Saturday, 18 September 2004  
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Mihintalava - The Birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhist Civilization

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Origin of Sinhala printing

by Nuwara Eliye Hemapala,Former Chief Cataloguing Officer, National Archives

During the time of the Sinhala kings, writing of Sinhala books was done on palm leaves with the aid of the Panhinda (stylex). When the Portuguese came to this country in 1505 they brought with them paper and quill. At the beginning they were confined only to them.

Subsequently, however, paper and quill entered the royal court and were used for official writing. Although printing was known in Goa at that time, the Portuguese were not keen in introducing it here.

The art and craft of printing was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Dutch. After their occupation in the Maritime Provinces they had to distribute a large number of copies of decrees and other notifications relating to levying of taxes etc. in Sinhala and Tamil.

Hand copying of these for mass circulation was an arduous and time consuming task. Therefore, for this purpose they sought the help of the printer's craft, which was then spreading in the East.

Dutch missionaries

Meanwhile, the Dutch missionaries who were interested in setting up vernacular schools and other institutions for the propagation of Christianity in Sri Lanka realised the necessity of printing of books in Sinhala for educating the younger generation and especially for sowing the seed of Christian religion among the masses.

Therefore, the missionaries sought the help of the Dutch Government in this connection. Governor Jacob Christian Peilat in 1725 entrusted the preparatory work for Sinhala printing to Gabriel Schade who was the Baas (Superintendent) of the Company Arsenal.

Former Government Archivist J.H.O. Paulusz thus recalls the early attempts which led to the establishment of Sinhala Printing in Sri Lanka:

"Many attempts have been made about 1720 onwards to set up a printing press for books in the Sinhala language, but the technical problems could not at first be overcome. However, in about 1725, the Superintendent of the Company Arsenal Gabriel Schade set to work again on experiments in casting the Sinhalese types and moulding the required parts."

Slow progress

Slow progress at this venture made Governor Peilat to leave behind instructions to his successor on his departure as follows:

"...With a view to carry out the good object of the Hon'ble the Commissioner with regard to the establishment of a Sinhala Printing Office, so that the New Testament may be printed in that language, and we hereby authorise Your Excellency to obtain all the necessary articles as stated in the report of the Rev. Messrs Konyn and Wetselius and the late Bass of the Arsenal Gabriel Schade.

The latter having offered his services again at the request of the Rev. Ministers, has been appointed to work and as a great encouragement has been granted the same salary and emoluments as he received as Bass of the Arsenal, while his request that all necessities should be provided well also be complied with.

We hope that the worthy divines will also according to their promise, devote themselves with all zeal and diligence to this work, on which we pray heaven may grant its blessings..."

Change of course

Whilst Gabriel Schade was successfully carrying on experiment in Sinhala printing, the arrival of a new Governor from Batavia changed the course of events.

The cruellest of all Dutch Governors, Petrus Vuyst, who claimed that he would rule this tiny island with an eye blindfolded, arrived in the Fort of Galle in September 1726.

Later in about 1729 a dispute arose between the new Governor and Schade, eventually the Governor caused Schade to be tortured and imprisoned.

Due to the crisis that arose as a result of Governor Vuyst's severe administration, the preparation for Sinhala printing was also paralysed. His administration was so cruel that the authorities in Batavia removed him from office and he was brought before a special Court of Justice and sentenced to death.

Thereafter, Missionary padres Ms. J.W. Konyn and Wetselius drew the attention of Governor Gustafi Williem Baron Van Imhoff to the task of printing in Sinhala. Gabriel Scahde who was feeble and old now, was again entrusted with the job of starting this work.

Under the special care of Governor and with the help of the Government in Java, Gabriel Schade, by 1737, successfully completed the preliminary work of printing in Sinhala. The first sinhala Book printed with movable Sinhala types invested by Gabriel Schade under the patronage and assistance of Governor Gustafi Willem Baron Van Imhoff was a Christian Prayer Book. It came of print in 1737.

First Sinhala book

However, fate denied Gabriel Schade the opportunity to celebrate that joyful event as revealed by the former Government Archivist J.H.D. Paulusz. viz... "Vuyst' ill-treatment had left a mark on him. He was feeble and broken in body, though still stout of heart.

With the help of two clergymen, J.W. Konyn and J.P. Werzellius, who trained the required typesetters and mechanics in reading and arranging the Sinhala characters, he brought his work to the final stages. But his death about the middle of 1737 robbed him of the satisfaction of seeing this first Sinhalese Book issued from the Press a few months later..."

The first Sinhala book that came out of the press in 1737 was printed on thick hand made paper of octave size. The name of the book is printed in Dutch on the cover. The title is as follows in Dutch.


Next appears the following:









Page 3 carried the Sinhala title and the imprint with the emblem of the Dutch East India Company in the canter (as in the photocopy). Prayers in Sinhala type appear afterwards. This book consists of 40 pages.


In evaluating this pioneer effort, the former Govt. Archivist remarks. "It is agreed that the letters of the Sinhala alphabet should be so shaped that they bear the closest attainable likeness to pearls, then it must be conceded that the work of Schade in clearness and form surpassed the product of many a modern Press"

Governor Van Imhoff in exultation of the accomplishment of this historical task thus addressed the authorities in Batavia. "I will not detain Your Excellency by a discussion relating to the first beginnings of this important work, or the trouble it caused and how at length these difficulties were overcome.

Although it was only in May, 1737 that a commencement was made with the type yet already have been published a Sinhalese prayer book, a booklet in the same language for the instruction of those who wish to partake of the Lord's Supper. Catechisms in Malabar and the Four Gospels in Sinhalese..."


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