of faith flies high
Today as we celebrate Vesak, D.C. Ranatunga unfurls the birth
of the Buddhist flag - a symbol of Buddhist unity and reverence,
created during the Buddhist revivalist movement in colonial
Today the six-coloured Buddhist flag will fly at every Buddhist
temple, home and public building throughout the country as a
symbol of respect and gratitude to Lord Buddha, the Great Teacher.
Temples will be full of devotees participating in religious
the village temple was the centre of activity - be it religious,
social or educational. The monk was the leader in the village.
His advice was sought on village affairs and he guided the
people. Particularly on Poya days, people gathered in the
temple to spend the day listening to Bana sermons, learning
the Dhamma and in meditation. They also discussed matters
concerning the village and planned activities for the welfare
of the village.
indicate that religious observances on Poya days had been
introduced from the time of King Devanampiyatissa. Special
festivals were organised to mark Vesak, Poson and Esala. The
golden era of Buddhism was during the Anuradhapura period
and the tempo was maintained during the Polonnaruwa period.
Thereafter, there was a decline and when the Portuguese came
they moved the people away from Buddhist values, customs and
continued during the Dutch period and steps were taken to
remove education from the temple and entrust it to the missionaries.
Governor Falk abolished the Poya holiday and made Sunday the
weekly holiday in November 1770. When the British took over,
they introduced the Sunday Holiday Act in 1817 when Robert
was Governor. From April 5, 1817, Sunday was declared a public
holiday. The Poya holiday was officially abolished - a privilege
enjoyed by the Buddhists since the introduction of Buddhism
in 247 B.C. With the abolition of the Poya holiday, Buddhists
did not have the freedom to observe Vesak, the most venerated
day in the Buddhist calendar.
acts by the British government to suppress Buddhism led to
a Buddhist revivalist movement which gathered momentum with
the arrival in Ceylon of Colonel Henry Steele Olcott, the
American Theosophist on May 17, 1880. A week later, Colonel
Olcott and a Russian lady in his party, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
embraced Buddhism at Vijayanandaramaya, Galle. On the same
day, May 25, he established the Galle Theosophical Society.
then began to work closely with Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda
Thero who spearheaded the Buddhist revivalist movement at
the time. A month later, on June 17, the Colombo Buddhist
Theosophical Society (BTS) was formed. Colonel Olcott gave
leadership to the Buddhists, uniting them and directing them
on how their lost rights could be gained.
the key activities planned by the Buddhists was the establishment
of Buddhist schools. Their reply to the Sunday schools started
by the missionaries to spread religious education was the
establishment of Buddhist Sunday schools. Colonel Olcott began
by setting up nine schools in the Colombo region. Ananda College
was started on August 17, 1895 in Pettah with C.W. Leadbeater
Encouraged by Olcott's initiative, Buddhist leaders began
setting up schools in the outstations as well. Thus Dharmaraja
College was established in Kandy on June 30, 1887 and Mahinda
College in Galle on February 2, 1892.
of a Buddhist Defence Committee in January 1884 under the
patronage of Colonel Olcott, mainly with the objective of
getting the Vesak Poya holiday restored gave an impetus to
the Buddhist revivalist movement. The British had not shown
any interest in restoring the Vesak holiday which the Buddhists
lost in 1770 during the Dutch rule.
A.P. Dharma Gunawardena was elected President of the Defence
Committee with Don Carolis Hewavitarana as Vice President.
Carolis Pujitha Gunawardena and H. A. Fernando functioned
as Secretary and Treasurer respectively. Colonel Olcott was
co-opted as an honorary member.
On a visit
to London in February 1884, Col. Olcott handed over a memorandum
to the Secretary of State for the Colonies requesting the
British Government to restore the Vesak holiday. Lord Derby,
the Secretary of State gave an assurance that the Governor
would be consulted on the matter. On March 27, 1885, Governor
Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon issued a proclamation declaring
Vesak Poya a public holiday. The Buddhists thus regained a
privilege they had lost for 115 years.
In a publication
on the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, Dr K. D. G. Wimalaratne,
Director of National Archives states that with the announcement
of the restoration of the Vesak holiday, the Buddhist Defence
Committee decided to celebrate the Vesak Poya which fell on
April 28, that year on a grand scale. A steering committee
comprising ten leading Buddhists of the day was appointed.
Serving on the committee were Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala
Thero, Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thero, Don Carolis Hewavitarana,
Muhandiram A.P. Dharma Gunawardena, William de Abrew, Carolis
Pujitha Gunawardena, Charles A. de Silva, N. S. Fernando,
Peter de Abrew and H.William Fernando.
felt the need for a Buddhist flag to be hoisted as a unifying
symbol of this memorable day.
symbolise the unity of the Buddhists and provide the Buddhist
public with a tool to display their reverence to the Buddha.
The members of the committee submitted designs for the flag
and the one submitted by Carolis Pujitha (C.P) Gunawardena
was accepted. Many, however, thought it was designed by Colonel
Olcott who himself admitted that the credit should go to "the
members of the Colombo Buddhist Theosophical Society".
of the flag appeared in the Sinhala newspaper 'Sarasavi Sandaresa'
on April 17, 1885. Colonel Olcott was away in India at the
a chapter to the Buddhist flag in 'Old Diary Leaves - Volume
III', Colonel Olcott refers to the "Colombo colleagues
who had the happy thought of devising a flag which could be
adopted by all Buddhist nations as the universal symbol of
their faith, thus serving the same purpose as that of the
cross for all Christians". He says: "It was a splendid
idea and I saw in a moment its far reaching potentialities
as an agent in that scheme of Buddhistic unity which I have
clung to from the beginning of my connection with Buddhism."
out that "our Colombo brothers had hit upon the quite
original and unique idea of blending in the flag the six colours
believed to have been exhibited in the aura of the Buddha"
Colonel Olcott states that the flag would have no political
meaning whatever but be strictly religious.
as mentioned in the 'Diary Leaves' are sapphire-blue (Nila),
golden-yellow (Pita), crimson (Lohita), white (Avadata), scarlet
(Mangasta) and a hue composed of the others blended (Prabashvara).
records show that the flag was ceremoniously hoisted at the
Deepadittarammaya, Kotahena on Vesak day 1885 (April 28) by
Venerable Migettuwatte Gunananda Thero. Flags were also hoisted
at the Maligakanda Pirivena, Hunupitiya and Kelaniya temples
and BTS headquarters in Colombo.
to the shape of the flag, Colonel Olcott says that, "It
was of the inconvenient shape of a ship's long, streaming
pennant, which would be quite unsuitable for carrying in processions
or fixing in rooms". He suggested that it should be made
of "the usual shape and size of national flags".
A sample that was made was unanimously accepted.
Buddhist flag as it is known today was born. "Accepted
by the chief priests as orthodox, it at once found favour,
and, on the Buddha's Birthday of that year (Vesak - 1886)
was hoisted on almost every temple and decent dwelling-house
in the Island. From Ceylon it has since found its way throughout
the Buddhist world. I was much interested to learn, some years
later, from the Tibetan Ambassador to the Viceroy, whom I
met in Darjeeling, that the colours were the same as those
in the flag of the Dalai Lama," Colonel Olcottt writes
in his 'Diary Leaves'.
the Buddhist flag is one of the prettiest in the world, the
stripes being placed vertically in the order mentioned earlier,
and the sequence of the hues making true chromatic harmonies.