The Sri Lankan Lion: A Symbol of Ethnic Identity and Contention


In the post-civil war era, Sri Lanka remains divided along ethno-nationalist lines, with symbolic flags serving as a constant reminder of this divide. These flags, featuring majestic big cats, hold deep ethnic and cultural significance, adding to the ongoing controversy surrounding them. Let’s take a closer look at three species of big cats – the leopard, the lion, and the tiger – and their associations with the different ethnic groups in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan Leopard: An Underrepresented Emblem

The Sri Lankan leopard, currently the only big cat species native to the country, surprisingly does not figure prominently in its heraldry. Unlike its relatives, the leopard is not widely featured in the ethnic symbolism of Sri Lanka. However, in Hinduism, the leopard holds significance as the animal from which the god Shiva’s garments are made, often portrayed meditating on a leopard’s skin.

The Mighty Lion: A Symbol of Sinhalese Ethnicity

Lions play a significant role in the heraldry of Sri Lanka and take center stage on the national flag. In Western cultures, the lion is often associated with power, royalty, and Christian symbolism. Although no wild lions currently inhabit Sri Lanka, the lion emblem became part of the country’s identity through the standard of King Sri Vikrama Rajasinha during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Sinhalese people, whose name originates from the combination of “Sinha” (Lion) and “Le” (blood), have a deep cultural connection with the lion. According to the founding myth of the Sinhalese, they trace their ancestry back to Vijaya, the first king of Sri Lanka, who was believed to be the exiled son of Sinhabahu from the northern Bay of Bengal region. Genetic and linguistic studies support the historical relationship between the Sinhalese and the people of this region.

The Tamil Tiger: A Symbol of Tamil Ethnicity

On the other hand, the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, with their origins among the Dravidian peoples of Tamil Nadu in India, have embraced the tiger as their ethnic symbol. Tigers have a rich historical association with Indian culture, often representing kingship, power, and heavenly control. Tigers were also a powerful symbol of the Chola Empire in ancient India.

Although tigers have not historically been native to Sri Lanka, the tiger emblem holds deep meaning for the Tamil community. It serves as an equal and natural counterpart to the lion emblem associated with the Sinhalese. This symbolic connection also links the Tamil people to their ancestral homeland of greater India, where tigers are indigenous.

Political Exploitation of Symbols

Unfortunately, both the lion and tiger emblems have been exploited for political purposes, exacerbating ethnic tensions. Hard-line nationalist groups, such as Sinha Le representing the Sinhalese, have used the lion emblem to symbolize the sacrifice and defense of Sinhala-Buddhist culture against perceived threats. Similarly, Tamil separatism has utilized the tiger emblem to assert Tamil ethnic identity and advocate for political goals.

These political associations have led to confusion and controversy, especially when flags representing specific ethnicities are mistaken for those representing political movements. Legal issues have arisen in various countries due to the perceived connection between the Tamil flags and the Liberation of Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE), a proscribed terrorist organization.

Moving Towards Unity

As Sri Lanka strives for unity in the post-civil war period, it may be beneficial to seek new symbols that transcend ethnic divisions and promote inclusivity. Perhaps the Sri Lankan leopard, an underrepresented emblem, could serve as a unifying symbol for the nation.

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Disclaimer: This article was prepared based on the original content written by Samir Pasha and Naga Kandiah, and was rewritten for DHPL Travels.

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