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Celebrating Flags

    Unfurling history   

A strip of cloth, swaying in the breeze. A moment of pride. A flag is a symbol of a nation. But it has a history behind it, that is older than any country and richer than any culture... What made Rudyard Kipling have a swastik engraved on the spines of his books that he later removed? Oh yes, flags have many stories to tell...

People have used flags for over 4000 years. The first authentic flag was one made of metal found in Iran, circa 3000 B.C. But national flags came about only in the 18th century. In the 1950s, the study of flag known as ’vexillology’, (derived from a Latin word that means “guide”) was coined.

Warring masts

Used during wars as signs.

  • Earlier, flags were the vexillum or emblem carried by the Roman cavalry. Used as rallying point for men in battle, to mark ranks and to drive away the enemy.
  • During the Crusades, English soldiers  carried coats of arms (emblems) to show allegiance to their homeland.
  • In the medieval period, knights carried flags into the battle field so that they could discern friends from enemies.
  • Waving a white flag is the international sign for surrender.

  • Pirates used the black Jolly Roger flag to frighten people: “no mercy will be shown to those who resist”.

Japan’s twin symbol

Did you know that Japan had two flags? One with rays of light from the sun signifying Japan ‘at war’, and the other (now in use) red-circle-on-white-background that depicts ‘peacetime Japan’. Some public schools in Japan, refuse to fly any flage, as they believe national flag somehow promotes wartime feelings, and the drive to build empires.

Flagging a belief

  • Gold miners at Ballarat in Australia raised the Eureka flag as a mark of rebellion against licence fees in 1854. In Australia today, the flag unofficially stands for freedom of expression.
  • The Maure flag, used by Africans across the world, has historical significance. It is a cult symbol, adorned by masks and heads. it is used during festivals.

Colours and fabric

Colours and fabric have special meanings. The five circles of the Olympic flag symbolises the coming together of people from five continents in a friendly competition. Red is for danger, revolution, bloodshed, courage, power. White depicts peace, surrender. Orange expresses courage, sacrifice. Green symbolises safety, land, youth, hope. Yellow signals caution. Black stands for mourning, death.

‘S’ for Swastik

Swastik is a Sanskrit word that means any object that brings luck. It
appears in art and design from ancient times. Swastik is found in Asian, Native American, European and African cultures as a religious symbol or a geometrical motif. Some Native American tribes used it as a sign in healing rituals.

Carl Sagan quotes an ancient Chinese manuscript on the bending of gas streams of a comet nearing earth. It formed a swastik- the universal symbol. It got a negative flavour after the holocaust and its association with fascism. Kipling, who earlier used it in his books, abondoned it, because it symbolised the Nazi culture.


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Celebrating Flags