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During his reign, Ashoka ordered the raising or a number of pillars and the creation of a number of stupas. According to tradition, the pillars were raised at various points on the trail of a pilgrimage that he undertook in the twentieth year of his reign. Of the pillars that he caused to be raised, only ten are extant. One of the pillars was at Sarnath and it was on this pillar that the Lion capital originally stood.

The pillars were quite tall and usually carried edicts from the emperor. The pillar at Sarnath was fifty feet tall and carried a Schism Edict addressed to the mahamattas at the monastery at Sarnath, which read 'No one shall cause division in the order of monks'. The monks and the monastery have long since disappeared, but Sarnath remains an important place for Buddhists, as it is the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon.

Modern scholars argue about the provenance of the pillar, with some claiming that its design may have been influenced by Alexander the Great. Because lions are not generally part of Indian culture, it is suggested that there is a Hellenistic influence at work in the design. Countering this argument, is the assertion that Buddha was sometimes known and represented as a lion in the era before he was depicted as a man. Another school of thought says there was originally a wheel (dharmachakra) on top of the capital, supported by the four lions. That the capital was originally crowned with the wheel is attested by Hsuan Tsang, a seventh century Chinese traveller who recorded his visit to the pillar.

While debate continues over the origin and structure of the pillar at Sarnath, the lion capital is now firmly entrenched as the national symbol of India, having appeared on the banknotes, coins and postage stamps of India. On the banknotes, it has taken several forms, with the most recognized form being found on the early notes. However, the Lion capital was redrawn on some of the later notes, becoming smaller and with less depth in the image. On these later images the motto in Devanagari script has appeared below the Lion capital. As Mahatma Gandhi has grown in importance as a national symbol in India, his image has replaced the Lion capital, both as the principal image on the banknotes and as the watermark. However, the Lion capital remains as a small device on the front of the latest issues, still with the motto.