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India just unveiled a giant statue of its national emblem. Some think it's too much

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Lions perched on top of a pillar, an image taken from an ancient sculpture - this has been India's national emblem since the country gained independence in 1947. It's on stamps, passports, coins and there are replicas of the original statue across the country. But now India's national emblem seems to have undergone a bit of rebranding, complete with a new bronze sculpture of the lions. It's huge - about 21 feet tall and weighing almost 10 tons. It sits on top of India's new parliament building and was unveiled last week by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

(APPLAUSE)

RASCOE: But not everyone is applauding. Opposing political parties in India say these lions look too large, they look too aggressive. Sunil Deore defended the lions. He's one of the co-designers of the new emblem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUNIL DEORE: (Non-English language spoken).

RASCOE: Deore told the Indian news network Republic World that he created an exact replica of the original sculpture. He blames the different appearance of the lions on the drastically different angle, towering over viewers way below on the street. It makes them seem more fierce, he says. But art historian Kavita Singh says there's an aesthetic difference, too.

KAVITA SINGH: They seem to be snarling and drawing back their lips in order to show very sharp teeth, including some very pronounced canines.

RASCOE: The original sculpture dates back to the reign of Emperor Ashoka in India, which began around 268 BCE. Its lions seemed a little tamer, more graceful, less menacing - at least to some modern eyes. The ancient emblem includes a base with a bull and a horse, plus a wheel known as a chakra. It includes the idea of the dharma, a complex term to explain, but Singh sums it up as this.

SINGH: The ethically guided way of life.

RASCOE: The chakra wheel is a symbol of that dharma. The placement of the lions in relation to the wheel is significant.

SINGH: When I was a student, I was told that these lions have their mouths open because they are roaring in order to proclaim the arrival of the dharma to all four corners of the world. So that's why there are four who are facing four different directions.

RASCOE: And many Indians understand this meaning when they see the national emblem.

HUMA GHOSH: We learnt about it in school, mainly while talking about Ashoka and his belief and faith in Buddhism and peace.

RASCOE: That's Huma Ghosh. She grew up in South Delhi and now lives in San Diego. She worries the new lion statue, with all those bared teeth, is a part of a larger trend in India, one she calls aggressive nationalism.

GHOSH: When I see it in this very inflated and large form, it feels strange. It's not what I grew up with. I grew up in an India that truly believed in secularism, where these same symbols represented something very different.

RASCOE: Now there are some people who like the towering new emblem and its fiercer lions - among them, India Today journalist Shiv Aroor.

SHIV AROOR: To me, it's very much in keeping with a country that faces a dangerous new world and has so much to protect.

RASCOE: A new symbol for a new age, one lawmakers will see as they walk into the new parliament building after it's completed this fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF A.R. RAHMAN'S "UNTHAN DESATHIN KURAL-INSTRUMENTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.