The pillar of Ashoka at Sarnath is among the earliest known stone sculptural remains from ancient India. There is only one other pillar fragment namely the ‘Pataliputra capital’ which is possibly from an earlier date. It is interesting to note that before the 3rd century BC, wood rather than stone was used as the main material for Indian architectural constructions. Stone may have been adopted following interaction with the Persians and the Greeks. The Greek Achaemenid column with lotus capital and animals at Persepolis is a possible source of inspiration for most of such pillars.
Incidentally the Ashoka pillar of Sarnath has been chosen as the national emblem of India thereby granting special relevance to Sarnath. It is noted for its realistic features as well as the characteristic polished finish which has given the stone surface a shiny look. It was probably built in the 3rd century BC.
All the pillars of Ashoka were built at Buddhist monasteries denoting the many important sites from the life of Lord Buddha and places of pilgrimage. Some were even erected to commemorate visits by Ashoka. Stone for the pillars were quarried from Chunar near Varanasi and from Mathura. The uniformity of style in the pillar capitals suggests that they were all sculpted by craftsmen from the same region. It would therefore seem that stone was transported from Mathura and Chunar to the various sites where the pillars have been found, and was cut and carved by there by the skilled craftsmen.
The pillars have four component parts in two pieces: the three sections of the capitals are made in a single piece, often of a different stone to that of the monolithic shaft to which they are attached by a large metal dowel. The shafts are always plain and smooth, circular in cross-section, slightly tapering upwards and always chiselled out of a single piece of stone. The lower parts of the capitals have the shape and appearance of a gently arched bell formed of lotus petals. The abaci are of two types: square and plain and circular and decorated and these are of different proportions. The crowning animals are masterpieces of Mauryan art, shown either seated or standing, always in the round and chiselled as a single piece with the abaci.
Sarnath - A Quest Within - Buddham Sharnam Gacchami