Funday Times - Our Heritage

The quest for the right song
Gaveshaka discusses the birth of the National Anthem

A country's national flag and the national anthem are symbols of that country's pride. They illustrate the people's patriotism and represent its sovereignty and independence. When a country is under the
domination of a foreign power, these are not given any priority. When we were under the British, we flew the Union Jack, Britain's national flag, and sang the British national anthem, 'God Save the King (or Queen). '

When we gained Independence, the search for a national flag and a national anthem began. The Lion Flag was adopted as the national flag in March 1951, when Parliament accepted the recommendation of the Flag Committee. 'Namo namo matha' written and composed by reputed musician Ananda Samarakoon was officially accepted by the Government as the country's national anthem on November 22, 1951.

Ananda Samarakoon

Prior to the acceptance of 'Namo namo matha' several songs had been used at various times as the 'unofficial' national anthem. Among them was a song composed by Ananda Samarakoon himself in 1939, based on the Indian anthem. The Ceylon National Congress had their own 'national anthem' – a song written by D. S. Munasinghe set to a tune composed by well known musician Devar Surya Sena.

Just before the Independence celebrations in 1948, a high-powered committee comprising of educationists and musicians was appointed to select a suitable song. At the second Independence Day celebrations, 'Namo namo matha' was sung by the Museaus College choir although it had not been officially recognised as the national anthem.

Samarakoon himself has said that he wrote 'Namo namo matha' one evening in October 1940, when he was the music teacher at Mahinda College, Galle. "My patriotic feelings had been aroused after a trip to India. I felt the need for a patriotic song that suited the country with such a rich heritage.

I felt restless that evening. I thought for a long time and when I got to bed around 10 o'clock having switched off the lights, suddenly I hit upon the words and the tune. I got up early morning and wrote it down. The next day I taught a batch of students to sing the song." This is how he had described the birth of the national anthem.

It was on a Cabinet paper submitted by Minister of Home Affairs O. E. Goonetilleke in June 1951, that 'Namo namo matha' was accepted as the national anthem. Except for one change in the opening line made in 1962 (from 'Namo namo matha' to 'Sri Lanka matha'), the song has remained intact to date.

Other famous national anthems

With our close ties with India, it was natural for our musicians to adapt India's national anthem 'Jana gana mana adhinayaka jaya he' as a possible anthem for Sri Lanka. Written by the great Indian, Rabindranath Tagore, it was accepted by the Indian National Congress in December 1911 and after Independence was adopted by the Constituent Assembly as the national anthem.

The British 'God save the King' is one of the oldest – if not the oldest – national anthem known. It dates back to 1745, when it was sung in London as a patriotic song. Though the composer is not known, evidence indicates it had been in existence from the 17th century. It is said that by 1847, it had become
customary to greet the king with the song as he entered a place of public amusement.

During the days of the British Empire, the colonies used the same song. In Sri Lanka, the practice of playing the national anthem in the cinemas before the screening of a film began then and is continued to date.

The French national anthem 'La Marseilles' was first a marching song in the army. After declaring war on Austria in April 1792, the French army found it necessary to stir up the new recruits. A captain amidst them, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle who was a talented musician was asked to compose a marching song. And he did. The soldiers marching from Marseilles to Paris sang it with so much keenness that it came to be known as 'La Marseilles.' In July 1795, it was accepted as the national anthem. After several bans following the ascendance of Napoleon, it was finally restored in 1879.

The US national anthem 'The Star Spangled Banner' has been in existence since September 1814. It was written by a US lawyer Francis Scott Key when he was trying to rescue his brother who had been taken prisoner by the British during the war of 1812. He was detained on board a ship due to the British bombing of Fort McHenry. He was overjoyed when he realized the next morning that the fort had not been captured and wrote his feelings on an envelope. It was later published and used by the army and the navy as their anthem but did not gain recognition as the official national anthem until 1931.

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