WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan Lion flag -how it came to be


Sri Lanka's national flag is steeped in history and tradition. From its hoary past to the present day, the events linked with this national symbol of freedom and independence are so packed with drama, suspense, and political intrigue that it could easily go down in history as one of the most unique flags in the world.

Dutugemunuís flag which he carried after his victory over his enemies

Much of these fascinating and exciting events has however been forgotten in the mists of time, and many of our younger generation are unaware of the significance and importance of their National flag.

Many may not know that the birth of the Sinhala race began with the planting of the Lion flag for the first time in Lankan history. Here is how H.M. Herath describes this epoch making event in a recently published book on the National flag and National anthem of Sri Lanka.

He writes: "In about 486 BC, Prince Vijaya, the eldest son of Sinha Bahu, King of Sinhapura landed at Tammana with seven hundred companions from his father's kingdom in North India. So delighted was he, that he took a handful of sand and called it the land of the copper coloured sand, and planted the flag they were carrying (a flag with a lion symbol). He then kissed the sand and called it "Thambani." So began the history of Sri Lanka, the birth of the Sinhala race."

Copy of the flag of the Kandyan Kings in the 18th century, made according to the design of the original flag found in England.

If history had not yet begun to be written in Sri Lanka, how do we know about this event? Replies the author, "The inscription of this great and grand event on record is among the archaeological remains at the Sanchi stupa, an ancient Buddhist monument built during the reign of Emperor Asoka in the second century BC in the native state of Bhopal in India."

Since its arrival in Sri Lanka, the Lion flag has played a significant role in the political history of the country. To our monarchs of yesteryear it became a symbol of freedom and Hope. The warrior King Dutugemunu, used the heraldic lion carrying a sword on his right forepaw with two other symbols, the Sun and the Moon on his banner.

An illustration in the frescoes of the rock temple at Dambulla which traces the beginning of the Lion flag of Sri Lanka shows the victorious king proudly carrying his royal banner depicting the Lion symbol after he freed his people from foreign invaders.

As Herath points out, the lion symbol was used by the Lankan monarchs from the time of King Vijaya. This has been recorded in both the Mahavamsa and the Chulavamsa. The last king to use the flag as a symbol of national freedom was King Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe who was the last king of Sri Lanka, and whose rule ended in 1815.

Commenting on the significance of the emblems on the Royal Standard of Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe, Herath writes: "The heraldic Lion standing holding a sword upright by its right paw stands for Justice and Righteousness.


Flag of Kingdom of Udarata (Kandy)1469 - 1815

"Bordering this is a rectangular line with four Bo leaves at the four corners, symbolising Metta, Karuna, Muditha, Upeksha, called the 'Four Brahma-Viharana in Buddhist matbaphysics.

"The yellow border represents the Maha Singha who played an important role in guiding kings in ancient times and directed and participated in the emancipation of the country as recorded in the national chronicles." He adds, "All these emblems, on a brilliant background of crimson indicate immortality, and remained the Royal Standard of King Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe, the last king of Kandy."

The ceremony in which the flag was replaced by the British Union Jack was full of drama and colour. Describing it Herath writes: "The Kandyan Convention was proclaimed at 3.30 p.m. on March 2, 1815, in the Audience hall, then called the Magul Maduva of the Palace of Kandy.

This was signed by governor Robert Brownrigg on behalf of His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent, on the one hand, and the Adigars, Dissavas and other principal chiefs of the Kandyan Province. ...Outside, drums were beating all around the hall. British troops guarded all the entrances to it and also patrolled the streets. The treaty was next read aloud to the chiefs in Sinhala and both parties agreed to its contents.

The flag as it exists today.

Then the Lion flag was hauled down and the Union Jack took its place amidst salvoes of artillery and His Majesty King George III was acclaimed King of Ceylon."

But the act of hoisting the British flag in place of the Lion flag was premature, a violation of the law, as it was done before the last Kandyan chieftains had signed the treaty, and prompted retaliation from the Maha Sangha, a who were present on the occasion.

Herath re-enacts details of that suspenseful and dramatic epoch making event." " From amidst the spectators who watched this drama, stepped out a Buddhist monk, the Ven. Wariyapola Sumangala of the Asgiri fraternity. Fortified with confidence, fortitude, self-respect and patriotism he approached the English general to ask, "who gave you permission to hoist your flag here?

You have no right to do so - Yet." He then proceeded to pull down the Union Jack, trampled it and hoisted the Lion flag in its place. Only after chief Adigar Ehelepola had signed the Convention with much reluctance on March 10 that the Union Jack was hoisted."


     Union Jack flag c.1875 - 4 Feb 1948

Not many may know that the Royal standard of the last king of Lanka languished in a military hospital in London after the British took control of the Kandyan Kingdom.

According to Herath, it was removed to England by the British Raj and kept in the Royal Military Hospital Chelsea in London until a E. W. Perera, a staunch patriot also known as the Lion of Kotte, discovered it.

The first time the Lion flag became a centre piece of attraction and the public became aware of the actual design of the flag following the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom was when the Dinamina issued a special edition of the paper on March 2, 1915 to mark the centenary of the end of Sinhala independence, with the intention of re-kindling the desire of the people to win back the freedom they had lost to the British, Herath states. He adds, "On the front page were portraits of the last King and Queen of Kandy surmounted by the royal insignia Crown and the Lion flag in colour.

This was the first time since the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom that the people became aware of the actual pattern of their national flag."

Although the Ceylon Independence Act 1947 passed by the parliament of Britain stated that the flag of the British empire, the Union jack would continue to take precedence over the Lion flag, the national leaders of the time were openly opposed to such a decision.

Still, barely nineteen days prior to the dawn of Independence Day, Lanka's first Prime Minister Mr. D. S. Senanayake's cabinet had yet not taken a decision with regard to hoisting the National Flag on the first independence celebrations of February 4, 1948.

It was left to Mudaliyar A. L. Sinnelebbe, the Member of Parliament for Batticaloa to move a motion in parliament stating that, "This house is of the opinion that the Royal Standard of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe depicting a yellow lion passant holding a sword in its right paw on a red background, which was removed to England after the convention of 1815, be once again adopted as the official flag of free Lanka."

The flag was hoisted on that historic occasion amidst the joyous sound of temple bells, crackers and beating of tom toms by Lanka's first Prime Minister, and it occupied a pride of place when it replaced the Union jack at the Independence Square, Colombo on the occasion of the first session of Lanka's independent parliament which was opened by the Duke of Gloucester.

On March 6, the same year the Prime Minister appointed a seven member National flag Committee headed by the leader of the House Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike to advise him on the question of the National flag of Ceylon. After several sittings spread over two years, the committee gave its final recommendations on February 13, 1950.

"The Lion in gold on a crimson background has been retained. Four Bo leaves in gold have replaced the pinnacles at the four corners of the crimson background. Two vertical stripes of equal size in saffron and green represent the minority communities; the Muslims and the Tamils. The stripes in relation to the entire flag are in proportion 1:1:5.

A gold border runs around the flag." A detailed description of the emblems on the flag and their significance concludes this fascinating account of Lanka's national flag, followed by a short description of the origin and significance of the national anthem written by Ananda Samarakoon.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka