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 Post subject: Scholarship and learning in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Fri Dec 26, 2008 5:01 pm 
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Scholarship and learning in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka

by Kamalika Pieris - May 2007

Sri Lanka had a strong tradition of scholarship and learning in the ancient and medieval period. Hiuen Tsang writing in the 7th century said that he had heard that the people of Sri Lanka loved learning and valued religious excellence. Walpola Rahula writing on the Anuradhapura period said that "Freedom of discussion was an important feature highly esteemed. To be humble and not to be proud of ones learning was regarded as sign of great scholarship."

Writing was in existence in Sri Lanka from the 5th century BC and it was not limited to the elite. An inscribed pot dated to the 5th century BC, found in excavations at Anuradhapura indicates that some potters at least could write. Written communications started fairly early. In the 2nd century BC, a prince of Kelaniya had sent a love letter to a queen. A generation later Dutugemunu was writing letters to Magama. The literature of the medieval period constantly refers to the sending of letters. There were written records as well. The upper class and the royal family maintained "merit books" (punna pottaka) in which meritorious deeds were written down, to be read out when death approached.


There are cave, rock, pillar, and slab inscriptions dating from the 3rd century BC. These occur in large numbers up to the 13th century AD. They continue in lesser numbers right up to 1815. These inscriptions were publicly displayed and contained information intended for the public. Some announced immunities granted to villages, including tax exemptions. The Vevalkatiya inscription of Udaya IV dealt with the administration of justice in a dasagama. It indicated that in certain circumstances the whole village was subject to penalties. The Badulla pillar inscription gave regulations for traders and this told the public how traders were expected to conduct their businesses. These inscriptions indicate a literate public. However, not all were literate. The Majjhima commentary says that those in remote provinces were asked to get these edicts read to them.

The standard of writing achieved was quite high. Researchers noted that the inscriptions that belonged to between the 2nd and 4th centuries were written in good Sinhala. The choice and use of words in the composition were scholarly and the spelling was correct. The pillar inscription near Ruvanvelisaya dated to King Buddhadasa was in beautiful writing. The last piece of evidence for literacy is in the Sigiri gee. Only 21 of these are by monks. The rest were by kings, royal officials, nobility and ordinary persons. Their names, such as Dunuvagama, Kasabal, Diyawelle Maha and Nanda from Ruhuna show that they came from all parts of the island.

Sri Lanka was ahead of India in this matter. The inscribed pot found in Anuradhapura is one of the earliest examples of writing found in the Indian peninsula. The Sinhala language developed at a greater speed than the Indian languages. The Indian languages stayed at the first or "proto" level until the 10th century. In most cases literary works appeared only after the 12th century. Even distant languages such as Kasmiri developed at a slow pace. However, the "proto" level ended about the 7th century for Sinhala and the Sigiri gee appeared thereafter. These poems are unique in the Indo-Aryan languages.

Scholarly kings

The kings were literate and they encouraged learning and literature. Parakramabahu VI helped scholars and writers and held a kavikara maduwa. Aggabodhi I had twelve court poets and his reign was a period of great literary activity. The kings encouraged reading. The Madavala Sannasa of Vijayabahu VI refers to a grant of land to Dharmalankara Pandita for the writing of books at Sunetradevi pirivena. The Pepiliyana document of Parakramabahu VI speaks of the items that should be offered when a monk wrote one thousand grantha of the Tripitaka. The kings assigned officers to see to this activity.

Some kings were scholars themselves. Moggallana II was known as an intellectual and an incomparable poet (asdrushya kaviyek). Buddhadasa wrote Sarartha Sangraha, a text on medicine. Kassapa V wrote Dhampiya Atuva Getapadaya, a work that involved many sources. Vijayabahu I translated the Dhammasangani to Sinhala. Parakramabahu VI composed Ruvanmala, a lexicon for poets.

Parakramabahu II knew Buddhism, Sinhala, Sanskrit and Pali and is considered the author of the Vanavinisa Sannaya. He made a complete word for word Sinhala translation of the Visuddhimagga with detailed comments and expositions. He was familiar with several schools of Buddhist thought and had read the writings of Indian Buddhist scholars. He quoted from the northern schools of Buddhism and cited the Baghavad Gita and Manusmrti, the Hindu law book. Some ministers were also cultured and well educated. Salavata, Jayapala, Minister to Parakramabahu VI asked Vettave to write the Guttila kavya. Voharaka Tissa got Minister Kapila to hold an inquiry and purge the dhamma of Vaitulya doctrines.


A wide range of subjects stretching from humanities to science were studied in the medieval period. The humanities subjects included history, law, philosophy, logic, and ethics. Literary skills such as letters, speech, reading, writing, grammar, prosody, rhetoric, vocabulary, glossary and metrical poetry were also studied. In the science group, the subjects studied included arithmetic, astronomy, astrology, geology, geography, and the "earth's atmosphere". Medieval writings such as the Pujavali and Saddharmarat-navali constantly refer to the sixty-four arts (suseta kala) and eighteen practical crafts.


There was a love of reading. The Samantapasadika stated that books were read even by the light of an oil lamp. The Mahavamsa records that the young Dhatusena read a book under a tree. The Pujavali said that noble women should obtain books and read them and advises those in remoter parts of the country to get such books read to them. Books other than religious books were written. During the reign of queen Kalyanavati, a book on law, Dharmadhikarana, was written by a military commander named Ayasamantha. The kings encouraged reading, specially on Buddhism. Kassapa I and Kassapa II had copies of the Tripitaka made. Moggallana II arranged for the writing of books on Buddhism. Vijayabahu I ordered the writing of books for payment in villages.

Learning in monastaries and pirivenas

Buddhist monasteries were centres for learning and scholarship. The Buddhist tradition of reasoning supported scholarship and learning. The Mahavihara, Tissamaharama, Kaladighava-pidvara vihara and Kallagama Mandalarama were centres of scholarship in the Anuradhapura period. The Jetavanarama, Mahindasena, Alahana and Ramba vihara were centres in the Polonnaruwa period. These centres were led by scholarly monks. The Jetavana became a leading seat of learning under the monk Sariputta. He was a grammarian and had written many books including one on astrology. He influenced a series of scholar monks such as Sangarakhitha, who wrote on Pali grammar and Pali literary style. Monks of the Vilgammula group were known for literary and intellectual eminence. Education was not restricted to monks. There were lay teachers as well. According to the Mihintale inscription, lay teachers also received grants from Cetiyagiri.

There were prestigious pirivenas. The Vijayaba pirivena at Totagamuwa was established in the Dambadeniya period. Many pirivenas were set up in the Kotte period. They included Tilaka pirivena, at Devinuwara, Sri Ghanandana pirivena at Vidagama, Sunetra Devi Pirivena at Pepiliyana and Irugaltilaka pirivena at Devundara. Padmavati Pirivena in Keragala was considered outstanding. There was also the Mahapaya pirivena at Ussapitiya in Kegalle district built by Parakramabahu VI. The Arankele sannasa of Bhuvanekabahu VI refers to the Dharmaraja Pirivena at Erabattot and the Sinhala Dighanikaya indicates that lay persons were given an education in the pirivena.

The Buddhist temples maintained libraries. There are two rock inscriptions referring to a library at Tantirimale. The Mahavamsa refers to the creation of a religious library in time of Mahaculi Mahatissa. The Culavamsa says that Parakramabahu I created a library at Jetavanaramaya, and renovated 128 libraries at Dhakkinadesa. R. H. I. S. Ranasinghe whose doctoral research was on the temple libraries of ancient and medieval Sri Lanka says that there were temple libraries in the major monasteries during the Anuradhapura period. Thuparama, Mirisavadya, Issarasamanaramaya, Vessagiriya, and Cetiyagiri all had libraries.

There were also fine libraries in Durasankara Granthakara Pirivena and Diksanda Senavi Pirivena, attached to the Mahavihara. In Ruhuna, there were libraries at Tissamaharama, Cittala pabbata, Thurdhara Pabbataramaya, Kapugama Pirivena near Kataragama and Kalgamaye Mandalaramaya. Religious books were copied and distributed to other temples. This was done systematically according to a plan. The books for Sabaragamuwa were prepared at a Gal viharaya in Sabaragamuwa. This temple was thereafter known as Potgul vihara.

Expansion of learning

The monasteries and pirivenas initially concentrated on Buddhism, Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit. But as time went on, the monks began to study other subjects such as history, logic, medicine, and astrology. They wrote books on medicine and astrology. Mayurapada thera said that people needed to be healthy to follow Buddhism. The monks also turned their attention to literary style and studied the subjects of prosody and ornaments of speech.

They expanded their range of languages. Sri Rahula of the Vijayaba Pirivena knew six languages: Sanskrit, Prakrit, Magadhi (Pali), Sauraseni Apabhramsa and Paisaci. The last three were well known middle Indo-Aryan languages. He taught Tamil in his pirivena. In the Kotte period the Padmavati Pirivena and Vijayaba Pirivena taught logic, astrology, medicine, languages, prosody and ornaments of speech. The Vijayaba Pirivena taught drama as well. The Dambadeni Katikavata said monks should not learn despicable things like poetry and drama.

Works on Buddhism

Sri Lanka produced many scholarly and educational works on Buddhism. There was the Sinhala atuva (commentaries) which constituted a "huge literature". There were treatises on the Abdhidhamma and translations of the sutta. A Sinhala Sutrapitakaya had been written in the reign of Buddhadasa. There were compendiums on Buddhist doctrine such as Dharmapradipikava and Karmavibhagaya. There were books of devotion and good counsel such as Butsarana together with works on the life of the Buddha (Amavatura and Pujavaliya). There were works on monastic discipline (Sikhavalanda vinisa) and on the nikayas (Nikaya Sangraha).

Ancient Sri Lanka was at the centre of Buddhist literary tradition. The continuous study of religious and other texts for a period of about 16 centuries had enabled the monasteries to preserve the entire range of Theravada literary tradition. However, it was internationally recognised not only for Theravada, but also for Mahayana and Tantra. The Durasankara Pirivena had a full complement of Buddhist literature including material from non-Theravada schools. These collections were known abroad. Foreigners like Fa Hsien came to refer them, Buddhaghosa was sent to translate them. Rana-singhe says that Amoghavajra, and Samanthabadhra each took away about 500 Mahayana and Tantra manuscripts.


Ancient Sri Lanka had a tradition of keeping informative records. Buddhism placed great importance on historical accuracy and a continuous series of scholarly histories were produced. These histories date from at least 3rd century BC. They dealt with Buddhist institutions and objects of worship. The histories included Thupavamsaya, Dalada vamsaya, and the Sinhala Bodhivamsaya. The Hatthvanagalla vihara vamsa presents the history of Sirisangabo and the Attangalu vihara. The Lalatadhatuvamsa was on the thupa at Seruvila. The Asigiriya talpata gave the history of the Asgiriya temple.

The Dalada sirita gave a list of kings starting from Sirimegahvanna with brief accounts of their contribution to Buddhism. The Rajaratnakaraya and Rajavaliya also carried a history of the Sinhala kings. Vittipot such as Kurunegala vistaraya and Yapahu vistayara (Dambadeniya period) recorded local history. Later histories regularly refer to earlier ones. The Vansaththappa-kasini refers among others to the Uttaravihara mahavamsa, and Sihala bhasha nammakara. The Nikaya sangrahaya used the Mahavamsa, Samantapasadika, Mahabodhiwansa and Tupavamsa as sources. Many histories are now lost. Pali works such as Thupavamsa, Dhatuvamsa and Mahabodhivamsa state that they were based on Sinhala originals.

The Dipawamsa, Mahavamsa and Culavamsa provide a continuous historical record of the island right up to the 14th century. Sirima Kiribamune points out that the author of the Mahavamsa was no mere copyist, though he stated that he is only recording what has been handed down. He was a scholar, and a gifted writer. He had a sound sense of history, his language was refined, and he used erudite verse forms. There is nothing in South and Southeast Asia to match the Mahavamsa. It predates all other histories in South Asia and influenced history writing in Southeast Asia.


Sri Lanka nurtured and developed two literatures, Sinhala and Pali. The largest volume of literature was in Sinhala. There was a continuous flow of Sinhala literature from the Anuradhapura period up to the Kotte period. Certain periods saw greater writing than others. The reign of Parakramabahu IV saw much literary activity, especially in vamsa literature. Much of the early Sinhala writing is now lost. Later writings such as the Sidat sangara give quotations from these missing works.

Almost all the material that has come down to us is on Buddhism. This is the literature preserved in the temples. There were books on the life of the Buddha (Amavatura, Pujavaliya). There were books of devotion and good counsel (Butsarana). There were collections of Buddhist stories (Saddharmaratnavaliya, Saddharmalankaraya). The Jataka stories were collected into the Pansiya panas jataka pota, with the Ummagga Jataka appearing separately. The Pujavali was written to present Buddhism in Sinhala because its ideas were "lying buried in the Magadhi tongue". Its language is very simple and its narrative parts are understood to this day by the ordinary Sinhala villager. Budugunalakaraya was in praise of the Buddha.

Some of these writings were of high literary merit. Sadharmaratnavaliya is one of the best works in Sinhala prose. it is the least burdened with Pali quotations. Amavatura is unrivalled. There is nothing to match it in the whole of Sinhala prose. It is clear, and economical, and does not have the onset of the heavy mixed style with an abundance of Sanskrit loan words, which came later. Butsarana is a book of devotion, showing the advantages of Buddhism. The taming of Nalagiri is full of dramatic effect. These works are not dull and boring. There is humour and satire in the Jataka stories, and in the Dhamapaddathakatha. I think that the available material gives a very lopsided picture of Sinhala literature. It looks as though classical Sinhala literature only dealt with religion. There would have been a secular literature as well.

There was a steady output of translations. Some Sinhala items were translated into Pall and then translated back again into Sinhala as in the case of the Visuddimagga. Hatthavanagalla vihara vamsa was translated into Sinhala twice in the 14th and 15th centuries. A monk at Sihala vihara, Nagarjunikonda in South India, translated the Sihalavatthu prakarana into Pali. The Sinhala adaptation of the Pali material often included new material. They were not mechanical translations. However, G. P. Malalasekera said that most important items were in Sinhala without Pali translations.


Sinhala poetry started very early. Paranavitana says there is one inscription of the first century BC and another of the second century BC each containing a verse. There are three inscriptions dated to second century AD containing one or two verses in each. There were 12 poets adorning the court of Aggabodhi II. (604-614). Their names are known. They are described as "maha kaveen", which means that there would have been at least 12 maha kavi composed at this time. These poems are lost. The earliest poems available today are the Sigiri gee and the Sasadavata and Muvadevdavata composed in the 12th century.

Godakumbura says "Sinhala lends itself easily to versification, including metrical verse. Sinhala is ideally suited to descriptions or to the expression of conditions and moods. It is flexible, it is varied, and it has a rich vocabulary able to convey a subtle and diverse shade of meaning, to make vivid to the imagination any picture that the writer wishes to conjure up. Sinhala, with a large number of synonyms, made it possible for the poet to use any metre or rhyme he chose. Its homonyms, with a multiplicity of meanings made it easy for the versifier to indulge in all sort of verbal gymnastics."

Sinhala poetry had a range of styles and formats. At the classical level, they incorporated complicated metrical patterns and meters, but later on, the emphasis was on the auspicious arrangements of syllables known as "gana". There were maha kavya with a specified number of cantos, such as Kavsilumina. There were poems written specifically for the public. These include the Guttila kavya, accurately described as "a source of perennial delight to all lovers of Sinhala poetry". There was Lovadasangarava, a didactic poem with moral advice based on Buddhism and the Subhasitaya, a poetic guide to worldly wisdom.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is "Parakumba sirita", a poem in praise of Parakramabahu VI. It is written in several different metres and styles and contains an erotic description of the physical attractions of the king. There were message poems (sandesa). The earliest known sandesaya is the first Mayura sandesaya dated to 13th century or earlier. This was followed by other sandesa such as Gira, Hansa and Selalihini. In the Tisara Sandesaya, the poet forgot that he was addressing a bird and gave instructions as to a person. He told the swan to rest in monasteries, and asked it to cross rivers by bridge, as men do, instead of telling it to swim across. Godakumbura says that other poets also "treated their messengers in the same manner". Godakumbura considers Kokila Sandesaya to be the best of the sandesa. "The poetry is full of satire, but there is also erotic sentiment in abundance."

The Sigiri gee date from the 7th century, but most poems fall within the 8th and 10th centuries. There are over 850 poems. They were written by monks, kings, royal officials, and ordinary persons, men as well as women. They are in a variety of metres such as sivupada, kavi gee, yon gee and sa gee. They are full of alankara and the quality is said to be good. Paranavitana says that the Sigiriya verses show that there would have been a definite poetic tradition prior to this period, without which poetry of such high quality could not have been possible. I think that these poems indicate something else as well. They show that writing poetry came naturally to the Sinhala public of the time. The nagara sobhini who received visits from King Kumara Dhatusena (508-516 AD) also could write poetry. This is seen even today in hitivana kavi. In the 1950s when I was attending school, there were pupils who could compose Sinhala kavi on command.


The Pali writings included works on the Vinaya such as the Buddhasikha and Mulasikha, poems such as "Samanta kuta vannana" and the "Bessajja Manjusa", a 12th century medicinal work. The standard of writing was high and the Pali Thupavamsa is considered an original work with high literary merit. It is considered an excellent composition, with highly poetic descriptions. The Dipawamsa, Mahavamsa and Culavamsa were also in Pali.

The meter, rhythms and figures of speech in Pali were examined and codified in Sri Lanka. There were glossaries to accompany Pali works. Dharmaparadeepika was written to explain the words in the Mahabodhivamsa. Books were written on Pali literary style (Vuttodaya), Pali verbs and syntax, (Sambandhacinta) and on the art of Pali poetry, especially gathas (Subhodhalankara) in the Polonnaruwa period. Monks also compiled Pali grammars. They first wrote works based on the Pali grammar of the elder Kacchayana, one of the eighty chief disciples of the Buddha. In the 12th century, the elder Mogallana, a pupil of Mahakassapa of Uumbara-giri, and the incumbent of the Thuparama vihara, Anuradhapura, started a new school of grammar, known as the Moggallana vykarana. Balavatara, a Pali grammar, written in Sri Lanka in the 14th century, was highly regarded in the Theravada Buddhist countries.

Scholars knew Sanskrit as well as Pali and Sinhala. Several leading monks such as Vanaratna Sri Rahula and Gurulugomi were experts in Sanskrit. Maha Kassapa of Udumbaragiri wrote in Sanskrit. There were glossaries known as sanne and getapadaya respectively, which gave the Sinhala words for Pali and Sanskrit words. These glossaries were ornate compositions. There seem to have been dozens of these. Two examples are the Kutusika sanne and the Danipiya atuva getapadaya, which were written in the Anuradhapura period.


There was Sanskrit influence in both Sinhala and Pali literature. Sanskrit phrases (tatsama) were used increasingly in Sinhala prose writing around the 11th century. Mahabodhivamsaya has a mix of Sanskrit and Sinhala words. Some passages are high Sanskrit and others are pure Sinhala. The slab inscriptions in the period 1058 - 1220 AD included Sanskrit sentences or phrases. The Sanskrit form of Pali words was preferred. The Pali Mahabodhivamsa was in this highly Sanskritised Pali and there were several glossaries written to help understand it. The Moggallana, school of grammar was directed at eliminating the increasing use of Sanskrit in Pali.

The period 1058-1220 AD was the "heyday of Sanskrit learning in Ceylon". There was Amavatura, Butsarana, Sasadavata and Muvadevdavata in Sinhala with Saraththadeepani and Dathavamsa in Pali and a Sanskrit work on astrology by Anomadassi Thera. Sanskrit learning and Pali flourished side by side, together with Sinhala in the time of Parakramabahu I. Sanskrit lost its high position after the Polonnaruwa period. As a result, there was a prolific literature in Sinhala and Pali with a lesser amount in Sanskrit in the Dambadeniya period.

It has been suggested that the Sinhala scholar had no originality whatsoever, and Sinhala literature simply imitated Sanskrit literature. That is not so. The Sanskrit poetic tradition had started in the 2nd century AD with Bharatha Muni's Natyasastra. Sinhala scholars ran to it only in the Polonnaruwa period. For instance, the Sanskrit sataka poems came up in the 7th and 8th century but Sri Lanka turned to it only in the 12th century. Dandin's Kavyadarsa was translated as Siyabasalakara, also in the 12th century. Sinhala scholars were not dependant on Sanskrit. Sinhala literature had its independent tradition. Kalidasa’s Meghaduta was known to Sinhala poets, but the purpose of the Sinhala sandesaya was different and its arrangement differed from Kalidasa's poem. Alankara was known long before Dandin's work. The Sigiri gee had elements of alankara, and different metres.

The writings of M. B. Ariyapala, E. H. de Alwis, G. P. S. H. de Silva, K. N. O. Dharmadasa, C. E. Godakumbura, D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke, R. A. L. H. Gunawardana, S. Hettiarachchi, H. B. M. Illangasinha, A. Kulasuriya, A Liyanagamage, G. P. Malalasekera, I. Munasinghe, S Paranavitana, Walpola Rahula, R. H. I. S. Ranasinghe, W. I. Siriweera, K. T. W. Sumanasuriya and O. H. de A. Wijesekera were used for this essay.

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