Make your own free website on

A survey of Sinhalese prose literature from ancient times to the modern period


Asiff Hussein

Sinhalese literature dates back to well over 2000 years and is heir to the great Aryan literary tradition as embodied in the hymns of the Rig Veda, collection of Sanskrit verses composed by the ancient Indo Aryans around 1500 B.C.

 Vyasa"s Mahabharata, Valmiki"s Ramayana, Kalhana"s Rajatarangini and Somadeva"s Kathasaritsagara are some of the masterpieces belonging to this great literary tradition, not to mention the Panchatantra composed by an anonymous Indian author in about the 3rd century A.C. which is the source of a good many European fairy tales as shown by the German Scholar Johannes Hertel in his "Das Pancatantra" (1914).

 There is literary evidence to show that the Mahavansa, the great chronicle of Sinhalese royalty composed in Pali in the 5th century A.C. has drawn heavily from the ancient commentaries in the Sinhala languages known as the Sihalatthakatha.

 The German Philologist Wilhelm Geiger has shown in his "Noch einmal Dipavamsa and Mahavansa" that the Mahavansa was based on an old Atthakatha (commentary) composed in old Sinhala prose. This work appears to have comprised of historical records of a religious nature and collections of legends.

 These legends dealt with the early beginnings of the Sinhalese nation from a band of Aryan-speaking colonists from Bengal, deeds of the early kings, wars and other matters of historical importance.

 The Mahavansa in itself is a literary masterpiece of the highest order. Composed in fine Pali verse, it narrates the adventures of Prince Vijaya, the founding father of the Sinhalese nation, the romantic union of Prince Gamani and Ummada-chittha, the wars waged by their son Pandukabhaya against his ten uncles, the campaigns of King Dutthagamani against the Dravidian invaders, the justice of the Tamil usurper Elara, the insatiable lust of the nymphomaniac Queen Anula and the self-sacrifice of King Sirisangabo, the paragon of Buddhist virtue, amongst other stories.

 These wonderful narratives are based on actual fact, though they contain much literary embellishment. The Sinhalese possess a vast corpus of literature both in prose and in verse written in the Sinhalese language. The old literature has been preserved in palm manuscripts (pus-kola) penned with a stylus.

 The oldest extant Sinhala prose work we have dates back to the ninth century. This is the Dhampiya-Atuva-Getapadaya, a glossary to the Dhammapadatthakatha (a Buddhist story book in Pali) compiled by King Kassapa V (913-923 A.C.) This is not to say that there existed no Sinhala prose work before this period. In fact the commentary to the Mahavansa, Vansatthappakasini, mentions a collection of a thousand stories known as the Sahassavatthuppakarana which is now lost to us. It is possible that some of its stories survive in the 14th century Saddharmalankaraya just as the tales of the lost Persian work Hezar efsaneh (thousand stories) survive in the Arabian nights (Alf layla wa layl).

 There is reason to believe that the above work was based on some old Sinhala original. Another lost old Sinhala work, the Katha-vasthu is believed to be the source of the Rasavahini, a collection of popular tales in Pali compiled by Vedeha thera. Another early work, the Mahabodhi Getapadaya composed about the 12th century by an anonymous author is a glossary to aid students master the Mahabodhivansa, a history of the sacred Bodhi tree in Pali.

 It is evident that many of the early Sinhala prose works were intended as accessories for comprehensive Pali works. Another such example, composed about the same period is the Jataka-Atuva-Getapadaya, a glossary to the Pali Jatakatthakatha which is a commentary of the Jataka tales narrated in connection with the supposed previous births of the Buddha.

 However, it is the Polonnaruwa (10th - early 13th centuries) and the Dambadeniya (13th century) periods which mark the efflorescence of Sinhala prose literature. The 13th century is widely considered to be the golden age of Sinhala literature. The Amavatura (lit. flood of nectar) written about 13th century by the Buddhist lay disciple Gurulugomi is one such example. This work deals with the life of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. Besides, it also narrates a number of other tales connected with the Buddha or the Boddhisattva (as the Buddha is known in his supposed previous incarnations) such as the story of the beautiful Ditthamangalika and the outcaste, the story of King Ajatasatru the parricide and the story Angulimala the highwayman.

 Gurulugomi is also credited with the authorship of the Dharmap-radipikava (the lamp of the good doctrine), a commentary to the earlier mentioned Mahabodhivansa. Gurulugomi"s works are characterised by the use of almost pure Sinhala (Elu) words and limiting Sanskrit and Pali loan words to the minimum.

 In this respect, it differs considerably from the language of the getapadas (glossaries) which contained a good many Pali and Sanskrit loans. Other 13th century works of a religious character include the Buth-sarana (Refuge in the Buddha) an eulogy in praise of the founder of Buddhism by Vidyachakravarti and the Pujavaliya (Garland of offerings), a collection of Buddhist tales by Mayurapada Buddhaputra. However, none of these surpasses the Saddharma-Ratnavaliya (Garland of the jewels of the good doctrine) a collection of stories meant for the edification of the Buddhist laity by a monk named Dharmasena.

 This extensive work which has been largely based on the Dharmmapadatthakatha, a collection of Buddhist stories in Pali is renowned for the beauty of its style and the simplicity of its language. The stories of Sundara Samudda, Vasuladatta and of Tissa the fat are the more interesting tales narrated in the work.

 The Indian tales " upon which the stories have been based " have been embellished and retold for the Sinhalese reader and therefore reflects contemporary social conditions to a significant extent. Martin Wickremasinghe (purana Sinhala stringe enduma) observes thus: "In the pages of the Saddharama Ratnavaliya are to be seen similes and descriptions which reflects the manners, customs, thoughts and ideas of its day. There is no other Sinhala work so helpful in the investigation of the conditions of the olden day Sinhalese." Other works of the period as well as those works of preceding and succeeding periods, also possess this characteristic. In fact, Prof M. B. Ariyapala (Society in medieval Ceylon 1956) has successfully reconstructed the society and life-style of the Sinhalese as it existed in the 13th century through a detailed study of the Saddharma-Ratnavaliya and other similar works. Another notable medieval prose work is the Saddharmalankaraya (ornament of the good law) composed by Jayabahu Dharmakirti in the 14th century.

 The work, like the Saddharma-Ratnavaliya has a moral objective. Amongst other tales, it contains the story of King Dutugemunu (known as Dutthagamani in Pali works) and his exploits against the Dravidian invaders from the Chola country and the romance of his son Prince Sali with an untouchable (Chandala) maiden named Asokamala for whose sake he renounced the throne.

 Other notable medieval prose works include the Thupavansaya, Elu-Attanagalu vansaya and the Dambadeni asna. These works may be categorised as historical literature as they mainly deal with the history of Buddhist edifices and relics. From the Kotte period (15th century) until the late 19th century we see a decline of Sinhala prose literature and a resurgence of Sinhala poetry such as war poems (hatan kavi) and message poems (sandeshas) modelled after Kalidasa"s Meghaduta. This is perhaps attributable to the fact that this period was a turbulent one due to wars against successive European colonial powers, namely the Portuguese (1505-1658), Dutch (1658-1796) and British (1796-1815) colonialists.

 Such a situation would have naturally been conducive to the growth of poetry in the form of panegyrics and romances. As would have been noticed, the vast majority of the ancient and medieval Sinhalese literary works are of a religious (Buddhist) character.

 This is due to the fact that Sinhala scholarship had traditionally been the domain of the clerical establishment, which accounts for the scarcity of good secular works in the language during the olden days.

 However, beginning from the late 19th century we notice a surge in secular Sinhala literature. The Sinhala novel also had its beginnings during this period. These include Albert Silva"s Vimala (1892) and Adara Hasuna (1894). Another early novel which gained immense popularity was Simon Silva"s Meena (1905). Other early novelists include Piyadasa Sirisena, Sagara Palansuriya, Munidasa Kumaratunga, Hemapala Munidasa, W.A. Silva and J.H. Perera.

 This period also saw the revision of old works on medicine and other subjects of scientific interest. Even such themes as the interpretation of dreams did not go unaddressed as is evident in Hisvelle pandit"s Svapna-malaya (1865). Reputed foreign works were also translated into Sinhala during this period, a notable example being Arabinishollasaya (1891) a translation of the Arabian nights. One of the greatest modern day Sinhala novelists was Martin Wickremasinghe, whose epoch making works Gam peraliya and Yuganthaya appealed to the hearts of a generation that was just beginning to shed the last vestiges of European socio-cultural domination in the island.

 Other famous modern novels include Gunadasa Amarasekara"s Yali upannemi and Depa noladdo, Ediriweera Sarachchandra"s Mala-giya ettho and Valmath vi hasarak nudutimi, K. Jayatilleke"s Apra-sanna Kathavak and Siri Guna-singhe"s Hevanella

@Explore Sri Lanka