Sunday 25, January 1998


The story of our Lion Flag

by Padma Edirisinghe

Do only designated story-tellers own stories? No. Every human owns a story. At least the story of his or her life. It could be an interesting story or a dull one, a happy story or a sad one or a mix of both elements. Even each house or a building for that matter has its own story and of course each village, town, city and country and every other geographical entity. So do items of note, even hoary items as national flags own their own stories.

The Committee appointed on the threshold of independence to look into the matter of the National Flag that was headed by Hon. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike carried out intensive investigations into the early existence and use of the Lion flag and the Lion as a symbol of the country. The Heraldric Lion, they discovered had been used in ancient sculpture, pottery and carvings. The Dambulla frescoes are said to contain one of the earliest Lankan representations of this symbol.

On the occasion of the coronation of King Parakramabahu 6th in 1415 it had flown over the resplendent city of Sri Jayawaddanapura Kotte. A Belgian physician who had been an eye-witness at the funeral ceremonies of Rajasinghe II of Kandy had written that the Dutch who staged a military pageant in Colombo to mark the occasion had used it.

Anyway this Lion Flag bound inexorably with the country's history came down ignominiously on a sad March day in the year 1815 within the precincts of the most sacred place of Buddhists in the country, the Dalada Maligawa itself.

The story of events leading to the re-adoption of this flag as the official flag of the nation tinctures of an element of surprise. The flag seems to have been rather under-valued in the 1940s as the royal Standard of the last king of Lanka of Tamil ethnic connections. There has been wavering as to its use as late as 22nd December, 1947 as apparent from this speech by Mr. D. S. Senanayake made on that day.

"The Cabinet has not yet come to any decision with regard to this matter. (use of the Lion flag)

Some regard the Union Jack as the National flag and some regard the Lion Flag as the National Flag." The very next month just on the threshold of independence, an MP for Batticaloa had given notice of the following motion that came for discussion on January 16, 1948. He is Mr. Sinnelebbe.

"That this House of opinion that the Royal Standard of King Sri Wickrema Raja Sinha 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, should once again be adopted as the Official Flag of Free Lanka."

The subsequent debate on the motion had been a most animated one with the Marxists opposing and opting for the Hammer and sickle flag. However, all the Sinhalese members were for it with the minorities generally agreeing on condition that little alterations are made to represent them. But the Tamil leaders demanding a Federal government wanted a totally new flag. Perhaps it is in the context of the heated opposition by the Tamil leaders soliciting federalism that Mr. D. S. Senanayake closing the debate had highlighted the fact that the last king of Lanka who used it was of Tamil ethnic connections.

It is a well known fact that this flag happens to be the flag of the last King of Kandy, and we all know that the last King of Kandy was a Tamil. But still I am proud to proclaim this as the Sinhalese Flag, because I embrace the Tamils now as the Sinhalese embraced the Tamils then. We claim the flag to be a Sinhalese Flag although we inherited it from a Tamil King.

Goes on the Prime Minister.

If we are going to have a flag ceremony at all, I want the Lion Flag hoisted for this main reason. When we lost our country, when the people chose the King of England as their Sovereign, this was the flag of the last Kandyan King who was dethroned that was pulled down. Now that England is transferring sovereignty to the people of this Island, I want England also to replace that flag along with the sovereignty that they are giving us back. It is for this main reason that we intend hoisting this flag on Independence Day.

After this flag is hoisted, if it is the general wish of everyone that we should alter it, then a suitable flag should be hoisted according to the wishes of the people. I will not mind if, after the Lion Flag is hoisted, it is replaced by some other flag.

At this time it is the emblem of transfer of sovereignty that we want to celebrate. "Subsequent to these proceedings a Committee had been appointed to advise the government on the question of the National flag, a committee headed by Hon. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and comprising Mr. G. G. Ponnambalam, Mr. T. B. Jayah, Hon. J. L. Kotelawala, Hon. Dr. L. A. Rajapakse, Mr. S. A. Natesan and Hon. Mr. J. R. Jayewardene Leaving the investigations and recommendations of this Committee to a later article we shall now proceed to the very interesting aspect or story of how the flag or an identical likeness of it, that was brought down on March 2 was found thousands of miles away. The writer had promised a story at the outset and some readers would get disappointed that this essay is tapering to its end with a dry Commission Report however significant it is.

This flag, according to "Sinhalese banners and standards" by Mr. E. W. Perera, had been captured by Captain William Pollock of the 51st Regiment on and was known as the War Standard of the king of Kandy. What is the source of this vital information? Not any Lankan source but a notice board in Chelsea Hospital off London, a notice board placed beneath a coloured key-plate on a wall.

Read what the discoverer of the flag himself, Mr. E. W. Perera, writes on the matter "I discovered the missing banner quite unexpectedly at the Chelsea Hospital. Acting upon a suggestion by the late Lord Stanmore (the Hon. Sir Arthur Gordon) who evinced a lively interest in the subject, I visited that institution and was rewarded with the discovery of three Ceylon banners. A coloured key-plate on the wall led to the discovery of the flags which were hanging in the Great Hall along with other standards and the eagles of Napolean... Two were, judging from the key plate clear representations of the royal flag and the other, probably the banner of Atapattuwe Lekam."

Mr. E. W. Perera had sketched the flags from the key-plate while the royal flag itself was later copied in colours shortly after by Messrs. Southwood & Co, Regent Street, London Mr. E. W. Perera in the introduction to his great work, "Sinhalese banners and standards" (graciously lent to writer by Mr. Douglas Ranasinghe) thanks Mr. D. R. Wijewardena for permission to reproduce it. If any reader can throw light on this connection it would certainly be helpful.

Mr. E. W. Perera's name is hence inexorably linked with the re-discovery of our Lion Flag. Of course it is not identical with its present form since the flag found in Chelsea Hospital underwent alterations on the suggestions of the National Flag Committee.

His hunt for the National Flag had been very intensive. He writes in this same introduction referred to, "While in London, I attempted to trace the Sinhalese royal flag from a statement by Bennet that the banner of the last king of Kandy was deposited at Whitehall together with the eagles of Napolean."

But the search had proved fruitless and then information had been received that they were at Chelsea Hospital but was again told that no Kandyan flags were there. Then he had gone on to inspect the College of Arms that also included the charges of the arms of Governor Brownrigg who was the governor at the time of the capture of the Kandyan kingdom. But again he was disappointed when on a sudden visit to Chelsea Hospital he found the banner there which was finally to be adopted with a few alterations as the National Flag of Lanka on her Independence achieved in 1948.