The Forgotten Engineer Who Unearthed India’s National Emblem

by Bhante Sravasti, The Buddhist Channel, 12 May 2024

New Delhi, India -- The design of India’s national emblem, the most visible symbol of the country’s national identity, was adopted from the lion capital of an Ashokan pillar excavated in Sarnath. On 26th of January 1950, the day India became a republic, this symbol was adopted as her national emblem.

The Sarnath lion capital shortly after its discovery

Here’s how the Government of India describes emblem at the time: “The profile of the lion capital showing three lions mounted on the abacus with a Dharma Chakra in the centre, a bull on the right and a galloping horse on the left, and outlines of Dharma Chakras on the extreme right and left was adopted as the State Emblem of India on January 26th 1950. The bell-shaped lotus was omitted. The motto Satyameva Jayate, which means ‘Truth Alone Triumphs’, written in Devanagari script below the profile of the lion capital is part of the State Emblem of India.”

But why did India adopt a symbol from the ancient rule of a Mauryan King, Ashoka? Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, gave this   answer to  the Constituent Assembly on 22nd of July 1947, barely a month before India’s Independence.

For my part, I am exceedingly happy that in this sense indirectly we have associated with this Flag of ours not only this emblem but in a sense the name of Asoka, one of the most magnificent names not only in India’s history but in world history…. Now because I have mentioned the name of Asoka, I should like you to think that the Asokan period in Indian history was essentially an international period. It was not a narrowly national period. It was a period when India’s ambassadors went abroad to far countries and went abroad not in the way of an empire and imperialism, but as ambassadors of peace and culture and goodwill.

What do the four majestic Asiatic lions on the national emblem represent? The Mauryan symbolism of the lions indicates the power of a universal emperor (chakravarti) who dedicated all his resources to the victory of dharma.   In adopting this symbolism, the modern nation of India pledged equality and social justice in all spheres of life.”

Going further, it adds, “The lions sit atop a cylindrical abacus, which is adorned with representations of a horse, a bull, a lion and an elephant, made in high relief. The animals are separated by intervening chakras each having 24 spokes. The Chakra also finds representation on the National Flag. This chakra, or the ‘Wheel of Law’ is a prominent Buddhist symbol signifying Buddha’s ideas on the passage of time. Dharma (virtue), according to belief, is eternal, continuously changing and is characterized by uninterrupted continuity.” India’s national emblem is a symbol steeped in ancient history.

The Man

However, Indians may not have known about this symbol if it wasn’t for the work of the German-born engineer, architect and archaeologist Friedrich Oscar Oertel. In the winter of 1904-05, while excavating an archaeological site in Sarnath.  A naturalised British citizen, Oertel’s contributions to Indian art history, archaeology and national identity have been overlooked.

<< Friedrich Oscar Oertel in 1900

Born on 9 December 1862 in Hannover, Germany, Oertel left for India at an early age. Graduating from the Thomason College of Civil he was first employed as an engineer for railway and building construction by the Indian Public Board from 1883 to 1887. Following his stint here, he returned to Europe to study architecture before making his way back to India where he then started upon a brilliant career in the Public Works Department, being first sent on diverse missions and then appointed in various locations.

Sent by the Government of the North-Western Provinces and Oudh, in the winter of 1891–92 he surveyed the monuments and archaeological sites in North and Central India before reaching Yangon in March 1892. Travelling through Myanmar, which was then under British rule, he wrote a lengthy and detailed report on the monuments of  Myanmar together with  original photos.  In 1900 he was sent to Sri Lanka by the Royal Asiatic Society in order to visit the Abhayagiri dagoba in Anurudhapura and make suggestions on the best way to preserve or restore it.

His experience in supervising and constructing buildings during this time   helped him  to formulate his opinion concerning the construction of the new capital at New Delhi.  During a lecture delivered at the East India Association at Caxton Hall   on 21st of July 1913, he urged architects commissioned by the British Indian administration to take inspiration from a “really national Indian style” while designing the new city which would become New Delhi.

Unearthing the lion capital in Sarnath

However, Friedrich Oertel is best known for the excavation he carried out on Sarnath from December 1904 to April 1905.  In the early 19th century, Sarnath began to attract the attention of scholars for its archaeological significance.  First explored in 1815 by Colin Mackenzie, the first Surveyor General of India, Sarnath would witness further excavations in the 1830s by Alexander Cunningham, who would go on to become the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India.  There was a great deal of interest in Sarnath, and Oertel naturally caught onto it.

<< Oertel’s other great discovery, the Teaching Buddha

Serving in Benaras at the time, he secured permission to excavate at Sarnath. In the following year, he began his work with assistance from the Archeological Department. Oertel unearthed some of the most significant discoveries ever made in Sarnath, most of them Buddhist. These include 476 sculptural and architectural remains, 41 inscriptions, the now world-famous Teaching Buddha image and most importantly, a pillar bearing the edicts of Emperor Ashoka (3rd BCE) and with it, the capital with its four lions.  

The Archaeological Survey of India: Annual Report of 1904–1905′ describes this magnificent object like thus: “The upper part of the capital is supported by an elegant bell-shaped member. The lion and other animal figures are wonderfully life-like and the carving of every detail is perfect…Altogether this capital is undoubtedly the finest piece of sculpture of its kind so far discovered in India…Considering the age of the column, which was erected more than 2,000 years ago, it is marvelous how well preserved it is. The carving is as clear as the day it was cut.”  

Despite such significant discoveries, Oertel could excavate Sarnath for only a season, and by 1905 he was transferred to Agra. There, where among other works, he undertook the restoration of the Agra Fort and the reconstruction of the four minarets of the south gateway of Akbar’s tomb while also working on the Taj Mahal.

When Oertel left India for the United Kingdom in 1921, he probably had no idea that his work would lay the basis of India’s national identity following freedom from British rule. While archaeologists such as Alexander Cunningham, Sir John Marshall, Aurel Stein, etc. continue to receive praise Friedrich Oscar Oertel remains little known, despite his considerable achivements.  There is little information about his death, but the legacy he leaves behind is there for all Indians and all Buddhists to see.
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