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 Post subject: Ancient flags of Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Sun Nov 06, 2005 3:40 pm 
Ancient flags of Sri Lanka

@ Source : Sunday Observer

A variety of ancient flags of Sri Lanka can be seen at museums, temples and other historical places. These ancient flags represent the many different kingdoms, provinces and districts that existed in our country at some time, as well as the different chiefs who ruled the country and those assigned to the various temples. A large number of such flags existed, bearing their own emblems identifying the province, chieftain or group.

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These flags and banners were displayed prominently at community gatherings ordered by the king. They were made of locally woven cloth, printed using wooden blocks and coloured with natural pigments. They came in a multitude of shapes, sizes and designs and were evidence to the creativity and skill of the flag designers of the past.

According to the Mahavansa, the tradition of using flags in Sri Lanka goes back to King Devanampiyatissa (210-250BC) who used colourful flags to mark the boundary of the Mahamevna Uyana which was to be donated to Buddhist priests. The same chronicle says King Dutugemunu (161-137BC) decorated the Lovamahapaya with gold and silver flags. The flags used by the latter and King Elara are depicted in a mural at the Dambulla Temple.

In the olden days Sri Lanka was divided into three divisions, Ruhunu, Maya and Pihiti, with each of them divided into kingdoms, provinces and districts. Boundaries were assigned for each of these and the boundary stones were given different symbols.

The banners with such symbols go back to the 15th century when King Parakramabahu (1412-1467) reorganised the borders. With the advent of the Portuguese in the 16th century, these ancient emblems were changed by the Sinhala kings to suit European trends.

Between 1515 and 1597, the island was divided into four kingdoms - Kandy (Udapas Rata), Sitawaka (Mayadunne Rata), Jaffna and Hath Korale (later classified as a province) and four provinces- Hath Korale, Matara, Denewaka Adhikaraya and Nuwarakalaviya Adhikaraya.

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The ancient banner of Kandy was adopted from the Sinhala royal flag which depicts a golden lion holding a sword upright in a bright red background. The Sitawaka flag shows an elephant on a green background. The Jaffna banner is of a gemini holding a lyre (veena).

Though this flag hasn't been found, it is believed to show a yellow lyre in a brown background. The Hath Korale flag with an intricate border depicted a red lion in a white background. This flag can be found at the Kumbaldivella Temple, Kegalle while the Kundasale Vihara, Kandy has a similar flag.

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The Portuguese and Dutch periods saw these territories being reorganised, a larger number of smaller divisions being formed and separate flags being assigned for them all. Accordingly, the Uva Maha Disawa flag depicted a swan while the Matale Maha Disawa had a white flag. The swan flag is said to have been presented to Angamuwa Dissawa by King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe (1798-1815). What the flags of the Minor Disawas depict are described below:

Tun Korale - a double-headed mythical eagle called 'Bherunda Pakshiya'

Walapone - a peacock within a border, with bo leaves at each corner (this flag is preserved at the Dalada Maligawa)

Udapalatha - the sun and lotus flowers

Wellassa - two leopards on a field scattered with stars, and a lotus in a corner

Bintenna - a parrot (can be seen at the Colombo Museum)

Thamankaduwa - a black bear on a red background with a yellow border and bo leaves on the four corners (The Polonnaruwa district had also used this flag. It is said that the flag was designed to show the strength of King Parakramabahu who killed a bear with his bare hands.)

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Although most ratas (districts) didn't have banners of their own, Udunuwara had the Kinduru flag depicting a figure blowing a conch shell. It is human above the waist with human arms, and a bird or fish below waist with small wings. This flag can be seen at the Colombo Museum and the Embekka Devale.

The flags of different provinces are as follows:

Hathara Korale - the sun and the moon (was presented by King Rajasinghe 1 (1581-1592) to a chieftain for his bravery.)

Matara - a small elephant (Matara was the headquarters of the chieftain in charge of the royal elephant during the Gampola and Kotte eras.)

Denewaka Adhikaraya - a yellow silk flag as yellow is sacred to God Saman of Sabaragamuwa which also comes under this province (two flags are preserved at Kundasale Vihara). Sabaragamuwa also had a red silk banner, depicting a cock and the Ravana Kodiya.

A flag depicting a cock (savul kodiya) was also used by King Mahasen (277-304). It is said that his temple flew this flag on a solid gold flagstaff. Similar flags symbolising the cock had been found at several Kandyan temples. The Kataragama Devale flag, bearing the image of the six-faced, 12-armed God Skanda on a peacock, was the flag for the Ruhuna district as well as for the Devale. Meanwhile, the flag of the Kataragama Devale in Kandy shows God Kataragama on a peacock, the sun and the moon on top and two small elephants below.

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Devinuwara (the city of gods) had in its flag a mythical image known as garuda (half man, half eagle). A seated Siva Natha with his weapon, the trident (thrishula) and a snake or discus in hand is the emblem of the Natha Devale flag.

Two crescent moons are on the top portion of the flag while there are antelopes and dancers at the bottom. The various chieftains such as nilames, lekams and muhandirams handling various administrative functions also had their own flags and banners.

The flags of the various chiefs of departments are as follows:

Maha Lekam (chief secretary) - a palm leaf register and pen

Gajanayake Nilame (in charge of the elephants) - an elephant

Kodithuwakku Nilame - a small cannon

Maha Lekam Department - a giant bird known as athkandalihiniya

Nanayakkara Lekam - a plain light blue silk banner

Atapattuwa Lekam - a bow, an unsheathed blade, scabbard (a sword-like weapon), disc, battle axe and drum

Wedikkara Lekam (in charge of the musketeers) - a plain red silk banner

Wadanatuwakkukara Lekam (in charge of military equipment) - a white silk flag Paidakkara/Panividakara Lekam - a red silk banner.

Not only districts, chieftains and temples, but also communities and castes had their own flags and banners. Castes were then decided by the various trades people were engaged in. One of the oldest such flags is the Salagama weavers' flag, also known as 'Namediri' which dates to the 14th century.

Namediri was the name of the first chief of this caste. This flag, which we showed you last week, depicts various scenes of the arrival of the caste members from South India. The Karawe caste (fisherfolk) had several banners of which one, known as 'Makara flag' was white with an image of a fish in the centre.

Another showed a man (probably the chief of the caste) riding an elephant surrounded by the sun, moon, stars, fish, pearl umbrellas, ceremonial fans, conch shells, water snake, lotus flowers and a shield.

The Portuguese period saw symbols such as the cross being added to this flag. This caste had another religious banner which depicted a cross, stars and flowers.

The flag of the Nawandanno was known as the Hanuman flag and consisted of two different designs.

One shows Vishwakarma (the architect of the universe) throned atop the Himalaya with a sceptre (symbol of power) and a book of arts and crafts in each hand.

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Hanuman, the lord of the monkeys, has in his hand a magic shrub. Tiny bells are tied to his right leg and tail. The sun is seen on top of the flag while blacksmiths at work appear at the bottom. Hanuman holds pride of place in the other flag. He is in fine garments with gold chains, bells and bracelets and has on his hand the magic shrub.

He faces the Vishwakarma who is holding the sceptre. The sun and the moon are also depicted here. It is believed that the Durawa caste also had their own flag known as the Adealam flag.

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However, its appearance is unknown as no specimens of the flag had ever been discovered. The many flags used those days were mainly divided into two main sections - Daja and Pataka - depending on their size and shape.

Those that hung from an angular point to the flag-pole were known as Daja (pennon/flag) while those that stretched along the pole were known as Pataka (banner). The flagpoles were usually made of wood like bamboo, kele, sapu and khomba and was twice as long as the length of the standard.

The different sizes again divided flags into eight sections - Jaya, Vijaya, Bhima, Chapala, Vaijayanthika, Dirgha, Visala and Lola. Jaya was five cubits long and one cubit wide; each flag that followed was bigger by a cubit in length and a foot in breadth than its predecessor. The colours of the above flags were also different; red, white, pink, yellow, multi-coloured, green, purple and black respectively.

Flags and banners were carried during religious and cultural pageants of ancient Sri Lanka. These events were patronised by the kings and saw people from different parts of the country gathering under their respective banners.

Lion flag

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The lion being identified as the national symbol of Sri Lanka dates to 544BC, to the arrival of Prince Vijaya from India. It is said that on landing, he kissed the sand, called it 'thambapanni' and planted a flag depicting a lion they had with them, on the ground. This landing, complete with the prince hoisting the lion flag, is shown on a stone carving in Sanchi, India.

There is evidence that King Dutugemunu continued to use the lion flag as the royal standard and that the practice was carried on until the Sri Lankan Kingdom fell to the British during King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe's regime, in 1815. Ola manuscripts discovered from the Malwatte Vihara, Kandy state that this king used four flags; three of them depicted the lion while the other was the Davunda flag which he used during wars.

Governing of foreign forces

These national treasures started gradually disappearing with the governing of foreign forces. However, the latter part of the British era saw a revival in archaeology and most ancient Sri Lankan flags and banners, which otherwise would have disappeared altogether, were restored.

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Former Archaeological Commissioner H.C.P. Bell was the first to draw attention to the Sinhala flags and banners and some of them were reproduced in his 'Report on the Kegalle District'. After Sri Lanka came under British rule, Britain's Union Jack was used as the island's national flag until 1948 when the country regained independence.

A lion flag resembling that of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe was hoisted on this occasion by the country's first Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake. The national flag as we know it today was accepted in the 1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka.


Facts: Ancient Flags of Sri Lanka by T.M.G.S. Silva

Related articles:
:arrow: The Sri Lankan Lion flag -how it came to be
:arrow: National Flag of Sri Lanka


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