The Fascinating History of Flags in Ancient India

A bird's eye view of the fascinating and extraordinary history of flags and emblems in ancient India.
The Fascinating History of Flags in Ancient India

Symbols, emblems, insignias, flags, crests, images, tokens, icons, seals and stamps have an intrinsic significance for human beings since the dawn of civilization because we first learned communication through the visual medium much before language evolved. From this perspective, the concept of a national flag representing an entire country is a very recent development.

As the last surviving non-Abrahamic spiritual civilization, Bharatavarsha has a rich history and tradition of using these symbols throughout the ages in various forms, a tradition that has survived till date although in a vastly diluted fashion.

The Fascinating History of Flags in Ancient India
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Our obvious starting point is the Vedic literary corpus, which has ample references to flags denoted by various terms such as Dhvaja, Akra, Krtadhvaja, Ketu, Brihatketu, and Sahasraketu. Each term has a specific meaning but generally speaking, they fall under the umbrella term signifying a flag. Akra means a banner, Dhvaja, a flag, Ketu is a pennon (a long triangular flag), Krtadhvaja is a structure furnished with banners, and Brhatketu, as the name indicates, is a large flag. According to scholars, Sahasraketu may stand for a thousand flags or it may also be interpreted as a warrior or military general who had brought under his control a thousand flags of enemies.

Banners, flags and drums were among the prized possessions of the ancient Vedic kings. The Atharva Veda has a brilliant reference to a flag as the device of Surya Bhagavan. Flags and drums and other instruments and insignias were not only used during wartime but even during festivals and celebrations. Streets and public places were elaborately decorated with these banners and flags signifying a spirit of harmony and a culture of sharing.

The Fascinating History of Flags in Ancient India
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The other name for a flag is Pataka, which became a common feature that showed itself in various facets during the course of the evolution and maturity of Sanatana culture and civilization. Patakas were basically festoons used as an adornment of an army. They would be hung in rows between two points of the army and had connotations of sanctity and valour. Over time, Patakas became such an inextricable feature that Kavikulaguru Kalidasa uses the word Patakini as a synonym for army in his Raghuvamsha. Needless, Kautilya makes numerous references to Patakas, flags and banners (for example, Chapter 10: Relating to War; Chapter 13: Strategic Means to Capture a Fortress). Interestingly, he recommends preparing a specific medicinal concoction and smearing it on the flags and banners to detect if the enemy has used poison while firing his weapons.

Since the ancient times, every kingdom had its own flag and/or emblem and various contingents of its military leadership led by generals and commanders of various ranks had their independent flags. Throughout history, capturing the enemy’s flag was nearly tantamount to victory and a warrior who did so became an instant hero. The aforementioned tradition has been preserved almost intact till date when we notice that various regiments of the Indian army have their own insignia, coat or arms, and other emblems.

This tradition is most pronounced in the immortal Mahabharata. Here is a brief list of the warriors and heroes and their respective flags listed by Sanjaya in the Drona Parva in an entire chapter.

Indeed, every deity in the Sanatana pantheon has a flag or emblem. It is important to observe that animals largely figure as the emblems of our celebrated deities. Shiva’s flag has a bull (Nandi), Vishnu has Garuda, and Indra has a sword.

The Fascinating History of Flags in Ancient India
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Few cultures have expressed their fondness for emblems and flags as the Sanatana civilization has so creatively done, and for such a prolonged period. We can add to or continue the list of the Mahabharata emblems: Garuda(eagle), Monkey (kapi) Varaha (boar), Bull (Vrishabha) Hasti (elephant), Hamsa (swan), Naga(serpent), Mayura(peacock), Makara (crocodile), Kukkuta(Rooster), Ashwa(horse), Tala(palm tree), Kovidara tree, Kusa grass, Padma (Lotus), Nala(lotus stalk), Agni(fire), Megha(cloud), Chandra(moon), Vedhi (altar), Mridangam (drum), Kapala (skull), Sruva(ladle), Juhu(wooden ladle) Kalasha(vessel), Shankha(conch), Sringa(horn), Chakra(wheel), Dhanus(bow), Kunta(spear), Shara(arrow), Khadaga (sword), and Vajra(thunderbolt). Truly breathtaking by any standard.

Varaha, the Emblem of the Chalukya Empire
Varaha, the Emblem of the Chalukya Empire

Over time, flag-making evolved into a fine art form by itself akin to carving exquisite sculptures. Countless designs of flags and banners were artistically carved in wood and stone. Thankfully, some of these have been preserved at Sanchi, Bhubaneshwar and Ajanta caves. Bamboo was especially favoured for making flagstaffs.

Like every other cultural facet of the Sanatana civilization, flag-making and its tradition and usage was truly pan-Indian. From the Mauryas up to the Wodeyar dynasty, its comprehensive study can be a parallel or subset of the study of Hindu civilization itself. The early Tamil dynasties had flags bearing fish, bow, tiger, and other emblems. The Pallavas had the Vrushabhadhvaja or the Bull flag. The Varahadhvaja (Boar, signifying Vishnu’s third incarnation) was the other great emblem that graced the flags of the Chalukyas and the Vijayangara Empire. The next great Hindu resurgence under Shivaji and the Maratha Empire used the Jaripataka and the justly proud Bhagava Jhanda. Lastly, we have the extraordinary Gandabherunda flag that symbolized the Wodeyar rule for over five centuries. When we recall the fact that Gandabherunda is still the state emblem of Karnataka, we can only marvel at its enduring legacy.

Quite obviously, this essay is a severely inadequate introduction to this hoary tradition and practice. The interested researcher will find invaluable insights if an independent work is written on this important chapter of the history and culture of the Sanatana civilization.

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