Ancient literature of Sri Lanka
@ Sunday Observer
Source: The Literature of Ceylon by C.E. Godakumbura
It has been said by some well-known historians, both local and foreign, that none of the many native literatures of India is as rich as Sinhala.
The island's earliest recorded literature goes back to the third century, to the reign of King Devanampiyatissa (250-210BC) when Buddhism was introduced to the country by Arahat Mahinda Thera. However, it is said that early settlers in Sri Lanka who arrived from India would also have been well versed in the arts of writing and numbering, as they were merchants who knew about keeping account books.
Pin poth, an account of the meritorious deeds committed during one's life, was a type of book maintained by many Sinhala Buddhists of the era. The merchant community who settled here extended their practice of keeping account of business transactions to writing down their good deeds. It is believed that this habit was taken up by the kings; there are records of the pin potha of King Dutugemunu being read to him on his death bed.
Letter writing was not unknown either; there are accounts of letters written by Vijaya to his brother in India during the fifth century BC and King Abhaya of Anuradhapura writing to Prince Pandukabhaya.
However, the art of writing took root and started spreading rapidly across the country after the advent of Buddhism. Cave inscriptions, which are believed to date back to the time of Mahinda Thera, have been discovered.
Along with Buddhism, reciters of Pali sutras arrived in the island and settled down here. It is thought that they may have committed the texts of these sutras to memory while writing down the explanatory material which included religious stories.
Dutugemunu is believed to have distributed such a bana potha among monasteries in the island, which may have formed the core of the Mahavansa, the chronicle of the Sinhalese, written in Pali.
Another important event in the history of writing in the country took place around the same time, during King Valagambahu's reign; the books of the Pali Pitaka collections and their commentaries were redone on palmyrah leaves.
In Sri Lanka as in most other countries, the evolution of literature was related to religion. Here writing evolved to record many important events such as the arrival of Mahinda Thera, building of the Mahavihara and Mahathupa and the arrival of the Sri Maha Bodhi and the Sacred Tooth Relic. The accounts of these events were further expanded as writing techniques developed.
It was through rewriting, translation and retranslation of these early records that texts such as the Mahabodhivansa, Thupavansa and Dhatuvansa evolved.
Mahaviharavansa, the chronicle of the Mahavihara, was later developed to become the history of ancient kings, as Mahavansa and Chulavansa, and replaced the earlier 'History of the Island', Deepavansa.
Rohana, the kingdom in the South, had its own chronicle, Rohanavansa. Although it hasn't been found, parts of it survive in the Dhatuvansa. The Buddhavansa, Khuddakanikaya and Anagatavansa are other examples of the vansa literature which evolved over this period.
Records of the most ancient writing of the country are confined to those inscribed on stone, although other materials (different types of leaves mostly) may have been used.
Until paper was introduced to Sri Lanka by the European rulers, the main material used in writing was the leaves of the palmyrah palm (tal) tree. These leaves are plucked off the trees, boiled, dried and prepared for writing and are afterwards referred to as puskola (ola leaves).
Tender leaves were mostly used for writing purposes although roughly prepared mature leaves were used when writing documents of a temporary nature like medicinal prescriptions.
The letters were scratched on the palm leaf with a sharp needle-like instrument known as a stylus. Charcoal powder was smeared across the leaf afterwards, and oil rubbed over it.
This would make the charcoal powder get into the scratches made by the stylus, making the writing visible to the eye.
The many leaves which made a book were joined together by passing a string through two holes made in all pages.
Two wooden boards served as covers for the book, protecting the pages from outside elements. Paper was introduced to Sri Lanka in the early 16th century by the Portuguese, and was popularised around the country during the British period, which started after 1815. Paper used to be imported those days from China or Europe.
Pali texts were committed to the memory of Buddhist teachers who imparted this knowledge to their students. The lyrical and poetical portions of these scriptures may have encouraged early day scholars to write them down in the new language which was then taking shape. Many Sinhala poets of the day chose to write on Buddhist subjects. Some of these works were meant to be read at special occasions and so were written in a narrative style. Epics written in Sanskrit were also believed to have been known in the country.
The first recorded translation of the Pali sutta texts goes back to King Buddhadasa's period (340-368AD). This paved the way for the important Sinhala texts known as Sutra-sanna; sutras which began early in Sinhala writing presented the material for both prose and later, verse writers. One of the most well-known prose works, Amavathura by Gurulugomi, is almost entirely dependent on sutra translations. Even poets like the 15th century Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thera used the descriptive passages in the sutra commentaries.
The Buddhist teachers who came from India had a range of stories which they recited to locals. These included jataka tales on the Bodhisatva's past lives, stories which explain the moral sayings in scripts like the Dhammapada and those on various Buddhist monks and nuns, gods and demons. Some of the stories even had local origins and were about a local monk, devotee, king or spiritual being. As literature developed, these stories came to be written down, either in Sinhala or in a form of Pali which evolved here.
Two of the earliest collections of Buddhist stories known in the country, 'Book of Sinhalese Stories' and 'Book of Thousand Stories' were written in this form of Pali. They were translated into Sinhala and re-translated into literary Pali which had reached a stage of perfection by the fifth century, in the time of leading commentary writer Buddhaghosa.
Books on monks' discipline were another feature of early writing. Mahinda Thera had shown King Devanampiyatissa of the importance of devotion to the study of Vinaya, the text dealing with the discipline of Buddhist monks. A member of the royal family, Prince Arittha entered the sasana and set up the first vinaya school in the country, and an interest took root to teach discipline to the monks.
The Vinayapitaka evolved, of which parts were believed to have been compiled in Sri Lanka. Glossaries, translations and commentaries to these texts were made here, while shorter texts of the Vinaya were compiled in Pali verse so that younger monks can easily remember them. These texts and the Dipavansa are examples of early writings in Pali mixed with old Sinhala.
Buddhaghosa came to the island in the period of King Mahanama (410-432AD) and began translating old Sinhala commentaries into Pali. During his time in Anuradhapura, he also compiled the Visudhimagga (the Path of Purity), a commentary on the teachings of the Tripitaka.
An ola leaf book
Many other commentary writers followed him. Their work in Pali, atthakatha, were translated into Sinhala with explanations, and re-translated into Pali under the title 'tika' (further commentary). One of the most prominent periods of tika writing was during Sariputta Maha Thera of Dimbulagala in the reign of King Parakramabahu I of Polonnaruwa (1153-1186AD).
Sanskrit was studied in some schools of Buddhism such as the Abhayagiriya-vihara, and also for scientific and medicinal purposes with some of the relevant documents being written in the language. Sinhala writing had reached a peak by the 12th century, just as other engineering and artistic sectors were reaching their most glorious periods. Some of the best works of the period were produced by Vedeha Thera, Sariputta Maha Thera, Dhammakitthi Thera and Medhankara Maha Thera.
The jataka stories provided rich fodder(material) for the early Sinhala poets. The earliest of these were in the blank verse style called gi or in rhythmic prose called vrttagandhi. The story was enhanced with descriptions of events, people etc.
Sasadavata, based on the Sasa Jataka (which is about the Bodhisatva's past life as a hare) is the first gi poem. It was written during the reign of Queen Lilavati.Kavsilumina (crest gem of poetry), written by King Parakramabahu II of Dambadeniya (1236-1270), is a grand work which can rival any Sanskrit poem. It is based on the Kusa Jataka, about the Bodhisatva's past life as King Kusa.
The Kusa Jataka was a popular subject for many Sinhala poets, with Alagiyavanna, an early 17th century poet, also using the story. His Kusa Jataka-Kavyaya, written in a mixture of ancient classical style and the popular style that was then developing, was more popular with the masses and was even used later in schools. It was even translated under the title 'An Eastern Love Story, Kusa Jatakaya, a Buddhist Legend' by Thomas Steele of the Ceylon Civil Service and published in 1871 by Trubner and Company of London.
The Kavyasekharaya (the crown of poetry), written by Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thera in 1449, is another noted work. The story was based on the little known Sattubhasta Jatakaya, which speaks about the Bodhisatva's wisdom even before attaining Buddhahood. It was written on the invitation of a princess in Kotte and so contains an eulogy (words of praise) of her and her father, King Parakramabahu VI (1412-1467), as was the custom of the day.
The Guttilaya written in the 15th century, Asadisa-Jataka-Kavyaya by King Rajadhirajasinha of Kandy (1780-1798) and Sandakinduru Jatakaya were other notable poetic works of the country. The Vessantara Jatakaya was also popular among local poets.
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.