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Shivaji-Inspired Naval Ensign: All You Need To Know And A Case Of Due Credit

Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled a naval ensign at the commissioning ceremony of the first indigenously designed and built aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, in Kochi. The new ensign — a flag hoisted atop all institutions of the navy — drew inspiration from the seal of Maratha king Shivaji Maharaj and saw the Cross of St George being dropped.

‘Shedding Its Colonial Past’

The new Indian Naval ensign features the Tricolour at the top left and a navy blue-gold octagonal shield, representing Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s rajmudra, at the centre of the fly side (away from the staff).  The octagonal shape comprises the national emblem atop an anchor, superimposed on a shield with the navy’s motto. The navy said the blue octagonal shape represents the eight directions symbolising the Indian Navy’s multidirectional reach and multidimensional operational capability.

“The design encompassed within the octagon has been taken from the Indian naval crest, wherein the fouled anchor, which is also associated with colonial legacy, has been replaced with a clear anchor underscoring the steadfastness of the Indian Navy,” the navy said in a statement.

PM Modi said that on the historic date of September 2, 2022, India has taken off a trace of slavery, a burden of slavery.  “Till now the identity of slavery remained on the flag of Indian Navy. But from today onwards, inspired by Chhatrapati Shivaji, the new Navy flag will fly in the sea and in the sky” the PM said.

The previous ensign carried the Saint George’s Cross with the Tricolour in the canton (top left corner of the flag). The Saint George’s Cross refers to the red cross on a white background and is named after a Christian warrior saint. This cross also serves as the flag of England.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled a Shivaji-inspired naval ensign at the commissioning ceremony of INS Vikrant.
Picture courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The St George’s Cross Was Dropped Earlier Too

Between 2001 and 2004, the navy’s ensign displayed only the Indian flag and the navy crest, bringing it in line with the flags of the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force that have the national flag and the respective service crests set on red and blue backgrounds, respectively.  The Indian Navy’s crest features an Ashoka Lion atop an elaborate anchor at its centre.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled a Shivaji-inspired naval ensign at the commissioning ceremony of INS Vikrant.
The 2001 ensign, which was abandoned in 2004. Picture courtesy: The Wire

The navy ensign, however, embraced the St George’s cross again in 2004 following complaints that the 2001-2004 flag was indistinguishable because of the navy crest merging with the sea and the skies.  The Ashoka Lion emblem was inserted into the centre of the Cross, but the tricolour continued where it had always laid. The next change in ensign was introduced in 2014 when the words “Satyamev Jayate” were placed under the national emblem at the centre of the St George’s cross. 

Inspired By Shivaji’s Visionary Maritime Outlook

“The twin octagonal borders draw inspiration from Shivaji Maharaj Rajmudra or the seal of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, one of the prominent Indian kings with a visionary maritime outlook, who built a credible naval fleet that earned grudging admiration from European navies operating in the region at the time,” the navy’s statement on the new ensign read.

The rajmudra refers to the official stamp of Shivaji, used on his official orders.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled a Shivaji-inspired naval ensign at the commissioning ceremony of INS Vikrant.
Picture courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Shivaji Maharaj’s fleet comprised “60 fighting ships and approximately 5,000 men. The rising Maratha naval power during Shivaji Maharaj’s period was the first to secure the coastline against external aggression,” the navy said in its video.

At the peak of his rule, Shivaji was not only successful in building sea forts to defend the shores and control coastlines that extended through Konkan, but also readied a fleet of over 50 ships that employed over 10,000 sailors, according to an India Today report.

We reached out to Vaibhav Purandare, author of “Shivaji: India’s Great Warrior King”, who said the revised ensign was the first official acknowledgement of Shivaji’s role as the father of the India Navy.  

“After the Cholas disappeared and when the Islamic rule started, all the naval power from the 14th century lied with the English, Dutch, Portuguese and French traders whose areas of influence were scattered across the Indian subcontinent. During the 17th century, even when the Mughal rule was at the height of its power, the coastline belonged to the foreign powers. Shivaji recognised that for a place with a big coastline, the need for naval forces and trade was supreme, but he saw that even the Mughals needed to take licence from the British to operate from the coast. Shivaji then decided to start building a maritime force from scratch with rudimentary ships. He made use of the foreign technology by appointing British maritime engineers, which the British had noted in their industrial records. By the end of 1658-1659, he had taken over the ports of Kalyan, Bhiwandi and over the next 10-15 years, built over 50 combat vessels. He slowly managed to increase his fleet to around 700 vessels.”

The Cholas question

Prior to the ensign’s unveiling, Navy officials reportedly said there was a suggestion about including a sign from the times of the ancient navies of India, which included the Cholas, who ruled in the southern region of India from around the 9th century to the 13th century. After the event, several Twitter users said the Cholas’ emblem should have been considered and their contribution to India’s maritime heritage be respected and represented too.

Some experts questioned the political messaging through adopting the seal. “If the use of the royal seal is being done to portray Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj as the father of the Indian Navy, then it is a bit problematic,” a maritime expert, who did not wish to be named, told CNN-News18. “India has a huge maritime tradition dating back to the Cholas, to the Pallavas, and even back to the Harappan civilisation. Our maritime tradition is at least five thousand years old. Shivaji Maharaj was no doubt the final military leader in recent times who thought of maritime prowess, a king who thought of maritime awareness, and who fought colonialism. But by showcasing that, are we placing our maritime history in a time span which is three to four centuries old?” he asked.

On the question of whether the Cholas were not given due credit, Purandare said, “No one is taking any credit away from the Cholas, but this is just an acknowledgement of the fact that Shivaji is truly the pioneer of the Indian Navy. After the Cholas, no one attempted to create a naval force for over seven centuries. Considering early modern history, he built a relatively modern fleet.”  

Indian Express report, September 2, 2022
The Wire report, September 2, 2022
NDTV report, September 2, 2022
News18 report, September 2, 2022
The Quint report, September 2, 2022
Phone conversation with Vaibhav Purandare, author of Shivaji: India’s Great Warrior King

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