History and Myths - The Lion Flag and a Lion Race
Many modern myths have been spun around the Lion flag which was adopted in 1950 as the National flag of Sri Lanka.
The first myth is that Vijaya, the first King of Sri Lanka, arrived in Sri Lanka in 486 BCE, with a lion flag in his hand (see wikipedia etc. ) and that since then the Lion symbol played a significant role in the history of Sri Lanka. It is also claimed that the lion flag was used extensively by monarchs who followed Vijaya and it became a symbol of freedom and hope.
FACT - There is absolutely no historical evidence to justify such claims. On the contrary, none of the Kings and Queens of Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa have ever claimed to be Sinhalese. But they have consistently claimed in their inscriptions to be from the Kshatriya race and the Indian Sun Dynasty and Lunar Dynasty (see quotes from ancient Sri Lankan stone inscriptions in Sun & Moon symbols). The ancient Mahavamsa chronicle of Sri Lanka too refers to the ancient kings and queens of Sri Lanka, not as Sinhalese, but as Kshatriyas from the Solar and Lunar dynasties.
Accordingly their royal symbols were the Sun and the Moon. The Lion was not a royal symbol for these ancient monarchs and they used the lion image on foot-stones at entrances to buildings and on urinal-stones. The lion appears to have been an important symbol only for the Indian born Kalinga kings of Sri Lanka, particularly king Nissankamalla (1187-1196 ) who claimed to hail from Sinhapura (lion city). Nissankamalla and other Kalinga monarchs used the lion symbol extensively and popularised it's use during their reigns.
Right: The lion image was not a 'royal symbol' or 'dynastic symbol' of ancient Sri Lanka. The lion image was commonly used on ancient foot stones, alongside bulls and other animals, and trodden on by everyone entering these royal buildings and shrines.
And below how the lion Symbol was used on toilet stones in ancient Sri Lanka
The Karava Singhe dynasty of Jaffna (which succeeded the Kalinga dynasty rulers of Jaffna) too appear to have used the lion symbol as evidenced by the name of the dynasty and the crest of their Karava descendants. Intermarriage with the Kalinga royal families could explain the transfer of their symbolism to the Karavas and explain the existence of ancient Karava Lion flags in Sri Lanka.
Right: An authentic ancient Lion flag of the Karavas. This is another Karava battle flag from the ancient Karava settlement in Manampitiya, Polonnaruwa.
Right: Another Lion flag of the Karava community. This one is a 'Kesara Simha' flag from the ancient Karava settlement in Ratalawewa and is a Karava battle flag from the reign of King Rajasingha II. The above two Karava 'Lion flags' are illustrated in Raghavan's 'Karava of Ceylon.
The lion was also the symbol of the south Indan Pallava kings. Pallava coins with the Pallava lion emblem are found in Sri Lanka too and these coins are knowingly or unknowingly called Sinhalese lion coins by some Sinhalese scholars.
The Sinhalese word for "Throne' , Sinhasana is probably derived from Tamil Singasanam and could have been popularised by the Singha dynasty of Jaffna and the connected Karava Raja-Singhe kings of Kandy. It is interesting to note that Dona Catherina the sole heiress to the Kandyan kingdom is referred to in Sinhalese as Kusumasana Devi (ie queen of the Flower throne)
The second myth is that all, or at least a majority, of the Sinhala speaking people in Sri Lanka are descendants of Vijaya and that their original ancestor was a Lion.
FACT - According to history, there was no such Mega Sinhala race in Sri Lanka until the British period. And the fact that most castes have their own origin stories proves this. For Instance the Salagamas caste traces it’s origin in Sri Lanka to Nambudiri and other Saligrama Brahmins who came over from Malabar (i.e. Kerala) at the invitation of king Vathhimi Buvenekabahu of Sri Lanka. The ‘muni’ clan names of the Salagamas bear testimony to their Brahmin origins.
The Durava Caste traces its origins from the Nagas and retinues of Pandyan consorts. The Navandanna caste traces it’s origin to Vishwakarma. According to J. Kulatilleka, the Deva Kula (Also known as Wahumpura, Hakuru etc) are descended from a deified ruler of Sabaragamuwa named Sumana. (Ravaya 30 August 1998). According to Warnapurage Lal Chandrasena of Wellawatte, the Sunnakkara Kula (Also known as Hunu) are descended from the traditional architects and Engineers of Sri Lanka (Ravaya 13 September 1998).
According to T. Jinadasa Fernando Municipal Councillor of Telawala Moratuwa, Kumbal Kula (Also known as Badal, Badahela etc.) are descended from the first humans to graduate from wild men to humans who cooked their food in clay pots; Cultivating and other occupations are breakaways from this first quantum leap. (Ravaya 18 October 1998). According to I. Gunaratna of Malvana, the Bathgama caste is descended from the original pre- Vijayan, Yakka (also called Yaksha) inhabitants of Sri Lanka; They were expert Artificers. (Ravaya 13 December 1998).
The 'Govi Caste', according to the Janawamsayaa and other sources, sprung from the feet of Brahma as this fourth category was the lowest of the four caste groups. And the modern Govigama caste is an identity created during the British period by the De Saram Mudaliar family of mixed origins. (see Govigama) Many successful individuals of unknown provenance joined the Govigama group during the British period.
Several other castes trace their origin to the guilds that arrived with the sacred Bodhi tree.
Interestingly not a single caste has an origin story connecting it to Vijaya or a beastly lion ancestor. And according the Mahavamsa the term Sinhala could be applied only to the initial royal family and not to the labour class population at large. And according to the chronicles Vijaya did not father a Sinhala successor. His Son and Daughter from Kuveni, the tribal maiden, are categorically referred to as the ancestors of the jungle people of Sri Lanka , the Veddahs
The third myth is that the legendary King Dutugemunu carried with him a banner with a sword bearing lion when he embarked on his campaign to defeat King Elara.
FACT - However although Dutugemunu is the hero of the Mahavamsa , that great chronicle says nothing about a lion flag or a lion race. Those who believe this myth refer to a mural at the ancient Dambulla cave temple but they fail to realise that although the Dambulla temple is ancient, the particular mural is only about 200 years old and from the British period.
Right: The mural from Dambulla depicting the battle between Elara & Dutugemunu. The illustration is from Paranavitana's Sinhalayo. Note that Dutugemunu's banner has nothing on it. This is a small and subsidiary mural and such details are not to be expected.
However see (right) how E. W. Perera fabricated a lion on the same flag to support his fraudulent Lion flag story. Stylistically too Perera's Lion is very different from the style of the murals and appears to be even more recent than the murals themselves which are only 200 years old.
The fourth myth is that a Lion flag was the royal banner of the Kotte kingdom.
FACT - There is absolutely no evidence to support such a claim. A fake flag of a whip bearing lion is now being popularized as the ancient flag of the Kotte kingdom but there is absolutely no historical evidence as to the existence of such a flag in the Kotte kingdom.
On the contrary the literature of the period including the Sandesha Kavya say that the great wall of the Kotte kingdom was adorned with Tiger faces (Puli mukha in Thisara sandesha) and that Makara flags (Muvara dada in the Kau Silumina and min dada in the Thisara Sandesha) of victory flew over the city of Kotte. The Thisara Sandesha says that the Garuda flag was a royal flag of the Kotte kingdom. It is important to note that both the Makara flag and the Garuda flag are traditional flags of the Karava community.
The coins issued by King Parakramabahu VI for the kingdom of Jaffna did have a Lion on it. But that was because the reigning royal dynasty of Jaffna at that time was the Karava Singha (Lion) dynasty. The lion on the coins probably gave them more acceptability in the region. More importantly we need to note that the coins issued by Parakramabahu Vi for the Kotte kingdom did not have a lion on them. See illustrations.
Right: The 'massa' coin - without the Lion - used by the Kotte kingdom in southern Sri Lanka.
And below: the 15th century 'massa' coin issued by Karava Prince Sapumal (Champaga Perumal - a Son of Karava General Manikka Thalevan, adopted by King Parakramabahu VI - see Mukkara Hatana) in Jaffna. Note the inclusion of the lion symbol of the Karava Singhe dynasty of Jaffna. The lion has replaced the dots on the right bottom quadrant of the coin.
The fifth myth is that a Lion flag was the royal banner of the last King of Sri Lanka, Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe (1798-1815).
FACT - Firstly, King Sri Wikrama Rajasinghe and the other Kandyan kings were not Sinhalese. They were Indian Kshattriya Vaduga kings. Secondly there is no historical evidence to say that King Sri Wikrama Rajasinghe used a lion flag as his royal standard. The royal grants of the king nor the literary work from the period talk about a lion or a lion flag. European eye witness accounts from the period say that the king’s banner was the Sun and Moon banner and that various other flags with animal motifs were also used. And indeed many flags with animal motifs (swans, peacocks, deer, bears, lions, elephants, leopards, cranes and numerous other birds etc ) have been found in Kandy and elsewhere.
Right: One of the many 'animal flags' of the Kandyan kingdom. This has 2 elephants, a lion, 4 rabbits, a stork and a deer.
Right and below: Two of the many animal motif flags from Kandy. The one on the right is a Narasimha (Man/lion) flag. It does not represent a 'Sinhala Race'. It is one of the 10 avatars (incarnations) of Lord Vishnu. The flag below is a Leopard flag .
The Kandyan court had heavy Portuguese influence from its inception and French and other influences later. In fact,Daskon (Garcon), the Chief minister of Kandyan king Narendrasingha, was a Frenchman & a Meistri lady. European influence on the design of both flags is obvious. These 'animal flags' were mere ceremonial flags. They were NOT representative of a lineage. Neither were they 'royal standards'.
Percival writing in 1805 refers to flags with the sun emblem being carried before Sri Vikrama Rajasinha (AD 1798 - 1815), the last king of Kandy (Percival, Account of the Island of Ceylon, pp 267, 268). It is interesting to note that the lion flag which is now believed to have been the personal banner of the king is not mentioned by Percival or any others.
Going back a few centuries to 1639, the reign of king Rajasinghe II, (which is a century before the Nayakkar dynasty inherited the Kandyan kingdom), we see that the Sun and Moon flag was the flag carried in the vanguard of royal pageants (Abeyawardana p 145)
Although the lion was not a heraldic symbol of the Kandyan kings, the Lion was indeed a very important heraldic symbol for the Dutch. The Dutch were ruling the coastal areas during the Kandyan period.
Their heraldic lion is to be found on almost ail Dutch coins (see illustrations further down) issued during that period (17 - 18th centuries). The use of lion imagery by the Dutch had nothing to do with a Sinhala race. The lion was a prominent Dutch royal symbol and it was used by the Dutch also on coins issued by them in other colonies in Asia and even as far as America (see illustration further down). Inevitably the Dutch flags of the period too would have had similar lions on them. One of the few surviving Dutch flags illustrated on the right column confirms this. As such the prevalent use of lions by the Dutch appears to have had an influence on Kandyan flags too. The Kandyan flags with lions and other animals with European style iconography might even have been drawn by European captives living in the Kandyan kingdom or done by local artists who were inspired by the novel Dutch designs.
The sixth myth is that the flag had bo-leaves at the four corners from its inception to represent Buddhism.
FACT - The bo-leaves in the four corners replaced the European style finials ('Banku Kakul' in Sinhala language) only in 1972. But this myth and the others appear even on government documents and web sites and have been repeated so often that they are now accepted as fact by many.
Development of the 'Lion flag' myth
The opportunities offered by the liquor trade in the 19th century had produced a new class of wealthy Sri Lankans. Some of the liquor dealers to amass large fortunes during this period were Don Spater Senanayake (see his details under Mudaliyars) the Father of D. S. Senanayake and Wevage Arnolis Dep (whose daughter Helena married timber trader Don Philip Wijewardene the ancestor of J. R. Jayawardene and Ranil Wickremasinge)
At the turn of the century, the second generation of these families were striving hard to gain power and status through divisive means such as religious controversies, temperance movements and anti-Muslim riots.
The older class of Dutch and British appointed Mudaliyars were disdainful of this class of new rich people who were clamouring to join the 'Govigama identity' (see Govigama) created by the Mudaliyar class. Sir Christoffel Obeyesekere the most prominent member from the Mudaliyar class referred to these new rich group; D. S. Senanayake, his two brothers F.R and D.C and others as “a few who are nobodies, but who hope to make somebodies of themselves by disgraceful tactics”. It’s this outburst by Sir Christoffel that gives Kumari Jayawardena the title for her insightful book on this period, ‘Nobodies to Somebodies - The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka'.
The search for a 'Sinhala' racial flag by this group led to E. W. Perera's so called discovery of three Kandyan flags in England. These were flags taken away by Captain Pollock in 1803, and hung at the Chelsea Royal Hospitalalongside other captured flags, colonial trophies from many other colonies. Perera was neither a historian nor an expert on flags but had been sent to England by the Wijewardene / Senanayake cabal to promote their political agenda. However permission for Perera's trip to England had been obtained by saying it was for 'research at the British Museum' .
As such on his return, in 1916 E. W. Perera published the book 'Sinhalese Banners and Standards; with a commercially designed, spurious lion flag as it's frontispiece. The book promoted a concocted case to accept that flag as the national flag.
The three Kandyan flags "discovered" by Perera at the hospital were hopelessly faded and could be identified only by the name plates on the wall. Perera admits that the flags were too faded even to get a sketch from them. He says that he sketched the lion flag not by looking at the flag but from the identifying plaque on the wall. However the official colour copies of these flags procured by the crown agents for the Colombo Museum had been rejected by Perera saying they were inaccurate and useless. (Perera 3). In their place Perere chose the commercially designed and drawn spurious lion flag.
Bishop Edmund Peiris who also saw the flags confirms that that all three flags were hopelessly faded. According to him two of the flags hung by the second window on the left as you enter and the third hung from the organ loft which then contained lumber. In the office of the Chelsea Hospital Bishop Peiris had seen the record of colour sketches of all the flags in the Hall. This record had been titled “Collection of trophies deposited in the Royal Hospital, Chelsea / copied from the original book of Drawings and Descriptions arranged and compiled in 1841 by S. Ford, Captain of Invalids / 1861” (Peiris 271).
As such it is indeed surprising that E. W. Perera chose to reject the official colour copies of the lion flag procured by the Crown Agents and instead readily accepted an illustration privately commissioned by D. R. Wijewardene. A commercial artist had drawn it for a private firm in London and E. W. Perera used it as the frontispiece for his book on ancient flags and it was used as the Flag of Ceylon from 1948-1951
Right: The threadbare condition in which the three Kandyan flags were hanging in the great hall at Chelsea hospital in 1916. Bishop Edmund Peiris who had also seen them says that they were covered with dust and soot and the figures were barely discernible. All these flags had been bundled together and deposited in a dungeon during World war II and were badly damaged and destroyed. (Peiris 1976, page 271). Click for larger image
It should also be noted that according to the wall plaques at the Chelsea Royal Hospital, the royal standard of Sri Vickrama Rajasingha was not the flag copied by Perera but the martial flag illustrated below. Perera has totally omitted this flag and has not even include an illustration of this flag in his book.
Right: The Flag that was actually referred to as the "Royal standard of Sri Lanka' on the wall plaques at the Chelsea hospital. Obviously this flag didn't fit in with Perera's mission to 'discover' a racist flag. . Therefore he doesn't even mention this flag in his book. Instead he introduces a spurious Lion flag as the 'royal flag' of Sri Lanka.
Further, the lion on the Sri Lankan flag does not resemble any of the lion motifs from Sri Lanka’s history(see examples below). The lion on the flag is clearly a design inspired by European heraldic lions. (See European heraldic lions below). As admitted by Perera himself in his book , it is a design drawn by a commercial British artist. As such the European nature of the lion is to be expcted.
On March 2, 1915, D. R. Wijewardene issued a special edition of his Sinhala newspaper Dinamina, to mark the centenary of the so called ‘end of Sinhala independence’, and promoted this Lion flag in colour on the front page with portraits of the last King and Queen of Kandy. Ironically neither the king nor the Queen were Sinhalese. They were The Vaduga king Sri Wikrama Rajasinghe and his Chief Queen Rengammal. The main purpose of E. W. Perera’s ‘Sinhalese banners and Standards’ published in 1916 too appears to be the promotion of the spurious Lion Flag as the royal flag of Sri Lanka.
Right: D.S. Senanayake from 1948, promoting another spurious Lion flag
However after preparing the background for adopting this flag as the flag of independent Sri Lanka, the Wijewardene / Senanayake cabal strategically enlisted the obliging Muslim Mudaliyar, A. L. Sinnelebbe, the Member of Parliament for Batticaloa to move a motion in parliament calling for the adoption of this flag.
As such this was the flag hoisted by D. S. Senanayake at the independence festivities on February 04, 1948. This Lion flag has been a bone of contention from day one and is still an obstacle to national integration and peace.
Abeyawardana H. A. P. 1978 Kadaim Poth Vimarshanaya (A critical study of Kadaim poth) Department of Cultural Affairs Sri Lanka
Paranavitana Senerat 1967 Sinhalayo Colombo
A comparison of European Heraldic Lions and the the one on the Sri Lankan national flag
Note the very different ways in which the Lion's mane is treated in Sri Lankan depictions in the right column and European heraldry below. The same goes for the tail and paws as well. Another striking difference is the emasculated nature of the European lions as against the prominent display of male organs on Sri Lankan lions.
The sword carrying Finnish Heraldic Lion
A personal coat of arms from Europe with a look alike lion
Above: A 17th century sword bearing lion flag from Catholic Venice
Above: Two Iranian Lion and sword flags. The old flag is from 1828
Dutch Lion crest on the 17th century Dutch period Star Fort in Matara
Dutch Lion coins. These were coins used from the mid 18th century by the Dutch in their Asian colonies including Sri Lanka. There is clear evidence of their circulation in the Kandyan kingdom too.
A Dutch Lion Dollar struck for New Amsterdam (now New York, USA) in 1608
A Sword bearing Swedish Lion
A British Lion
Another European Lion
Yet another European Lion
A European heraldic lion of a wineryThe 1st National flag of Sri Lanka
The 2nd National flag of Sri Lanka
This is the present national flag of Sri Lanka
We can conclude from the above that the lion on the National flag of Sri Lanka is a spurious design. The lion on it is not traditional, not Singhalese and not authentic. It is a European heraldic Lion. The Lion flag was neither the "Great Standard" of the king nor the "Banner" of the king of Kandy. The "Great Standard" of the king of Kandy was the Sun & Moon flag of all Sri Lankan royalty. The only royal connections of the Lion flag is not as a Sinhala race flag, but as one of the many battle flags of the Karava royal race and as the flag of the Karava Singhe dynasty of Jaffna.
A Lion flag and a lion on the crest carved over the entrance to the head office Burns Philp & Co built in 1901 by two Scotsmen. It illustrates how lions and lion flags were commonly used by Europeans. Note it’s similarity to the spurious flag produced by E. W. Perera. Click for larger image
An old Dutch flag from the Dutch period Museum in Colombo. It shows a Dutch inspired sword bearing lion. An interesting specimen that shows how European and Indian design concepts influenced 18th century Sri Lankan heraldry.
An ivory box from 18th century Sri Lanka from the British Museum shows how the Dutch Lion gradually got integrated into Sri Lankan art. Click for larger image
Above: 17th century Dutch lions from the Gale Fort
Late 19th century Sri Lanka temple door ornamentation shows how European Lions got integrated into Sri Lankan art. The portrait in the centre is of Queen Victoria. Click for larger image
Compare the European Heraldic lions on the left column with traditional Sri Lankan depiction of Lions below
The Lion image as used on ancient foot stones during the Anuradhapura period.
Above: The Lion as used on ancient toilet stones in Anuradhapura. These are not defecating lions used as illustration on how to use the toilet. This is a standard decorative pose as shown by the following examples.
Below: assorted Lions from the Council Terrace of King Nissankamalla in Polonnaruwa. King Nissankamalla too was not a Singhalese but was from the Kalinga dynasty of Singhapura (Lion city - hence the profusion of lions) on the Malay peninsula
A lion under a balustrade - from the Indian Kalinga King Nissankamalla's (1187-1196) Council Terrace in Polonnaruwa.
The Lion throne (sic) of the same Indian Kalinga King.
A very Chinese stone lion from the 13th century citadale of Yapahuwa. These lions show the Chinese influnece that was prevalent during that era. The Chinese still use lion images at entrances to buildings.
A lion as widely used in south Indian Hindu temple architecture and on temple chariots.
Another old Narasimha flag from Sri Lanka. Note the stark contrast with the European style lion on the Sri Lankan national flag
Kshatriya Maha Sabha, Sri Lanka