Modi’s new ‘deviant’ lion capital: What is it emblematic of anyway?

Scholars find metal-casting atop new Parliament building different from what Nandalal Bose painstakingly created

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 12 July 2022

A sculpture of India’s national emblem atop the new Parliament building has drawn a tepid response from a section of art historians.

The metal piece unveiled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi July 11, 2022, was already flagged by the political class. Now, scholars have also pointed out to Down To Earth that it deviates from the original and fails to convey what the emblem is supposed to.


The Lion Capital of Ashoka is an ancient sculpture dating back to 280 BCE, during the reign of the Mauryan Empire.

The national emblem was designed by five students of Nandalal Bose, a pioneer of modern Indian art and the principal of Kala Bhavan, Visva-Bharati University. Among the five was Dinanath Bhargava, who studied the behaviour of the lions at the Kolkata Zoo for the purpose.

Shivaji Panikkar, an art historian who has taught at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Vadodara, as well as at Ambedkar University, Delhi, told Down To Earth:

It is surely a new version and not a copy of the Lion Capital. The detailing of the mane is very different. The hair in the mane of the lion in the new model is differently stylised whereas the Sarnath one has a bolder and abstract quality and is very rhythmic.

He said the design of the Lion Capital of Ashoka was much more perfect and sophisticated in terms of form. He also noted other differences.

“There is also a difference of material because the Lion Capital is made of Chunar sandstone. The new model is made of metal casting. It has been made in different parts and then assembled together. It is imperfect,” he said.

“There is a difference in detailing also. The new model is trying to be more realistic. But not convincingly so,” Panikkar added.

R Siva Kumar, a noted art historian, art critic and curator, who has taught at Visva-Bharati University, also noted differences. “The first impression is that there is a deviation from the original Lion Capital. Ideally, it should have been close to the original,” he said.

He also wondered whether the difference was inadvertent “because of the total aesthetic blindness in most government projects in India.”

“Governments in India, past and present, have not usually been known for designing art aesthetically. One can see this in various public statues across the country,” he said.

“There is no comparison between the old and the new. The majesty and grandeur that the original exudes is just amazing. The new one is more 20th century in terms of sculptural language,” YS Alone, professor in Visual Studies, School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawahrlal Nehru University, told DTE.

The lion as a motif

Natural historians DTE spoke to, talked about why the lion was so important in the iconography of ancient India.

Mahesh Rangarajan had noted in his paper From princely symbol to conservation icon: A political history of the lion in India: “It (the lion) was perhaps only rivalled in its power over the human imagination in India by the tiger.” 

“The Lion Capital is one of the capitals associated with the Mauryas. The animals associated with imperial kingship in the ancient period are the elephant, lion, bull and horse,” he told DTE.

“In historian Upinder Singh’s work on ancient kingship, the elephant is the most widely used symbol. But of course, the lion is very important,” he added.

The lion has an old association with royalty.

“One of The Buddha’s names is ‘Shakya Simha’, meaning ‘Lion of the Shakyas’. The Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath was known as the ‘Simhanada’ (Lion roar) of the Buddha. So the lion has a deep hold on our imagination,” Rangarajan said.

He noted that this hold on imagination was not only in Pali but also in Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian and Tamil. “The lion is very important in all these literatures. They are very particular about its mane and roar,” he said.

Divyabhanusinh Chavda, who has authored a book on India’s lions called The Story of Asia’s Lions, explained as to why the lion, rather than the tiger, was key to ancient Indian iconography.

“The lion is a resident of grasslands and scrub jungles. It is a gregarious animal that lives in groups called prides. It is easily seen by humans,” he said.

The lion, because of its visibility, was thus considered the king of the beasts and equal to the ruler of the land. “The Sanskrit words for the lion include ‘Mrigraj’, ‘Mrigendra’ and ‘Mrigdeepa’,” Chavda said.

The Lion Capital of Ashoka as the national emblem, was described in the Constituent Assembly debates.

But it was never officially designated as the national emblem by the Assembly, unlike the tricolour, which was discussed in great detail and was accepted by the Assembly.

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