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Writing and literacy in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka

Writing was known in ancient Sri Lanka from a very early period. Excavations conducted at the Anuradhapura citadel in 1984 yielded seven pieces of broken pottery bearing letters in early brahmi script.

A further 25 pieces were found later. These pieces were tested by the University of Cambridge using radio carbon techniques and thermo luminescence tests. They were dated to a period between 500 BC and 600 BC. This dating has been accepted by foreign experts. These pottery pieces indicate that there was writing in Sri Lanka from at least 600 or 500 BC.

This means that Sri Lanka had writing during the time of the Buddha. The letters were almost identical to the Asokan script used 200 years after this period in India. Another piece with ‘Anuradha’ scratched on it was found at the excavation level dated to 900BC. This pushes the date back even further.

The first script in use was the brahmi script. This is found in the cave inscriptions of the 3rd century BC. Sinhala brahmi had some original features. It had a different shape for the letters ‘a,’ ‘ma,’ ‘i ‘and ‘ya’. The Sinhalese mastered the brahmi alphabet so well that, judging by the Vessagiriya inscription, they could have used it even for Sanskrit. The Sinhala language initially showed Prakrit influence, but from 4th or 5th century AD Sinhala started to develop as a distinctive language. By the 8th century it had evolved into Sinhala proper.


The Sinhala script evolved within the island. The similarity of Malayalam and other Dravidian scripts to Sinhala indicate that Sinhala must have had a strong influence in the Dravidian areas of India.

The Buddhist literature written in Sri Lanka in the Pali (Maghadi) language used the Sinhala script. When Sinhala monks went to Thailand and Myanmar in the 11th century, they took these Buddhist texts with them. So the Sinhala script went east. G. H. Luce noted that there would have been at one time, a large number of Sinhala monks in these two countries, teaching Pali through the Sinhala script. The Sinhala monks would have helped translate the texts from Pali into the Mon language and later into Burmese in Myanmar. In Thailand, the Thais mastered the Sinhala script between 1070 and 1105 AD.

In ancient Sri Lanka there was considerable literacy in Sinhala. Books are mentioned as early as 150 BC. D.M. de Z Wickremasinghe stated that the ‘Sihala atthakatha mahavamsa’ would have been a written document.

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. Dutugemunu had a pin pota. Walpola Rahula citing Rasavahini stated that business transactions and agreements were usually written down and the documents were destroyed when the agreements were fulfilled. Literacy extended to other areas as well.

There are two inscriptions written along the edges of the lime stone caskets found near Abhayagiri, stating that the relics of the parents of Kanittha tissa were deposited in the casket. Flights of temple steps such as Vessagiriya had the names of those who cut the steps carved on them. The stone seat at Gane Viharaya had an inscription.

The elite knew to read and write. They wrote letters. In 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. However, literacy was not confined to the elite. The pottery pieces found in the Anuradhapura excavations indicated that some potters at least could write.

Sigiri graffiti indicate that there was widespread literacy by the 8th century. Sigiri graffiti are dated to 8th, 9th and 10th centuries. The graffiti so far discovered number over a thousand.

Senerat Paranvitana listed 685 of them and Benille Priyanka has found 400 more. These graffiti indicate the existence of a popular poetic tradition which was of a high standard. The writers were adept in the use of language. Even those who wrote the simplest poems wrote them well. The verses showed sound metrical composition, rhyme, rhythm and musicality.


The ‘Sigiri Gee’ were written by a wide range of persons. 21 verses were written by monks. The rest were by kings, officials, nobles and ordinary persons. Paranavitana lists about 125 place names mentioned in the graffiti. Personal names, such as Dunuvagama Kasabal, Diyawelle Maha and Nanda from Ruhuna show that the writers came from all parts of the island. Several verses were composed by women.

Walpola Rahula remarked that the fact that so many hundreds of visitors could express their feelings and thoughts in poetry showed that education then was widespread and not limited to the privileged classes. He said that the mediaeval Sinhalese wrote elegant, refined poetry and noted that they wrote in small letters. He said that Sigiri graffiti shows that the average visitor of ancient times had a better education and culture than the modern vandals who cut their names in large letters.

Even if they could not write the Sinhala public definitely could read. The evidence for this lies in the numerous inscriptions found carved on caves, rocks, pillars and slabs. These inscriptions date from 3rd century BC to 13 century AD. They continued in decreasing number right up to 1815. About 200 inscriptions have been found for the period 2nd to 4th AD century alone.

These inscriptions carried announcements and edicts. They were publicly displayed and were clearly intended for the public. Badulla pillar inscription gave regulations for traders and this told the public how the traders should conduct their businesses. Vevalkatiya inscription dealt with the administration of justice in a dasagama. These inscriptions indicate a literate public. If people did not know how to read, there was no point in installing so many inscriptions.

A. S. Hettiarachchi noted that the inscriptions which fell between the 2nd and 4th centuries were written in good Sinhala. The choice and use of words in the composition were scholarly. Spelling was correct. The pillar inscription near Ruvanvelisaya dated to King Buddhadasa was in beautiful writing. However not all persons were literate. The Majjhima commentary says that those in remote provinces were asked to get these edicts read to them.

(The writings of S. Deraniyagala, M Dias, P. Fonseka, H. Goonetilake, A. S. Hettiarachchi, G. P. Malalasekera, P. B. Meegaskumbura, D. Miriyagalle, Walpola Rahula and D. Trotter as well as several talks given by S. Deraniyagala were used for this essay).



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