Sri Lanka's Documented History - the early period

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Sri Lanka’s Documented History - The Early Period

Unlike her neighbors, Sri Lanka has a well documented history from ancient times to the middle ages. The following ancient Chronicles tell the story of Sri Lanka:

  •  The Dipavamsa, or "Deepavamsa", (Chronicle of the Island), Written in the  “Pali” language is the oldest historical record of Sri Lanka. The chronicle is believed to be compiled from Atthakatha, and other sources around the 3rd and 4th century. Together with Mahavamsa, it is the source of many accounts of ancient history of Sri Lanka and India. It was set down, not as a history of Sri Lanka, but as a document which covers the advent and spread of Buddhism in the Island. The work has been translated into English by B. C. Law. It is believed to have been authored by several Buddhist monks of the Mahavihara tradition of Anuradhapura, in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
  •  The Mahavamsa ("Great Chronicle") a historical poem also written in the “Pali” language, gives an account of the kings of Sri Lanka. It covers the period from the coming of Prince Vijaya of Kalinga (ancient Orissa) in 543 BC to the reign of King Mahasena (334–361 AD). The first printed edition an English translation of the Mahavamsa was published in 1837 by George Turnour. A German translation of Mahavamsa was completed by Wilhelm Geiger in 1912. This was then translated into English by Mabel Haynes-Bode, and subsequently revised by Geiger.
  •  The Cūḷavaṃsa, or Chulavamsa, (Lesser Chronicle) is a historical record, written in the “Pāli” language, of the kings of Sri Lanka. It covers the period from the 4th century to 1815. The Culavamsa was compiled over many years, by Sinhala Buddhist monks. It is generally considered to be a sequel to the Mahavamsa ("Great Chronicle") as it was written in the 6th century by the monk Mahanama. The Mahavamsa and the Culavamsa are sometimes thought of as a single work (referred to as the "Mahavamsa") spanning over two millennia of Sri Lankan history.


 The Mahavamsa, the Deepavamsa and the Culavamsa were all authored by Buddhist monks, and were written not as an accurate account of the history of the country, but, to highlight the importance of Buddhism within the historical panorama of events of the time.  They record the public history of the period capturing the events that illustrate the pride of place afforded to Buddhism.

Since these works are epics they only contain details of personages  who strode the historical stage of Lanka such as Kings, Queens and Generals, and even of them very little personal details have been recorded. In the case of ordinary citizens, of their day to day lives and their genealogies nothing is known. 

The oldest archival material on Sri Lanka dates back only to the 16th century. The archives of the Sri Lankan monarchy if did exist they are now lost to posterity.


3 comments at the moment.
Comment By Comment
Purajitha Pilimathalawa I do not agree that the Mahavamsa, Culavamsa and Deepavamsa do not carry historical information. These great works are the basis on which the history of Sri Lanka has been found out. Yes i agree that they highlight the great impact of Buddhism on the social structure of the country! But this is after all Sinhala Buddhist country and therefore it is only right that Buddhism is given pride of place.

I always thought that all the Kings of Anuradhapura, Pollonnaruwa, Yapahuwa and Dambadeniya have been mentioned. However i will research these publications and revert.

Good site!

 I suppose in a way there is truth in your statement! Having read the Mahavamsa its narrative style and story book nature almost in verse is similar in many ways to the stories in the old testament of the Christian bible. Where the stories are not to be taken literally but rather an account of events based on the understanding of day to day events that prevailed at the time. Therefore yes the Mahavamsa is i guess not a historical document of life in ancient Lanka. Sadly the Mahavamsa, Deepavamsa and Culavamsa seem to be the only reliable documents of the time.

However i believe there is much to be gleaned from the stories that shed some light about life and the social fabric of the country. Even the stories in the Mahavamsa titled the Coming of Vijaya and the Consecrating of Vijaya do provide some insight into the social structure of the time, for example that Lanka was a matriarchal society, that there were warring factions or clans. Therefore i am note sure i can totally subscribe to views expressed in this article.

I will try and add a comment on each of the relevant (interesting articles) as i believe that some effort and though have gone into the writing of these - Also i believe that the author (Mohan) seems to be a person of intellect and moderate views.
 Dear Purajitha,

I think you have misunderstood what we have tried to convey in the article. The Mahavamsa, Culavamsa and Deepavamsa are not only great works, but are unique to our part of the world where there is no tradition of written history. Not only the history of Sri Lanka but even the history of the Indian subcontinent prior to the Medieval period has been reconstructed with the help of these great works.

However the motivation behind these works are not purely historical but also to show the importance of Buddhism in the country and like the other great book ÔÇ£the BibleÔÇØ it not only contains history but legends, stories and beliefs that prevailed amongst the people, which in no way diminish their value.

For instance the story of the ancestry of Sinhabahu being the son of a Lion by a Bengali princess was written to emphasize the founding of the Lion race the Sinhalese. .

VijayaÔÇÖs landing in Sri Lanka has been made to coincide with the attaining of parinibbana of the Buddha and it is said the latter closed his eyes only after he was certain that Vijaya had landed safely on the shores of Lanka. In order for the dates to coincide the author of the Mahavamsa unrealistically enhanced the periods of the reigns of the early Kings. seventy years of reign to Pandukabhaya, sixty years of reign to Mutaseeva and 80 years of reign each to Devanampiyatissa and his four brothers!

This story may have been narrated perhaps to inseparably link up the legendary founder of the Sinhala race, Vijaya, and the country that he acquired; Lanka with the Gauthama and his teachings.

It is interesting to note that according to the Mahavamsa, Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka only during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa. There are several such instances where the authors have taken liberties with historical timelines. But this in no way diminishes the value or the importance of these great works.

These works certainly mention the Kings of Anurdhapura, Pollonnaruwa, Yapahuwa and Dambadeniya but what the article has highlighted is that although these chronicles do provide some genealogical information about the Kings of Lanka such information is neither extensive nor exhaustive and provide no insights to the day to day lives of the Kings let alone the common people.

As mentioned previously in our article; The oldest archival material on Sri Lanka dates back only to the 16th century. The archives of the Sri Lankan monarchy if did exist they are now lost to posterity.
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