You see it everywhere – on currency notes, government seals and government web portals. But did you know that India’s national emblem is a representation of one of the most important archaeological finds in India? It is based on the Lion Capital of Ashoka at Sarnath, a sculpture discovered by a man who has slipped between the pages of history.
Despite his unfortunate anonymity today, Friedrich Oscar Oertel was an interesting man in his time. He was a talented civil engineer and an architect in British-India and had no formal experience in archaeology. Born in 1862 in Hannover, Germany Oertel came to India at a young age. He renounced his German citizenship and was a naturalised Briton.
Oertel graduated from the renowned Thomason College of Civil Engineering, now known as the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, the oldest engineering college in India. He worked for the Indian Public Board as an assistant engineer for railway and building construction from 1883 to 1887.
He returned to Europe, where he studied architecture and then came back to India and resumed his work in the Public Works Department of the North-Western Provinces till 1892. He was later deputed to Burma, which like India was also under the colonial British.
Since the 19th century, archaeology began to gain momentum in India and one of the most talked-about sites was the one at Sarnath in present-day Uttar Pradesh. The site was hugely important as it was from here that the Buddha started his journey of Dhamma by delivering his first sermon in 528 BCE. However, after the decline of Buddhism in around the 8th-9th century CE, most of the monuments here, and elsewhere, fell to ruin and got buried deep underground over time.
Early Forays At Sarnath
However, in the early 19th century, Sarnath began to attract the attention of scholars for its archaeological significance. The site was first explored by the first Surveyor General of India, Colin Mackenzie, in 1815, followed by an excavation conducted in 1835-36 by the then Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, Alexander Cunningham. After that, more excavations were undertaken at Sarnath.
All the excitement over Sarnath drew the attention of Oertel, who was serving in Benares. In 1903, he secured permission to excavate at the site. With the aid of the Archaeological Department, he began his excavation in 1904-05.
Oertel’s efforts hit pay dirt as he unearthed some of the most significant discoveries ever made at Sarnath. These include 476 sculptural and architectural remains, along with 41 inscriptions. A figure of a Bodhisattva dated to Kushana King Kanishka(r.78-144 CE), the foundation of a Sangharam (monastery), several images of Buddhist and Hindu deities, and Ashoka pillar bearing the edicts (inscriptions) of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (3rd BCE).
Discovering The Lion Capital
But the most significant find was the Lion Capital. It originally crowned (hence the term ‘capital’) an Ashokan pillar that was unearthed a short distance away from where it was found. This was one of the many pillars commissioned by Ashoka across the subcontinent, to spread the message of Buddhism after he converted to the faith. Although many Ashokan pillars have been discovered over the decades, the Sarnath Lion Capital is among only seven capitals of Ashokan pillars that have survived.
The impressive, 7-foot-tall capital is a sculpture of four majestic lions standing back-to-back, symbolising power, courage, confidence and pride. The lions are mounted on an abacus that bears the figures of a horse, an elephant, a lion and a bull, each separated by a Dharma Chakra with 24 spokes. The abacus is mounted on an upturned lotus.
The Lion Capital was found buried a short distance away from the Dhamek Stupa at the site. Fragments of the Ashokan pillar were found nearby broken into three sections. The Lion Capital at Sarnath is considered the finest among the pillar capitals of Ashoka due to its superior execution. Today, the pillar stands in its original location while the Lion Capital has been shifted to the on-site Sarnath Museum.
Despite his hugely significant finds, Oertel excavated at Sarnath for only one season. In 1905, he was transferred to Agra and, due to a famine in the United Provinces the following winter, the local government refused to grant him permission to carry out further excavations at Sarnath. In 1907, the then Director General of Archaeological Survey of India, John Marshall, continued to excavate at Sarnath.
Still, Oertel’s excavation was one of the most prominent at Sarnath. Scholar B C Bhattacharya writes, “The excavation of Oertel ushered in a new era in the annals of the research work of Sarnath. The world is indebted to him for the wonderful discoveries made by him at this place.”
Oertel lived in India for over three decades. He is said to have returned to England in 1921, after retiring from the Public Works Department in India, and gave lectures on India. Some say he named his house ‘Sarnath’. He is also said to have donated several artefacts he had collected and photos he had taken to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge in England.
The Lion Capital discovered by Oertel went on to become the State Emblem of India post-Independence although Oertel himself has, sadly, faded from public memory.
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