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Sunday, 1 February 2015





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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 fluctuated.

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 imperialism.

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 Tamil.

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 time.


LANKAPUVATH - National News Agency of Sri Lank
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