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Mahavamsa, An Introduction by Douglas Bullis

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

Mahavamsa

My Sri Lanka Holidays is proud to present you all a series of introductory articles on Mahavamsa (The Great Chronicle). These articles are written by scholars, historians, translators of Mahavamsa and colonial British civil servants in Ceylon. The knowledge of Mahavamsa is bound to bring about Skanda Pandia Light and enlightenment to all the tourists of Sri Lanka Holidays visiting the numerous archelogical, historical, Buddhist religious and cultural attractions, tourist destinations and sites of Sri Lanka.Following extract is by courtesy of Douglas Bullis: Mahavamsa, The Greatest Chronicle of Sri Lanka, Mahanama Thera, Modern Text and Historical Commentary by Douglas Bullis, Vijitha Yapa Publications, Sri Lanka, ISBN 955-1266-09-9


The epic of ancient Lanka’s founding and early history is probably the least known of all the world’s great chronicles. The Mahavamsa or ‘Great Chronicle” is much less familiar than its forebears, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.[1] The Mahavamsa describes the introduction of Theravada Buddhism into Lanka and the development of the Buddhist nation-state that predominates in Sri Lanka Today.

The Mahavamsa’s sweeping relation of the period from approximately 500 BCE through 301 ACE describes the origins of virtually every religious practice and social institution on the island. Some of these are; the commonwealth that developed between ruler, religion, and populace; popular Buddhism’s fusion with local shamanistic beliefs and practices from Brahmanism, Hinduism, and Tantra; the dilution of the caste system by removing its religious proscriptions; the perennially mistrustful relationship with Dravidian kingdoms in southern India; the great reservoir-based irrigation system; and the assertive yet unaggressive culture which developed from the cultivator mentality of the rice paddy and moral principals of Buddhism.

Beyond these social and historical issues, the Mahavamsa possesses literary qualities which place it alongside the best of the literature emanating from the Subcontinent’s civilization. Every Sri Lankan schoolchild knows long passages of the Mahavamsa by heart. No end of Sri Lankan writers devote sizable portions of their careers to its explications of popularization. The Mahavamsa and its successor the Culavamsa relate a 2,300-year span of history from the quasi-legendary arrival of an Indo-Aryan royal prince from about 483 BCE [2] to 1795, the beginning of the British colonial period.

For many years Western scholars thought the fabulous stories in the few available written copies of the Mahavamsa to be a mix of apocrypha and speculative literature. Only in 1826 did a British civil servant discover a long-lost commentary called a Tika, in a cave [3] in the south of the island. The Tika established the factual nature of much what the Mahavamsa related.

The Mahavamsa was overlooked for so long for several reasons. It was not readily available until many centauries after it was first inscribed. Until about the first century BCE the writing of religious scriptures was considered a sacrilege. The Lankan monks about 35 BCE who first committed to writing ancient Buddhism’s body of literature never developed the technique of producing it in mass quantities such as we are familiar with today. When the Mahavamsa’s author, Thera Mahanama, penned it in the late fourth century ACE, he was relying on over four centuries of oral transmission followed by three centuries of labourisly hand-scriven written editions.

During the Ceylonese colonial era [4], the Pali language of the original suttas (the ancient Pali spelling of the Buddha’s sutras) was so obscure that few Dutch or British bothered to learn it. Hence the Mahavamsa was largely the preserve of monks and elite Sinhalese until philologists became interested in it after the discovery the Tika in 1826. The Tika provided scholars with authenticating information which allowed the Mahavamsa to be fully understood as a work of great epic literature as well as combination of legend and fact. It now resides alongside the Mahabharata and the Ramayana as an epochal tale detailing the formation of cultural attitudes.

The most accurate Mahavamsa translation in this century was made by the German Sanskritist Wilhelm Geiger in 1912, although several less spirited nineteenth-century editions also were produced. Herr Geiger also translated numerous other documents which exposed to the west the Lankan people’s 2500-year –old culture. The most recent version of the Mahavamsa was translated by Ananda Guruge, a Sri Lankan scholar who also has been the country’s Ambassador to France and the United States. Dr. Guruge’s work is of such exactitude that every reader who desires to delve deeper into the complex literary qualities of the Mahavamsa must consult his book. Unfortunately, it is available only in Sri Lanka [5], and even there is hard to locate. Herr Geiger and Dr. Guruge are the inspirations for this study of the Mahavamsa and Lankan Buddhism, while the Pali Text Society’s translation is the ultimate resource for this book’s rendering.

Until fairly recently Western scholars too often ignored the historical knowledge of their Sri Lankan counterparts. This is a disservice to a people with a profound regard for their culture. Today a casual visit to a Colombo, Kandy, or Galle bookstore will discover an impressive body of cultural expression-scholarship, poetry, classic and contemporary literature, dances, music both ancient and new, cuisine, and garments. Lanka was, and Sri Lanka is, a fascinating coherent society. A visit to Colombo National Museum, the Archeological Museum on Anuradhapura, the great cave paintings of Dambulla, the Temple of the Tooth and Kataragama devale in Kandy, a Hindu kovil or the Christian churches along the coast, the myriad architectural works such as Aukana, the impressive irrigation system, or the brick standing Buddha at Lankatilaka in Polonnaruwa give a taste of the complexity and pride of the Sinhalese civilization.

[To be continued]

Footnotes by bunpeiris

[1] Ramayana and the Mahabharata of India are ancient Hindu epic poems written in Sanskrit whose historicity, to say the least, is unclear: Kurukshetra War and Rama-Ravana War aren’t authenticated. In contrast, <strong>Mahavamsa</strong> of Sri Lanka is an unparalleled historical chronicle. Its authenticity is amply borne out of archeological, epigraphical and numismatic evidence which corroborates supplements and clarifies the wealth of information recorded in it. You only need to visit Anuradhapura and read the chapters on King Dutugamunu, the Hero of the Nation in Mahavamsa. That would do. Till the rest is read.

[2] The accuracy of the year 483 BCE is challenged by the historians and scholars. The accepted year is 543 BCE.

[3] Tika, Sri Lanka’s Rosetta Stone, the commentaries written on ola leaf upon the narrative of Mahavamsa, was discovered at the ancient Buddhist library at Mulkirigala (Mulgirigala) Rock Temple located at a 25 minutes drive off the pristine southern beach of Tangalle of Sri Lanka Holidays, by colonial civil servant George Turnour in the year 1826.

[4] Sri Lanka’s colonial era: Portuguese [1505-1640]; Dutch [1640-1796]; British [1796-1948]

[5] Copies of The great chronicle of Sri Lanka, Mahavamsa, Chapter one to thirty seven. An annotated new translation with prolegomena by Ananda W. Guruge is available at S. Godage & Brothers, Godage Book Emporium, 675, P. De S. Kularatna Mw, Maradana, Colombo 10, Sri Lanka. It can be bought on-line at Amazon.com or Godage.com



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