Ensigns of royalty
B. N. Goswamy on standards, emblems and symbols which were once used to signify royalty

An ’alam made of gilt silver. Deccan, 18th century.
An ’alam made of gilt silver. Deccan, 18th century. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

The image that accompanies this piece is that of a beautifully crafted and calligraphed ’alam, an object that could lead one into the esoteric but fascinating world of standards and emblems and symbols that once used to signify royalty. It is a complex theme, and there may be here barely enough space even to touch upon it, for ensigns of royalty span a vast range of cultures and nations and centuries.

Everywhere that one sees, there are meanings in them that need to be decoded, messages to be understood, variations to be taken in. Even of the one, proud symbol that everyone understands and identifies with ease — the flag, I mean — there are varieties and ranks that one ordinarily does not take into account: the standard, the banner, the guidon, the pennon, the streamer, for instance.

It is evident, therefore, that one needs to narrow the field down, at least here. And one could simply, as an entry into the subject, take some standards that belong to the world of Islam. Even here, however, there is great profusion of detail.

Green, for instance, is the colour that everyone associates with the Islamic standard, and yet, from the very beginnings of the faith, one comes upon differing descriptions of the standard that the Great Prophet, Muhammad, himself is believed to have carried into the field.

Of its appearance, Jabir, a near contemporary, says at one place that "The Prophet came into Mecca with a white standard"; another authority, Ibn ’Abbas, writes that "The Prophet had two standards, a large black one and a small white one"; al-Bara’ ibn ’Azib says: "The standard, I remember, was a square one, and black spotted with diverse colours." But the standard preserved in the Topkapi Palace at Istanbul, as among the most ancient, and revered, relics of the Prophet — it is referred to as the as-Sinjaqu ‘sh-sharif — bears a different aspect.

To go back, however, to the ’alam, with which one began. Writing at the Akbari court towards the end of the 16th century, Abul Fazl included it prominently among ‘the ensigns of royalty’. He begins his chapter on the subject of ensigns, with a description of the shamsa, the ‘arch of royalty’ — halo or nimbus, in other words — for it is "a divine light which God directly transfers to kings", and then goes on to ancient royal insignia, like the throne, the chhatra or parasol, the saiban, and the kaukabah. But soon he comes to the ’alam or standard.

"When the king rides out", he says, "not less than five of these are carried along with the Qur, wrapped up in scarlet cloth bags. On days of festivity, or in battle, these are unfurled." There are, however, varieties of the ’alam that he also speaks of. There was, thus, the Chatratoq, "a kind of ’alam, but smaller than it", which is adorned with the tails of the Tibetan yaks; also the Tumantoq, "which is like the Chatratoq, but longer". And then he adds: "Both insignia are flags of the highest dignity, and the latter is bestowed upon great nobles only".

Admittedly, all this begins to sound heavy and complicated. But one has only to look closely at some great paintings of the Mughal school — from the Akbarnama, or the Padshahnama, for instance — to see for oneself the impression these insignia of royalty make, the flair and the accuracy with which they are rendered by the painters. As armies march, and as colourful royal processions make their way, one can discern hordes of footmen carrying these insignia, to the right or the left of the principal figure, at the head or behind. The spectacle seems to be incomplete without them, for there is glitter in these objects, and the weight of majesty.

Much of that parade of power is gone, and there are no great cavalcades to be seen. But, from among the early ensigns, what has survived well is the ’alam. For in the Islamic world, certainly among the Shi’ites, it continues to be used as a powerful symbol: as a conventionalised version of the battle standards carried by Hussein, grandson of the Prophet, and one of the great martyrs of the faith.

Memories of the fateful battle of Karbala, in honour of which the Muharram festival is held, are invoked through the ’alam which is carried aloft in processions. On the fine ’alam reproduced here — now in the Art Gallery of South Australia at Adelaide — there is a profusion of sacred calligraphy in Arabic, prominent among the panels being the great invocation: ‘Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim’, that is, "In the name of God, the Merciful, and the Compassionate". The alam reminds the faithful, and protects them.

There are other, sometimes simpler, versions of the ’alam, one of which is held to be the stylised hand of the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, and to possess talismanic powers. The five fingers of the hand are seen by many as representing the Prophet, his daughter Fatima, son-in-law Ali, and the two grandsons, Hasan and Hussein. There are evidently strong religious and magical associations here. But the ’alam also remains as a symbol of a battle cry. Consider, thus, those moving words of Faiz that come towards the end of his poem, Ham jo taareek raahon mein mare gaye, which speaks of unsung fighters laying down their lives for a cause:

"Qatl-gaahon se chun kar hamaare ‘alam, aur niklenge usshaaq ke qaafiley jinki raah-e talab se hamaare qadam, mukhtasar kar chale dard ke faasile

(We are no more, but to these very killing fields will come hordes of others who will pick our fallen ’alams up, and march. And our part in the struggle? Perhaps reducing by a bit the distance that it will be their destiny to travel.)