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 Post subject: The sandesas of yore - old prose of Lanka
 Post Posted: Sun Feb 19, 2006 1:50 am 
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The sandesas of yore

Sandesa poems start with the showering of blessings and praise on the messenger, followed by a brief indication of the message. Then follows a description of the route; all the towns and cities passed along the way, their special features and landmarks, the important people living in these cities, the beautiful women, important events such as festivals taking place in these cities and the animals the messenger meets along the way.

Source: The Literature of Ceylon by C.E. Godakumbura

Sri Lanka's oldest examples of prose writing are inscriptions of a few words, usually made to signal donations. As writing developed, they became longer. Long codes of monastic rules came to be etched on stone slabs during the ninth and tenth centuries. An example is the two slabs of Mahinda IV (956-972) at Mihintale, each containing 58 lines with the average length of one line being three feet and seven inches and the size of each letter being 7/8 of an inch.

Examples from Polonnaruwa include the 12th century code of discipline laid down at the Gal Vihara by Parakramabahu the Great and the stone book (gal potha) of King Nissankamalla (1187-1196) at the Quadrangle.

Prose writing began with glossaries and translations and developed to include lengthy works dealing with religious and non-religious issues. Pali work dealing with the history of the Great Stupa, Sacred Tooth Relic and the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi had been translated into Sinhala.

Many Buddhist stories, of which the Saddharmaratnavaliya by Dharmasena Thera is one, were also written in Sinhala.

Sinhala produced the largest volume of old prose from among all languages with an Indian origin, and is also the only Indian spoken language in which prose developed before the last two to three centuries.

Rasavahini, Vedeha Thera's Pali work, was translated into Sinhala during the second half of the 14th century. Its Sinhala version Saddharmalankaraya by Dharmakeerthi Maha Thera of Gadaladeniya is considered to be below par than the above mentioned version by Dharmasena Thera.

Another prose work completed during the 15th century by Dharmakeerthi's student, Vimalakeerthi Thera, is also considered to be of a much lower standard. Hardly any prose was written during the late 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

Elu, the language used by poets had also changed with the use of words from other languages, changes in syntax and new modes of expression. The new Elu language was much longer, rising from the need to preserve words without letting them die out. These changes resulted in bringing poetry closer to the language of prose.

Sinhala writers of the late 14th century and after, like Sri Rahula Thera, composed poetry in this new Elu.

One of the greatest sandesa (message in Sanskrit) works is Meghadutha by the great Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, which describes the route taken by the messenger, the cloud, to deliver the message. Such sandesa poems were popular with Sinhala writers of the early poetry writing era, and even old Sinhalese translations of the Meghadutha had existed.

Sandesa poems start with the showering of blessings and praise on the messenger, followed by a brief indication of the message. Then follows a description of the route; all the towns and cities passed along the way, their special features and landmarks, the important people living in these cities, the beautiful women, important events such as festivals taking place in these cities and the animals the messenger meets along the way.

After the journey is completed, praise is given to the receiver of the message, the message is described, and finally blessings are again heaped on the messenger.

These poems, though exaggerated to some extent, are believed to give a fairly accurate account of the historical events, the geography of the era and the culture and lifestyle of the people.

Some of the most prominent sandesas were the Swan's Message sent to Parakramabahu of Dedigama (1344-1359), Peacock's Message sent to God Upulvan from Gampola, the seat of Buwanekabahu V (1372-1408), Dove's Message written by Sri Rahula Thera to the same god during the reign of Sri Parakramabahu of Kotte (1412-1467), Cuckoo's Message during the reign of the same king (the longest sandesa), Starling's Message also by Sri Rahula Thera addressed to God Vibhishana of Kelaniya in 1450 (the shortest, but considered one of the best), Goose Message sent from Kotte to Vanaratana Mahathera at Keragala during Sri Parakramabahu's reign and Parrot's Message sent to Sri Rahula Thera.

Other notable sandesa poems are Oriole's Message, Hornbill's Message, Black Swan's Message and Lapwing's Message. Valle Sandesaya (Beach Journey) takes its name from the route and not the messenger. With the introduction of other types of poetry, the writing of sandesa poems gradually disappeared.

From other types of Sinhala verse compositions, the most historically informative after the sandesas were the panegyrics (written or spoken praise).

The sandesas themselves as well as the kavya poems from the 15th century onwards also contained such words of praise. The earliest known panegyric praises Parakramabahu VI, whose long reign was comparatively peaceful with arts such as poetry blooming. These poems were to be sung for entertainment at the royal court.

The class of panegyrics known as war poems were to be sung at camps during wars, and were used in the royal courts after the wars were over.

Following the example laid down by Sanskrit poets, Sinhala poets also used a lot of didactic (laying down instructions) sayings in their compositions. The Subhasitaya by Alagiyavanna, Lovedasangarava by Vidagama Thera and Lokopakaraya are some of the best known examples.

Other religious poetry like Budugunalankaraya also by Vidagama Thera and Baranamagabasaka by Karatota Thera sing the praises of the Buddha. Some of these eulogies such as the Yamaka-Pratiharya-Satakaya by Sale-Ale Maniratana Thera and Teruvan-mala by a novice in the Buddhist order were written in Elu-silo, the Sinhalese imitation of Sanskrit language.

The kavya poems saw a revival during the latter half of the 18th century. Not much is known about prose writing after the early 15th century and there is no mention of any prominent prose work after the Saddharmaratnakaraya (1417). Only a few historical writings emerged during this era, of which the most prominent is Rajavaliya. Devotees also wrote down stories collected from books such as Pujavaliya and jatakas in compilations known as Kathavastu-poth and Bana-poth, as it was believed that one could gain merit by copying down the Buddha's teachings.

A person who brought about a revival in the country's literature sector and Buddhism was Welivita Saranankara Thera (1698-1778). Older Sinhalese books and Pali texts of the Thripitaka were rewritten, books not available in Sri Lanka, were brought down from other Buddhist countries and were copied while many new works on Buddhism were also written during this era. His pupils followed in his footsteps.


Source: The Literature of Ceylon by C.E. Godakumbura


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