Sinhala, Buddhist Literature in

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Sinhala is the language of 72 percent of the population of Sri Lanka. Sinhala is considered part of the Indo-European family of languages, but recent scholarship has revealed a strong Dravidian influence as well. No written documents exist of the period before the coming of Buddhism in the third century b.c.e.; with Buddhism, a written literature developed. The earliest extant records are cave and rock inscriptions in a Brāhmī script dating from around 200 b.c.e., which list the names of Buddhist donors who supported cave dwelling monks. This connection between the language and the religion, established very early, gave rise over time to a vigorous Buddhist literature.

As far back as the first century b.c.e., Buddhist monks at Aluvihāre in central Sri Lanka committed Buddhist texts to writing. Monasteries quickly developed into centers of literary and intellectual activity, and a substantial collection of religious works, commentaries, exegetical writings, and historical records appeared in Pāli, Sanskrit, and the local vernacular. Most of the early works have not survived, but scholars know of their existence from references in later texts and from rock inscriptions. The only extant works from before the eighth century c.e. are the historical chronicles the Dīpavaṃsa (fourth century c.e.), the Mahāvaṃsa (sixth century c.e.), and its continuation the Culavamsa (twelfth century c.e.), which were all written in Pāli, though based on records from the Sinhala. These chronicles, written by monks, constitute a chronology of Sinhala kings (from the time of the founder Vijaya to the time of the authors), their major victories and defeats, and their peacetime activities, especially their meritorious deeds in support of Buddhism. The chronicles present a blend of historical information, religious exhortation, and political nationalism, all done with remarkable literary skill, thus constituting a record of what the authors perceived as the establishing of a Buddhist nation on the island of Sri Lanka.

The evidence of the chronicles, and references in later works and inscriptions, all suggest the existence of a flourishing literary tradition, even during this early period. Jayabahu Dharmakirti, writing in the thirteenth century in his Nikāyasaṃgrahaya (Collection of Writings on the Books of the Doctrine), lists the names of twenty-eight monks and nine lay writers well known for composing religious works, commentaries, glossaries, translations, and other works between the fifth and thirteenth centuries. Unfortunately, all that remains from the first to eighth centuries c.e. are graffiti poems on the mirror wall of the rock fortress at Sigiriya. These short casual scribbles of visitors to Sigiriya between the seventh and ninth centuries c.e. (many of whom included their names and identities) do not represent the major literary tradition of the time. However, their skill and verve indicate the widespread nature and vitality of a tradition where soldiers, artisans, monks, and women (in addition to more traditional scholars) could all write poems.

Sinhala literature from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries was strongly influenced by the classical court literature of India. The major Sinhala poetical works of the period are the Muvadevāvata (The Story of the Bodhisattva's Birth as King Mukhadeva, [twelfth century]), the Sasadāvata (The Story of the Bodhisattva's Birth as a Hare, [twelfth century]), and the Kavsiḷumiṇa (The Crown Jewel of Poetry), attributed to King Parakramabahu II (thirteenth century). These works are classical in style, and present stories of the past births of the Buddha.

The oldest extant prose work in Sinhala is on rhetoric, the Siyabaslakara (The Ornaments of One's Language), ascribed to King Sena I (r. 832–851). The Dhampiyātuvā gätapadaya (Commentary on the Blessed Doctrine), a commentary on words and phrases in the Pāli Dhammapada, was composed in the tenth century. The Sikhāvalaňda (The Mark of Sign of the Precepts) and Sikhāvalaňda vinisa (An Examination of the Signs of the Precepts), a summary of precepts on priestly discipline, also belong to this period.

Sinhala prose works from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries can be described as "intermediate texts." Though still classical in form they were closer in idiom to the spoken vernacular. The Saddhamaratnāvaliya (The Jewel Garland of the True Doctrine) by the monk Dharmasēna, the Amāvatura (The Nectar Flow or The Flowing Nectar [of the Doctrine]) and Dharmapradīpikāva (The Light of the Doctrine) by the monk Gurulugōmi, the Butsaraṇa (The Protection [or Refuge] of the Buddha) by Vidyācakravarti, the Sinhala Thūpavaṃsa (The Chronicle of the Stūpas), the Dalādasirita (An Account of the Tooth Relic [of the Buddha]), the Pūjāvaliya (The Garland of Worship), the Pansiya Panas Jātaka Pota (The Book of Five Hundred and Fifty Birth Stories [of the Buddha]), the monk vīdāgama Maitrēya's Buduguṇālaṃkāraya (An Elaboration of the Buddha's Virtues), and the Lōväda saṃgrahaya (A Collection of Writings for the Betterment of the World) all belong to this tradition. They are Buddhist works intended for the edification of ordinary people and so had the flavor and style of popular sermons. Works on rhetoric, such as the Sidat Saṃgarāva (A Collection of Writings on Grammar), the Siyabas lakuṇa (The Marks or Signs of One's Language), and the Dandyālaṃkāra sanna (Commentary on Dandin's Theory of Ālaṃkāra) and works on prosody, such as the Elusandäs lakuṇa (The Mark of Signs of the Original Sinhala [elu]), were also composed during this period.

If the thirteenth century saw a flowering of Sinhala prose literature, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw a flowering of poetry as the process of secularization that had begun with prose continued into poetry. These Sinhala poems were written by monks using Buddhist themes, but they were modeled on classical Sanskrit court literature and thus became more secular in content. The most famous of a spate of sandēsa (message poems) from this period were the Sälalihini sandēśaya (The Message Poem Carried by the Salalihini Bird) and the Parevi sandēśaya (The Message Poem Carried by the Pigeon) by the monk Toṭagamuvē Sri Rāhula, who also wrote the Kāvyaśēkhera (The Crown of Poetry). Two other well-known writers of the age were the monk Vidāgama Maitreyā, who wrote the Buduguṇālaṃkāraya, and the monk Vëttëve, who wrote the Guttila Kāvya (The Poem of Guttila). Increasing secularization resulted in a shift away from the earlier heavy Sanskritization of the language.

Unfortunately, Sinhala literary and linguistic creativity was short lived. The arrival of Western European powers and subsequent colonial conquest by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British in succession from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries resulted in a period of decadence in Sinhala literature. The only poet of significance during the sixteenth century was Alagiyavanna Mohoṭṭāla, who wrote the Kusa Jātaka (The Story of the Birth of the Bodhisattva as King Kusa), the Dahamsoňda kāvya (The Poem on the Good Doctrine), the Subhāsita (Auspicious Thoughts), and some panegyrics.

In the mid-eighteenth century there was a brief literary and religious revival in the central kingdom of Kandy, which had not yet been conquered by Western powers. It was spearheaded by the monk Welivitiye Saranakara, and produced a considerable body of work in Pāli, Sanskrit, and Sinhala. This literary renaissance was short lived, however; the British conquered the entire island in 1815, colonial rule was established, and Sinhala language and literature became stagnant once again.

When the first stirring of political nationalism occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it took the form of a literary and religious revival, and the long-standing Sri Lankan connection between religion, literature, and the national identity resurfaced. The phenomenal increase in literary activity was at first entirely religious, but eventually newer genres influenced by Western contact came to prominence, and a modern secular literature was born.

See also:Pāli, Buddhist Literature in; Sri Lanka


Geiger, Wilhelm. A Grammar of the Sinhalese Language. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Royal Asiatic Society, 1938.

Godakumbure, C. E. Sinhalese Literature. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Colombo Apothecaries, 1955.

Obeyesekere, Ranjini. Sinhala Writing and the New Critics. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Gunasena, 1974.

Obeyesekere, Ranjini. "A Survey of the Sinhala Literary Tradition." In Modern Sri Lanka: A Society in Transition, ed. Tissa Fernando and Robert N. Kearney. Syracuse, NY: Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, 1979.

Obeyesekere, Ranjini, trans. The Jewels of the Doctrine: Stories of the Saddharmaratnāvaliya. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Obeyesekere, Ranjini, trans. Portraits of Buddhist Women: Stories from the Saddharmaratnāvaliya. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Reynolds, C. H. B., ed. An Anthology of Sinhalese Literature up to 1815. London: Allen and Unwin, 1970.

Ranjini Obeyesekere