Flags in history : ancient and medieval India

Flag is a symbol, an object of significance and faith, with an aura around it, a sanctified, sentimental representation of a dynasty ,an idea or clan or a nation in modern times.

The history of the flag can be traced to  early times where ‘totems’ were prevalent which were used by tribesmen, which was a symbol, device or a badge for representation. These totems were carved into wood or stone which later evolved into standards and flags called ‘dhwaja’. In India the practice of totems, mostly animal and plants, still continues among tribes like the santhals, mundas, bhils etc., to represent a collective clan.

The Indus valley civilisation  was a Bronze Age civilisation extending in Afghanistan, Pakistan and North-west India(3300-1300 B.C.). It was totemic, as seen by the symbol of the unicorn on their seals.

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Unicorn or ekasringa seals from the Indus valley civilisation.

By Mukerjee – http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File%3AIndusValleySeals.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15375576

The Vedic age(1500-500 B.C) during which the Vedas were composed was the age of Indo-Aryans who settled in North India upto the Gangetic plain.

There is evidence of totemism in the Rigveda which gives knowledge about the Aryans.; as also in the Indian epics; the Ramayana and Mahabharata.The dhwaja made of light material, evolved as a portable  visible totem carrying a crowning motif during battle to enthuse the warriors. The dhwaja was an object of worship in a temple as dhwaja stambha. The dhwaja was a symbol of faith which led to erecting dhwaja stambhas in the temples. They were pillars erected in front of a temple. Shiva temples have the trisul or trident, Buddhist stambhas have Buddhist symbols like the wheel or lions etc, the Jaina stambhas could have a chaumukha or four fold Tirthankaras.The Ashokan pillars too might have evolved out of the dhwaja stambhas.

The description of flags and banners is present in the Mahabharata as per the hero or character. For example Arjuna has a kapidhvaja or a flag with Hanuman or a monkey on it. Ashwatthama has a simhangulam or the figure of the resplendent  tail of a lion. The God Skanda displays a Mayura dhwaja while fighting demons. Lord Shiva carried a brishabha dhwaja while fighting tripurasuras. Indradhwaja or Indra’s standard was shaped like a stambha or pillar made to be given to warriors seeking victory in war.

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Krishna advising Arjuna in the Mahabharata., the dhwaja can be seen.

By His Holiness Bhaktiratna Sadhu Swami Gaurangapada – originally posted to Flickr as Lord Parthasarthi, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4208517

Karna’s flag is hastikaksaya, golden and adorned with festoons and garlands flying in the air. Jayadrutha’s flag had the varaha or boar symbol and and was white in colour. Duryodhana’s flag had the serpent set with gold and gems. Bhisma’s flag had a taladhwaja, ie with a palm tree.Dronacharya’s flag had a kamandal covered with deer skin. The Ramayana mentions the dhwaja having the emblem of a Kovidara or parijata tree. Reference to flags have been also made in Kalpataru, Kriyasara and Pratishthasara  sangrahana and in Kadamabari written by Banabhatta.

The Puranic and Agamic texts reveal the importance of a dhwaja. The garuda dhwaja, tala dhwaja and makara dhwaja has been a Brahmanic tradition as recorded in the Besnagar pillar inscription of the second century B.C.

The Buddhists built  dhwaja stambhas at their stupas. Sanchi, Bharhut and Amravati has carvings to prove the same.Standard bearers were called Dhwajins and depicted in Sanchi and Bharhut art.

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A prince on a horse  holding a royal standard,Bharhut,100 BC. Indian Museum, Kolkata.

By G41rn8 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41900714

The Jaina too erected dhwajas at their place of worship.The symbols dhammachakra and simha or lion were used. 

 In the fourth century BC. Indian armies carried a standard. The Gupta rulers chose the Garuda emblem for their dhwaja as they were followers of Vishnu, Garuda being the vehicle of Vishnu.The dhwaja with the emblem or crest was later incorporated with a cloth or drapery for better and improved view. It was in use during the Gupta rule. The dhwaja thus was very significant and was a royal symbol and a point of rally during battle.

Thus we see that the totem evolved into a standard and finally into a dhwaja. The term ketu or the emblem was used separately but many times appears synonymously in the epics. The royal seal or lanchana too carried the same symbol as the dhwaja. The staff or the instrument to raise the dhwaja is called yasti and was made of the wood of tala,bamsa,bakula,kadamba or nila , palasa, champaka etc.

 The Maurya empire founded in 322 B.C. by Chandragupta Maurya which originated in Magadha with its capital in Pataliputra (present day Bihar)  was the largest empire in the world at that time. The Mauryan army used dhwajas and patakas as can be gleaned from the Arthasastra of Kautilya. Different divisions had different flags. Patakas were most probably festoons. The dhwajas added to the beauty of the war chariots.

In a war the capture of the enemy flag in the battlefield was a great deed. Many symbols were used in dhwajas. They included birds like the garuda(eagle), animals like the monkey(kapi) Varaha(boar, Bull (vrishabha) hastin (elephant)  hamsa(swan)  naga(serpent),mayura(peacock),makara(crocodile),kukkuta(cock) ashwa(horse). The tala(palm tree),kovidara tree,kusa grass,padma or lotus, nala(lotus stalk) agni(fire) megha(cloud),chandra(moon) and sacred objects like vedika(altar),mrudnaga(drum),kapala(skull) sruva(ladle),juhu(wooden ladle) kalasa(vessel),veda(holy book), sankha(conch),sringa(horn), Triratna in Buddhism were also used as dhwaja emblems. The chakra(wheel),dhanus(bow),bhindipala(spear),khatranga(club), sara(arrow), khadag(sword), vajra(thunderbolt) etc. were also used.

  The early Tamil rulers too had their own flags with their emblems on the flags. The fish, bow and tiger were all used. The Cholas were the longest ruling dynasty in the history of South India and ruled upto 13th century A.D from second half of the 9th century.  The Hoysalas used the tiger emblem.The Pallavas used the bull standard and flag; Chalukyas and Vijayanagara rulers used the Boar or Varaha flag. The Vijayanagara empire had been established in 1336 by Harihara and his brother Bukka Raya of the Sangama dynasty. The empire lost to the Deccan Sultanates in 1565. Its capital city was Vijayanagara  near present day Hampi in Karnataka.

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Flag of the Chola dynasty, South India.

By Vatasura – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33802501

The Mysore Sultanate in Southern India was founded in 1399 ruled by the Wodeyar family, reached its zenith under the de-facto ruler Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan in the latter half of the 18th century.

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Flag of the Mysore Sultanate at the entrance of Bangalore fort.

By Hunter, James (d. 1792 –

http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/other/019xzz000007683u00015000.htmlPublic Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9539677

The Delhi Sultanate which ruled from north India  for 320 years comprising of the Mamluk, Khilji,Tughlaq, Sayyid and Lodi dynasties, had it’s own flag.

The Mughals followed the Delhi Sultanate, established in 1526 by Emperor Babur and extended over large parts of Indian subcontinent and Afghanistan; with Babur followed by Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb. The last emperor was Bahadur Shah Zafar and the empire was formally taken over by the British in 1857.

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Flag of the Delhi Sultanate as per the Catalan Atlas.

By History of Persia – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41617620

 In medieval  India the dhwaja came to consist of flag with emblem and the pole. The Rajputs used the sun symbol in their flags. The Rajputs were prominent from 6th century A.D to mid 20th century and the rulers dominated many regions of central and northern India and some eastern areas of present day Pakistan.

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A Rajput flag.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=941692

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By Unknown – Website says taken from Maurice’s Indian Antiquities (1800 AD), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8028221

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Flag of the Mughal Empire.

By Orange Tuesday (talk) – Own work based on Alam The Flag of The Mughal, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2439783

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The siege of Kandahar in 1631 during Emperor Shah Jahan’s rule, painting from the Padshanama,1636.

By Payag – Padshahnamahttp://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/60050374?rpp=20&pg=1&ft=Padshahnama&pos=2http://www.history.upenn.edu/coursepages/hist188/18.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17221507

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Emperor Aurangzeb commanding his army, flags clearly seen, painting, India

By Unknown – http://images.bnf.fr/jsp/index.jsp?destination=afficherListeCliches.jsp&origine=rechercherListeCliches.jsp&contexte=resultatRechercheSimple, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22165415

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An elephant with a mahout and a standard-bearer carrying a green standard with a gold sun. Images from the Mughal emperor’s  Bahadur Shah Zafar’s ceremonial procession on the occasion of Id, painting, 1840.

By Khan, Mazhar Ali (possibly, Artist) – http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O16832/gouache-one-of-six-figures-from/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17701009

The Qutub Shahis ruled over the kingdom of Golconda in the Deccan which originated from the disintegration of the Bahmani empire in the early 16th century.

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Qutub Shahi flag.

By Kaygtr – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17955808

Vijayanagara empire was established in 1336 by Harihara and his brother Bukka Raya of the Sangama dynasty. The empire lost to the Deccan Sultanates in 1565. Its capital city was Vijayanagara, near present day Hampi in Karnataka.

image027

Vijayanagara emblem.

By Kurubahalumatha [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Vijayanagara flag.

By Vydya.areyur – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43897442

The Marathas belong to present day Maharashtra and were initially soldiers in the armies of the Deccan Sultanates and later Shivaji, who by middle of 1660 A. D. had established an independent kingdom.The Marathas had two banners Bhagavazenda and Jaripataka, a golden standard.

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Mirza Raja Jai Singh of Amber receiving Shivaji Maharaj a day before concluding the Treaty of Purandar,1665,painting, India.

By Arjun Singh Kulkarni – http://www.flickr.com/photos/75436833@N02/6787794357/sizes/l/in/photostream/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18218305

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Flag of the Marathas

By DarkEvil – DarkEvil., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1422484

The Sikh empire rose under the capable leadership of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the area of Punjab. The empire existed from 1799 to 1849. It started with the capture of Lahore from its Afghan rulers.

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A military procession of Hari Singh Nalwa (1791–1837), one of the greatest generals of the Sikh Empire; lead by two horsemen carrying battle standards,19th century, paint on paper .

By Unknown 19th century Punjabi painter – http://www.centralsikhmuseum.com/gallery/sr/harisinghonelephant, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50400359

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Flag of the Sikh empire

By Charles Singh – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49643776

The Kingdom of Travancore, a prosperous princely state was ruled by the Travancore royal family from Padmanabhapuram and later Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala upto 1949.

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Travancore flag

By Xufanc – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34670823

References :

  • Dikshitar,K/War in ancient India, New Delhi:Cosmo Publications,1999.
  • Thapliyal, U. P/ Military flags of India from the earliest times,Delhi : B. R. Publishing Corporation,2011.
  • wikipedia.org

Posted by :

Soma Ghosh

 

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About historyreads

Book lover, art history buff !
This entry was posted in Ancient Indian history, dhwaja, flags, history of india and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Flags in history : ancient and medieval India

  1. Vinod says:

    Very exhaustive coverage about dhwaja.. The content is very interesting. Amusing that dhwajas can make such a good subject of interest.

    Like

  2. Very detailed discussion. Thanks!
    Regarding the ancient flag, “dhwaja” didn’t essentially mean the flag. It was rather (or could be rather) the pillar/pole. Dhwaja’s modern meaning is different from that of the older meaning. We can still see that from the word “dhwajabhanga” the sanskrit for erectile dysfunction. I have not seen any depiction of a flag-like structure in any ancient seal or architecture from India. The depictions are mostly post Mughal.

    Like

    • historyreads says:

      Sure, thanks.

      The write up does suggest an evolution of a totem from ancient times which evolved into a flag or standard. The term ‘dhwaja’ seems to be interchangeably used in sources, used to mean a pole-like structure or a pole bearing the flag or ‘pataka’ which is also understood as ‘dhwaja’ or banner of a clan, group or kingdom. This is how I have understood it !

      Like

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