legs on the top. The abacus carries honey-suckle motif around it. S P Gupta reports the stump in situ however D K Chakrabarty was not able to locate it.

Bhagalpur – Bhagalpur is located near a ferry point on the northern bank of Ghagra river. The pillar is located behind the modern secondary school of Bhagalpur. It is a monolithic pillar with clear traces of circular abacus. D K Chakrabarty tells that no modern scholar has suggested the Mauryan origin of this pillar however he claims it to be of that period.

H B W Garrick visited this site in 1883 and reports the overall existing height 17 feet and 3 inches and diameter 1 feet 6 inches. There is an inscription on its lower part which is of eleventh/twelfth century CE.

Ayodhya – D K Chakrabarty mentions that the inverted lotus capital that at present is used as the base of the shivalinga in the Nageshwar Nath Shiva temple is a positive proof of the existence of an Ashokan pillar at Ayodhya. Xuanzang does not mention this pillar though he mentions a stupa at this site.

Varanasi – Xuanzang reported a stupa and a pillar on the west side of the Baruna or Barna river, the northern one of the two tributaries of Ganga in Varanasi. The stupa was of 100 feet high and in front of it was a pillar of polished green stone, clear and lustrous as a mirror in which the reflection of Buddha was constantly visible.

V A Smith identifies this pillar with the present Lat Bhairon which is the remnant of an ancient pillar which was destroyed in the Hindu-Muslim riots in 1809 CE. The accounts of this riot were compiled on the basis of the official documents prepared by Phil Robinson in 1865 CE. He tells that the present location is not the original location of this pillar, it was set up at this location on June 1810 CE.However Smith is of the opinion that this is the original location.

Harry Falk disputes the Mauryan origin of this pillar on the basis of the report of R Heber who mentioned exquisite carvings on the pillar. However, D K Chakrabarty tells that Weber was dependent on the report by Mr Bird, the then megistrate of Banaras, and carvings of the pillar by Bird may mean the engraved letters. J B Tavernier in 1665 CE found this pillar to be 32-25 feet high and thick enough that three people were needed to make a circle around its shaft.The material was sandstone and there was a ball on its top.

The present pillar is covered in a copper sheath. D K Chakrabarty tells that till its copper encasing is not removed, no one can be sure about its Mauryan origin. However if it was a monolith of above 30 feet high, this give a positive proof of its Ashokan origin.

Existence of a second pillar at Sarnath was proposed by H Hargreaves and later by S P Gupta. The latest scholars to propose the same include Harry Falk and D K Chakrabarty. Hargreaves found many remains of polished capital which Falk was able to trace to the reserve collection of the Indian Museum at Kolkata. On the basis of the capital remains, Falk suggests that this second pillar was even larger than the present one. But one may wonder why Fa Xian and Xuanzang did not mention this second pillar at the site.

Prahladpur – This pillar has been removed from its original location to the grounds of the Sanskrit College of Varanasi, the building of which was designed by Markham Kittoe. The pillar carries inscriptions in shell script and Gupta period characters. D K Chakrabarty however argues that the presence of these later period inscriptions does not provide a strong argument against its Mauryan character as these inscriptions could have been engraved at some later period. Falk rejects the claim of its Mauryan origin on the basis of the reddish color of the stone evident from its broken portion.

Belkhara (Ahraura) – The pillar is located in the village of Belkhara near Ahraura. It stands near the bank of the Garra and on the road from Ahraura to Likhuania. The pillar is a broken monolith with a small Ganesha image attached to its bottom. There are two inscriptions on its body.

The locals tell that it was removed from the Garra dam which was built in 1954 CE. Cunningham reported this pillar during his visit in 1880 and assigned an inscription of it to 1196 CE. He reports that the pillar was 11 feet 7 inch long and 15 inches in diameter. As per his reading of the inscription, the pillar was erected by the mason Jaluna in 1196 CE. D K Chakrabarty however tells that it is a known fact that this type of polished pillars were not made after the Mauryan period in ancient India.

Bakraur – Cunningham visited this site in 1871 CE and reports two pieces of broken stone pillar near the ruins of a brick stupa. Ruins of a stupa at Bakraur has been identified as the site of house of Sujata as per a ninth century CE inscription of the Pala king Devapala. The main portion of the surviving pillar was removed to Gaya in the beginning of the nineteenth century CE and again to the bank of Muchilinda tank to the south of the Bodh Gaya temple during the first three or four decades of the twentieth century CE.

This original main portion is about 16 feet high with diameter of 2 feet 4 inches. Falk suggests that the dimensions are comparable with other Ashokan pillars. Another argument to accept this proposition is that Xuanzang mentions a pillar by the site of a stupa across the Niranjana river at Bodh Gaya.

Bhubaneswar – D K Chakravarty says whether it is in its original location or not however the Mauryan identity of the stone column serving as the Shivalinga in the Bhaskaresvara temple at Bhubaneswar cannot be seriously doubted. It was estimated to be 40 feet high in the early nineteenth century CE. A stone lion and a bell-capital were recovered at some distance from this temple. The quality of these pieces and pieces recovered from Rameshvara temple area are not that good to suggest their Mauryan affiliation.

Kausambi – Cunningham mentioned many pillar remains at Kausambi. The longest one was set up at its original spot by D R Sahni in 1922 CE. Harry Falk draws attention to a fragment of a monolithic pillar in the Allahabad museum and argues against its Mauryan origin. However D K Chakrabarty argues that it was a part of a monolithic pillar and has a hole on top to fit in the capital is evident enough of its Mauryan origin.

Deur Kothar – D K Chakrabarty reports a pillar at the periphery of the excavated site of a stupa. These fragments, as per him, are identical with the Mauryan pillars found elsewhere. There is a six line inscription written in Mauryan Brahmi characters. However this inscription has nothing to do with the regular edict of Ashoka, but it said that this pillar was caused to be set up by a Buddhist monk.

Vidisha – J Williams assigns a lion capital discovered at Vidisha, now in Gwalior Museum, as a recut Ashokan capital. The capital in question has four lions seated back to back with human figures on its abacus. These human figures, standing figures representing the zodiac signs and seated figures representing Adityas, were assigned to the Gupta period. Williams draws attention to another recut captial discovered from Khairadih. J C Harle agrees with Williams on the Gupta art of the abacus figures.

Sodanga – V S Wakankar, in 1989, found a statue of an elephant with Mauryan polish at Sodanga, about 15 km from Ujjain.
Rahman Ali discovered a lotus capital from the close vicinity of a stupa at Sodanga. The stupa with stone circular wall around goes back to the Mauryan period.

Amravati – A fragmentary inscription engraved on a sandstone block , 10 inch by 17 inch, may possibly be a part of an Ashokan pillar. There are traces of Mauryan polish on this fragment. D C Sircar edited the inscription and declares that the style and words used here are indeed of Ashoka hence it is very probable that this fragment belongs to Ashoka.

Sankisa – Sankisa is located near Farukhabad in Uttar Pradesh. Cunningham found an elephant capital in 1862-63 and assigned that to the Mauryan period. The pillar of this capital is untraceable. Xuanzang reports a lion capital instead of elephant. V A Smith suggests that Xuanzang probably mistook this elephant with lion as the trunk of the elephant was already broken when he visited here.

Hissar and Fatehabad – A pillar embedded in the floor of a mosque inside the Hissar fort is of Mauryan origin as suggested by Brown in 1838. However Princep and Cunningham doubted his theory. B C Chhabra mentions that the upper half of the pillar is now found inside a mosque in fatehabad. He found patches of the Mauryan polish in both fragments and also read few Brahmi characters of the Mauryan period. He asserts that these fragments are indeed of Mauryan origin.

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