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India: Historical Flags


Last modified: 2001-06-23 by jonathan dixon
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History of the flag

The September 1997 edition of the magazine 'History Today' was a special number to mark the 50th anniversary of Indian independence and an illustration of vexillological interest appeared on the front cover. It showed an oleograph entitled 'Mother India Freed' which dates from 1947. An allegorical figure of India is seen holding seven different flags which partly obscure each other and which are identified only by dates. I presume that they are flags used by Indian nationalists (and probably by the Indian National Congess) at different stages of the freedom struggle. In chronological order they are as follows:
See also:

I have compared Vincent's notes and GIFs to two books on Indian flags: K V Singh: Our national flag (New Delhi, 1991) and P T Nair: Indian national symbols (Calcutta, 1987). 'History Today' has taken some liberties, it seems, especially in terms of colours (using blue instead of green).
Jan Oskar Engene, 23 August 1997

The fault is unlikely to lie with 'History Today': the green of the 1931 Congress flag and of the 1947 national flag are both reproduced correctly in the illustration so I think the error in the colouring must have been made by the original artist who was working in 1947 - strong evidence that the details of the earlier flags were not well known in India at that time.

When I visited the Gandhi Memorial Museum in Bombay in January 1999, I found a framed picture of 6 old Indian flags entitled "Our Flag". These are slightly different to the illustration in a booklet called "Our Flag", published by the Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, revised edition 1989. The flags use saffron rather than red. The museum may be stressing the influence/contribution of the Indian National Congress to independence.
Nozomi Kariyasu 27 January 2001

Vincent Morley, 23 August 1997


[1906 Flag of India] by Vincent Morley, 21 August 1997

From the cover of the August 1997 issue of 'History Today'. This flag is fully visible. It is a horizontal tricolour of dark blue. yellow and red. The upper (blue) stripe bears eight stars with varying numbers of points (this may reflect the carelessness of the artist but see under '1907' below). From the hoist to the fly the stars have 6, 7, 7, 7, 6, 7, 7 and 9 points. The yellow stripe has an inscription (black or dark blue) in Devanagari script. The red stripe has a white sun in the hoist and a white star and crescent in the fly.
Vincent Morley, 21 August 1997

This would probably be the 'Calcutta flag' (Singh), or 'Lotus flag' (Nair). According to both Nair and Singh the colours are green over yellow over red and the stars are actually half open lotuses (eight in all). The inscription is blue and reads in transliteration 'Vande Mataram' (Nair: 'Bande Mataram'). As Vincent notes, the red stripe has a white sun in the hoist and a white star and crescent in the fly. The lotuses are also white. The flag was first used at an anti-partition rally in Calcutta 7 August 1906. According to Nair, the designers are unknown, but Singh credits Sachindra Prasad Bose and Sukumar Mitra. Apparently, the exact design is unknown, because Singh notes that the illustration in his book is a reconstruction based on a description.
Jan Oskar Engene, 23 August 1997

[1904 Flag of India] by Jaume Ollé
Source: Gandhi National Museum, photo by Nozomi Kariyasu
Labelled in the display as 1904

This is perhaps not the same flag as in the the one described as the First National Flag, 1906, in the booklet "Our Flag". In the booklet, the upper band is green and the centre of each white lotus flower is a dot of the same size as the surrounding petals. The lower band is red.
David Prothero, 27 January 2001


[1907 Flag of India] by Vincent Morley, 21 August 1997

From the cover of the August 1997 issue of 'History Today'. Half of the flag in the lower fly is obscured, but it seems to be the same as 1906 above except that the stars on the upper stripe all have six points and that the one closest to the hoist is considerably larger than the others.
Vincent Morley, 21 August 1997

This could be the flag of Madam B R Cama, called the Saptarshi flag by Nair. This flag was hoisted in Stuttgart at the International Socialist Congress 22 August 1907. The colours, according to Singh, were green over saffron over red. Again, eight white lotuses are set on the green stripe. Singh points out that the inscription 'Vande Mataram' is wrongly spelt in Devanagari script. He also notes that some illustrations show a crescent and a star, but that this is wrong. Nair claims the colour order was red, saffron, green, that the top stripe had a lotus and seven stars, and that the bottom stripe had a sun and moon with star.
Jan Oskar Engene, 23 August 1997

[1907 Flag of India] by Jaume Ollé
Source: Gandhi National Museum, photo by Nozomi Kariyasu

The booklet "Our Flag" mentions that this flag, hoisted at the International Socialist Conference in 1907, is displayed in the library of Mahratha and Kesai in Pune. In the booklet, the upper band is green with the eight white lotus flowers in profile. The word "Vandemataram" in the middle yellow stripe is inscribed in white and spelt differently. The penultimate symbol is omitted and the final symbol is different. The lower band is red. The sun is in the fly corner, the crescent moon, with no star, is in the hoist corner.
David Prothero, 27 January 2001


[1917 Flag of India] by Jan Oskar Engene, 26 August 1997

From the cover of the August 1997 issue of 'History Today'. Half of the flag in the lower fly is obscured. There are nine horizontal red and blue stripes with a small union jack (three stripes high) in the canton. Two white stars are visible in the lower hoist and there are probably more stars in the part of the flag which is not visible. A significant difference between the image shown here and the 'History Today' illustration is that the star and crescent in the upper fly is missing from the latter. Is this, perhaps, a reflection of the communal tensions which existed in 1947? On the other hand, a star and crescent are shown in the 1906 flag, so it may be just another indication of the artist's lack of familiarity with the older flags.
Vincent Morley, 21, 26 August 1997

This one is probably the flag of Dr. Annie Besant's and Lokamanya Tilak, associated with the Home Rule Movement of 1917 and hoisted during the Congress session in Calcutta. The stripes are red and green according to both Nair and Singh (five red, four green), while the Union Jack is in red and blue only. A crescent and a star, both in white, are set in top fly. The white stars number seven in all and are arranged as in the Saptarishi configuration.
Jan Oskar Engene, 23 August 1997


[1921 Flag of India] by Vincent Morley, 23 August 1997

From the cover of the August 1997 issue of 'History Today'. One quarter of the flag in the lower fly is obscured but I think that it is unlikely to contain any additional features. The flag is a horizontal tricolour of white, dark blue and red with a large black spinning wheel in the centre.
Vincent Morley, 21 August 1997

According to Nair and Singh this was the flag approved by Gandhi in 1921. However, the colours are white, green and red, with the charka in dark blue set all over close to the hoist. This flag was not formally adopted by the Indian National Congress, but nevertheless widely used.
Jan Oskar Engene, 23 August 1997


[1931 Proposed Flag of India] by Vincent Morley, 23 August 1997

From the cover of the August 1997 issue of 'History Today'. Again, a quarter of the flag in the lower fly is obscured but I think it is probably blank. The flag is orange with a black or dark blue spinning wheel in the canton.
Vincent Morley, 21 August 1997

Singh says a flag of saffron with a reddish brown charka in the canton was recommended by the flag committee but not adopted by the Indian National Congress. Instead 1931b was adopted.
Jan Oskar Engene, 23 August 1997


[1931 Flag of India] by Dylan Crawfoot, 17 April 1999

From the cover of the August 1997 issue of 'History Today'. This is the only flag of the Indian National Congress of which I was previously aware: it shows a horizontal tricolour of orange, white and green with a dark blue spinning wheel on the central stripe.
Vincent Morley, 21 August 1997

Indian National Congress adopted this flag 6 August 1931 (Singh). It was first hoisted 31 August 1931, a date declared as Flag Day. Proportions were 2:3.
Jan Oskar Engene, 23 August 1997

From "Freedom at Midnight" by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre:

"For thirty years, the tricolour sash of homespun cotton khadi, soon to replace the Union Jack on India's horizons, had flown over meetings, marches and manifestations of a people thirsting for independence. Gandhi had designed the banner of a militant congress himself. At the centre of its horizontal bands of saffron, white and green, he had placed his personal seal, the humble instrument he'd proposed to the masses of India as the instrument of their non-violent redemption, the spinning-wheel.

"Now with independence at hand, voices in the ranks of congress contested the right of what they called 'Gandhiji's toy' to occupy the central place in what was about to become their nation's flag. To a growing number of party militants his spinning-wheel was a symbol of the past, a woman's thing, the hallmark of an archaic India turned inwards upon herself.

"At their insistence the place of honour on the national flag was assigned to another wheel, the martial sign of the conquering warriors of Ashoka, founder of the Hindu empire, had borne on their shields. Framed by a pair of lions for force and courage, Ashoka's proud symbol of strength and authority, his dharma chakra, the wheel of the cosmic order, became the symbol of the new India.

"Gandhi learned of his followers' decision with a deep sadness. 'However artistic the design may be,' he wrote, 'I shall refuse to salute a flag which carries such a message.'"

The book also mentions the Tower of Residence in Lucknow, north-east India. The tower had become a symbol of the unconquerable Empire after resisting an 87-day siege in 1857. According to the book, it was the only place in the British Empire where the Union Jack was never lowered. On the eve of Indian independence in August 1947, the Warrant Officer took down the flag, had his men chop down the metal flagpole with an axe, hack out the foundations and cement over the hole where it had stood. They were determined that no other nation's flag would fly from this sacred spot.
Dylan Crawfoot, 14 April 1999


The national flag adopted at the time of independence.
Vincent Morley, 21 August 1997

Before 1947

Before 1947, under the British, the "official" Indian flag was the Union Jack "defaced" (the official term) by the star of the G.C.S.I. (Grand Commander of the Order of the Star of India) at the center. This was, officially, the flag of the Viceroy, but it came to be used as the Indian flag (although I believe the normal Union Jack was used in practice). And, yes, India was a special case, different from the other possessions. [Editor: See British India]

Indian National Congress

The original colors (ca. 1920) were red and green to represent Hindus and Moslems, respectively, to which white was added. Because that flag emphasized division, many were dissatisfied with that flag which led to the adoption of the saffron-white-green. This flag was adopted by the independence movement in August of 1933.

Sources: [smi80] Smith, Flags and Arms across the World (1980); [tal82] Talocci, Guide to the Flags of the World (1982); [cra89] Crampton, The Complete Guide to Flags (1989).

Paige Herring, 30-JUN-1998

Flag of August 15, 1947

On 15 August 1947 the dominions of India and Pakistan were established. India adopted the familiar horizontal tricolor of orange, white, and green with a blue Ashoka Chakra at the center. The tricolor had been used, unofficially, since the early 1920s as the flag of the Indian National Congress, with the colors representing Hinduism (orange), Islam (green), and a hoped-for unity and peace (white). More unofficially, the flag was patterned on the other example of struggle against British imperialism, Ireland. Most often, a blue spinning wheel was shown in the center, derived from Gandhi's call for economic self-sufficiency through hand-spinning. It was this flag that was first hoisted as the "official" Indian flag in Berlin on 3 December 1941.

The spoked Ashoka Chakra (the "wheel of the law" of the 3rd-century BC Mauryan Emperor Ashoka) replaced the Gandhian spinning wheel to add historical "depth" and separate the national flag from the INC party flag (and Indian political party flags are another tale).

Ed Haynes, 10-APR-1996

The colour of the orange stripe on the Indian flag should officially be "saffron", which is somewhat deeper than shown here. I personally think it is close enough, given the problems of reproducing colours accurately.

Dipesh Navsaria, 01-JUL-1996

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