How Sri Lanka’s Animal Emblems Exacerbate Ethnic Tension Commentary
How Sri Lanka’s Animal Emblems Exacerbate Ethnic Tension

Much controversy surrounds the use of the flags associated with the Sri Lankan people, mainly because they are loaded with ethnic symbolism in a country recovering from a generation-long civil war along ethno-nationalist lines. The flags of concern here all feature big cats as central to their designs.

Big cats, wherever they occur, have been objects of reverence. Even where they are not native their sheer power, grace, agility, ferocity and strength have enabled them to establish a place in the mythos and heraldry of many nations. Of interest to the Sri Lankan story are three species of big cat: the leopard, the lion and the tiger. I will briefly examine them in that order.

Of the three species, only one is currently resident in Sri Lanka-the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya). Strangely, it does not feature in the ethnic heraldry of the country anywhere near as much as its relatives do. As the subspecies name suggests, the Sinhala word for leopard is Kotiya, a word which is also commonly, although not entirely accurately, used to denote the tiger, especially as a derogatory term directed at Tamils. The leopard is significant in Hinduism however, as the animal from which the god Shiva’s garments are made, and the god is frequently depicted meditating upon a leopard’s skin.

Lions on the other hand, feature significantly in the heraldry of Sri Lanka and take centre stage in the nation’s official flag. In western cultures the lion appears as a symbol of might and royalty, with notable Christian overtones. In Sri Lanka there currently exist no wild lions, with evidence of their former existence in prehistoric times limited to a few scant fossil remains. The association of the lion as a national emblem therefore is much more recent and the modern flag is clearly derived from the standard of King Sri Vikrama Rajasinha between 1798-1815 CE.

The term Sinhala is itself derived from Sinha (Lion) + Le (blood) and reflects an ancestral totemic origin myth. A founding myth of the Sinhalese people is that they are descended from the first king of Sri Lanka, Vijaya, exiled son of Sinhabahu from the north of the Bay of Bengal, as extolled in the Mahavamsa (‘Great Chronicle’), although academically its accuracy is disputed. Genetic and linguistic studies do however confirm that the Sinhalese are historically related to peoples from this region.

The lion then, is intimately entwined with the Sinhalese ethnicity in the Sri Lankan mind and culture. This fact has been recently exploited by the hard-line right-wing nationalist group Sinha Le, who have been using the mythos to symbolise ‘the blood of the Sinhalese people’ in terms of sacrifice for defending Sinhala-Buddhist culture against what it perceives to be threats to its integrity4. Although dismissed by many as a now dwindling movement, notably by Badu Bolu Sena, another right-wing Buddhist conservative party, the ethos and perception of a threatened Sinhala identity are not uncommon and remain politically provocative.

Equally provocative is the use of the tiger by the other main ethnic group in Sri Lanka, the Tamils. Tamil people have ethnic origins among the Dravidian peoples of peninsular India, Tamil Nadu being regarded as their ancestral homeland. The tiger has never been shown to naturally occur in Sri Lanka historically but has been an important symbol to Indian peoples for millennia. It features on the Pasupati seal, an artefact from the Indus Valley civilization dated from between 2350-2000 BCE. Throughout Asia the tiger has historically held the role that the lion has in the west, being associated with kingship, royalty and power. It is also the mount of the Hindu goddess Durga, symbolising ultimate power and therefore her control over it, enabling her to utilise it to combat evil. In India then, tigers were potent symbols of both earthly and heavenly power and an index of sovereignty and formed the symbol of the Chola Empire.

No surprise then that the Sri Lankan Tamil people would choose the tiger as their ethnic emblem. Not only is it the natural and importantly, equal, counterpart to the lion associated with the Sinhalese, it is also a visceral link to greater ancestral India with Tamil being a Dravidian language of some pedigree where tigers are indigenous. However, although the Tamil kingdom of Pudukottai did use the lion as their emblem, the tiger has been pre-eminent perhaps because of the Chola association.

Perhaps inevitably then, the political ideology of Tamil separatism has utilized the symbolism of the tiger in much the same way as the lion has by Sinhalese supremacists, playing on pre-existing ethnic associations and abusing it for political ends. This has of course caused contention as the flags used to represent the Tamil ethnicity are similar to, and easily confused with, those used for specifically political ends.

There are significant differences in the flags which should be understood before leaping to conclusions however.

With respect to the Sinha-le flags, the lion is taken directly from the national flag. One has a different background colour and the words Sinha – le written emblematically, the other is simply without the other colours used in the national flag to represent the Tamil and Muslim communities. Whilst both may be used by nationalists, the second is more representative of the Sinhalese ethnicity whereas the former is more directly political in nature.



A similar fate has befallen the Tamil flags. The first being clearly political in nature, and the second being more representative of the Tamil ethnicity than the political ideology.









In both cases however, this is not to say that the ethnic flags have not been misappropriated and identified with political causes however. The Tamil flags have however caused legal issues in countries around the world, as to their associated significance with the Liberation of Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE). In the UK, the LTTE flag, which is the flag above under number 1, has been banned, as a proscribed terrorist organisation. As a result of the LTTE being banned, their associated paraphernalia are also equally banned. The flag above under number 4 is not however banned, as it represents the Tamil community’s aspirations. The problem facing the reader in distinguishing between the two is the same faced by law enforcement in the UK. In terms of law enforcement then, the similarity of and commonality of the symbolism employed means that determining if a flag being waved is someone declaring pride in their own ethnic heritage against someone seeming to support a proscribed terrorist organisation becomes a proverbial minefield, further compounded by the fact that many people who use the flags may deliberately blur this distinction. This issue has confounded UK law enforcement for a number of years, with the media also struggling to understand the difference between the two flags, and therefore those waving the Tamil flag would be arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000. Previously, the media and law enforcement would have seen flag number 4 as being supportive of LTTE. However, recently, the narrative has been changing over the use of the Tamil flag number 4 due to advocacy and legal efforts. Recent events in the UK have shown that some media platforms have described the use of Tamil flag number 4 as the flag of Tamil Eelam, that represents the aspirations of the Tamil community.

Whilst it will take time for this distinction of the two Tamil-related flags to become clearer, what is pressing at this time is that post-civil war, Sri Lanka is still fractured along ethno-nationalist lines, and the use of emblematic animals in their respective flags have continued to play a vital role in serving this ethno-nationalist distinction.

Perhaps in the post-civil-war period we should look for flags and symbols that do not overtly invoke a single ethnicity and instead are forward looking and unifying. Could the Sri Lankan leopard be the saviour here?


Samir Pasha is a lawyer specializing in Human Rights and Criminal Law. He qualified as a barrister and was a Middle Temple Scholar recipient, a Human Rights Law Association bursary winner for his work in the West Bank, occupied Palestinian Territory, and holds a masters from the University of Oxford specializing in the Modern South Asia.

Naga Kandiah is a Human Rights and Public Law solicitor. He has also worked with war crime witnesses and victims of torture. Mr. Kandiah also regularly represents vulnerable clients with severe mental or physical health issues, having successfully acted for clients in complex asylum, deportation, and entry clearance appeals.


Suggested citation: Samir Pasha and Naga Kandiah, How Sri Lanka’s Animal Emblems Exacerbate Ethnic Tension, JURIST – Professional Commentary, April 3, 2021,

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