To one familiar with India’s fauna the choice of the Sarnath lion capital as the national emblem must seem somewhat remote. Even to one familiar with Indian art and the Mauryan period this must seem far-fetched. Only those who know the political history of the country during the last decade can find justification for the choice.
Let us consider the aesthetics of the matter before its natural aptness, for there is no doubt that lions roamed the country in the past and that they have had an honoured place as symbols of kingly state in our traditions. The lions of Asoka, however, do not belong to our traditions — they are foreign in build and feature.
One of the early critics of our art, E.B. Havell, thinks it likely that Persian craftsmen fashioned this capital. Another early writer, Vincet Smith, thinks it shows Hellenistic influences, prevalent in Asia Minor in Asoka’s time. He says: ‘The art of Ashokan monoliths is essentially foreign with nothing Indian except details…. I think that the brilliant work typified by the Sarnath capital may have been designed in its main lines by foreign artists acting under the orders of Asoka, while the details were left to the taste of the Indian workmen.’
Smith is positive in contradicting Marshall’s view that Asiatic Greeks fashioned the Sarnath capital. Earlier in his book, he says, of this capital: ‘It would be difficult to find in any country an example of ancient animal sculpture superior or even equal to this beautiful work of art, which successfully combines realistic modelling with ideal dignity, and is finished in every detail with prefect accuracy. The bas-reliefs on the abacus are as good in their way as the noble lions in the round. The design, while obviously reminiscent of Assyrian and Persian prototypes, is modified by Indian sentiment, the bas-reliefs being purely Indian. Mr. Marshall’s conjecture that the composition may be the work of an Asiatic Greek is not supported by the style of the relief figures. The ability of an Asiatic Greek to represent Indian animals so well may be doubted.’
I must say I prefer Smith later to Smith earlier. The bull and horse shown in relief on the abacus are typical Indian in style, but that does not establish the nationality of lions (incidentally, Smith out of his natural history in considering the animals shown alien to the habitat of an Asiatic Greek). The influence of foreign art and craftsmanship is manifest in the design and superfinish of this capital, and it is now accepted that while much of the Mauryan sculpture was indigenous, Asoka’s edict pillars are in Persipolitan style.
I cited the opinion of these experts only to say that we need not depend upon them. The lion is by no means an unfamiliar animal in Indian stone, and the lions of the south may be safely taken as typical of the Indian conception of the animal. That they are far removed in time or place from Sarnath and the Mauryan period does not detract from their value as types — their is sufficiently fundamental affinity between south Indian and the undoubtedly indigenous Mauryan figures.
Strangely enough, none of the critics mentioned seems to have compare Asoka’s lion with other lions in our art. Such a comparison reveals striking differences at once. The Sarnath lions are slimmer in build and have noticeably thin necks in a front view; their heads are smaller and the tongue-in-flame patterning of their manes is peculiar and foreign — the manes of typically Indian lions and Yalis are rendered in formal, circular curls, or else in parallel wavy lines. The large eyes with natural similitude, the unfurrowed forehead and nose, the pronounced down-face and squarely angled lips are all foreign. The feet are even more revealing than the heads — in their taut modelling of the muscle and tendon, and specific, detailed depiction of each toe and nail, they are very Greek. The innermost toe, raised laterally, somewhat in the manner of a dog’s dew-claw, is a feature of the feet of the greater cats — this detail is displayed in the feet of the Sarnath lions, though the self-sheathed nails are semi-heroic and not natural. Show me a single undoubted Indian lion whose toes are anything like equally realistic, and I accept defeat.
As said already, lions were common in India, especially in north India, within historic recollection, and no doubt they were there in Asoka’s time. There is no need to labour the point that the Indian lion, extinct except for a few carefully preserved families in the Gir forests of Saurashtra, is an inopportune symbol for a new hopeful democracy with great aspirations.
Have we no animal more representative of the nation, more nobly rendered in our stone, that could have taken the place of Asoka’s lions, which are not Indian in their art and which are third-rate as lions?
I may be hurting national feeling and outraging accepted aesthetic values in my condemnation of Asoka’s lion as lions. I can only say that I intend no sort of affront, that I hope I am as patriotic as my readers, and that to accept the realistic (emphasis in original), maned Cheetah-like lions of Sarnath capital as just depictions of the noble beast requires no more sophistry than I can command. A glossy perfection of finish and meticulous detail do not constitute art.
The lion is a magnificent animal. Its looks and proportions are so superb that art can do little to improve upon nature in adopting it as the symbol of kingly might and majesty. Many countries have exploited the leonine figure effectively in designing their symbols of state — but not the carvers responsible for the highly polished, svelte lions of Sarnath; they just had no appreciation at all of the beast.
Apart from all this, the lion, indicative of royal, totalitarian power in our traditions as in those of other countries, would seem an inapposite emblem for a democracy whose pride is freedom for all.
Looking for other animal in our art that might have been nationally honoured, one must, reluctantly, give up tiger, so inseparably associated with India in big-game lore. We do have tiger for depictions of tigers but none that is sufficiently masterly as a tiger of heraldic adaptation. Some of them might well be leopards — they are unmarked, and their size being in no way indicative in a depiction where the human victor is shown, heroically, larger than the beast. Moreover it is possible that when the national government had to choose its animal emblem, someone of the native states then independently sovereign had a tiger on its coat of arms.
Boars, horses, cattle and blackbuck (the last shabbily treated on the ten-rupee note, and frequently miscalled ‘deer’ by our art-critics) are the other animals the commonly figure in our art, but perhaps they were not considered noble enough in looks.
How about lordly Indian elephant, the unquestioned king of our forests, entirely Indian, anciently associated with power in our country, the most brilliantly rendered of all beasts in our art, magnificent in bulk, might and willingness to serve, august, lovable and universally beloved? It is impossible to think of an animal more representative of India or one with more imposing looks. What kept the elephant back, very likely, was the same political reason, that it figured already in the coats of arms of certain states. Is it now too late to take a broader view of its claim to represent the nation?
Personal notes :
 One of our historians suggested water-buffalo ‘a fitting national symbol’ because it is ‘heavy, dark, sluggish, hardy, fertile, productive with little care, far cleaner than it looks, docile enough to be led by a child, but suspicious of innovations and perfectly capable when roused, of charging a tiger or a locomotive.’ Isn’t it at the core of Indian character?