Sri Lanka celebrates the National Day | Sunday Observer

Sri Lanka celebrates the National Day

31 January, 2021
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa hoists the National Flag at the National Day 2020
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa hoists the National Flag at the National Day 2020

The National Day in Sri Lanka is celebrated annually on February 4, to mark the historical event of gaining independence from the British on February 4, 1948. The entire country rejoices with magnificent pomp and pageantry with the spirit of patriotism echoing in every nook and corner. The main celebrations will take place in Colombo under the patronage of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Commander-in-Chief.

Many national struggles were made in the history of Sri Lanka and on National Day all of these are remembered. The cynosure of all eyes would be the main National Day celebrations where the President will raise the National Flag. It is expected that the President in his address to the nation will highlight the achievements of the Government, raise important issues and pay tribute to the war heroes who laid down their lives and the national heroes of Sri Lanka.

The hoisting of the National Flag across the country is symbolic of national pride. You see the fluttering orange, green, and maroon flag – complete with a gold lion holding a kastane sword – adorning houses, buildings, and flagpoles. The three main colours of the flag represent the three main demographics in Sri Lanka – the maroon for the majority Sinhalese, the orange for Sri Lankan Tamils, and the green for Sri Lankan Muslims. The lion symbol dates back to 486 BC, when the first king of Sri Lanka, Vijaya, brought a royal standard with a lion from India to Sri Lanka.

The Galle Face Green is the usual site for National Day celebrations – this bustling coastal park was once the site of cannon warfare between the Dutch and the Portuguese; there are still historic cannons sitting along the beach. It features a 1.6km-long oceanside promenade and is considered to be the largest open-air space in Colombo.

Due to its location and size, the Galle Face Green is also a popular site for major political rallies and civic events, although everyone tends to put their differences aside for National Day preparations.

An extravagant military parade to pay tribute to the role of the military in Sri Lanka’s struggle for freedom, and its peaceful transition to independence will be part of the main celebration that will include a 21 gun salute to the President.

The parade will showcase the supremacy of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Police and the Civil Defence Force, and the commitment, bravery, national unity and determination to achieve peace is recollected in the minds of the people. Traditionally at 12 noon, the Sri Lanka Navy accords a 25 gun salute to the nation from the ceremonial naval gun battery at the Colombo Lighthouse. The ceremonies centered on the National Day will include cultural programs that highlight the best and brightest of Sri Lankan music, dance, and history that showcase national unity and culture. Besides, religious observances are also made in many places of worship around the country, wishing peace and prosperity for the country and the people.

The media also tries to promote ideas such as bravery, confidence, dedication, national unity, patriotism, nationalism, peace, national responsibility and awareness of national history in the minds of people. Sri Lanka is home to several major religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Roman Catholicism, and other Christian denominations. Each community celebrates National Day by holding religious ceremonies at their respective temples, kovils, mosques and churches depicting the diverse and multicultural range of celebrations.

A brief history

The history of Sri Lanka is intertwined with the history of the broader Indian subcontinent and the surrounding regions, comprising the areas of South Asia, Southeast Asia and Indian Ocean. The historical period begins in the 3rd century, based on Pali chronicles such as the Mahavansa, Deepavansa and Choolavansa.

These chronicles cover the period since the establishment of the Kingdom of Tambapanni in the 6th century BCE by the earliest ancestors of the Sinhalese. The first Sri Lankan ruler of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, Pandukabhaya, is recorded for the 4th century BCE.

The island was divided into numerous kingdoms over the following centuries, intermittently (between CE 993–1077) united under Chola rule. Sri Lanka was ruled by 181 monarchs from the Anuradhapura to Kandy periods. From the 16th century, some coastal areas of the country were also controlled by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Between 1597 and 1658, a substantial part of the island was under Portuguese rule.

Portugese Period (1505 – 1594)

Lourenzo de Almeida arrived in 1505 and found that the island, divided into seven warring kingdoms, was unable to fend off intruders. The Portuguese founded a fort at the port city of Colombo in 1517 and gradually extended their control over the coastal areas. In 1592, the Sinhalese moved their capital to the inland city of Kandy, a location more secure against attack from invaders. Intermittent warfare continued through the 16th century.

The Dutch captain Joris van Spilbergen landed in 1602, and the king of Kandy appealed to him for help. Rajasinghe II, the king of Kandy, made a treaty with the Dutch in 1638 to get rid of the Portuguese who ruled most of the coastal areas of the island.

The Dutch captured Colombo in 1656 and the last Portuguese strongholds near Jaffnapatnam in 1658. By 1660 they controlled the whole island except the land-locked kingdom of Kandy. The Dutch levied far heavier taxes on the people than the Portuguese had done.

Kandyan Period (1594 – 1815)

After the invasion of the Portuguese, Konappu Bandara (King Vimaladharmasuriya) intelligently won the battle and became the first king of the kingdom of Kandy. He built The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. The monarch ended with the death of the last king, Sri Wikrama Rajasinha in 1832.

Colonial Sri Lanka (1815 – 1948)

During the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain, fearing that French control of the Netherlands might deliver Sri Lanka to the French, occupied the coastal areas of the island with little difficulty in 1796. In 1802, the Treaty of Amiens formally ceded the Dutch part of the island to Britain and it became a Crown Colony. In 1803, the British invaded the Kingdom of Kandy in the first Kandyan War, but were repulsed.

In 1815 Kandy was occupied in the second Kandyan War, finally ending Sri Lankan independence.

The British found that the uplands of Sri Lanka were very suitable for coffee, tea and rubber cultivation. It was not until 1909 that constitutional development began, with a partly elected assembly, and not until 1920 that elected members outnumbered official appointees.

Independence Movement

The efforts of the constitutionalists led to the arrival of the Donoughmore Commission reforms in 1931 and the Soulbury Commission recommendations, which essentially upheld the 1944 draft constitution of the Board of ministers headed by D. S. Senanayake.

The Soulbury Commission was the most important result of the agitation for constitutional reform in the 1930s. Senanayake, Baron Jayatilleke, Oliver Gunatilleke and others lobbied the Soulbury Commission without confronting them officially. The unofficial submissions contained what was to later become the draft constitution of 1944.

The close collaboration of the D. S. Senanayake government with the war-time British administration led to the support of Lord Louis Mountbatten. His despatches and a telegram to the Colonial office supporting Independence for Ceylon have been cited by historians as having helped the Senanayake government to secure the independence of Sri Lanka.

World War II

Sri Lanka was a front-line British base against the Japanese during World War II. On April 5, 1942, the Indian Ocean raid saw the Japanese Navy bomb Colombo.

The Japanese attack led to the flight of Indian merchants, dominant in the Colombo commercial sector, which removed a major political problem facing the Senanayake government and it took advantage to further its rapport with the commanding elite.

Ceylon became crucial to the British Empire in the war, with Lord Louis Mountbatten using Colombo as his headquarters for the Eastern Theatre.

Nonetheless, the Sinhalese continued to push for independence and the Sinhalese sovereignty, using the opportunities offered by the war, pushed to establish a special relationship with Britain. The constitutionalists led by D. S. Senanayake succeeded in winning independence.

(The writer served the Sri Lanka Navy from 1979 to 2018)