WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

A survey of Sinhalese poetry

from ancient times to the modern period

Poetry is the pulse of a nation. It reflects its world view and cultural attainments, its literacy and its romanticism. In short, a nation given to poetry is a cultured nation.

 The Sinhalese have, of all the arts, excelled in poetry. Sinhala, the language of the Sinhalese, is a poetical language.

 It lends itself easily to metre and rhyme due to its grammatical flexibility and rich vocabulary comprising of a large number of synonyms.

 Sinhala itself is a mellifluous language with a high vowel content and is comparable to French and Urdu, widely regarded to be the two most romantic languages in the world.

 A specimen from a late 18th century poem, the "Kalingabodhi Jataka-Kava", a versified form of the story of Prince Sulukalingu contained in the "Kalingabodhi Jataka", composed by the poet Dunuvila will bear this out. Cited below is a quatrain from the poem describing the prince"s journey to the forest.

Nil digu varal kusuman benda gothala
Pul rathu upul mal savanata sadala
El gevi kal kiyana liyagi asala
Lol hera giye
Kumarindu mana pinala

(The prince heard the heart-captivating songs of the pretty women in the fields of rice who had arranged their long flowing hair with flowers and tucked full blossomed red lotuses behind their ears, and went away, full of joy, but not captivated by them).

According to Prof. Sen-arat Paranavithana (Brahmi inscriptions in Sinhalese verse Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon. 1945), the earliest extant specimens of Sinhalese metrical compositions may be dated to the first century B.C.

 At least four of the early Brahmi inscriptions of Sri Lanka have been identified as poetical compositions.

 As may be gleaned from literary sources such as the "Pujavaliya" (13th century) the reign of King Aggabodhi I (568-601 A.C.) was a period of great literary activity. Twelve famous poets, namely Demi, Bebiri, Kithsiri, Anuruth, Dalagoth, Dalasala, Dalabiso, Puravadu, Sakdamala, Asakdamala, Suriyabahu and Kesub-Kotha-Epa flourished during the king"s reign.

 The Sigiri graffiti scribbled on the mirror wall (Kedapath pavura) of the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya built by King Kassapa I (477-485 A.C.), may be dated to the 7th - 8th centuries.

 These verses which are predominantly on secular themes are largely addressed to the Sigiri frescoes, paintings of beautiful bejewelled, bare-breasted female figures on the western face of the rock. A good many of the verses are therefore of an amorous or romantic nature. Two specimens of the graffiti are given below (trans. by S. Paranavithana and W. G. Archer).

We spoke but they did not answer
Those ladies of the mountain
They did not give us
The twitch of an eyelid
The girl with the golden skin
Enticed the mind and eyes.
Her lovely breasts caused me to recall
Swans drunk with nectar.

One of the greatest literary monuments of the medieval period is the "Kavsilumina" (The crest gem of poetry), a 13th century "maha-kavya" (lengthy, ornate poem taking after the Sanskrit model) composed by King Parakrama Bahu II (1234 " 1269).

 This masterpiece which contains 770 verses divided into 15 cantos is a versified form of the "Kusa Jataka" which related the story of the Bodhisattva (as the Buddha is known in his supposed previous births) born as the ugly Prince Kusa and his romance with the lovely Princess Pabhavati.

Given below are two selections from the Kavsilumina (trans. Harold Peiris and L.C. Van Geyzel):

This swan-king snared by the  honey of drink
Played in that lake, his festal  hall, where the night lilies
Were fair women, the stalks  their strings of pearl,
Their eyes the darting fish, the  lotuses their bowls of wine.
The face plainly seen in the  bowl of wine
Given to him by a  love-maddened girl, in which lay
Reflected the lily-blossoms of  her eyes.
Made the king lose his reason  straight.

Very often, the language of the Kavsilumina is replete with metaphors which contribute to its lucid style.

This is all the more enhanced by the fact that the work is composed in poetic Sinhala which lends itself easily to metaphorical expression.

Compare for example, the following verses which occur in the work.

Duru kele aluyam, bera me gos  piya thaman
Uravil legum gos gath, abisaruvan thana hasun

(The thunder-like beating of drums at dawn caused the swans, namely the breasts, of the courtesans, to leave the ponds, the chests, of the lovers, where they had rested during the night).

Much of the medieval Sinhalese poetry has been based on the Jataka tales. Such are the "Kavya-Sekharaya" (Diadem of poetry) written in 1450 by Sri Rahula which is based on the "Sattubhasta Jataka" and the Guttilaya of Vetteve thera (15th century) based on the "Guttila Jataka".

 The Kotte period (15th " 16th centuries) marks the efflorescence of Sinhalese poetry. The largely secular "Sandesha" (message) poems gained immense popularity during this period. The Sandesha poems are based on Kalidasa"s Meghaduta (cloud messenger). The essence of the Sandesha poem is the despatch of a message through the agency of a living being, very often a bird.

 The oldest Sandesha poem of which we have any evidence is the "Mayura Sandeshaya" (Peacock"s message) dating back to the 13th century, if not earlier. The work no longer exists, though examples from it are cited in the classical Sinhala grammar "Sidath-sangara" (13th century).

 The "Thisara Sandeshaya" (Swan"s message) is dated to the 14th century, while the "Gira Sandeshaya" (Parrot"s message), "Hansa Sandeshaya" (Goose"s message), "Parevi Sandeshaya" (Dove"s message), "Kokila Sandeshaya" (Cuckoo"s message) and "Selalihini Sandeshaya" (Starling"s message) belong to the 15th century.

 Other Sandesha poems include the "Sevul Sandeshaya" (Cock"s message), "Hema Kurulu Sandeshaya" (Oriole"s message) "Ketakirili Sandeshaya" (Hornbill"s message), "Nilakobo Sandeshaya" (Blue dove"s message) and "Diyasevul Sandeshaya" (Black swan"s message).

 An unusual Sandesha poem is the "Nari-Sath-Sandeshaya" of "Shiladipati" composed in 1833, describing the pilgrimage of seven women from the village of Nathagane to Dambulla.

 What enamours one most to the Sandesha poems are its rhyme and detailed description of the people and places to be seen in the course of our feathered friend"s journey.

 One of the most descriptive Sandesha poems is the "Hansa Sandeshaya", which purports to be despatched from Kotte to the Sangha-raja Vanaratana at Keragala (a distance of roughly 48 kilometres) beseeching him to invoke the gods and bid them protect the king.

 Given below are two quatrains of the poem pertaining to water sports in the Kelani river (trans. H. Peiris and L.C. Van Geyzel):

When, turning on their backs,  the women float in the river
It gains the charm of a long  garden-pool with their faces
Like lotus, dark lily-eyes, swan  bosoms, brows and eyelashes
Like the bees" glistening swarms,  gambolling to their hearts con-tent
Waves stole the saffron and  scented paste from women"s  bodies
Of red salve no trace remained  on their lips when water shot  upon them, their eyes closed in fear, had the charm
Of blue lilies awaiting the beams of the full moon.

Another class of Sinhala poetry is the war poems (hatan kavi).

 These are more or less panegyrics in praise of some king or general.

 One of the earliest known hatan kavi is the "Kustantinu hatana" (the war of Constantine) describing the war the Portuguese Captain General Constantine de Sa (17th century) waged, and won, against a Sinhalese rebel named Antonio.

 The "Maha hatana" (Great War) tells of the defeat of Constantine de Sa and his successors at the hands of the Kandyan King Rajasinghe II (17th century). Other notable war poems include the "Parangi hatana" (War with the Portuguese) describing the famous battle of Gannoruwa (1638) in which the Sinhalese forces routed the Portuguese army and the "Ingrisi hatana" (war with the English) describing the Kandyan King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe"s victory over the British army in 1803.

 Sinhala love poetry also makes delightful reading.

 Some of the most popular verses are ascribed to Gascon Adigar and the Queen-consort of the Kandyan King Rajasinghe. Gascon who was of Portuguese or French descent had been brought up as a Kandyan from infancy, and being a man of martial prowess, became a favourite of the king.

 He was well versed in Sinhala poetry, but was unfortunate enough to fall in love with the queen.

 The king who suspected Gascon of carrying on an affair with his queen lost no time in condemning him to death. While awaiting execution in prison, a correspondence in verse between Gascon and the queen is said to have taken place in secret.

The queen wrote to Gascon

 Thun kala thumula vanaye  malrasa novinda
 Kanthala gajan kopulata  bingu ronata veda
 Kanthala pahara veni  nirinduta asuva inda
 Pin kala hithanuvani den  thevenu kumatada

(As the honey-loving bee  heedless thro" the forest flies  Where the many coloured  flowers tempt him with their  rich supplies,  And by fragrance strange
 allured on the tusked head  alights,  Victim of the flapping ears all  amid the stol"n delights,  Thus adored love art thou  captive of thy king and lord,  Yet, dash sorrow from thy  brow, cease to mourn, my dear,  adored).

 Gascon promptly replied.

Vises Kamalava rasa pahasa novinda ma
Dasis duni porana esa dutu  pamanata ma
Veses numbe amayuru pahasa  lath pema
Masis ekak giya nam numbe  namata kima
Lanka"s giant king, enthralled  only by beauty"s sight,
Laid down his twice five heads  uncropped the flower of love"s delight,
Then why should I, a happier  swain, who with the gods above
Have revelled at the banquet rare of thy ambrosial love,
Repine with my one head to  atone for my bold adventure,
To gain what sweetens human  lives as long as they endure

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