Ancient literature of Sri Lanka
@ Sunday Observer
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.