The sensational saga of the lion flag
The lion flag will flutter again on February 4 against Lankan skies.
Have you ever wondered on its journey?
The lion flag - alterations
have been done to it from time to time
Simple, you will say. Prince Vijaya and his retinue brought it to our
shores, some may answer. But no historical records, as books and
inscriptions testify to such a royal baggage. Going by extant historical
sources, Vijaya and his group were just aimlessly sailing on the high
seas looking for a suitable land to settle. Needless to emphasise that
they had no set itinerary and no flag to flaunt their might.
But to make up for this lacunae they carried a memory, the memory of
a lion enmeshed in the wilds of Bharatha Desha, their motherland.
Exactly when this majestic beast pirouetted its mighty way into the
national flag of the island too is not clear.
To make matters more mysterious, no literary sources nor inscriptions
seem to wax on its history. So how does one set about the challenging
task of tracing its saga? The first earnest attempt to delve into the
history of the Lion Flag, seems to have been initiated by a committee
headed by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and that was on the threshold of
independence in 1948. Its task was to find a suitable flag to hoist at
this spectacular occasion. The intensive investigations naturally picked
on this flag sporting a beast of valour and melodramatically appearing
on and off the historical events of the island.
The heraldic lion, they discovered had been used in ancient
sculpture, pottery and carvings with the Dambulla frescoes containing
one of the earliest representations of the symbol. At the coronation
ceremony of king Parakramabahu VI 6th in 1415 it had risen in glorious
splendour over the resplendent city of Sri Jayewardenepura.
It again finds mention in a Belgian physician’s narrative that
indicates how at a military pageant it rose half mast in Dutch occupied
Lankan terrain when king Rajasinghe 11 expired.
That was at the end of the 17th century. Came 1815 and the end of
Lanka’s hitherto well guarded sovereignty. The historic flag came down
ignominiously in no less a palace than the foreyard of the Dalada
Maligawa. Legend has it that a prelate named Ven. Wariyapola Sumangala
campaigned against the hoisting of the British flag before bringing down
the Lion flag ceremoniously. But it was useless. The deed was done and
no more did it flutter anywhere in glory.
Yet, before going on, the episode of this flag staged at Hanwella
needs recounting. King Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe was yet to become the
latter day tyrant. He fought against the British bravely in early 19th
century, somewhere around 1803, at the waterfront of Kelani foregoing
the flag in one confrontation as researched history testifies.
Though a committee itself was appointed to investigate the flag’s
history, it had not found much favour with the main statesman of the
time, D.S. Senanayake. The person who finally discovered it was the
famous E.W. Perera. It was this flag that flew at the Independence
Square that day in 1948.
The discovery itself deserves a flow of many words. Its authenticity
was entrenched by the caption that described it as it lay forlorn at a
hospital in Central London. It was captured by Capt. Pollock of the 51st
British Regiment at a battle between the two parties and brought over to
England. It could be the famous Hanwella battle where fortunes
That E.W. Perera played a major role in its discovery is no news. He
was a man of many parts. Belonging to an ancient family of Kotte of the
Wasala Thanthrige clan, his ancestors belonged to the community of
converts who embraced a new faith, following the sensational Kotte
politics. Though he gave up his initial religion due to family tradition
he was intensely patriotic and was dismayed by the loss of the ancient
and medieval books and artefacts of Lanka due to the scourge of
Though of much attractive and virile looks, remaining a bachelor, he
took to wandering all over the island searching for facets of the lost
treasure. He even accumulated some of his findings in a great book
titled Sinhalese banners and standards and it was while researching for
this that he was struck by the absence of the lion flag anywhere. Where
was it? He had heard rumours of its removal to England.
To his luck and the country’s luck, Perera got embroiled in the
country’s politics too at the time. There was much frustration at the
British maladministration (heightened by the aftermath of Torrington’s
rule) and Perera by a closed circle was chosen as the man who could
convey the news to the home government in an informal way.
A rich man, no doubt, he funded his own oceanic journeys since air
travel though begun was still not popular.
On one of these errands he began his search for the flag aided by
Lord Stanmore, former Arthur Gordon, one time British Governor of Ceylon
who informed him that much of the artefacts and other goods confiscated
from the colonial empire lay neglected in Chelsea Hospital of London.
Perera soon visited the place and there after many “Detours “ and
botched attempts at retrieval was the famous flag, a key plate
identifying it as one brought over from Ceylon.
But did he become its owner? No. He was not allowed to own it and
bring it back. He next courted the assistance of a printing press,
Southwood company of London to make a copy of it. It was this copy that
he brought over. But events following too were not smooth sailing.
D S Senanayake, the father of the nation and our first PM was not
ready to accept it with open arms. This was due to communal disharmony
brewing at the time. Events had disclosed that the flag’s last user was
Sri Wicrema Rajasinghe, a Nayakkar. There had been wavering as to its
use as late as December 22,1947 as apparent from a declaration by the
father of the nation himself.
But the very next month, Mr. Sinnelebbe, the MP For Batticaloa
brought in the motion.
“That this Lion flag depicting a yellow lion holding a sword in the
right paw on a red background which was removed to England after the
convention should once again be adopted as the official flag of free
Lanka. This brings in two flags, identical no doubt but taken to England
on different occasions. No doubt, they were unceremoniously bundled
together and left to recuperate in a hospital till the right person came
along to take them back to where they really belonged.
But the sensational part of the story does not end here. At its debut
in the Independence celebrations in 1946, D.S. Senanayake tactfully and
humorously used it to salve the rising animosity between the two
communal groups via a flag. Here said,
“It is a well-known fact that this flag happens to be the last flag
of the king of Kandy and we all know that the last king of Kandy is a
But still I proclaim it as the Sinhalese flag because I embrace the
Tamils now as the Sinhalese embraced the Tamils then.” Certain
alterations had been done to the lion flag since then, from time to