25 Jan 2016

Great Women of India #15: Surayya Tayabji

It is widely believed that Pingali Venkaia is the man who designed the Indian National Flag. Whilst it is true that he designed one of India’s flags, the reality is that the Indian Flag evolved over several decades during Indias’s movement for independence. Pingali Venkaiah contributed to one version and his version was a visualisation of ideas formed by Lala Hansraj and Mahatma Gandhi.


Lala Hansraj suggested a spinning wheel in the flag, and Gandhi proposed to use the colours red to represent Hindus, green to symbolise the Muslims and white for all the other faiths present in India. Therefore this was the flag designed by Venkaiah:


Indian Flag 1921



However, by 1929 orange replaced red and Gandhi moved to a more secular definition.


Orange: to symbolise selflessness and courage.
White: to signify honesty, peace and purity.
Green: faith, hope and life.





The spinning wheel remained in the middle, and the flag was known as the Swarja Flag. The flag was first hoisted by Congress Party volunteers on 13th April 1922 during a procession commemorating the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The hoisting of this “illegal” flag resulted in a confrontation between Indian National Congress and the police, which resulted in the imprisonment of 5 people. However this became a significant point in India’s struggle for independence and soon 5 became 1,500 as more people hoisted the flag. The British government started to withdraw funds from any municipality organisations of government offices which did not ban the Swarja flag. As a result of this ban, in 1931 the Congress Party took the flag as their official logo, but by that point it had already become a symbol of independence.



So this was the Swarja flag and a brief history of that, but who designed the final flag with the Ashoka Chakra in the middle?



On 14th July 1947, one month before India gained independence a meeting was called to select a final flag for India. During this meeting it was decided that Indian National Congress’ party flag would be used as the final flag. Badruddin Tayabji was present as a Congress Party member. However, his wife spoke out and came up with the final idea for the flag. Surayya Tayabji felt that using a flag which had become the symbol of Indian National Congress would have been a divisive force and would alienate those who had different political ideas. She also valued the significance the three colours had in India’s independence and did not want to wash out the history. Therefore she suggested replacing the spinning wheel in the middle with the symbol of Emperor Ashoka, who was respected by both Hindus and Muslims. The Ashoka Chakra had 24 spears and represented a number of things which include dharma and religion according to Buddhist teachings. However it is also known as the Samay Chakra (wheel of time) and represents 24 hours. It was felt the wheel would symbolise moving forward peacefully without resisting change.


India Flag



On 17th July Surayya created a hand made version of the above flag to show Nehru, and on 22nd July it was unanimously accepted. That same night the man who would be India’s first Prime Minister, Nehru, flew Surayya’s handmade flag on his car. Surayya Tayabji was therefore the woman who not only designed the tri-colour flag as we know it, but also the woman who first made the flag.


Surayya is the reason that the orange, white and green fill Indians all over the world with patriotic admiration. She is the reason we fly those colours on Ealing Road when India win the cricket. She is the reason we have a beautiful flag with amazing meaning for our country. However, her contribution has been forgotten, and most people won’t even credit her as the person who designed the flag.




In 2009 India created a commemorative stamp to celebrate Pingali Venkaia as the man who designed India’s flag. There was no mention of Surayya. The photo I used in this article is the only photo I could find of her on the internet. The woman who designed the final flag of India has been forgotten and almost wiped out of History. Please read this story and share it to make sure Surayya’s name is not forgotten. 



This Blog is part of The Burning Bride series. “The Burning Bride” is a novel which highlights violence against women in India. 10% of the money generated by sales of this e-book will fund projects to end violence against women. It is available on Kindle and Paperback. (For more information email theburningbride@gmail.com)


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Virmani, Arundhati (August 1999). “National Symbols under Colonial Domination: The Nationalization of the Indian Flag, March–August 1923″. Past & Present 164: 169–197.