The splashing sound of waves touching the seashore, and the rustle of the soft wind which comes across the green hills passing the burbling freshwater of upcountry waterfalls make Sri Lanka one of the most scenic and enchanting tropical islands in the world. In addition, Sri Lanka holds its pride in the rich cultural and historical heritage that it possesses. Besides, this combination of enchanting scenic beauty and diverse cultural and historical heritage made Sri Lankan literature dazzle in its own colors. In fact, all of these aspects have enriched the Sri Lankan literature field in a way like no other. Thus, we thought of revealing to you the wonderful story of Sri Lankan literature through this read. Continue reading, and enlighten yourself!
History of Sri Lankan Literature
Sri Lankan Literature has very firm historical roots. In fact, the origin of Sri Lankan literary texts goes back to the pre-Christian era of 5th century B.C.
Firstly, Sri Lankan literature had an oral tradition that was passed down from generation to generation. With the arrival of Buddhism, the written literary tradition started to evolve, and the earliest literary works were mainly based on religion, beliefs, native kings, kingdoms, and ways of life.
Besides, monasteries were the places where the oldest literary texts were written by Buddhist monks. In addition, during the 5th and 6th centuries, several novels and stories were written in Sanskrit. It is after the 12th century, literary works started to be written in Sinhala. The reign of King Parakramabahu is considered one of the greatest eras of Sinhala literature. The first library was also established in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa during this era.
However, Sri Lankan literature started to explore different perspectives and themes after colonization. In fact, the civil war which ravaged the country for almost three decades, and other ethnic and societal tensions became the main topics of the authors. Therefore, Sri Lankan literature became very diverse through which Sri Lankans were able to voice their thoughts that are filled with deep expressions of humanity.
Oldest Literary Sources in Sri Lanka
There are many historical literary sources in Sri Lanka. These genres of literature carried the stories of ancient kings, kingdoms, and the significance of their reigns. Among a myriad of ancient historical sources, the following holds a significant place.
- Pansiya Panas Jathaka Kathawa
- Other Sources
These documents were mainly written in ancient languages such as Pali and Sanskrit. The below sections will provide you with more information about these literary sources.
During the 4th century A. D., the Indian monk Buddhagosa arrived in Sri Lanka, and he lived on the island for a short period of time. Within this short period, the monk was able to translate important texts of Buddhism into Pali from their source language, Sanskrit. Moreover, monk Buddhagosha compiled a book called Visuddhimagga which included the teaching of Lord Buddha. However, some critics state that monk Biddhagosha has omitted several important local historical incidents while he was writing the above-mentioned literary texts. Still, this text written by monk Buddhagosha became one of the oldest Sri Lankan- written historical documents.
Sannasa is a unique set of ancient literary works. They are usually royal grants, inscribed on copper, gold, and silver plates, stones, or palm leaves. Further, they often had the royal sign ‘Sri’ and other special emblems like the sun and moon symbolizing perpetuity. Besides, kings used to give these as legal documents ensuring certain privileges for monks, and noblemen in recognition of their unwavering loyalty to the throne and utmost service towards the sustainability of the kingdom.
Inscriptions are stone engravings where ancient Sri Lankans recorded various important information. There are more than 2500 inscriptions in Sri Lanka located in various places of the country. King Nissankamalla (1187 – 1196) created The Galpotha Inscription in Polonnaruwa which is eight meters long and four and a half meters wide. Thus, Galpotha Inscription is the biggest stone inscription on the island.
Here, King Nissankamalla recorded all his remarkable achievements such as huge constructions carried out during his reign. Moreover, several other stone inscriptions are also very famous in Sri Lanka. For example, Rajagala Inscription confirms the implementation of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Vevalkatiya Inscription states the management rules for a market town, and Ambagamuwa Inscription of King Vijayabahu I records the developments of Sri Pada, well known as Adam’s Peak.
4. Pansiya Panas Jathaka Katha
Pansiya Panas Jathaka Katha is a book of 550 stories of Lord Buddha. This book is one of the most important and widely used books in Sri Lankan Buddhist literature. Pansiya Panas Jathaka Katha was written during the reign of King Parakramabahu 4 (1302- 1326). Besides, the time where King Parakramabahu 4 ruled the country is one of the golden eras of Sri Lankan literature as the king himself was a great literary enthusiast. Moreover, with the immense support of King Parakramabahu 4, proper grammar patterns and structures of the Sinhalese language came to light. Therefore, this time period is a milestone in the history of Sri Lankan literature.
Dipavamsa is the first large-scale literature work of ancient Sri Lanka written in 320 A. D. Dipawamsa covers some of the most important facts about the island nation of Sri Lanka, spanning from the pre- Christian era to the last year of the reign of King Mahasena (303 A. D.). Dipawamsa reveals certain facts which are unique to ancient Sri Lanka such as the arrival of Arians, the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, the arrival of the sapling of the Bo- tree, and the arrival of the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha. In addition, Dipawamsa demonstrates some socio-cultural aspects of the ancient Sri Lankan community such as different ruling patterns of kings, trading activities with foreign nations, and cultural and social life of people during that era.
Samanthapasadika demonstrates the regnal years of kings along with their contribution towards the sustainability of Buddhism. Also, Samanthapasadika contained information on the political situation of the country. Samanthapasadika was written in the Pali language and historians use these works to find valid data of early kingship.
The great chronicle of Mahavamsa is a historical record that has continued for 22 consecutive centuries starting from the 5th century B. C. Therefore, Mahavamsa is the longest as well as the most trusted historical record of Sri Lanka, and it contains political and religious history. As political history, Mahavamsa includes stories of each king and their successions, invasions, conquests, and civil wars. Also, Mahavamsa includes social history. This chronicle was initially compiled by the two Buddhist monks Mahanama and Dhammakitti in the Pali language. After Mahavamsa, Chulawamsa continued to record the religious, political, and social history of ancient Sri Lanka.
8. Other Sources
There are several other sources that reveal important details of ancient Sri Lanka. These documents are very important in recognizing Sri Lankan history.
- Elu Bodhivamsa: Describes the arrival of Jaya Siri Maha Bodhi Tree to Sri Lanka from India.
- Sasadavata Sanne: Describes events that are not mentioned in Mahavamsa. For example, in Sasadavata Sanne one would be able to find details about the invasions of Cholas from the South Indian continent.
- Parami Mahasataka: This remarkable chronicle denotes historical information about the Gampola Period.
- Dhampita Atuva Getapadaya: This literary text was written in the 10th century. It describes the old geographical boundaries. In addition, Dampiya Atuwa Getapadaya contains information on military tactics.
- Dambadeniya Asna: This provides lists of flora, weapons, royal ornaments, clothes, and musical instruments used during the 13th century. In addition, Dambadeniya Asna consists of details of science, crafts, and trades.
- Dalada Sirita, Saddharma Ratnavali Saddharmalankaraya, Rasavahini, and Sandesa Kavyas, (Tisara, Mayura, Hansa, Parevi, Gira, Kokila, and Selalihini): These works of literature reflect on the everyday life of people who lived from the 13th to 15th centuries.
Sri Lankan Sinhala Literature
Sinhala is the native language of Sri Lanka. Moreover, the majority of the Sri Lankans speak Sinhalese as their mother tongue. Therefore, Sinhala literature holds a significant place in the heart of the Sri Lankans as it is rich in its own flavors. However, Sri Lankan Sinhala literature took a major turn with the influence of western literary traditions, especially after colonization.
Famous Sinhala Novels and Short Stories
Over the past centuries, many great novelists came up with many great Sinhala novels and short stories. Below are some of the highlights among them.
- Meena – By A. Simon De Silva
- Jayatissa and Rosalin – By Piyadasa Sirisena
- Viragaya – By Martin Wickramasinghe
- Gamperaliya –By Martin Wickramasinghe
- Charitha Thunak – By K. Jayathillake
- Sansaranye Dadayakkaraya – By Simon Nawagattegama
- Malagiya Eththo – By Ediriweera Sarachchandra
- Kavi Kandura – By Sunethra Rajakarunanayake
- Kalae Handa- By W. A. Silva
- Sedona – By Eva Ranaweera
Famous Sinhala Writers from Sri Lanka
There are several famous writers in Sri Lanka who wrote in Sinhala and contributed immensely towards making the arena of Sinhala literature sustain and shine brighter. Following are some of the very famous Sinhala writers from Sri Lanka.
- Martin Wickramasinghe
- W. A. Silva
- K. Jayathilake
- Sunethra Rajakarunanayake
The following sections are briefs about these great writers.
1. Martin Wickramasinghe
Martin Wickramasinghe was born on the 29th of May 1890 in Koggala, a peaceful southern village in Sri Lanka bounded by the sea on one side, and Koggala Oya on the other side. Besides, Martin Wickramasinghe was a writer who took “the search for roots” as the main theme in most of his novels and short stories. He indicated the importance of enduring our own roots and our common national identity which exists in our folklife and folk culture. His works of literature often reflected the socio-cultural changes in Sri Lanka. In addition, he used modern knowledge in natural and social sciences, literature, linguistics, arts, philosophy, education, and Buddhism in his writings.
He demonstrated a very realistic, and human approach towards life through all his novels and short stories. Therefore, he often criticized any form of political, social, cultural, or religious oppression.
He wrote remarkable novels such as the following.
- Gamperaliya (1944)
- Madol Doova (1947)
- Yuganthaya (1949)
- Viragaya (1956)
- Kaliyugaya (1957)
Moreover, he wrote some significant short story collections like;
- Geheniyak (1924)
- Pavkarayata Galgesima (1936)
- Handa Sakki Kima (1945)
Martin Wickramasinghe died on the 23rd of July 1976. This successful writer is still loved by people around the world as his works are translated into many foreign languages such as English, Hindi, Tamil, Russian, Chinese, Romanian, Dutch, German, French, and Japanese.
2. W. A. Silva
W. A. Silva was born on 16th January 1890 in Wellawatte, Colombo. He is a significant and best-selling author who wrote his first novel, Siriyalatha, at the age of 16. He studied Sanskrit and Sinhala languages from Pelane Sri Vajiragnana Thero while receiving a thorough knowledge of world literature. Also, he worked as a clerk. During this time, W. A. Silva wrote his second novel, Lakshmi, in 1922. After that, he continued rising as one of the most-read novelists in Sri Lanka while publishing some remarkable novels such as Kelae Handa, and Hongana Kolla. Later, Kalae Handa became the first-ever Sinhala novel that turned into a movie.
Moreover, W. A. Silva contributed towards the wellbeing of Sri Lankan literature by editing two magazines, Siri Sara (1919- 1923) and Nuwana (1940- 1946), and the weekly newspaper, Lanka Samaya (1933). After his demise in 1957 his residence ‘Silvermere’ at No. 126, W. A. Silva Mawatha, Wellawatte, was turned into a museum in his memory. There, one can find handwritten manuscripts, copies of novels, and other artifacts that belonged to this renowned and successful writer.
3. K. Jayathilake
K. Jayathillaka (Kaluachchigamage Jayatillake) was born on 27th June 1926 in Kannimahara, Gampaha. Besides, K. Jayathillake was famous as a realistic writer. He was also one of the pioneers of realistic novels written in Sinhala. In addition, he was well-received as a writer of magnificent short stories. His works of literature often depicted ironic social perspectives and thus, had a strong impact on Sinhala literature. Moreover, K. Jayathillake published his first collection of short stories, Punaruppattiya, in 1955.
However, his career as a novelist was indeed a remarkable one. In fact, he wrote a diverse range of literature varying from novels to short stories and children’s stories. Among them, his children’s stories hold a remarkable place as they reveal various forms of social injustices that children experience. In fact, K. Jayathillake authored 12 fascinating children’s stories. Further, his children’s stories like “Irunu Balala”, and “Oralosu” allowed children to have various perspectives on things.
His short stories adopted various themes such as ethnic harmony, social dynamics especially in the western province, and coexistence. His short stories were influenced by Anton Chekov, Edgar Allen Poe, and Joseph Conrad. However, the novels and short stories of K. Jayathilake represent an important hallmark in Sinhala literature.
4. Sunethra Rajakarunanayake
Sunethra Rajakarunanayake started her journey as a novelist at the age of 13 by writing a book on meditation. Today, she is famous as an author, translator, print and electronic media journalist, and tele-scriptwriter. Moreover, she is the author of many best-selling and award-winning novels such as the following.
- Thiranganaya (1999)
- Attaining Age (2000)
- Nandithaya (2004)
- Subodhalankaraya (2007)
- Podu Purushaya (2008)
- Kavi Kandura (2011)
Also, she has penned 43 outstanding novels and translated many English books into Sinhala. For her remarkable works of literature, Sunethra Rajakarunanayaka has been awarded many literary awards. In 2009, she won the Buddhist Literature Awards. She was recognized as the winner of the Swarna Pusthaka Award in 2011, and 2008. In addition, she won the State Literary Award, one of the greatest awards a Sri Lankan author is entitled to, in 1999, 2000, 2011, and 2008.
Poetry in Sinhala Function is always a strong mode of expression. Sri Lankan poetry has a unique style and beauty mingled within verses. One of the major poets who wrote immensely in Sinhala is Mahagama Sekara. His poetry is cherished by almost every Sri Lankan, even today.
Mahagama Sekara is a great poet in Sri Lanka who contributed immensely to developing Sinhala poetry as a famous genre in Sri Lanka. He was born on 7th April 1929, in Radawana, Colombo. Further, he received his higher education at the Teacher Training School in Nittambuwa and got qualified as a teacher of the Sinhala language.
Mahagama Sekara was famous as a legendary Sri Lankan novelist, translator, poet, artist, playwright, lyricist, filmmaker, and philosopher. However, among all his works of art, his poems hold a significant place as they resonate well with the heartbeat of Sri Lankan poetry lovers.
Mahagama Sekara’s poetry represents the modern Sinhala literary tradition. In addition, his writings often show the Buddhist influence, while exploring themes such as humanity and the reality of life. Some of the very famous poems written by Mahagama Sekara are as follows.
- Heta Irak Payai
- Rajathilaka Lionel saha Priyantha
- Sakwa Lihini
Mahagama Sekara passed away on the 14th of January 1976 at the age of 46. His passing away is considered a great loss to Sri Lankan literature, and specifically, Sri Lankan poetry. However, honoring his remarkable service as a great Sri Lankan author and artist, the University of Sri Jayewardenepura offered Mahagama Sekara the degree, Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in the year 1981.
Awards Received by Mahagama Sekara
In recognition of his significant role and his remarkable service to the arena of Sri Lankan literature, Mahagama Sekara was offered these awards and recognitions throughout his career.
- 1956 – Mahabhinishkramana (Painting) – Dina Dina Award (by Jathika Kala Peramuna)
- 1965 – Aatha Gavu Ganan Durin (Song) – Best Lyricist (Film Festival of Lanka Industrial Exhibition)
- 1968 – Sinidu Sudu Mudu Thalave (Song) – Best lyricist (Sarasaviya Film Festival)
- 1970 – Ratakin Ratakata (Song) – Best Lyricist (Sarasaviya Film Festival)
- 1970 – Thun Man Handiya (Movie) – Friendship Award (Rajaye Lipikaru Seva Sangamaya)
- 1971 – Thun Man Handiya (Movie) – Most Promising Director (Journalists and Film Critics of Ceylon)
- 1972 – Patriotic Songs – Hela Vidu Saviya
- 1980 – Thun Man Handiya (Movie) – Most Outstanding Film Creation (Office Catholique Internationale du Cinema)
- 2002 – Sinhala Gadya Padya Nirmanayanhi Ridma Lakshana (Research thesis) – State Literary Award (State Literary Festival)
Sri Lankan Tamil Literature
Sri Lanka being a country with a multi-ethnic population, different communities speak different languages. Yes, Tamil is also such a language spoken in Sri Lanka. Tamil literature is also inspired by works from centuries past, and especially by the literary traditions in South India where Tamil is spoken vastly. However, the literary history of Tamil writers in Sri Lanka is less prominent than that of their Sinhala counterparts, as they have a very fractured historical presence on the island, and an equal temple-based education system was not available. Nevertheless, Sri Lankan Tamil literature has a very rich and diverse oral tradition.
However, there are a few renowned Tamil authors in Sri Lanka as well. Some of them are as follows.
- Eelattu Poothanthevanar
- Ponnambalam Arunachalam
The following briefs would enlighten you about these great authors.
1. Eelattu Poothanthevanar
Eelattu Poothanthevanar is one of the Tamil authors in Sri Lanka during the Sangam period. The two Sangam verses, one each in Akananuru (verse 88) and Kurunthogai (verse 343) are indeed significant highlights of him.
2. Ponnambalam Arunachalam
Ponnambalam Arunachalam was not only a Sri Lankan author but a significant political activist. In fact, he was a member of the Legislative Council of Ceylon, and the President of the Ceylon National Congress as well. Thus, he focused many of his works on political issues and legal backgrounds. However, you can find below some of his important works.
- A Revel in Bliss (1895)
- A Few Hymns of Manikka Vachaka and Thayumanavar (1897)
- Sketches of Ceylon History (1906, Ceylon National Review)
- A Digest of the Civil Law of Ceylon
- Studies and Translations from the Tamil
- Studies and Translations – Philosophical and Religious
Sri Lankan English Literature
With the impacts of colonization and the globalization that took place during the later years, the majority of the Sri Lankans became familiar with the English language. Thus, Sri Lankans not only read English novels but also began involving in literary work. Accordingly, Sri Lanka could produce a great number of wonderful English authors. Some of them are as follows.
- Michael Ondaatje
- Punyakante Wijenaike
- Jean Arasanayagam
- Tissa Abeysekara
The following sections will provide you with more information about them.
1. Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje is a great novelist, talented poet, fiction writer, essayist editor, and filmmaker. He was a Sri Lankan by birth, yet now lives in Canada. Some of his most famous literary works are as follows.
- Coming through Slaughter
- In the Skin of a Lion
- The English Patient
- Anil’s Ghost
- The Cat’s Table
The Government of Canada appointed Michael Ondaatje as an Officer of the Order of Canada, and later upgraded to the highest level of the order, the Grade of Companion in 2016. Besides, the Sri Lankan former president Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga honored Michael Ondaatje with the title of “Sri Lanka Ratna” in 2005.
2. Punyakante Wijenaike
Punyakante Wijenaike is a Sri Lankan English writer who writes fiction, short stories, and anthologies. ‘The Third Woman‘, was her first short story collection, and thereafter, she wrote a great number of short stories, with over 100 of them published in the newspapers. Besides, she has won several titles, as honors for her great contribution to the field of English literature.
3. Jean Arasanayagam
Jean Arasanayagam, is a well-known poet and fiction writer, who focused her writings on ethnic and religious turmoil in Sri Lanka. You can find below some of her famous English Literary works.
- Poems of Season Beginning and a Season Over (1977)
- Apocalypse ’83 (1984)
- The Cry of the Kite (1984)
- A Colonial Inheritance and Other Poems (1985)
- Out of Our Prisons We Emerge (1987)
- Trial by Terror (1987)
- Reddened Waters Flow Clear (1991)
- Shooting the Floricans (1993)
Besides, her contribution to the field, made her gain the prestigious Premchand fellowship of Sahitya Akademi of India.
4. Tissa Abeysekara
Tissa Abeysekara is famous in Sri Lanka as a filmmaker, actor, writer, director, screen playwright, and political activist. His book, Bringing Tony Home is a highlight among his work. Further, this book won the prestigious Gratiaen Prize for new creative writing in English. Besides, he has won several awards as a writer, director, and actor, and among them, receiving the SAARC Literary Award is indeed significant.
The Bottom Line
Above all, it is clear that Sri Lanka has a variety of literary traditions which are indeed rich in their own flavors. In addition, Sri Lankan novelists, short story writers, and poets demonstrate a versatile skill set in expressing the deep-rooted traditional and historical values along with a realistic approach to exploring contemporary social developments and issues. Therefore, Sri Lankan literature holds a significant place as a powerful mode of demonstrating the Sri Lankan context in front of the eyes of the world. However, the story of Sri Lankan literature is not stopping here. We are sure that many more great writers will emerge in this country, and keep this saga continuing!