The Lion, the Sword and the Bo Leaves

The Lion Flag of Sri Lanka

The Lion, Bo leaves and vibrant colours are all elements that make the Sri Lankan flag so distinctive.  It is hard to forget once seen.  When I was a child at school in Sri Lanka, I remember having a history lesson on Sri Lanka’s flag.  I would have been about 11 and had absolutely no idea of the intricacies involved in the creation of this symbolic emblem.

A few years have passed ; ) and I asked my own children the other day, if they knew what the flag depicted. Blank faces looked up at me.  They knew it represented Sri Lanka but that was it.  This blog post came to be not only as a source of information for my children, but also for all of you who might be interested to know more.

Lion Flag of Sri Lanka

A very short recap on the evolution of the Flag of Sri Lanka.

The lion on the flag is first thought to have appeared when King Vijaya arrived in Sri Lanka from India.  He was the first recorded King of Sri Lanka who settled with 700 followers somewhere between 543-505BC.  He named the island Thambapani, meaning ‘copper coloured sand.  So began the journey of the Lion in Sri Lankan history and it became a symbol that played a hugely significant role from then on.

King Dutugemunu (the Warrior King thought to have ruled somewhere between 161-137 BC and 164-140BC) was said to have carried a banner portraying a Lion, carrying a sword in his right paw along with the sun and the moon.  This flag remained in use till 1815.

Old  Lion flag of Ceylon Sri Lanka

Pre 1815

The 2nd March 1815 marked a moment in Sri Lankan history, as it was the first time that the whole island was colonised and came under British rule. The Union flag subsequently became the National Flag. The Dutch and Portuguese attempted to colonise the island too but never managed to take control of the island as a whole. That however is a completely separate history lesson and blog post!

Union flag of Sri Lanka

1815 – 1948 – Union Flag

During the ‘war of independence” from British rule, the Dinamina Newspaper published a picture of the original Lion flag, found at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, UK.  This catapulted the Lion flag back into the lime light.  It regained its popularity and on the 4th February 1948, when the island gained its independence as a Dominion nation of the British Commonwealth, the Lion flag became the National flag.  It was hoisted for the first time by the first Prime Minister of Independent Ceylon; Hon D. S. Senanayake.

Old Lion flag Sri Lanka 1948 - 1951

1948 – 1951 Image taken from Royal Museums Greenwich

Further changes to the flag came in 1951 with the addition of the green and orange coloured bands.

Lion Flag of Ceylon 1951-1972 Sri Lanka

1951 – 1972

The final change was made in 1972, which created the Flag of Sri Lanka as it is known today. The 4 pinnacles in each corner were changed to Bo leaves.  This also marked the country’s name change from Ceylon to Sri Lanka.  Sri Lanka was no longer a dominion nation but a Republic!

Lion Flag of Sri Lanka 1948

Did you know?

Nearly all the elements that make up this flag have been given a specific meaning to reflect this amazingly diverse island.  These are detailed below.

The Lion – The Sinhalese ethnicity and the strength/bravery of the nation

The Curly hair on the Lion’s head – Religious observance, wisdom & meditation

The 8 hairs on the Lion’s tail – Noble Eightfold Path that people should follow

The beard of the Lion – Purity of words

The nose of the Lion – Intelligence

The 2 front paws of the Lion – Purity in handling wealth

The Bo Leaves – Buddhism and its influences on the nation.  They also stand for the 4 virtues of loving kindness (Mettha), Compassion (Karuna), Equanimity (Upeksha) and Happiness (Muditha)

The Kastane Sword – The sovereignty of the nation

The handle of the Sword – The elements of water, fire, air & earth

Orange Stripe – The Hindu/Tamil Community

Green Stripe – The Muslim/Moors Community

Yellow Boarder – People from other cultures living in Sri Lanka (Unity of Sri Lankans)

Maroon Background – The Sinhalese race

To hear the Sri Lankan National Anthem check out this video below.

The Sunday Times has a comprehensive article on the Sri Lankan flag if you are after more detail on this subject matter.  You can also take a look at a more in-depth overview of how the flags of Sri Lanka have changed visually over the course of history here.

This is by no means a research paper or history lesson but a very succinct account of what made the Lion flag of Sri Lanka, what it is today!  The information on this subject matter is vast and could fill volumes of books (of which there are already many and each containing slightly different information!) but for the purpose of providing an overview of what the flag means, I felt this was more than adequate.

Did you know the Lion flag had such symbolism?  Does your country flag hold similar ‘secrets’ that you weren’t aware of?  I would love to hear what you discover.


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