Posted on June 17th, 2016


When the Udarata kingdom went under the British rulers in 1815, the flag of the Sinhala king, Sri Wickrema Rajasinha was ceremonially replaced by the flag of the British king, George III. The Udarata flag was then sent to London.  Pieris says Brownrigg’s son hastened to England to lay the Lion Flag of Tri Sinhala at the feet of the Prince Regent.”

E.W. Perera was in London as a student in 1908. He had read in a book (Bennet) that the flag of the last king of Kandy was deposited in a museum in Whitehall. Perera went in search of it and eventually found it in Chelsea Hospital, a retirement home for British soldiers.  He found three Sri Lanka flags hanging in the great hall along with other banners. “They were hopelessly faded,’ said Perera, ‘the third could only be recognized after being renovated. Two were clearly representations of the royal banner and the other probably the banner of the Atapattu Lekam.’  Rev Edmund Peiris and D .R. Wijewardene, who was a student in London at the time, also saw these flags.  Wijewardene got the royal flag copied in color by a commercial artist from the firm Southwood and Co, Regent Street, London.  This copy was reproduced in E.W. Perera’s ‘Sinhalese banners and standards’ (1916). It has been observed that this lion does not resemble any of the lion motifs in Sri Lanka. It was drawn by a commercial British artist from a faded original and was clearly influenced by European heraldic lions.

In February 1948, Ceylon was preparing to celebrate Independence and had to decide on a national flag. Mudaliyar A. L. Sinnelebbe, Member for Batticaloa moved the following motion In State Council, “This house is of the opinion that the Royal Standard of King Sri Wickrema Rajasinha 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, be once again adopted as the official flag of free Lanka.” This proposal was seconded by A. E. Goonesinghe.  T.B. Jayah added that the lion flag is a flag with a history, a great flag.

  1. J. V. Chelvanayagam, Member for Kankesanturai opposed the lion flag, saying it was not a national flag, it is the Sinhala flag. K. Kanagaratnam, Member for Vadukoddai seconded it. Vanniasingham (Kopay) and K.V. Nadarajah (Bandarawela) also spoke. C. Suntheralingam said ‘hoist the lion flag and then change it afterwards.’ H. Sri Nissanka observed that ‘we are now under a new dispensation. The lion flag is the Sinhala flag, not the national flag and other communities can’t be asked to salute it’. Others   said that the lion flag was only the royal standard, not the national flag.  We need a new flag to represent the multi- ethnic character of the country, a flag for all communities, they said.  The national flag should be Lion, Nandi and crescent of the Muslims.

However, the lion flag was hoisted at the Independence function. It was also flown at the opening of Parliament. Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake and other authorities had prohibited any communal flags being hoisted on Independence Day.  Those who objected to the Lion flag could raise the Union Jack. All state buildings flew the Lion flag and Union Jack. But Jaffna had flown the Nandi (bull) flag and in Colombo several Tamil leaders, including Deputy Solicitor General M. Thiruchelvam flew the Nandi flag on their vehicles. This shows that the Tamil separatist movement was   already in existence and gathering momentum at the time of independence.

On March 6, 1948 the Prime Minister appointed a seven member National flag Committee headed by the Leader of the House. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, to make recommendations on the national flag. The other members were, G. G. Ponnambalam, T. B. Jayah, J. L. Kotelawela (later Sir John), Dr. L. A. Rajapakse (later Sir Lalitha), Senator S. A. Nadesan and J. R. Jayewardena.

The committee called for opinions from the public and got plenty.  They asked in their questionnaire whether ‘there is any flag used as the national flag of Ceylon at any time in the past which can be adopted as the flag of the dominion of Ceylon. If so give description with illustration and original references to this. Should it be adopted exactly as old or with modifications   or should it be a new flag.’ Many of those responding, (listed in Appendix II) favored the lion flag. Of 159 responses in Sinhala 120 were for lion flag. Of the 69 responding in English and Tamil 18 said yes to the lion flag.

P.E.P. Deraniyagala   sent the response, ‘Yes, there is the lion flag, adopt it without alterations. C.M. Austin de Silva J.C .de Lanerolle  and S.L.B. Kapukotuwa said the same.  W.G. Dahanayake said it would be vandalism to meddle with the oldest flag in the world. A.M.A. Azeez said no new flag was needed. But others disagreed. E.H. Reimers and M. Swamipillai said there was no earlier flag. S.A.W. Mottau, Assistant government Archivist said there was no national flag in existence. He had looked at all the Dutch and British records. ‘They do not speak of any such flag.’ J.H.O. Paulusz Government Archivist, also said no, but recommended the lion flag with modifications.

There were eleven sittings spread over two years from 1948-1950, during which Sir John Kotelawala had wanted to know, is the lion a male lion? National Flag Committee gave its recommendations on February 13, 1950. They recommended that the lion flag be retained intact. Two vertical stripes of equal size in saffron and green be added on the side, to represent the two minority communities, Tamils and Muslims. The proportions to be 1:1:5. All committee members signed, except for Nadesan who said that when the two stripes are outside the lion flag, minorities will feel subordinate. The stripes should be a part of the flag.

The new flag was passed in Parliament on 2nd March 1951 by 51 votes for, 21 against, with 8 abstaining.  The new flag was flown in Parliament on 31 March 1951. The art work was done by S.P.Charles under the direction of J.D.A. Perera, head of Government College of Fine arts. Between 1953 and 1972, Bo leaves replaced the ‘lotus buds’ of the original flag.  In 1972, the Bo leaves were made more prominent.

There is considerable evidence in support of a royal lion flag. Nissanka Malla (1187-96) had a lion throne. The flag of Parakrama Bahu VI (1470-1478), according to ‘Parakumba Sirita’    also showed a lion.  A Belgian physician who visited Ceylon in 1687 describes the the coat of arms of the King of Candea (Rajasinha II),   a red lion on a gold field.” The seal of the Maha vasala   of Wimaladharmasuriya II, (1687-1707) had a lion with right leg raised (en passant). When the Udarata delegation went to Thailand to get the upasampada, in 1753, the lion flag was flown on the Dutch ship.

The lion in the royal flag carried a whip. The whip was a symbol of authority. The king and the adigars, who represented the king, were preceded by kasakarayo cracking whips in the Udarata kingdom. The seal of Dharmapala (1551-97) found in a letter sent to the Queen of Portugal, had a lion holding a whip. The terracotta eave tiles in Kotte royal palace also had a similar lion. The cloth case of a talpat given to Dutch governor Simon during the reign of Wimaladharmasuriya II (1687-1707) had a lion carrying a whip in its paw.  I think that the lion in the flag copied by Southwood would also have held a whip. The flag was very faded and the artist, seeing the outline of the whip, would have thought it was a sword and filled it in.

In 2015, members of the Swarna Hansa Foundation had carried the lion flag minus the two stripes at a demonstration in front of the Bribery Commission premises. They were charged with distorting the national flag. The Foundation said at a press conference that the time had come to bring all communities under one flag.  The lion flag was the flag used in 1815 and 1948. Tissa Devendra confirmed that this was indeed the flag hoisted on 4. 2.1948 ‘which I watched. This group need not apologize’.

The Swarna Hansa position can be upheld. The new ‘dominion of Ceylon’, to which the State Council was acting as midwife in 1948, was not new at all.   It was not a ‘successor state’ to a British colony, as popularly held.   Ceylon was  simply  ‘regaining’ it’s independence and returning to its long standing position as an independent  sovereign state, a status it  lost in 1815 and demanded back ever since. There were Tamils and Muslims in the Udarata kingdom in 1815 and well before that too. Those    residing there would have been subjects of the Udarata king, visitors came in at the pleasure of the king. They all came under the authority of the king and his royal flag. Therefore the argument that ‘other communities cannot be asked to salute the lion flag’ is nonsense.

Some groups rejected the notion of a royal lion flag. Their comments are contradictory and sometimes loopy, but very entertaining.  One group said the lion flag was not a royal flag at all, it was the flag of a certain caste (name of caste withheld). Another group said the emblem of state in Udarata was a parasol like at Anuradhapura.  The Udarata king did not therefore need a flag. If he had one then it would have been described inIngirīsi Haṭana’ which gives descriptions of the royal symbols.  However, it is unlikely that the king did without a flag, since everybody else, including Disawa, Maha Lekam and Nanayakkara all had flags.

A third group said that the only Udarata flag with a lion was the Sat Korale flag. Brownrigg probably picked up a Sat Korale flag by mistake, during the takeover ceremony in Kandy in 1815 and sent it on to London. Sat Korale lion had feet and tail similar to the national flag lion, but   is looking back and is not holding anything. A fourth group said the Sinhala lion was actually a Dutch lion. Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) had used the image of a lion carrying a sword on the seal for his Dutch territories.  Holland thereafter continued to use this ‘Dutch lion’   in their provincial coats of arms. Udarata temples held many flags carrying Dutch lions. The Sinhala king would have seen them, got the Dutch lion copied on to a flag and waved it about because he admired the Dutch so much! (


  1. Ratanapala Says:

    There is a depiction of the Dutu Gamnunu – Elara elephant mounted duel at the Dambulle Raja Maha Vihara rock cave. It shows King Dutu Gamunu carrying a Lion Flag. I believe this temple rock painting goes back to King Valagam Bahu – grandnephew of King Dutu Gamunu’s time. If so it would be over 2000 years old and the oldest and continuously used national flag and emblem in the world.

  2. SA Kumar Says:

    All committee members signed, except for Nadesan who said that when the two stripes are outside the lion flag, minorities will feel subordinate. The stripes should be a part of the flag.- Well said Sir Senator S. A. Nadesan .

  3. Sooriarachi Says:

    It seems Senator Nadesan did not mind being subordinate to the British, and happily saluted the Union Jack, as the British masters favoured the minority communities, to subjugate the indigenous Sinhalese who were looking for independence.
    Reading Kamalika’s article, we could only admire and respect the Muslim and Malay leaders who took a principled stand and were in the forefront of supporting the Lion flag, without any racist feeling or inferiority, unlike Senator Nadesan. They were obviously principled leaders unlike Nadesan and company, who must have seen their favoured position evaporating with the exit of colonial masters, who severely damaged the continuity of the Sinhala heritage.

  4. SA Kumar Says:

    continuity of the Sinhala heritage- with you want other to part of your heritage also NOT part of your heritage.
    My Sinhala sakodaraya make you mind are We Demil part of your so call Sinhala heritage or NOT.

    NB/ including Deputy Solicitor General M. Thiruchelvam flew the Nandi flag on their vehicles. – NP ( Saiva TE) flag is Nandi(bull) .

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