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Flags galore

One of Sri Lanka’s most valuable flags, the Salagama Brahmana flag which dates back to the 13th century.

Some of you may have seen a variety of ancient flags of Sri Lanka at museums, temples and other historical places. You may have at least seen pictures of them. Do you know what they are?

These ancient flags represent the many different kingdoms, provinces and districts that existed in our country at some time, as well as the different chiefs who ruled the country and those assigned to the various temples. A large number of such flags existed, bearing their own emblems identifying the province, chieftain or group.

These flags and banners were displayed prominently at community gatherings ordered by the king. They were made of locally woven cloth, printed using wooden blocks and coloured with natural pigments. They came in a multitude of shapes, sizes and designs and were evidence to the creativity and skill of the flag designers of the past.

According to the Mahavansa, the tradition of using flags in Sri Lanka goes back to King Devanampiyatissa (210-250BC) who used colourful flags to mark the boundary of the Mahamevna Uyana which was to be donated to Buddhist priests. The same chronicle says King Dutugemunu (161-137BC) decorated the Lovamahapaya with gold and silver flags. The flags used by the latter and King Elara are depicted in a mural at the Dambulla Temple.

In the olden days Sri Lanka was divided into three divisions, Ruhunu, Maya and Pihiti, with each of them divided into kingdoms, provinces and districts. Boundaries were assigned for each of these and the boundary stones were given different symbols.

The banners with such symbols go back to the 15th century when King Parakramabahu (1412-1467) reorganised the borders. With the advent of the Portuguese in the 16th century, these ancient emblems were changed by the Sinhala kings to suit European trends.

Between 1515 and 1597, the island was divided into four kingdoms - Kandy (Udapas Rata), Sitawaka (Mayadunne Rata), Jaffna and Hath Korale (later classified as a province) and four provinces- Hath Korale, Matara, Denewaka Adhikaraya and Nuwarakalaviya Adhikaraya.

The ancient banner of Kandy was adopted from the Sinhala royal flag which depicts a golden lion holding a sword upright in a bright red background. The Sitawaka flag shows an elephant on a green background. The Jaffna banner is of a gemini holding a lyre (veena).

Though this flag hasn't been found, it is believed to show a yellow lyre in a brown background. The Hath Korale flag with an intricate border depicted a red lion in a white background. This flag can be found at the Kumbaldivella Temple, Kegalle while the Kundasale Vihara, Kandy has a similar flag.

The Portuguese and Dutch periods saw these territories being reorganised, a larger number of smaller divisions being formed and separate flags being assigned for them all. Accordingly, the Uva Maha Disawa flag depicted a swan while the Matale Maha Disawa had a white flag. The swan flag is said to have been presented to Angamuwa Dissawa by King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe (1798-1815). What the flags of the Minor Disawas depict are described below:

Tun Korale - a double-headed mythical eagle called 'Bherunda Pakshiya'

Walapone - a peacock within a border, with bo leaves at each corner (this flag is preserved at the Dalada Maligawa)

Udapalatha - the sun and lotus flowers

Wellassa - two leopards on a field scattered with stars, and a lotus in a corner

Bintenna - a parrot (can be seen at the Colombo Museum)

Thamankaduwa - a black bear on a red background with a yellow border and bo leaves on the four corners (The Polonnaruwa district had also used this flag. It is said that the flag was designed to show the strength of King Parakramabahu who killed a bear with his bare hands.)

Facts and pic: Ancient Flags of Sri Lanka by T.M.G.S. Silva

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