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Sri Lanka - History of the Flag

Last modified: 2018-03-03 by ian macdonald
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DK Pocket Book (1997) shows the flag of Kandy, a.k.a. the Lion flag, "which was used as the national flag of Ceylon prior to 1815 when it became a British colony". It is the right part of the current Sri Lankan flag, but there are no leaves in the corners, but "finials derived from the spire on top of a Buddhist temple".
Ivan Sache, 10 October 1999

The Kandyan flag predates Sri Lanka's entrance into the British Empire (although the maritime provinces were ruled by the Dutch, the hills remained independent). The known ratio of the flag is 2:3 or sometimes even shorter (Sri Lanka had various Royal flag designers at that time). The special significances are well known among Sri Lankans:

  • The eyes - Vigilance and Forward Vision of the State
  • The hair brushed in the forward direction - Bravery
  • The sword - defense of the homeland and implementation of the laws of the land. (In some older Kotte era flags, the sword was replaced with a Whip)
  • The multiple lines of hair seen on the head of the lion - Nobility
  • The Equality of height between the head and the tail - The equality between the ruler and the rules.
  • The strong paws of the lion - The strength of the Sri Lankans
  • The Four Temple finales (or koth) - Buddhism being the national religion of Sri Lanka
Janith Leanage, 30 October 2007

1948 flag

[1948 flag]

image by Janith Leanage, 29 October 2007
[1948 flag with maroon background]
image by Jaume Ollé, 7 July 2001

The necessity of a National Flag was discussed even before Sri Lanka gained independence on February 4th, 1948. Mr. A. Sinnalebbe, MP for Batticaloa tabled a motion in the State Council on January 16th, 1948 suggesting that the Lion Flag of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe which was taken to Britain in 1815 should be made the National Flag. This was debated and later Prime Minister Rt. Hon. D.S. Senanayake named an Advisory Committee for the formulation of a National Flag. The Members of the Committee were Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (Chairmen), Sir John Kotalawela, Mr. J.R. Jayewardene, Mr. T.B. Jayah, Dr. L.A. Rajapakse, Mr. G.G. Ponnambalam and Senator S. Nadesan, and Dr. Senarath Paranavithana (Secretary).

Although a Committee for the formulation of a national flag was appointed no finality had been reached when the first Independence Day was celebrated on February 4th, 1948. However the Lion Flag fluttered on that day. The Lion Flag and the British Union Jack fluttered on the occasion of the opening of the first Parliament of independent Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) on February 11th, 1948. Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake unfurled the Lion Flag at the Octagon (Pattirippuwa) during the Independence celebrations held in Kandy on February 12th, 1948.
Collected from by Dov Gutterman, 8 January 1999.

I have seen two different versions of the flag adopted in February 1948. One is a yellow lion holding a sword in the right hand facing the hoist on a dark red background with four yellow silhouettes of a Buddhist pagoda in four corners with a yellow border and a black thin border inside. The other was exactly the same without the black thin border.
Nozomi Kariyasu, 16 May 2000

From Flags by Carol P. Shaw, Running Press Gem, 1994:

The design of this flag has evolved gradually in an attempt to achieve national unity since the country, then known as Ceylon, gained its independence from Britain in 1948. Originally, the flag's central emblem was a gold lion and sword on a red field, derived from the flag of the Sinhalese kingdom of Kandy. As a consequence, it was not popular with the minority groups in the country, and so was amended in 1951 to include a green and orange band, to represent the Muslim and Tamil communities respectively. Finally, when the country adopted the local name of Sri Lanka in 1972, the flag was modified once more, with four leaves of the pipul tree, a Buddhist symbol, added to the four corners of the dark red panel. This version of the flag was in official use from 1978.
In 1972 the leaves replaced "finials" that were previously located in the corners. In 1978 the leaves were made more "natural".
Nick Artimovich, 2 October 1996

The Kandy kingdom flag officially hoisted on 4th February 1948 had Sinhalese pines in the four corners. On 22nd May 1972 the Sinhalese pines were changed to leaves of bo or pipul. On 7th September the was a very small change in the leaves that is very difficult to perceive and a change in the background colour shade.
Jaume Ollé, 27 May 2000

1948 Badge

[Sri Lanka 1948 badge] image by Željko Heimer

1951 Flag

[Sri Lanka 1951] image by Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 26 February 2018

The National Flag recommended by the special committee was presented to Parliament by Mr. D.S. Senanayake on March 2nd, 1951 and adopted. It had two stripes, one green and the other yellow. Each of these stripes had to be equal to one seventh the size of the flag.
Jaume Ollé, 27 May 2000

1972 Flag

[Sri Lanka] image by Zachary Harden, 10 May 2017

When Sri Lanka was first made a Republic in 1972 the stylized Bo Leaves depicted in the National Flag were changed to resemble natural Bo leaves. The amended flag was first unfurled at the Republic Day celebrations held on May 22nd, 1972. The National Flag is incorporated in Section 6 Second Schedule of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka of September 09th, 1978.

Except for the new Bo leaves the present flag is the same flag recommended by the National Flag Formulation Committee on March 2nd, 1951.
Collected from by Dov Gutterman, 8 January 1999.

From Smith (1975):

The bo leaves of the sacred pipul tree in the corners are a symbol of the religion of the majority: Gautama is supposed to have received enlightenment, becoming the Buddha after meditation under a pipul tree.
This would mean that pipul is a tree and bo the name given to the leaves of this specific tree.
Ivan Sache, 10 October 1999

Barraclough and Crampton (1981), p.250, says,

"Sri Lanka became a Democratic Republic on 7 September 1978. No significant change was made to the National Flag, except for the rendering of the "bo" leaves, in the official picture of the flag published as part of the new constitution. The leaves in this appear to be slightly more curly than previously."

Santiago Dotor, 27 January 2003

See also an article written by C.V. Vivekananthan on the origin of the national flag. This article is written from a Tamil viewpoint.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 18 June 2004