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
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
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
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.
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
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).