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The Sinhala script in ancient Sri Lanka

Abhayagiri dagoba under renovation

Archaeological excavations in Anuradhapura have shed new light on writing in ancient Sri Lanka. Valuable findings have emerged from the excavations in the Anuradhapura citadel site. Thirty two pieces of broken pottery, with writing on it, were found in 1984, during excavations at the Anuradhapura citadel excavation site. The writing signified ownership.


Researchers from Cambridge University dated these to 500-600 BC. Techniques used for the dating included radiocarbon and thermo luminescent techniques. The dates have been accepted by foreign experts. The letters in the writings were almost identical to the Asokan script used 200 years later in India.

This means that Sri Lanka had writing well before Maurya period in India. Siran Deraniyagala says this has pushed the lower boundary of writing in Sri Lanka by at least two centuries, to the time of the Buddha.

Excavation work on the section (strata) dated to 8th century BC, brought up five pieces of pottery (potsherds) belonging to five different vessels. These pieces had writings which were clearly parts of inscriptions. They were in early Brahmi. These findings came from the elite area of the Anuradhapura citadel site.

Later several more pieces of pottery with similar brahmi letters were found. Since there was more that one, intrusion could be ruled out. A tile with 'Anuradha' scratched on it, in what seems to be prakrit letters, was found by students at the excavation level dated to 900 BC. These further indicated that we have had a script before India. Deraniyagala commented that while India accepted these findings, some in Sri Lanka did not. He noted that researchers in Madras said that they have found a pot which has older writing, but the writing is inside the pot and cannot be seen.

Siri Gunasinghe says that Sinhala derives from a Prakrit spoken by Sinhala colonisers.


The original prakritic Sinhala can be seen in the vocabulary and grammar of the early Brahmi inscriptions This Sinhala evolved independent of Sanskrit and Maghadi.(Pali) .The words 'aya' and 'maha aya' found in the inscriptions have no parallel in India. He points out that Sanskrit was also initially a prakrit. The brahmi script of Sri Lanka evolved into the present day Sinhala script.

Nilakanta Sastri said that in south India, the Telegu, Sanskrit and Tamil languages used the Pallava-Grantha script P.E.E. Fernando (1949) stated that in the 8th century AD the Sinhala script was also influenced by the Grantha script of the Pallavas.

He used as evidence six inscriptions found in Sri Lanka and the potsherds found at Arikemedu in Tamilnadu. He pointed out that these potsherds showed two letters in Sinhala brahmi, which are found only in south India, not north India.

Statement repeated

He assumed that the influence was from Tamil kingdom to Sri Lanka, and not the other way round. However he noted that by 9th century, the Pallava influence was waning and Sinhala was developing its own script. Even today, academics glibly repeat Fernando's statement that the Sinhala script was influenced by the Pallava script.

These ideas have now been revised. There is new thinking. David Trotter said that the similarity of Malayalam and other Dravidian scripts to Sinhala show that Sinhala must have had a strong influence on the Dravidian areas of India. K.V.Raman says that around 250 BC a distinctive southern tradition of writing arose, centred primarily on Sri Lanka and the Pandya region of the Tamil kingdom.

The earliest Brahmi inscriptions in Tamilnadu are concentrated in Pandya country, especially around Madura. There are no early epigraphs in northern Tamilnadu or to the west and south of Tiruchirappalli. Raman says that there is a credible possibility that "influences from Sri Lanka had played a vital role in the spread of these inscriptions to the Pandyan territory".


He thinks that Sri Lanka probably received the Brahmi script through the sea route from Gujerat or Kalinga. K. Indrapala says that scholars studying the pottery graffiti from various sites in Tamilnadu found unmistakable evidence of the Sinhala language in Brahmi inscriptions. Potsherds found at Arikamedu, Alangulam, Kodumanal and Kaveripattnam in Tamilnadu, were in Sinhala Prakrit written in the Sinhala Brahmi script of 2nd century BC. S. Iracavely and P. Jeyakumar have independently stated that these show the influence of Sri Lankan Brahmi and Sinhalese Prakrit in the Tamil kingdom.

Irthavan Mahadevan in his monumental work on Tamil epigraphy had also drawn attention to several instances of Sinhala influence in the brahmi inscriptions of Tamilnadu. It is the Sinhala script that has influenced Tamil writing and not the other ways round.

(The writings of S Deraniyagala, M. Dias, P.E.E.Fernando, D. Miriyagalle, K.A. Nilkanta Sastri and D. Trotter were used for this essay).


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