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The Origins of Sinhala Literature

Sri Lanka claims the world's second oldest continuous written history (more than 2500 years).It was documented in Pali language.This large chronicle in the island is called 'Mahavamsa'.Most aspects of Pali and Sanscrit languages are preserved in the modern Sinhala or Sinhalese language.

The Sinhala language came to Sri Lanka with the original migrants from North India who are traditionally considered to be the founders of the Sinhala nation. They spoke Indo-Aryan vernaculars depending on the areas from which they migrated. The early migrants came from Bengal, Magadha and K‚linga. The languages in all these areas were variants of Indo-Aryan, not too dissimilar to each other, and it is speculated that Sinhala is an amalgam of these languages. Some scholars think that there was also an early migration from North-Western India from the region corresponding to modern Gujerat, and that the language spoken there, from which modern Gujerati is derived, too may have been blended to form the Sinhala language. Later on it came to be influenced by Pali which is the language in which the Buddhist canonical writings were preserved. The origin of Pali is something of a mystery some scholarly opinion considering it the dialect of the region of Ujjain, but like other Indo-Aryan languages related to Maghadhi which the Buddha would have used in his preaching.

The original migrants also brought with them the Brahmi script. The Mah‚vamsa says that King Vijaya communicated with kings in India to arrange marriages, etc. and this could only have been done with a commonly understood language and script. The Brahmi script of the early inscriptions had five short vowels (a, i, u, e o), their long versions ( ‚ etc.) and 32 consonants all of which are preserved in the modern sinhala.

Extant literature does not lead us beyond the 9th Century CE (Common Era). Yet it cannot be said that this alone proves the non-existence of an earlier literature. The Nik‚ya Sangrahaya mentions twelve poets during the time of Agbo II, about the 2nd Century BCE (Before Common Era).

The extant Pali commentaries, according to their principal compiler Buddhaghosa Thera are also said to be translations from Sinhalese originals all of which are now lost. Dr Adhikaram lists 28 works now lost which would have been used by Buddhaghosa many in Sinhala such as: Sihalatthakath‚ Mah‚vasa, Mah‚ Pacc‚riya Atthakath‚, SÓhala Dhammapadatthakath‚, a Sinhala treatise on medicine, etc The Gštapada works also betray traces of other strata of language harking back to earlier times.

The earliest extant works of substantial length in Sinhala are the Siyabaslakara and Elu Sandas Lakuna. They too refer to earlier works and the fact that they are works on poetics shows us that there must have been an earlier literature.

The earliest examples of Sinhala writing are contained in the inscriptions. Prof. Geiger classes the language of the 2nd Century BCE up to the 5th Century CE. as the Prakrit age, basing his evidence on the inscriptions. Vowel endings characterise the language.

(i) upasaka asaha lene (ii) taladara nagaha puta devaha lene agana anagata catudisa sagasa (Epigraphia Zeylanica) The names and donors of caves are referred to here. The inscriptions increase in number with the progress of time.

A later inscription said to have been made by Queen Uttiya (207 - 197 BCE) reads as follows:

damarakita terasa agata anagata catudisa sagasa anikata sona pitaha bariya upasita tisaya lene [Cave of Tiss‚ Anikata Sona's father's wife (gifted) to Thera Dhammarakkhita (and) to Sangha who have come or will come from the four quarters]

In this inscription the similarity to the later (even modern) Sinhala is quite evident.

It may, not however, be necessarily inferred that the language of the inscriptions was that spoken or read at this time. The perishable nature of the writing material used, as well as the fewness of the copies of works may also be reckoned as factors that may have caused their disappearance.

Both Sanskrit and Pali appear to have influenced the Sinhalese of the Anuradhapura period. New sounds were added to the language as words were taken into Sinhalese both as derivatives and in the pure form. Verse however remained "Elu" or pure Sinhalese. The Sigiriya verses also belong to this class - reminiscences of a lost age.

The Siyabaslakara, the earliest extant poem is a work of Sena I, who ruled from 848 CE. Some hold that the writer was Sena II, however, the date suffers little change. This is a work on prosody which closely follows the K‚vydarsa of D‚din. Here he refers to other works on prosody. The verses are unrhymed gš and many-lined sahalš. Both rhymed and unrhymed verses are found showing a considerable metrical and poetical skill, a product of earlier training and influence. This is a stanza using a two-letter combination.

n‚ vana vi vana vana navavin‚ vana nš vana vanano nivi nŻnŻ vana n‚na n‚ nava nivŻ ne vana The next work Dhampiya-atuv‚ Gštapadaya, a glossarial commentary is a work of Kasyapa V (908-918 CE) as internal evidence shows. Pali words are used both in a modified and pure form while at times Sinhalese inflexions are added. Words in common use today such as kulla, panduru are used along with words now obsolete. The striking feature to be observed here is that this is also a work of a scholar king.

The sikhavalanda and the sikhavalanda vinisa are later in language and can hence be placed later. These works deal with rules regarding the conduct of monks who had received the higher ordination. The author is unknown, yet, he shows a thorough knowledge of the Vinaya. The rules enunciated and elucidated here agree with those of inscriptions. No exact date can be fixed for this work, yet it may be safely said to belong to the Anuradhapura period.

No further works of this period exist; all the same it was the period during which the country was prosperous and the monasteries flourished. Foreign visitors have also testified to this. However we have to be satisfied with gleanings of knowledge of this period from other sources.

An unusual form of literature stemming from the Anuradhapura period is the graffiti scrawled on the wall in the gallery leading to the top of the Sigiriya fortress. This literature consists of verses scribbled by visitors who admired the paintings which adorned the side of the Sigiriya fortress. These paintings stirred romantic thoughts amongst some of the visitors. A typical verse runs as follows:

as mÓ dun hasun - hasun seyin vil duta mul‚lama sšnahÓ - pul puyuman seyi bamara duta [Like swans who have seen a lake, I listened to the message given (by her) like a bee who has seen full-blown lotuses, the bewildered heart of mine was consoled.]

It may also be mentioned that in the earlier inscriptions do not mention Sinhala as the language and ethnicity of the people. This has been used by some propagandists to support the claims of separatists against the historic role of the Sinhalas in Sri Lanka.

See e.g. R. A. L. H. Gunawardana, "The People of the Lion: The Sinhala Identity and Ideology in History and Historiography", Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities Vol. V:1-2, (1979) who claims that before the 12 century CE the Sinhala identity did not cover the whole people of SL but only a small ruling class. Gunawardene's theory has been controverted by K.N.O.Dharmadasa.

Prof Parnavitana has already explained that if the Sinhalas were the dominant group it was not necessary to mention this fact, and only "outgroups" like Kaboja, Milaka and Demeda are mentioned, and that too in less than a dozen instances out of the over 1200 inscriptions available for this period.

Of course the Sanskrit literature of India always refers to Sri Lanka as the land or island of the Sinhala. The mention of the term in the Sinhala literature of Sri Lanka also occurs around this time. K.N.O. Dhamadasa cites a passage from the Dhampiya Atuv G„apadaya, written by King Kassapa V (914-923) which provides "unmistakable testimony to the fact that, by the time of its compilation, the Sinhala identity in its widest implications was an accepted fact". Kassapa paraphrases the Pali word dpabhsya, meaning "in the language of the island", as heu basin, which means "in the helu (Sinhala) language".