Trails of human knowledge


It is a natural trait of humans to be attracted to their history. This natural interest is driven by a love for mystery, curiosity as well as a sense of self-esteem and herd mentality. People love to know their past, from where they come, who are their ancestors, and what have they done in the past. These fair questions and interests led people to study their past. In modern times, the past is also studied to learn from it and to shape the present and the future. It is believed that ancient kings, including Sinhalese kings, had their sons learn religious texts as well as texts that narrated the history of their own races.

Almost all races have their own historical stories. Many of these historical stories are often filled with mythologies and yet, the truth or the message of those stories can be understood. These historical stories of different human races are recorded in textual form or in material evidence. However, not all races have their history recorded in textual form. Among them, the Sinhalese race has their history recorded in textual form that goes as back as at least 2500 years. The time beyond that period is reconstructed through remaining material evidence.

Sinhalese inherit a rich legacy of ancient texts which are known as chronicles. Our ancient texts are written in Sinhala, Pali, and Sanskrit. The most celebrated ancient book or the chronicle of the Sinhalese, the Mahavamsa is a book widely accepted, admired, and studied by historians all over the world. It is also often referred to as The Great Chronicle. Its accuracy has been proven over the years by scholars. This article does not intend to talk about the Mahavamsa as we have quoted a lot from it in our previous articles and it is widely studied and known by many.

However, there is another ancient book that is a century or so older than the Mahavamsa but shadowed by the popularity and proficiency of the Mahavamsa. That is the 4th century Pali chronicle – the Dipavamsa.

In this week’s Heritage segment, we shall explore the Dipavamsa, which is known as the oldest chronicle of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s oldest chronicle

It is generally believed by scholars that the Dipavamsa was written during the time between the 4th century and the 5th century CE. This is explained in the first chapter of the textbook titled, Sri Lankawe Ithihasaya part one. This chapter is composed by professor S.B. Hettiarachchi who was the former vice-chancellor of the University of Sri Jayawardhenepura. He is a prominent historian and archaeologist and an internationally acclaimed scholar.

It further says that some scholars believe that the Sihalawaththuppakaranaya was composed before Deepawamsa. The Mahavamsa was composed in the 5th century.

Among the books referred by the Mahavamsa author, Dipavamsa is notable. Scholars say there are striking similarities between the two books; hence, some say that the Mahavamsa is an attakatha or a commentary written for the Dipavamsa.

Scholars point out the same gatha or verse that can be seen in both books. Considering all these facts, it is also considered that the Mahavamsa is a continuation of the Dipavamsa and that the phrase, Dipavamsa Deepethu, refers to the pali Dipavamsa. Therefore, the Mahavamsa was a Deepika or an attakatha written for the Dipavamsa is generally believed by many scholars. In other attakatha or Pali commentaries written during the 5th century, there are references to the Dipavamsa and quotes from it.

Dipavamsa is not a large book compared to Mahavamsa and it is not written in a way that is of Mahavamsa. It has 22 chapters that narrate the story of the Buddha, his visits to Sri Lanka, and the chronology of Sinhalese kings starting from Vijaya to Mahasen.

Dipavamsa presents important facts about the Sinhalese kings from Vijaya to Mahasen, including folklore and local beliefs. Scholars are of the view that Deepvamsa has not revised or modified the information and has presented them rather raw; hence accurate, trustworthy and believable.

Although Dipavamsa is not lengthy as the Mahavamsa, there are facts in Dipavamsa that are not mentioned in the Mahavamsa. For example, names of certain kings of the Maha Sammatha royal dynasty, some important details about the first Dhamma Sanghayana, names of king Panduwasudeva’s ten sons, and names of the Bhikkhunis who arrived in Sri Lanka with Arhat Sanghamitta.

Scholars also say that the text displays various writing styles, repetition, and grammar styles, and also it displays traits of disorganisation. Therefore, they generally believe that Dipavamsa was not composed by a single author in one go, but a compilation of the written work of various authors. In this process, it seems as if the original styles and content were not subjected to any edition or revising. The content, styles, and ideas of the various original works can be seen in the compiled Dipavamsa text. Therefore, historians find this a very useful characteristic in studying history.

A work of Bhikkhunis?

There are many speculations about the  author of the Dipavamsa. As it has a notable amount of information about Bhikkhunis, unlike any other ancient local text, some believe that this must have been a work of Bhikkhunis. If this assumption is correct, this fact sheds further light on our past. If the oldest surviving Pali Chronicle in Sri Lanka was a work of learned Bhikkunis, that reveals the status of Bhikkunis of that time. They were learned, independent, and also admired in society.

Prof. Sirima Kiribamune, writing a research article titled, ‘The Dipavamsa in Ancient Sri Lankan Historiography’ to the Sri Lanka Journal of Humanities in 1979 says that, “The spotlight has always been on the Mahavamsa by comparison, the Dipavamsa, the older chronicle, which covers the same ground as the first part of the Mahavamsa, has suffered a certain amount of neglect.”

Prof. Kiribamune further writes that the weaknesses of its components such as mistakes of grammar and gaps in the story, a clumsiness of style, and numerous repetitions have been noticed. It is generally accepted that the Dipavamsa stands very close to its source or sources, and hence reflects those sources. She also writes that it has sometimes been thought that the Dipavamsa is the work of more than one author and that it was accomplished in a number of stages. Then she argues that, “I have no doubt that the chronicle as we have it today constitutes a single composition, but the reasons for the other view are obvious.” Justifying this she says that, within the Dipavamsa different strata of tradition can be noticed. Some of them were seen to answer the demands of different periods and others suggest different concerns.

Sihalawaththupakaranya; older than Dipavamsa?

At the beginning of the article, we mentioned that Sihalawaththupakaranaya was composed before the Dipavamsa. Sihalawathtupakarnaaya is a Pali Buddhist text, generally considered older than Dipavamsa, which narrates folk stories and religious stories of Sri Lanka and India. Some of them are Buddhist stories and scholars find them a handy text to construct the political, social, religious, and economic history of the past.

However, scholars have failed to answer the question, when exactly was this composed? Based on language styles and content, it is believed that Sihalawaththuparanaya was written before the Dipavamsa, yet not confirmed.

The author of this text is known as Dhamma Nandi Thera, who lived in Kantaka Solapattanam in South India. There are 82 stories in the Sihalawaththuparanaya.

Pali Chronicles were originally Sinhala texts

The oldest known texts of Sri Lanka are the 4th-century Pali chronicles. However, these were originally written in the Sinhala language and were later translated into Pali during the 4th and 5th centuries. During this process, the original Sinhala texts were revised and unfortunately, these older Sinhala texts gradually were forgotten. Today, we only know their names, but the full texts are nowhere to be found. It is evident that a large number of Sinhala chronicles and other books written in Sinhala were in use at least up until the 10th century CE. Due to foreign invasions, wars, and civil unrest, many of the temples were neglected (temples were centres of education in ancient Sri Lanka. They were schools, libraries, and universities). Invaders such as Kalinga Magha have burnt piles of books and destroyed libraries.

Also, at a time when printing was not in use, these precious books were not in an abundance of copies. When the few remaining copies were destroyed, the book is lost forever. A book is not mere words or paper. They contain precious knowledge. Among these many destroyed books, it is said that there had been books on medicine, science, and technology, various arts and architecture, various philosophies, politics, and economics.

We had multilingual scholars

Although the majority of our ancient authors were monks, some being Bhikkunis, there also had been kings who composed books on medicine, poetry, and language. There is a long list of ancient Sinhalese kings who are known for their language proficiency and love for literature. The most interesting reason to be proud of is that our monks and kings were fluent in Sinhala, Pali, Sanskrit, and later Tamil as we have books written and translated in these four languages. Although Sinhala and Tamil are native languages, Pali and Sanskrit were international languages of that time in the region. This shows how learned our ancient monks and kings and the public were. Are we this learned and intelligent today?

Also, some of these monks such as the author monk of Sihalawathtupakaranaya, resided in a temple in South India, and there are many other Pali and Sanskrit books composed by monks in South India, so it could be assumed that they must have been Tamil monks and Tamil lay scholars.

When a book is destroyed, a set of knowledge is forever erased from the history of mankind.

Ancient societies and civilised societies venerated books. Literature and book writing was personified as gods or goddess. For us, it is Sarasvati, the goddess of wisdom, arts, and literature.

By Ama H .Vanniarachchy