The first spade of planned excavation which fell at Sarnath was in the year 1905, by F.O. Oertel, who took approval from the Archaeological Department for digging the site. He exposed the main shrine, found the Asoka pillar and its lion capital, and examined Chaukhandi mound. During this operation he discovered 476 icons and 41 inscriptions. He is also credited with publishing the result of his excavation in the Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report (1904-05:59-104)1. This practice of scientific excavation was carried on John Marshall and Sten Konow, subsequently, in the year 19072. In the discoveries, an inscription statue of Buddha, part of an inscribed umbrella and stone inscriptions of 11th century CE and that of Kumaradevi are noteworthy. About a decade later (1914-15), excavation was resumed by H. Hargreaves, who probed north, east and west of the main shrine3. Discovery of the inscription of Kumargupta II and Buddhagupta, along with the remains dating between Mauryan and medieval periods, are report by him. This was followed by excavations conducted by Rai Bahadur Daya Ram Sahni, for two consecutive years (1921-22). Sahni exposed most parts of the area lying between the Dhamekh stupa and the main shrine, and Monastery II4, and made available the ancient format of Mrigadaya.
In 1992-93, a limited area of Sarnath was excavated by the Archaeological Survey of India5. Two trenches of 5 x 5 m dimension were laid at the place near the lion pillar capital. An apsidal structure at this place was subject to the probing, which was ascertained to be of late Mauryan period6.
As a result of these field investigations, and later cleaning operations by the Archaeological Survey of India, material remains of this Buddhist pilgrimage of Sarnath have come to light. The premises of this establishment, which is situated on the southern shore of Sarang-tal, is strewn with structures and icons. The focal point of this complex is the high rising overground stupa, Dhamekh. Most of the structures and carvings cluster in the low-lying area in all the four cardinal directions of the complex. On account of the style of carvings, epigraphs and has been ascertained. This lies between the time of the Mauryan king Asoka (c. 273-236 BCE)7 and Kumaradevi, one of the queen of the Gahadavala king Govindchandra (1114-1154 CE)8. That these remains are material expression of the faith of the devotees in the Dhamma, and were donation at the place of the First Sermon by the Lord, goes without saying. Construction of monuments, installation of icon and carved architectural forms, during Maurya, Sunga, Kushan, Gupta and post-Gupta periods successively enriched and expanded territories of the Buddhist pilgrimage, century after century.
The excavations conducted at Sarnath during the years 1904-05 and 1906-07 resulted in obtaining most of the members of the Asokan column. In view of the importance of the discovery, Marshall’s words have been reproductive here9; aAt the short distance to the west of the shrine were found the stump and fragments of a large round column. First the lion capital was exhumed close to the western wall of the shrine, next some fragments of the shaft, and lastly, the stump of the column in situ, protruding slightly above the concrete terrace. On clearing the debris from above the stump, I notice a few letters in early characters. The concrete was broken through and a long inscription exposed to view, which on later examination proved to be an Asoka edict. The fracture of the column had taken place immediately above the concrete terrace: with it, unfortunately, the first two lines were broken up into tiny fragment and nearly all lost.
The above account ascertains that the famous lion capital of Sarnath was attached to the inscribed shaft. This column was located to the west of the shrine.
The inscribed Asokan column, was surmounted by four seated lions. The other noteworthy feature is that the inscribed part of the shaft was buried beneath the debris and floors of earlier times and just a small portion of it was in view, after the concrete floor was laid in this locality.
During the excavation of 1906-07, Marshall and Konow record the details of the concrete floor and the deposits underlying it10.
Marshall categorically states11; in a short article regarding these and other excavations, which I contributed to the Royal Asiatic Society’s Journal, I stated that nothing of a later date than the Kushana period had been found beneath the concrete floor, but this statement must now be modified, as one of the blocks of the stone pavement around the Asoka column proves to have been taken from an early Gupta building, and the lowest layer of the concrete floor above it can, therefore, hardly be earlier than the later Gupta epoch.
It may therefore be held that at the time of the visit of the Chinese traveller Xuanzang in the early 7th century CE, inscribed shaft of the Asokan column was covered beneath the concrete floor. If this is accepted, then the question is: which was the Asokan pillar of Sarnath described by the traveller? Xuanzang mention that the pillar was standing in front of a stupa constructed by Asoka. But the inscribed column with lion capital of Sarnath was erected in front of the apsidal monastery. This is apparent if one pieces together the history of discoveries of the pillar and the structures of the western side of the main shrine or the Asokan pillar area. The noted details on the base of the pillar by Marshall12 read as follows:
From the section of the pillar and its surroundings, it will be observed that the lower part of the shaft to a height of 7’5” was left undressed. This portion was, of course, left buried in the ground from the outset, and we may assume that the dividing line between the rough and polished surfaces marks the ground level when the column was first eracted. We shall see later on that bases of various building have come to light approximately at this level and we can hardly be wrong in assigning them to the Mauryan period. The polished part of the pillar, it should be added, begins at a depth of 6’9,1/2” below the stone pavement, and 8’ below the bottom of the inscription, while the distance from the top of the innermost brick wall to the stone pavement, and 8’ below the bottom of the inscription, while the distance from the top of innermost brick wall to the stone paving is 2’8,1/2”, and up to the base of the inscription 3’11.
In the description of Marshall there is reference for the recovery of “a fine alms-bowl, of black clay with glossy surface”, logically accepted to be the occurrence of Northern Black Polished Were bowl from the level 3’ below the stone pavement13. As per the findings of the antiquities and also the archaeological accumulation at the base of the Asokan pillar, the lower level between the foundation (the stone slab) and the corresponding thickness of deposits to the undressed portion of the pillar (7’5”) could be assigned to Mauryan times. An apsidal structure, which was unearthed near the Asokan pillar, needs special mention here14.
Due west to the Asokan column and at a distance of 54’4” were discovered the foundations of an apsidal building 82’6” in length, 38’10” in width, the apse towards the west, the entrance presumably facing the Asokan column.
In the light of all these observations, it appears that the inscribed pillar was erected in front of the apsidal structure, which was the monastery of the Mauryan period. This assumption also has a logical base that verdict which has been engraved on the pillar is related to the upkeep of monks and monastic organisation. This is well reflected in the contents of the epigraph of the Sarnath pillar edict, in which entitlement for dwelling by monks and nuns has been clearly mentioned. The translated version of the edict reads: “His sacred Majesty King Piyadasi…… The Church is [not] by anyone to be divided. But whosoever, monk or nun break up the Church, shall be made to don white robes and made to dwell in another dwelling”15. As the inscribed side of the pillar faced the monastery and not the Dharmarajika stupa, it may, therefore, be held that the Asokan pillar with inscription was standing in front of the entrance of the apsidal structure, where monks and nuns were residing, for whom the verdict was engraved by the emperor.
1.Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report 1904-05: 59-104.
2.Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report 1906-07: 43-80.
3.Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report 1914-15:97-131.
4.Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report 1921-22:42-45.
5.Indian Archaeology 1992-93: A Review: 98-99.
6.Indian Archaeology 1992-93: A Review: 99.
7.Mookerji, R. K. 1968 (Rep.). ‘Asoka, The Great’. Ch. V. The History and Culture of Indian People: Vol. II: The Age of Imperial Unity. Bharatiya VIdya Bhawan, Bombay (4th Edition): 89.
8.Ganguly, D. C. 1957. ‘The North India During the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries’. Ch. II. The History and Culture of Indian People: Vol. V: The Struggle for Empire. Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan, Bombay: 52-54
8.Archaeologial Survey of India Annual Report 1904-05:68.
9.Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report 1906-07:68.
10.Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report 1906-07:68.
11.Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report 1906-07: 35.
12.Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report 1906-07:70.
13.Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report 1906-07:70.
14.Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report 1914-15: 109.
15.Sahni, D. 1914. Catalogue of the Museum of Archaeological at Sarnath. Calcutta : 30.