Bark and Bite

Lions atop parliament: Projecting aggression can often diminish strength

On 11 July, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the national emblem cast atop the roof of the new parliament building in Delhi. It drew fire from critics for portraying the lions as angrier and fiercer in comparison to the original which it is meant to replicate. Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

In the month of July, 75 years ago, a soon to be independent India chose the tricolour as its national flag. A spirited debate followed in the Constituent Assembly before it was adopted. However, the national emblem, inspired by the Sarnath lions, was adopted on 26 January 1950 without debate.

According to the historian Madhavan Palat, the four lions found in the excavations at the Buddhist site of Sarnath, in Uttar Pradesh, “standing together, facing the world in all four directions, represented a spirit of courage, calm and control.” Palat, the editor of Jawaharlal Nehru’s multi-volume Selected Works, understood Nehru and the imagery he wanted to invoke. Nehru, he said, believed firmly in projecting a view of India that was suitable to the deep turmoil and violence the region was emerging from. That meant projecting strength, as the lions did. But they did so explicitly with grace and elegance. It was important to showcase calm lions, to underscore that those who possessed power rarely needed to bare their fangs.

Emblems of countries and empires across the world have often depicted animals—often a single animal in the martial tradition—meant to reflect a world view. The Vijayanagara Empire chose a boar. The US, Russia and the Habsburg empire picked eagles. Tipu Sultan’s emblem of the tiger drew from the battlefield, as do scores of other modern emblems, complete with shields and a menacing demeanour. But Sarnath was the first place where an enlightened Buddha spelt out five truths in his first sermon. The Lion Capital of Ashoka, excavated from there, helped cast a powerful animal in a different light. Emperor Ashoka’s realisation after the battle of Kalinga—of the need to wage peace, not war, as a true measure of being strong—was well taken by Nehru as young India went about defining itself, trying to reconcile its various pluralities.

The sketch of what would become India’s national emblem was eventually drawn by students of the artist Nandalal Bose at Shantiniketan in West Bengal. Laila Tyabji recalled her father, Badruddin Tyabji, a bureaucrat still reeling from the horror of Partition but firm about not leaving India, being asked to help with the national flag and emblem by Nehru himself. Her mother, Surayya, then 28 years old, sketched the lions of Sarnath, which were then used for taking the discussion further by Nehru. “I was amused to read a news item saying that ‘liberals’ were objecting to the lion column atop the new parliament building,” Laila told me, commenting on the recent controversy over the representation of the national emblem. “My own views have nothing to do with my political or ethical leanings but are purely aesthetic. I find the lions too broad in proportion to their height and to the height of the column, giving it a squat look. Also, the lions themselves lack the calm strength and majesty of their Sarnath originals and look rather fierce and meanly malevolent instead.”

सीमा चिश्ती दिल्ली में रहने वाली एक लेखिका और पत्रकार हैं. उन्होंने 1990 से प्रिंट, रेडियो और टेलीविजन, अंग्रेजी और हिंदी में काम किया है. वह बीबीसी इंडिया की दिल्ली संपादक और इंडियन एक्सप्रेस में उप संपादक रहीं. वह नोट बाय नोट: द इंडिया स्टोरी (1947-2017), की सह-लेखिका हैं जिसमें स्वतंत्र भारत का एक इतिहास, जिसे साल दर साल हिंदी फिल्मी संगीत के साथ दर्ज किया गया है. उसकी यह कोशिश एक बड़े और विविध देश में परिवर्तन के कई पहलुओं को छेड़ने, खोलने और फिर व्याख्या करने में मदद करने की रहती है.