The mythical, part animal and part fish, Makara is a distinctive and ancient symbol of the Karava race and the Makara flag is one of the popular flags used todate by Karawas across Sri Lanka at their family ceremonies. Beknopte History, a book from AD 1688 describes a white flag charged with a red flag hoisted on the Sri Lankan royal ships of that period (JRASCB XI No.38 106 & 109). And Valentine Francois, the 18th century Dutch Historian has written that “the Karawas displayed a white flag with the device of a particular fish in the centre". This could either refer to one of the many Karava flags with the fish symbol, or to the Makara flag which is widely used in Karava ceremonies.
A Centuries old Makara flag of the Karava community. The Makara symbol is used in ancient Sri Lankan royal architecture - at entrance to royal buildings and on royal arches.
The Makara, is a composite dragon with a curious mythical structure. It symbolizes the house of Capricorn in the Zodiac to which it has given its name Makara in the Hindu calendar. It has the head of a crocodile, horns of a goat, the body of an antelope and a snake, the tail of a fish and feet of a panther. Makara is half animal half fish and it is sometimes described as having the head of an elephant and the body of a fish. It is generally large and regarded as living in the ocean rather than in lakes or streams.
Below right: The Makara flag as shown with other ancestral royal insignia of the Karava community in a 19th century illustration.
Below: A 19th century representation of the Karava Makara Flag. The image of the mythical creature Makara is extensively used in ancient Sri Lankan royal architecture. This flag is one of the main flags still used by the Karavas at their ceremonies. The Mukkara Hatana, an ola leaf manuscript now in the British Museum states that King Parakramabahu IV granted it to the Karavas
Only Varuna, the lord of the sky and the sea, the spiritual ruler of the world has power over the Makara. The Makara is Varuna’s vehicle in Hindu mythology. As most Karavas in southern Sri Lanka belong to the Karava Varunakulasuriya (Warunakulasuriya) clan, the symbolism is extremely interesting. In mythology Varuna is the chief of the Adithyas. Remnants of the name Adithya from the medieval period can still be found in Karava family names and the Nagadipa inscription of King Parakramabahu I mentions Chandraditya (Chandra + Adithya, Moon & Sun - quoted in Sakala Sinhala Chakrawarthi page 25). As Adithya is a synonym for Suriya (ie. the Sun). the Karava clan Varunakulasuriya too signifies Varuna-Adithya.
The Raghuvansa of Kalidasa describes how fish/makara flags (Matsya Dvaja) fluttered above royal palaces in India as follows :
Mattsya Dvajan vayu vashavidirnei
Irmukho pravudha dvajani rajasin
bhabun pibanthan paramartha mathsyan
parya jalaniva navodakani
The classical literary work of Sri Lanka, the Kav Silumina refers to the Makara flag as Muvara Dada and describes how they fluttered over Sri Lanka's royal capital city:
Muvara dada dum nidi -kalasa kusuma kala yahan
Velep malao labadun- kalabith visit sittam
And the Kokila Sandesha poem from Sri Lanka's 15th century Kotte period refers to the Makara flag ( min dada) as follows and notes that it was the Sri Lankan royal flag of victory :
Punsanda surindu sanda salakuna adina vara
Ban sonda telitudew tele tudeni mana hara
Min dada jaya virudu nada karana piya kara
An koda mediya tura topa sarivana pavara
Mudaliyar Rasanayagam says that ancient Tamil jewelry had Makara head ornamentation called Makarakkulai (Ancient Jaffna pg. 170). The golden ear ornaments worn by the Kshatriya queens of the Kandyan Kaura Vaduga (Karava Vaduge) kings were called 'Makara kundala'.
Click images to zoom The Makara as used on old Sri Lankan door handles of palaces and temples.
Above: a stone Water spout with a Makara head
As the Karavas were the traditional martial race of Sri Lanka it is not surprising to find one of their symbols, the Makara, used as ornamentation on traditional Sri Lankan swords. Such swords are unique to Sri Lanka and not found either in India or the Malay peninsula. Compare the similarity of the Makara on the above water spout and door handles with the decorative hilts of the swords below.
With the European heraldic lion gaining popularity in Sri Lanka from around the 18th century Dutch period (see Lion myth) and the decline of Karawa power and influence in military affairs (see timeline of Karava), the Makara heads morphed into lion heads on the Kastana (named after the Katana swords worn by Samurai warriors) swords produced during the British period. Also the recipients of these British honours were mainly from the newly emerged group that was calling itself the 'Govigama Caste' (see: The creation of the Govigama identity and the rise and growth of that group)
A Makara as depicted by a traditional Kandyan Sittara artist. It appears in this form on some old kandyan period flags too and the uninitiated take it to be a bird even though it does not have a beak.
Some swords with Makara hilts even depicted the fish scales on the body of the Makara as on the hilt of the sword. Some of the golden swords have rubies embedded in the grid design formed by the fish scales.
Above: Makara designs on stone pillars in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa
Above: an example of a Makara balustrade as widely used in ancient Sri Lankan kingdoms. This one is from the royal audience hall in ancient city of Polonnaruwa
Above and below: Makara as used in ornamental honour arches of Sri Lanka.
Above: A Makara shaped Portuguese period gun powder horn from Sri Lanka.
Below another Makara design gun powder flask and a Battle axe. Click images to zoom
Examples of the Makara image from the 1st century BC Sanchi stupa, Madya Pradesh, India.
Kshatriya Maha Sabha, Sri Lanka