Some of the old books and leaflets belonging to the Valuable Chronicles of Sri Lanka
Some of the Valuable Chronicles of Sri Lanka

With a history that dates back about 2500 years, Sri Lanka, which was famous as “Ceylon” back then, owns a rich heritage. However, the fact that present people can find written records of this history and learn about them is the best thing about Sri Lanka’s past. This stems from the ancient tradition of documenting things in Sri Lanka. However, the presence of periodic chronicles of Sri Lanka is something to note. And yes, these are the primary sources of information about each of those eras.

The majority of these chronicles are works of Buddhist monks. As per history, their intention in writing these books was to avoid the risk of forgetting what they had in their minds. And yes, that is the reason why the authorship of these chronicles always points to Buddhism as the dominant religion of the nation. However, these chronicles are indeed valuable for anyone who loves to explore the past grandeur of this country. So, why not? Let us get to know about a few famous chronicles of Sri Lanka, their content, and their importance!

Chronicles of Sri Lanka

Among the most valuable chronicles of Sri Lanka, the following are the most significant.

  1. Deepawamsa
  2. Mahavamsa 
  3. Thupavamsa
  4. Maha-bodhivamsa
  5. Sumangala Vilasinee
  6. Vamsatthappakasini
  7. Dathavamsa
  8. Nalata Dhatuvamsa
  9. Culavamsa
  10. Pujawali

Continue reading to know more about some of these wonderful chronicles!

1. Deepawamsa

The Deepavamsa is the most ancient chronicle from Sri Lanka. However, its author is unknown. According to scholarly opinion, it is the work of several authors rather than a single author.

It covers the island’s history from the prehistoric era up until the reign of King Mahasena. Given the nature of the island’s ancient history, we can assume that there is some truth to it. There is also speculation that Deepavamsa was the work of two Indian nuns, namely Sivala and Maharuha. However, Deepavamsa was most likely the first completely new Pali text written in Sri Lanka. Moreover, it was also among the last texts with unknown authors.

There is the belief that this chronicle came out between the third and fourth centuries CE using information from Atthakatha and other sources. Besides, it had come out during a period when the historical resources were less. Hence, its importance in the field of Sri Lankan history is indeed high.

It also refers to the Buddha’s three visits to the island, including the visits to Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya, and Deegavapi Raja Maha Viharaya. It also mentions the incident where the plantation of the Bo-sapling happened in the Anuradhapura’s Maha Mewna-uyana (Park). However, it makes no mention of the Buddha’s visit to Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada).

Despite its literary and grammatical flaws, Deepawamsa is a very useful source of information about ancient times, written in Pali. Therefore, it is significant not only as a source of history but also as an early work in Buddhist and Pali literature.

Editions and Translations of Deepawamsa

Hermann Oldenberg edited and translated the Deepavamsa into English in 1879. Following that, B. C. Law studied the text in 1947. Tilman Frasch demonstrated that in contrast to the Sinhalese manuscripts used by Oldenberg for his edition, a longer and less corrupt version of the text is there in Burma. The John Rylands Library houses one such manuscript.

The Connection of Deepawamsa to Mahawamsa

Deepawamsa, together with Mahavamsa, is the most reliable source to study the ancient history of Sri Lanka and India. Both these chronicles address almost the same historical events, yet in some different aspects.

According to the reviewers, Deepawamsa is more realistic, less dramatic, and less supernatural than Mahawamsa when referring to the Vijaya legend. Further, they say that Deepawamsa has given more importance to the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, some suggest that Deepavamsa originated from the nun’s community, as it has given greater attention to nuns, including Theri Sangamitta. 

Considering all these connections, many consider Deepavamsa to be the source material for Mahavamsa. That is because it is a more organized and detailed version of the former. 

2. Mahavamsa

Beginning in the third century B.C., Buddhist monks at Mahavihara kept this precisely preserved historical record of Sri Lankan history. Owing to this reason, some even mention that this Mahawamsa is similar to a modern-day journal. As per history, the Buddhist monk Mahanama gathered these accounts into a single manuscript in the 5th century CE. Wilhelm Geiger states that there is proof that this priest Mahanama relied on the “Mahavamsa Atthakatha,” an earlier collection of historical records when coming up with this great chronicle.

However, Mahavamsa (Mahawansa) is the world’s oldest and longest chronology. It follows the style of an epic poem in Pali. It recounts a tale that spans approximately 2,500 years. Moreover, Mahawamsa basically traces the history of Sri Lanka from its legendary beginnings to the reign of Mahasena of Anuradhapura era (302 CE), spanning the period from the arrival of Prince Vijaya from India in 543 BCE to his reign (277–304 CE).

Simply put, without Mahavamsa, Sri Lanka’s great history, in which the monarchy did incredible things for the betterment of the country, would still be a mystery. At the same time, although Mahavamsa is not definitive religious literature, it is a significant Buddhist source from Sri Lanka’s early history. In fact, it dates back to the time of Buddhism’s founder, Siddhartha Gautama.

Content of Mahavamsa

When the Mahavamsa appeared after the Dipavamsa, it surpassed the prior work in popularity and prominence. This prompted the authors to gradually produce extra work based on it. This chronicle contains nearly 200,000 words of poetry in total, spread across about 960 printed pages. The Mahavamsa is divided into three parts as follows.

  • The first part (Chapters 1–37)
  • The second part (the Culavamsa Part 1; Chapters 38–79)
  • The third and last part (the Culavamsa Part 2; Chapters 80–101)

All of these pages switch back and forth between the themes listed below.

Chronicles of Sri Lankan Monarchs

This part of Mahawamsa includes the genealogical records of monarchs of Sri Lanka, along with narratives about their descents and remarkable events during their periods. This material may have been taken from older royal chronicles and kings’ lists that were recorded orally in vernacular languages. Hence, it is an important source of information on the history of Sri Lanka and the surrounding Indian kingdoms. Since it frequently relates to Indian royal dynasties, the Mahavamsa is particularly useful for historians who want to date and compare modern royal dynasties in the Indian subcontinent as well. 

Legends of Sri Lanka

It particularly describes the foundation of the Sri Lankan monarchy. This narrative begins with the arrival of Prince Vijaya and his retinue from India and continues until the reign of King Mahasena, describing wars, succession issues, the construction of stupas and reliquaries, and other noteworthy episodes. It further provides details to the well-known epic from the vernacular tradition, which is a lengthy account of the conflict between Tamil invader and later ruler Elara and Sinhala King Dutthagamani (Dutugemunu).

The Buddha’s Visits to Sri Lanka

This part of the chronicle describes three historical journeys to the island of Sri Lanka by the Buddha. None of the early sources, including the Pali Canon, record these visits. Meanwhile, it also mentions the myths of the Buddha subduing or driving away the island’s Yakkhas (Yakshas) and Nagas and foretells that Sri Lanka will become an important Buddhist center.

The History of Buddhist Monks 

Emperor Ashoka’s expedition to Sri Lanka, the planting of the bodhi tree, and the establishment of the Mahavihara are all covered in this section of the Mahavamsa. Meanwhile, it contains the names of well-known monks and nuns from the early Sri Lankan sangha. Along with the oldest written representation of the Pali canon, it also contains tales of the earliest Buddhist councils. This is an important source of information on the early Buddhist community’s history, as it contains the names of missionaries deployed to various regions of South and Southeast Asia, some of which have been validated by inscriptions and other archaeological evidence.

Apart from that, Mahawamsa captured the attention of the Buddhist world of the time with tales of wars and invasions, intrigue at the court, and enormous constructions of stupas and water reservoirs, all written in elegant verse that was easy to memorize. Unlike many ancient texts, it also discusses various aspects of ordinary people’s lives, such as how they joined the king’s army or farmed. As a result, the Mahavamsa reached many Buddhist countries along the silk road. Thus, the Mahavamsa inspired many other Pali chronicles, making Sri Lanka the world’s leading center for Pali literature at the time.

Significance of Mahavamsa

South Asia lacks historical resources. Hence, Mahawamsa is simply significant, not only for Sri Lanka but also for the other surrounding countries. Comparatively, the history of the island of Ceylon and its surrounding areas is better understood than that of the majority of the subcontinent as a result of the Mahavamsa. Its information has helped to identify and confirm archaeological sites and inscriptions connected to the Ashoka Empire, early Buddhism, and even the Tamil kingdoms of southern India. 

Starting with the time of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, the Mahamvasa covers the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The history of Buddhism in India, from the Buddha’s passing until the third Buddhist council, where the Dharma was reviewed, is also briefly covered.

The Mahavamsa concludes each chapter by saying that it was written for the “serene joy of the pious.” It has been claimed that this publication supports Sinhalese nationalism due to the emphasis of its point-of-view and the fact that it was compiled to document the good deeds of the kings who supported the Anuradhapura Maha Viharaya. 

The Connection of Mahawamsa to Other Chronicles

As you already know, Mahavamsa evolved from one of the famous chronicles of Sri Lanka called the Deepavamsa. The Deepavamsa is much simpler and contains less information than the Mahavamsa. However, it likely served as the foundation of an oral tradition that was later incorporated into the written Mahavamsa.

Further, one of the later chronicles of Sri Lanka named Culavamsa expands the Mahavamsa. To be specific, it covers the period from the reign of King Mahasena of Anuradhapura (277–304 CE) until 1815, when the entire island was surrendered to the British throne.

Further, the Buddhist monk Yagirala Pannananda published Mahavamsa Part III later in 1935. It was a Sinhala language continuation of the Mahavamsa that spans the period from the end of the Culavamsa to 1935. The government of Sri Lankan Prime Minister J. R. Jayawardene later acknowledged this continuation of the Mahavamsa, despite it not having received approval or backing from any official body or religious institution.

Also, there is a belief that the Mahavamsa-tika, a commentary on the Mahavamsa, was written before the first additions to the Culavamsa. Most likely. Mahavamsa-tika should belong to the era between 1000 and 1250 CE. This commentary clarifies ambiguous Pali terms used in the Mahvamasa. It also adds additional details or clarifies differences between different versions of the Mahavamsa.

Unlike the Mahavamsa, which is almost entirely composed of information pertaining to the Mahavihara, the Mahavamsa-tika makes several references to commentaries and updated versions of the chronicle related to the Abhayagiri vihara tradition.

Translations and Editions of Mahavamsa

Mahavamsa was translated, retold, and absorbed into other languages in parts. Southeast Asia also has an extended version of the Mahavamsa, which contains many more details. 

George Turnour, a historian and member of the Ceylon Civil Service, released Mahawansha’s first printed version and English translation in 1837. Wilhelm Geiger finished the official German translation of Mahawansha in 1912, and the Culavamsa followed in 1930. Mabel Haynes Bode subsequently translated this into English, and Geiger corrected Ms. Bode’s original version.

3. Thupavamsa

The Thupavamsa, also known as “Chronicle of the Stupa,” is one of the Pali-language historical chronicles and religious texts from Sri Lanka. A Buddhist monk named Vcissara wrote this. He is also the writer of many other Pali and Sinhala commentaries and handbooks. Most likely, this chronicle should belong to the second half of the thirteenth century. 

The structure of the Thupavamsa is similar to that of the Mahavamsa and other Pali chronicles. In fact, it begins with the story of previous Buddhas, then describes Buddha Shakyamuni’s life, Ashoka’s missions, and the arrival of various Buddha relics and a sapling of the Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka. The second half of the book describes King Dutugamunu’s reign, focusing on his construction of the Mahathupa (the “Great Stupa”) at Anuradhapura.

It was in Sanskritized Pali, which was popular in Sri Lanka at the time.

The Connection of Thupawamsa to Other Chronicles

The Thupavamsa and the Maha Bodhi Vamsa have a lot of similarities. Moreover, the parts of the Thupavamsa are also available in the extended (or Cambodian) Mahavamsa. The Mahavamsa, Jataka-Nidana-katha, Samanta-pasadika, and the Mahavamsa commentary appear to have served as sources for the Thupavamsa’s content. 

The Pali translation’s colophon identifies the author as Vcissara. There are many works of his Sinhala, and history also describes him as a dependent or kin of King Parakrama. A list of knowledgeable monks and laypeople in the Raja-ratnakara includes the name of Vcissara, who appears to be the same person who served as a senior Sangha leader under Vijaya-Bahu III. Vcissara mentions two sources that he used to create the Thupavamsa. One is an unidentified Sinhala chronicle and the other is an older Pali text that has a connection to the lost Cetiya-vamsattha-kathathat academics. 

The Thupavamsa is preserved in two versions, one in Pali and one in Sinhala. The Sinhala version appears to be an expansion of the Pali chronicle. Yet, the situation is heightened by the fact that both emerging versions seem to have drawn on earlier Sinhala language sources in addition to the Mahavamsa and its commentary. Some academics in the 19th century hypothesized that the Pali version of the Sinhala Thupavamsa was actually the older text and the Sinhala source of that work. Yet, this notion is no longer acceptable in the world of academics. The author of the Sinhala translation is Parakrama Pandita. His name is there in a list of “learned laymen” compiled in the thirteenth century.

Translations and Editions of Thupawamsa

N.A. Jayawickrama published ‘The Chronicle of Thupa and Thupavamsa’ in 1971 as a translation and edition of Vacissaratthera’s Thupavamsa. Later in 2005, it was translated into Bengali by Sadhankamal Chowdhury and Karuna Prakashani in Kolkata. 

4. Bodhiwamsa

This is also one of the famous chronicles from Sri Lanka, and it is famous as the ‘Maha-Bodhiwamsa‘ as well. Its history dates back to the 10th century AD.

This chronicle also has the influence of the Mahawamsa and follows the verse (kavya) style. It has twelve chapters, and it is written in Sanskritized Pali. However, there is a reason behind the name of this chronicle. In fact, Bodhiwamsa mainly focuses on the sacred Bo saplings at Anuradhapura, as well as its mother tree in Buddhagaya in India. It also highlights the incident of how Sri Lanka got Buddhism, and how the Bodhi Pooja (offerings for the Bodhi Tree) started. Apart from that, Bodhiwamsa also focuses on the Buddha’s life, as well as the first three Buddhist councils mainly.

5. Sumangala Vilasinee

Sumangala Vilasinee is also one of the chronicles from Sri Lanka. However, it is not as famous as the chronicles like Mahawamsa, Deepawamsa, and Thupawamsa. Even though there is not much information about this chronicle, it is important to mention that there is a translation of it, coming under the name ‘The Sumangala-Vilasini, Buddhaghosha’s Commentary on the Digha Nikaya‘.

6. Vamsatthappakasini

This is the chronicle that is famous as the Mahawamsa-Tika. Vamsatthappakasini is also a Pali book and serves as an extension of the significant chronicle, Mahawamsa.

7. Dathawamsa

This chronicle is also famous for the names Dhātuvansa, Dantadhātu, or Dantadhātuvaṇṇanā. Dathawamsa has a strong association with the Temple of Tooth Relic in Kandy since it elaborates on the history of the Lord Buddha’s tooth relics. Apart from that, it covers the life of Lord Buddha in six chapters.

8. Nalata Dhatuvamsa

Nalata Dhatuvamsa is one of the chronicles from Sri Lanka that has an association with the relics of Lord Buddha. As per the expert review, this also follows the structure of the famous chronicle, Thupawamsa. Even though there is not much information with regard to this chronicle, it is clear that Nalata Dhatuwamsa is also one of the significant creations of the Sri Lankan Pali literature history.

9. Culavamsa

This is also one of the most famous chronicles from the history of Sri Lanka. Chulawamsa happens to be a work of several monks over a long time period, and thus, follows several epic styles in it. When considering the content of Chulawamsa, it is clear that it focuses on the monarchy of Sri Lanka. In fact, it covers the period between the 4th century to 1815. However, some consider that this chronicle is also a continuation of the Mahawamsa. Yet, it is more like similar content, composed by different authors during different periods of time.

10. Pujawaliya

Pujawaliya is also an important chronicle from Sri Lanka. Apart from its historical values, it also holds significant literature values. This belongs to the period of 1809-1818, and the Mayurapaada Pariwenadhipathi priest has written this text. This chronicle mainly focuses on the impressive qualities of Lord Buddha, especially the ‘Arahan quality’, and Pujawaliya admires it with a significant literary style.

The Bottom Line

After all, the history of Sri Lanka is worth exploring. It has many interesting and significant incidents to study about. Besides, the contribution of the chronicles of Sri Lanka, to make that past relive is indeed impressive. Hence, the significance of these chronicles needs no exaggeration. 

Besides, traveling with knowledge is so much fun. So, if you are a traveler, who is longing to explore the grandeur of Sri Lankan history, make sure you have an idea about these chronicles too. Happy and safe traveling!