Should the lions on the emblem look like pet Simbas?

That lions should look like pussycats is a belief that can only be rampant in people who primarily see them as zoo creatures, Metro Goldwyn ...

That lions should look like pussycats is a belief that can only be rampant in people who primarily see them as zoo creatures, Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s logo or the zoological preceptors of their pet golden Labradors named Simba. In truth lions do roar and have historically been portrayed as fierce, and aggressive, often with their tails aloft, fanged mouths open, clawed forepaws up and tongues out, both in India and other cultures around the world.

The Markandeya Purana’s Devi Mahatmyam not only describes Maa Durga’s epic battle with Mahisasura, but also mentions a goddess with a fearsome lion head, Narasimhi, the female manifestation of the Narasimha, the bloodthirsty lion-headed avatar of Vishnu. Also, Maa Durga is almost always depicted astride a ferocious lion. Indeed, the goddess and/or her lion shown in benign poses are parsed as attempts to ‘tame’ the fierce feminine.

The rounded and sleek lion grappling with a kneeling monarch in front of the Kandariya Mahadev temple in Khajuraho has its jaws open and combative. And there’s no denying the ferocity of the lions at Konark temple either. Yali, the griffin-like hybrid with the head of a lion, an elephant’s trunk and snake-like tail often seen in ancient Indian temple sculptures looks every bit as ferocious as Narasimha and always ready to pounce.

In short, benign lions are mostly anathema in Indian iconography and imagination, with the notable exception of those Hellenistic pillar capitals of the Mauryan era. Some scholars believe that the serene repose of the lions points to their being depictions of Mahavira, the 24th and last Tirthankara. That is not unlikely as several monarchs of that era were Jains, although Ashoka eventually became Buddhist.

Depicting lions sitting staidly and companionably back-to-back, with tails and hind legs not visible probably suited Emperor Ashoka’s reformed, pacifist image, though four adult, maned males are unlikely to be so pally. For the same reason, perhaps, this amiable avatar also appealed to those who decided what India’s flag, anthem and emblem should be, even though popular culture here had a different idea about the ‘king of the jungle’.

Intriguingly, among the enduring scholarly critiques of the lion capital of the Sarnath pillar (the inspiration for India’s national emblem) is its “hieratic style”, wherein the four lions appear so still, stylised and emotionless that anyone seeing them also remain unmoved. This style of depiction is seen by some experts as evidence that Mauryan era sculptures were not indigenous but of ancient Iranian or even “Sargonid” (Assyrian) origin.

The implication is that truly indigenously conceptualised lions, as indicated by textual references, would be far more animated, even fierce. But while the Sarnath lions’ pet cat-like posture is undeniably odd, it is also wrong to conclude that the felines were actually meant to seem utterly benign; after all, Ashoka communicated his imperial policy for his far-flung empire via such pillars and it would not do to seem pussycat-ish.

The Sarnath capital actually has four lions, of which only three can be seen at any given angle. But a visit to the Sarnath Museum near Varanasi where the original capital now resides, and a parikrama of the polished sandstone sculpture reveals that all four lions have their mouths open — one more than the others — and their long upper and lower canine teeth are very visible. Their forelegs with prominent paws look powerful and deadly too.

The single lion atop the Ashokan pillar at Vaishali in Bihar has the same facial expression as the four bronze ones on the new Parliament building in New Delhi, right down to the prominent muzzle, bared teeth and protruding brows above the eyes. The upper jaw and snout of the lion on the Lauria Nandangarh capital and the four lions on the Sanchi capital are broken but their furrowed brows and lower jaws also show they are no pussycats.

But angles have a lot to do with the ‘menacing’ expression of the new bronze lions. The Sarnath lions look snarly when viewed from below rather than straight on. Looming above Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Parliament lions certainly seem more aggressive than when seen from a higher point. As Indians will see the emblem from far away, exaggerated expressions are the only way to ensure the lions’ features remain distinct at that distance.

In any case, contemporary narratives rather than actual fact appear to have decreed that the original Sarnath capital lions must be precursors of Disney’s Simba and adorable golden Labrador namesakes rather than Durga’s ferocious steed. And as India’s new rulers preferred to highlight only Gandhi’s non-violent satyagraha — downplaying the roles of revolutionaries and Subhas Chandra Bose — docile hieratic lions were just the ticket.

Moreover, Dinanath Bhargava, the young artist deputed by Nandalal Bose to adapt the Sarnath capital into the official emblem, spent three months observing captive lions in Calcutta zoo, rather than, say, those roaming wild in Gir. That could be why the emblem’s lions have a less robust muscle tone. But Bhargava’s relatives, who possess a replica of his original drawing say the lions do indeed have their mouths open and teeth showing.

Replicas are obviously not always faithful to the original lions on the Sarnath capital or on the official emblem. The version of the official emblem currently doing the rounds on the social media, for instance, sits atop Karnataka’s Vidhan Soudha and its lions are simpering large cats with their deadly canines hidden. Yet the State Emblem of India (Prohibition of Improper Use) Act 2005 was enacted precisely to prevent such distortions.

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Worse still, as economist and history writer Sanjeev Sanyal has recently pointed out, the root cause of that could be that the most egregious distortion is in the drawing of the officially sanctioned version contained in the Act. The central lion in that drawing not only has no canines showing, but it seems to be laughing with its tongue hanging out. Thankfully the other two have not been defanged — at least officially — but the licence to distort is clear.

Lions in European (including British) heraldry are invariably animated. Indeed, most animals and birds used on emblems of other countries, from eagles and stags to tigers and lions do not look genial or benign. Around 17 European nations have lions in their coat of arms, standards or emblems today, and in most of them they are depicted rearing up on their hind legs, tufted tails erect, with fangs and protruding tongues, ruffled fur and bared claws.

Even Bhutan, the land known for its Gross National Happiness, has two thunder dragons — Druks — on its emblem and one on its flag too. Their fierce postures and expressions are not seen as antithetical to Bhutan’s peaceful image. So why must India’s emblem lions look like they are smiling pussycats or cute Simbas? If some take the new bronze lions on top of Parliament to be indicative of a changing India, it is best to let them think so!

The author is a freelance writer. Views expressed are personal.

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Should the lions on the emblem look like pet Simbas?
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