Sekhar Chakrabati attempts something entirely original in The Indian National Flag unfurled through Philately. An acclaimed philatelist, he combines his love for stamps with his passion for vexillological research in this book. The results is a vivid account of the journey of flag in India, brilliantly illustrated with pictures of stamps depicting flags. The pictures trace an account of the early Indian rulers, the European colonizers, the struggle for Independence, to finally arrive at the present tricolor. Chakrabarti has also covered other aspects of the flag, such as its role in the field of sports, at sea and at international forums.
He has further discussed etiquettes and protocols concerning flags. All this is done with the spotlight firmly fixed on the Indian national flag. The illustrations are not simply confined to display of flag on stamps alone. There are pictures of rare first day covers (FDC), Cinderella labels, miniature sheets, sheet watermarks, autographed commemorative stamps and various other postal stationery. Eminent Personalities who have contributed to the shaping of the tricolor find pride of place in the illustrations.
Sekhar Chakrabarti has used his own enviable collection of Philatelic material to weave an engaging account of the history of flag through the medium of philately.
Sekhar Chakrabarti is an internationally famed senior philatelist and postal history collector. Born in 1946, he began collecting stamps in the early 1960s when ‘Thematic Philately’ as a discipline was in its infancy in India. His other passion is Vexillology, which he has clubbed into his philatelic collections. His collection ‘Flag on Stamps’ have been highly appreciated and brought laurels to the country from several international stamp exhibitions held under ;the auspices of the Federation Internationale de Philatelie (FIP). His name name found a place in the Limca Book Of Records for his collections of most stamps issued from foreign countries featuring the Indian national flag. He has curated philatelic exhibitions on Rabindranath Tagore in Kolkata and Cairo (Egypt) organised by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. He has also served as a jury member at several philatelic exhibitions organised by the Dept. of Posts and other philatelic organisations. He is at present a retired engineer and lives in Kolkata.
Archaeological evidence, going back to 4000 Bc, suggests that the Egyptian ships carried a standard consisting of a pole with a totemistic figure at the top. It is generally believed that such a standard was the sign of the province where the ship had been registered. Reference in this connection had been made to the curved ibis emblem atop a pole representing the Ibis province. These totemistic emblems may be the precursor of later-day flags but these were not flags in the sense we understand them.
By 500 BC, the Chinese devised their silk flags of which the dragon flag was most popular. The Parthians of Central Asia adopted the dragon flag model from the Chinese only to transmit it to the Romans who gave it a cylindrical shape. The eagle motif of the Roman empire called (the Latin word for flag) came into use in about the year 100 BC.
All these are known facts of history but what is less known is that the concept of a flag had already been developed in India when the great Bharata war, as told by the Mahabharata, was fought between the Kuru and Pandava tribes, not later than 800 BC. While narrating this inter—tribal war, the Mahabharata says that the presence of the Pandava hero, Arjuna, in the battlefield could be recognised from the kapidhvaja (flag charged with a monkey emblem) fluttering on his war chariot. This flag was also known as kapiketana ketana meaning flag. For this distinctive flag Arjuna was known both as Kapidhvqja and Kapiketana. By way of commemorating the Bhagavad Gita, India Post released a stamp in 1978, depicting a swallow-tailed kapidhvaja on the war chariot of Arjuna. We are not certain whether the kapidhvaja was swallow-tailed like European war flags or the monkey on the emblem was in the act of flying in the sky like the Ramayana hero Hanuman (the great monkey follower of Rama, the prince of Ayodhya). At least there is no textual support in favour of this design. Another war flag, mentioned by the great epic, is the makaradhvaja (flag with a mythical aquatic animal on it). Much later, reference to this flag occurs in the Raghuvamsa (c. fifth century) of Kalidasa.
The history of flags in India may be traced even before the time of the Mahabharata. The word ketu mentioned in the Rig Veda, a text datable during a period before 1000 Be, is taken by the Vedic scholars to stand for 'flag'. Indeed ketana, that is flag, is a derivative of ketu.
In the domain of flags, those with religious affiliation occupy a place of importance. Some such flags, mentioned in the Mahabharata, include makardhvaja and vrishadhvaja. The present-day practice of hoisting a triangular flag on a temple, such as Gurudwara Bodi Sahib temple at Amritsar, may have been a continuation of the older tradition. In Gujarat and Rajasthan, the temple tower had near its peak a projected slab with a socket for holding the flagstaff. At times, these projections were fashioned like a human being with hands holding the shaft of the flag. Such figures were known as dhvajapurushas. Hoisting the flag on a temple by a devotee for earning religious merit is an age-old convention. There are persons who charge the devotee a fee for climbing a temple top to erect a flag on the flagstaff. The Lingaraja temple at Bhubaneswar and the Jagannath temple at Puri are two such examples of temples on which professional climbers hoist flags on behalf of the donors.
For flags to be seen from a long distance, sometimes palm trees were made to serve as flagstaffs. This explains why in native lexicons palm trees are called dhvqjavrikshas. Flags when not in use, were stored in a separate room, which the Harivamsa refers to as dhvqjagriha. It reminds us of tqjiaghars in the Imambaras where poles upholdingpalyas (metallic hand palms with five fingers symbolising the Prophet Muhammad, his daughter Fatima, her husband Ali and their two sons, Hassan and Hussein) are kept.
The abuse of flags for expressing contempt and hatred for the enemy is a common occurrence. A memorable example is the dishonouring of the swastika and eagle flags introduced by Adolf Hitler after the collapse of Nazi Germany. 'The Victory over Fascism Parade' with plundered Nazi flags at Red Square in Moscow was commemorated by Malagasy by issuing a 100 franc stamp in 1995. Russia released in the following year a 1000 R. stamp bearing M. Mikkhailov's famous painting titled Laying down of (Nazz) banner. Interestingly, the plundering of flags (dhvajahrita) in a war as a sign of humiliating the enemy was a practice not uncommon in ancient India.
When the major part of India was brought under the domination of the Delhi sultans and their commanders, who took little time to transform the newly-conquered territories into independent provinces, flag designs were apparently made to conform to the social and religious affiliation of the conquerors. If this be a fact, not much is known about their flags. It is, however, known that Babur, after putting an end to the Delhi sultanate and founding the Mughal empire in its place, introduced his own flag as an assertion of his supremacy over the conquered land. The flag of Babur is displayed on a stamp of 30 lira denomination released by Turkey in 1987.
All the flags of India, whether ancient or medieval, were either personal or social or religious. The concept of a national flag took a long time to develop. During the sixteenth century, the need for a national flag was felt by the European explorers who began to venture outside their coastal waters. National flags were evolved for ready identification of the ships carrying those explorers. In India, the spirit of nationalism grew only after the British colonial rulers united the country under an alien sovereign. This development generated a sense of nationalism among the Indians to whom foreign domination was not acceptable. The discovery of national identity was followed by the struggle for India's freedom from colonial rule. The search for a national flag was its natural consequence. The result was the birth of the tricolour.
The foregoing is a very brief account of the history of flags in India which evidently suffers from many gaps and unanswered issues. To reconstruct this history is a desideratum. As yet no one has engaged oneself in a painstaking research for meeting this demand. Under the circumstances, it is no little wonder that Mr Sekhar Chakrabarti, an acclaimed philatelist, has taken upon himself the challenging task of narrating the history of Indian flags from the days of yore, deriving information from an unconventional source. It is like the bow of Ulysses which could not be drawn by any weaker hand. He weaves the colourful history of Indian flags gathering data primarily from philatelic materials. The successful completion of this daring venture earns for Mr Chakrabarti a permanent niche in the world of historians engaged in vexillological research.
Every country has adopted symbols for its flags, coins, currency notes, postage stamps, official stationery, military uniforms and medals, etc. Affirmation of the values of the nation is inherent in the uses of all such symbols. However, the national flag is the strongest and most independent of all symbols. It is an explicit and clear outward expression of how a country sees itself. Today, there is no country in the world which does not have a national flag. A national flag is something more than a mere coloured bunting of which it is made. It incarnates something spiritual. It embodies aspirations and hopes for the future. Intrinsically a flag may be valueless but extrinsically a national flag is priceless. In most countries, people feel that the national flag belongs to the citizens and, therefore, they articulate this by waving it in innumerable social settings which manifest the existence and glorification of the country. Nowadays, it has become a trend to wave the flag colours profusely to cheer their favourite teams in the Olympics and other international sports events. The younger generation is buoyant, overtly or covertly wearing the national colours as facial make-up or waving the flag in all imaginable shapes and sizes. Perhaps, these practices are more honoured in the breach of the respective flag codes than in its observance. Flags motivate people to do things. In the past century and during India's struggle for freedom, many flags were evolved to instil nationalism. Many such historical flags played influential roles and gained the status of the national flag for the whole of India. The history of India's national flag is therefore the history of India's trials and tribulations, sorrows and sacrifices, and the vision to build a better nation.
Postage stamps are tiny works of art, filled with a huge amount of information. They are eloquent ambassadors pronouncing visually the heritage and history far better than only words. The images of flags on stamps and postmarks and postal stationery function as little windows into the past. Commemorative stamps are issued to mark either outstanding events and memorable dates or jubilees of eminent persons or in celebration of a significant achievement. Many such stamps convey authentic information about flags with interesting facsimiles.
The idea of presenting the history of the Indian national flag through philately may therefore be considered a maiden attempt to present accurately and completely the various aspects of India's national flag-its link with the ancient past, and its direct relation with the thought processes that it had represented during various stages of nation-building. The following pages of this book bring alive the history of India's national flag, flag-related events and flag-related personalities through stamps and other collectibles. It is a visual narrative of the story of the flag, stretching from the ancient past to the present, mostly with philatelic illustrations sourced from my lifelong collections.
I have had help from so many people, including foreign embassies and diplomatic sources and fellow collectors. I recall my contact with Dr Whitney Smith, the foremost American flag expert and 'father' of the international vexillological movement. The word 'vexillology' was coined by him in 1958. I am extremely conscious of the support and encouragement received from historian P.T. Nair, Prof. D.R. Das and Dr. M. Kaukub. I am obliged to fellow philatelists Moloy Sarkar, Gopal Biswas, J. Bareira, Kenneth Sequeira, Cdr. U.N. Acharya, I.N. (Rtd), and D. Hemchandra Rao for harnessing information and for permitting me to use Philatelic material from their collections. I am thankful to Pritha Chakrabarty and Sumya Chakrabarti Roy for preparing the basic text and to Saumya Chakrabarti for selection of the illustrations. To Tultul Niyogi, who for the first time came up with the idea of publishing this book, I extend my gratitude. Many thanks to Sucharita Ghosh for editing this book with meticulous care and to Nabanita Das for her diligent efforts in designing.
I hope that everybody to whom I am indebted, including my wife Sukla Chakrabarti, for their unstinted support, will accept my grateful thanks for all they have done.
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