Funday Times - Our Heritage

Attractive flags of the ancient royalty

Gaveshaka continues to explore heritage through stamps

A flag is a piece of cloth or similar material, typically oblong or square, attachable by one edge to a pole or rope and used as the symbol or emblem of a country or institution or as a decoration during public festivities. This is the definition of a flag according to the Oxford Dictionary.

The national flag symbolises a country. It is flown by the government in all state institutions to mark special occasions and also by citizens of the country. Both public and private buildings such as schools and courthouses may fly the national flag.

Sri Lanka boasts of a long history of a national flag dating back to the days of the ancient kings. There is mention in historical records how the kings went to battle carrying banners. A mural in the Dambulla rock temple depicts a scene of the decisive battle between King Dutugemunu, the national warrior and King Elara both carrying banners. Dutugemunu's banner is seen with a royal lion carrying in its raised right paw a sword and also the emblems of the sun and moon while that of Elara is a plain banner with four horizontal lines.

Flags and banners in ancient Sri Lanka were linked predominantly with the royalty and Buddhist pageantry. There is mention that the sacred Tooth Relic had been taken in procession from the 3rd century onwards. Flags would have been a feature of these processions. The world renowned Kandy Esala Perahera where a variety of flags are carried, dates back to several centuries.

A colourful set of stamps released in December 1980 depict four flags of the early times. A significant feature in most ancient flags is the depiction of a lion. It is mentioned that the lion was considered
fortunate and auspicious.

The flag used, in the Rs. 1.60 stamp is the closest to Sri Lanka's national flag currently being used, where the lion is the central figure. The one shown here was known as the 'Rajakeeya dhajaya' or the King's Standard. A walking lion carrying a sword in its right fore-paw is the predominant figure in the stamp within a plain border with four bo-leaves in the four corners.

Sri Lankan politician and freedom fighter E. W. Perera in his publication ' Sinhalese Banners and Standards' (1916) states that this flag was seen by him at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, London and he identifies it as King Sri Vickrema Rajasinghe's standard. The last Sri Lankan king ruled from Kandy from 1798 to 1815.

This is one of the king's three flags captured by Captain William Pollock of the 51st Regiment on September 13, 1803. It had been given over by the East India Company which was administering the areas captured by the British before Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was made a Crown Colony, to the Chelsea Hospital for safe keeping in 1835.

Another lion is depicted in the Rs. 20 stamp which was the Sinhala Royal Flag of Ratnapura. Here the walking lion is holding a whip in its raised fore-paw within an ornamental border. It is the whip of authority which according to tradition is cracked ahead of the sovereign and the 'adigar' (chief minister) in processions. Today the whip crackers lead the Kandy Perahera when they march ahead indicating the arrival of the procession. This is one of the three flags of the last king of Kandy.

A broad yellow border with traditional motifs adorns the flag. 'The 'Hastiya maha kodiya' or the Elephant Flag in the 25 cents stamp has been the flag of the Gajanayaka Nilame, the official in charge of
elephants in the royal palace. The flag carries an image of a fully caparisoned elephant holding a flower at the tip of its trunk. Here too, a broad ornamental border is seen. The flag had been found at Huduhumpola, Kandy. Obviously it would have been used in the king's palace.

Even after the Kandyan kingdom was taken over by the British, the title of Gajanayaka Nilame
continued to be used for the official in charge of elephants in the Sri Dalada Maligawa.

He occupies a prominent position in the Kandy Perahera. As the name suggests, a peacock is the central figure in the 'Mayura maha kodiya' or the Peacock Flag seen in the 10 cents stamp. The peacock was the emblem of the Walapane Disawa, a regional head of the Walapane region during the time of the King of Kandy.

The peacock in all its splendour is seen in the stamp holding a snake in its beak. The ornamental border is narrower than the ones in the other flags. The flag had been found in the Gangarama Viharaya in Kandy.

There have been other flags of the Walapane Disawa, also featuring the peacock. One had depicted the peacock trampling a snake. While the peacock is the centre figure, these flags had featured
additional symbols like the sun and the moon or a man blowing a conch shell.

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