SINHALA LANGUAGE: THE DEFINING ELEMENT OF THE NATIONAL CULTURE OF SRI LANKA
Posted on February 2nd, 2020

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane  

Language is the defining element of any advanced culture and it gives the strongest form of identity to a community and a nation. The large majority of people of Sri Lanka are distinguished by their language, which is Sinhala. From about the 6th century BCE or more than 2500 years ago, until about the 16th century or about 2000 years ago, Sri Lanka was inhabited almost exclusively by the Sinhala people. At present, they account for about 70% of the island’s total population and the large majority of them are Buddhists. Buddhism was introduced to the island in the 3rd century BCE. What gives identity to this land is its rich and exclusive Sinhala Buddhist national culture. All salient aspects of the national culture–tangible and intangible, either grew or evolved within the borders of our country.

Their collective identity as a distinct nation and community was established by the unique language that developed within the island. From historic times, the primary distinguishing characteristic of the people of Sri Lanka  has been the Sinhala language. Sinhala language and literature evolved and developed within this island. All other languages used in the country today, originated in other countries and therefore belong to or associated with other nations and cultures. Sinhala language has not only been  a means of communication for our people but also a strong unifying influence providing solidarity and strength to the Sinhala community as a unique cultural entity in the worldSinhale” the legitimate historical name of the country is a Sinhala word, which means the land of the Sinhala people. Heladiva” (island of the Sinhala people), Helabima” (land of the Sinhala people) were the other names by which this island was known in the past, and these are Sinhala works. The name Sri Lanka was imposed on the island a few decades ago, and is not the legitimate historical name of the country and fails to  reflect the exclusive and long-standing Sinhala national culture of this island. From historic times virtually all place names of the country have been in the Sinhala language – in the North, South, East, West and Central regions.    

Sinhala is one of the world’s oldest living languages and as a vibrant language Sinhala has a celebrated history of over 2300 years. The Sinhala language grew out of Indo-Aryan dialects and exists only in Sri Lanka and has its own distinguished literary tradition. The script used in writing Sinhala evolved from the ancient Brahmi script used in most Aryan languages, which was introduced to the island in the 3rd century BCE. In 1999, the Sinhala script won international recognition from a group of reputed international scholars as one of the world’s most creative alphabets. It has been named as one of the world’s 16 most creative alphabets among today’s functioning languages, and some of them among the oldest known to mankind. The Sinhala language is a poetical language. It lends itself easily to metre and rhyme due to its grammatical flexibility and rich vocabulary comprising of a large number of synonyms. Sinhala is a mellifluous language with a smooth sweet flow, with high vowel content and is comparable to French and Urdu, widely regarded to be the two most romantic languages in the world.

This unifying effect brought about by the common language Sinhala, prevailed in the country from historic times, but was threatened to some degree with the arrival and impact of European colonial powers. The wide-ranging socio-economic changes to which the country was subject especially during the British period of occupation from about late 18th century, and particularly  since the early 19th century, had the effect of  undermining the Sinhala language.                                                                     

SINHALA LANGUAGE AND BUDDHISM                                                                          

The large majority of Sinhala people are Buddhists and the language of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is Sinhala. Buddhist culture and the Sinhala language are integral and inseparable components of our nation’s cultural heritage. The preservation and promotion of the Sinhala language is directly affected by the preservation and promotion of Sinhala Buddhist culture. Sinhala language in both its oral and written, informal and formal forms developed as the language of Buddhism in our country.

From historic times, Sri Lanka’s  Buddhist bhikkhus and royalty were responsible for the development, preservation and promotion of the Sinhala language. The patronage received from Sinhala royalty played a dominant role in the propagation and preservation of Sinhala language. There were kings who were outstanding Sinhala scholars compiling Sinhala literary works of high quality, both in prose and verse. Bhikkhus were in the forefront in the propagation of education in general, both religious and secular. The Mahavihara, Abayagiriya and Jetavanarama Buddhist fraternities and associated monasteries were outstanding places of learning. Having international students, they were equivalent to universities and had affiliations with reputed international educational institutions. It is noteworthy that the medium of instruction and all scholarly activities in these institutions were conducted in the Sinhala language. Large libraries were a part and parcel of these institutions. Scholar Bhikkus were involved in translation into Sinhala of Pali and Sanskrit literary works on Buddhism.  

Bhihhkus therefore, have been in the forefront in protecting and propagating the Sinhala language. All names and titles of our Bhikkus from ancient times have been exclusively Sinhala. All Buddhist functions and activities in Buddhist temples are conducted in the Sinhala language. The primary activity of Buddhist vihares, then and now, has been ‘dharma-desanaa’ or ‘bana’ (religious sermons) which were invariably conducted in Sinhala. All Buddhist temples and establishments have Sinhala names. Buddhist spiritual and cultural activities, ceremonies and festivals have been conducted in the Sinhala language from time immemorial. Sinhala terminology characterizes all tangible items and aspects associated of Sinhala culture.

EARLIEST SINHALA LITERARY WORKS 

According to Prof. Senarat Paranavithana the earliest specimens of Sinhala metrical compositions may be dated to the first century BCE. Four of the early Brahmi inscriptions of Sri Lanka have been identified as poetical compositions. The Mahavamsa composed in Pali in the 5th century CE was based on ancient Sinhala Commentaries known as Sihala-Atthakatha-Mahawamsa. The Sigiri graffiti scribbled on the mirror wall are dated to 7th-8th centuries, consists of Sinhala verses of an amorous or romantic nature. The Dhampiya-Atuva-Getapadaya is the oldest Sinhala prose work which dates back to the 9th century.

Sinhala literary work flourished during the Polonnaruwa and Dambadeniya periods from 10th to 13th century CE which is considered as the golden age of Sinhala literature. ‘Amawatura’ and ‘Dharmapradipikava’ by the famed Gurulugomi, are among prominent Sinhala prose written in the 13th century. Gurulugomi’s works are characterized by the use of pure Sinhala (Elu) words and limiting Sanskrit and Pali loan words to the minimum. Other literary works of this period include the ‘Buthsarana’ by Vidyachakravarti, the ‘Pujavaliya’ and ‘Saddharma-Ratnavaliya’. The latter is renowned for the beauty of its style and the simplicity of its language. Other notable Sinhala prose work is the ‘Saddharmalankaraya’ by Jayabahu Dharmakirti composed in the 14th century, ‘Thupavansaya’, ‘Elu-Attanagalu Vansaya’ and the ‘Dambadeni Aasna’.

SINHALA POETRY

The ‘Pujavaliya’ of the 13trh century refers to twelve famous Sinhala poets who flourished during the reign of king Aggabodhi-I (568-601 CE). “Kavsilumina” a ‘Maha-Kavya”, composed in the 13th century by King Parakrama Bahu-II (1234-1269) is considered as one of greatest literary monuments of the nation’s medieval period.  The oldest Sandesha poem of which we have any evidence is The “Mayura Sandeshaya”  (Peacock’s message) dating back to the 13th century is considered as the oldest composition of  ‘Sandesha poems in the country. This work no longer exists, although examples from it are cited in the classical Sinhala grammar composition “Sidath-Sangarawa” of the 13th century.

During the Kotte period of 15th-16th centuries, Sinhala poetry received greater attention marked b y the development of Hatan Kavi” or war poems and Sandeshas” or message poems. This period marks the efflorescence of Sinhala poetry with secular “Sandesha” poems gaining much popularity. Among the popular Sandesha poems of this period are “Thisara Sandeshaya” (Swan’s message, dated 14th century), “Gira Sandeshaya” (Parrot’s message), “Hansa Sandeshaya” (Goose’s message), “Parevi Sandeshaya” (Dove’s message), “Kokila Sandeshaya” (Cuckoo’s message) and “Selalihini Sandeshaya” (Starling’s message) belong to the 15th century.

Jataka tales formed the thematic content of most Sinhala poetry of the medieval period. “Kavya-Sekharaya” written in mid 15th century by Sri Rahula Mahathera narrates the “Sattubhasta Jataka” and Guttilaya of Vetteve Thera (15th century) is based on the “Guttila Jataka”. Other Sandesha poems include the “Sevul Sandeshaya” (Cocks message), “Hema Kurulu Sandeshaya” (Oriole’s message) “Ketakirili Sandeshaya” (Hornbill’s message), “Nilakobo Sandeshaya” (Blue dove’s message) and “Diyasevul Sandeshaya” (Black swan’s message).

THREATS TO SINHALA LANGUAGE

It is recorded that many Sinhala literary works of the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa period which extends to about 1500 years (until about the 13th century CE), were lost by the South Indian Tamil-speaking Dravidian invaders during their several invasions during this period. They were instrumental in the destruction of royal palaces, Buddhist temples, monasteries, libraries and places of learning located in the ancient royal capitals. Vast libraries with thousands of ‘ola’ palm-leaf manuscripts were set on fire and destroyed. Similar destruction occurred again, with the arrival of the Portuguese in the  early 16th century.  

The Portuguese period (1505-1658) constitutes a long and poignant chronicle of oppression and injustice meted out to Sinhala Buddhists. These Catholic Portuguese were the first colonial power to pave in this country the way to almost continuous religious tensions – the repercussions of which is felt to this day in Sri Lanka. The Portuguese period was a reign of terror with widespread killings and destruction and the undermining of Buddhist culture and literary activities. Among those killed were  Buddhist scholars including Bhikkhus. All Buddhist temples and places of learning in the maritime areas under Portuguese control were completely demolished. Monasteries were razed and their priceless treasure looted and huge libraries were set on fire.

In 1588, the renowned Buddhist educational institutions such as the Wijayaba Pirivena at Totagamuwa and Padmawathi Pirivena of Keragala  (which had carried on the traditions of ancient Taxila and Nalanda universities) were destroyed and their incumbents killed. The famous Weedagama Privena in Raigam Korala and Sunethradevi Pirivena of Pepiliyana Kotte were burnt down. The valuable books of the temple were destroyed. The great Poet monk Weedagama Maithree Thero who wrote Lowedasangarawa and Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula were living in that temple at the time of its demolition by the Portuguese. The Dutch, who ousted the Portuguese in 1640, occupied the places under Portuguese control. They continued similar trade activities and started converting people to their form of Protestant Christianity. They too were instrumental in undermining Buddhism, and destroyed many Buddhist temples, monasteries and the royal palace at Hanguranketa.

BRITISH PLUNDER AND CRUELTY

The British replaced the Dutch as the colonial power, and captured the entire country in 1815. The British  were responsible for the most catastrophic and shattering damage to the Sinhala Buddhist cultural heritage including the Sinhala  language. They not only introduced their language as the medium of communication in all affairs of governance and economic activities, but took direct measures to undermine the Sinhala language and culture. English was forced upon our people as the language of administration, the language in which justice was meted out, the language in which government records were kept. The Sinhala language and ordinary Sinhala people, suffered immensely during the British period of occupation.  


Temperance movementENGLISH LANGUAGE AND WESTERN CULTURAL NORMS

During the British colonial era from 1796 to 1948, and a good part of the post-independence period, the promotion of the English language and Western cultural norms was the order of the day as far as the political establishment of the country was concerned. The urban English education system had much to do with this undesirable development. School educational services were basically the monopoly of the Catholic and Christian missions and English was the medium of instruction. European cultural norms were promoted in these schools. The rural masses and bhikkhus studied Sinhala and other oriental languages whereas in the urban areas English was the medium of instruction and communication. Higher learning at this time was basically bifurcated between rural and urban where English education was confined to urban communities

Opportunities for advancement were limited to those with an English education. They  were better paid and enjoyed greater benefits from government. At this time, the influence and authority of the village temple was reduced to a level of parasite owing to willful neglect and undermining of these traditional institutions. The study of history was dropped from school curriculum thereby preventing children from being exposed to their history and cultural heritage.

In spite of being undermined and discriminated against, it is simply a miracle that Sinhala language was able to survive this tragic situation for over four and a half centuries. What could be cited as primary reasons for this is  the inherent strength of the Sinhala language, and also the dedication of the Sinhala scholars of that time, especially the Buddhist scholar Bhikkhus such as the Velivitiye Saranankara Mahathera, Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala Mahathera (the founder of the Vidyodaya Pirivena), Waskaduwe Sri Subhuti Mahathera, Kahave Sri Ratanasara Mahathera, Baddegama Sri Piyaratana Mahathera, Velivitiye Sri Sorata Mahathera and Panangala Sri Piyaratana Mahathera.

To serve their self-interests the British practiced the “divide and rule” policy by setting one community against the other. It is a well known fact that the British gave special privileges to the Tamil minority and those of the Christian faith. They were provided with better opportunities for education, employment and other government services. They soon became privileged communities. In terms of the density of schools per unit area, the Jaffna district had the highest density. In 1870 there were only two Buddhist schools left in the country – in Panadura and Dodanduwa, with an attendance of 246 children as against 805 Christian Schools with an attendance of 78,086 children. As far as the Sinhala community is concerned, for generations in the past, their traditional places of learning were the Buddhist temples where Buddhist monks were teachers of both religious and secular subjects. These centers and Buddhist monks were not accorded the same privileges/support accorded to Christian missionary schools and teachers. The social status and recognition at this time were based on one’s exposure to western culture and especially one’s ability to communicate effectively in the English language and familiarity with and often the observance of western cultural norms. Opportunities for advancement in fields such as education and professions were almost exclusively the monopoly of people with such exposure.

RISE OF A NEW COSMOPILITAN URBAN ELITE    

With the special privileges and opportunities for advancement provided to the English educated westernized locals, they soon evolved to be a community or class of their own. The undue privileges they enjoyed were not available to the large majority of those  without the knowledge of English and western exposure. It was a new elite that developed on the basis of its knowledge of the English language and was associated with the Greater Colombo region. A wider more cosmopolitan outlook differentiated this urban elite from the more ‘old fashioned’ predominantly Buddhist, Sinhala speaking rural folk. What developed here was a form of sub-culture which was referred to by some Sinhalayas as Thuppahi culture” which accorded a highly step-motherly treatment to Sinhala language and culture. This had a strong negative impact of undermining and decimating the commonly spoken indigenous language of the nation to an inferior position. The step-motherly treatment of the Sinhala language by the  government and the urban elite running affairs of the economy, business and private sector activities, and the Catholic and Christian missionary education establishment, continued even after the country attained political independence in 1948.

POST INDEPENDENCE DILEMMA

When the British left Sri Lanka in 1948, they made sure that power remained in the hands of the English educated and English speaking few, who were toeing their line. To make matters worse, power -political, administrative, and economic was inherited by those belonging to the westernized Colombo sub-culture dominated by Christians. Most of the qualified professionals at the decision-making levels in the public and private sectors and also in big businesses subscribed to this sub-culture. Their attitudes and actions either directly or indirectly had the effect of denigrating to an inferior state, the Sinhala language, the Sinhala cultural norms and the simple Buddhist way of life.  Most of the prominent people involved in administrative and professional fields at this time were products of a non-national education system provided by  the Christian Missionary establishment who were not conversant with the history and the culture of their country. Some were token Buddhists who could not relate to or  belong to the local culture. Among them were those who returned from education in Britain, influenced by leftist ideals and were known as leftists” or Marxists” of the time. These “intellectuals” were also inheritors of the Colombo urban sub culture.

It is unfortunate that Sri Lanka, especially at this time did not have leaders of the caliber of the Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru,  Ambekar and other nationally-minded leaders of India who were true representatives of Indian culture and dedicated to its promotion. Also, they were supported by a strong bureaucracy that was equally Indian and outlook, in spite of their western education.

CHANGES STARTNG IN MID 20TH CENTURY

In the middle of the 20th century, Mr. W. W. Kannangara and a few others led a movement which made Sinhala the medium of instruction for all Sinhala children up to Grade V in all government schools. Subsequently, Sinhala and Tamil became the languages of government and higher education. In the 20th century, there were many Sinhala patriots who helped to enrich and save our language and culture. The late fifties and sixties in particular was a period when we saw the emergence of outstanding personalities and cultural pursuits. Among them, W. F. Gunewardena Martin Wickramasinghe, Senarath Paranawithana, Munidasa Kumaratungha, L.H. Mettananda, G. Malalasekera, Ediriweera Sarathchandra, Mahagama Sekera, Madawala S. Ratnayake, Gunadasa Amarasekera, K. Jayatilaka, Amaradeva, Premasiri Khemadasa, Chitrasena and Vajira, Solias Mendis, Lester James Pieris and a few others including their students.

Their literary works appealed to the hearts of a generation that was just beginning to shed the last vestiges of European socio-cultural domination in the island. The basis of their work which made them prominent was Sinhala language, Sinhala culture and Sinhala Buddhist values. Among outstanding Buddhist monks who assumed global status at the time were Venerables-Walpola Rahula, Ananda Maithriye, Narada, Piyadassi, and Madihe Pangnaseeha. One of the essential text books used in courses on Buddhism in most universities in the western world has been “What the Buddha Taught” by Venerable Walpola Rahula written initially in Sinhala.

With these developments after the mid 20th century, Sinhala language started to revive and books on diverse subjects were written by those competent in the language. New forms of poetry and drama were introduced and Sinhala songs and movies became popular forms of entertainment. Among positive trends during this period was the  official recognized of Sinhala as the national language, the establishment of a Cultural Affairs Ministry, the elevation of two Pirivena’s to University status, the take-over of Missionary schools by the government. It was the Sinhala Buddhist leadership, including leading Buddhist monks who were in the forefront in the initiative to take-over schools and making higher education accessible to all irrespective of religious affiliation. It is an accepted fact that this enabled rural youth to come to the forefront. Many were able to secure university education and excel in their professional fields.

This period of healthy growth which began in 1956, was short lived and with the passage of about two decades, there emerged distinct signs of a downward trend in the importance accorded to the Sinhala language and national culture in general. During the last few decades, it was the Sinhala Buddhist community who underwent traumatic experiences and all fatalities, owing to the efforts of the local Marxists to counterbalance the imbalance created by the outer-oriented Colombo clan. The situation in the country was worsened by the youth uprising in the south and the north and the widespread violence and bloodshed. Leadership at all levels – political, professional and secular – deteriorated during the past few decades. This was also a time which saw extreme divisiveness, animosity and criminal activity among people supporting opposing political parties. This was a time when bribery and corruption was institutionalized, and crime and underworld activities became rampant.

ATITUDINAL CHANGES WITH ENGLISH COMMUNICATION

During the past six decades, the language of government in our motherland has been English for all purposes, and not Sinhala or Tamil. Knowledge of English has been a big advantage and sometimes an essential requirement for better employment in both the public and private sectors. It was difficult to get ahead in society without a knowledge of English. In most urban settings in the country, teaching children to communicate in English has become quite fashionable even today. The western oriented education systems, media, television, tourist industry, foreign employment – all contribute to this peculiar change of attitude among our people in recent years. 

The most striking influence of all these developments and trends was the strong outer orientation of people, especially the youth. The heightened importance accorded to spoken English at the expense of Sinhala was clearly evident during this time, so much so, those who spoke English were considered by many as the more educated ones that should be emulated. Also, there is the tendency among some people to give undue importance to those who could speak the English language.  They are considered to be smarter, refined and better calibre as opposed to those who could not speak English. It is common observation and experience generally in the urban settings that people who communicate in English draw more attention and respect and find it easy to get things done as compared to those communicating in Sinhala.  Such disregard and disrespect for the Sinhala language has the tendency to push other aspects of Sinhala culture to the background. Owing to the lack of a strong exposure to their own cultural values, learning English has made these misinformed and misguided people to move further away from their culture and values.

It is not the language per se but its cultural dimension that has become a serious problem in our country. There is a tendency among some of the English educated folk, to observe western mannerisms and attitudes and consider themselves to be more refined, more cultured and a step above the others. Often in superficial ways, they tend to observe peculiar mannerisms and deportment that are different to or contrary to our long established cultural norms. This unwarranted and ridiculous attitudinal changes that learning English or being able to speak the language has brought about not only tends to alienate this group of individuals but also has led to divisiveness among our youth. This trend has made some of our youth to shy away from their own language and culture. Speaking English or mixing English with Sinhala, or adding English words while speaking in Sinhala became the fashionable and accepted practices. This we commonly observe in some television programs to the dismay of many.  

There is no question that there are many positive aspects and much to be learnt from other cultures. However, unfortunately it is those superficial, worthless and undesirable aspects of other cultures that have been of appeal to some people. Often the immature, naïve, careless and slapdash individuals get trapped in these western superficialities. The youth of this period – 1980’s and 1990’s grew up at a time when there were extreme forms of political unrest and violence in the south and north. There was polarization of ethnic communities. The economic and social trends and developments at this time such as globalization without a human face, introduction of television characterized by highly commercialized and often crude programs, expansion of tourism industry without restrictions, and increase in overseas employment encouraged outer oriented attitudes and lifestyles of most youth and the disintegration of many families.

There is no dispute that on many counts, knowing English is highly advantageous, especially for our youth. A working knowledge of English has become a requirement in a number of fields, occupations and professions such as medicine and computing. It is very helpful in learning and improving many useful skills. It is a global language and over a billion people speak English to at least a basic level. Besides, it is one of six official languages of the United Nations.

Most youth of last two decades were not conversant with the history of their country. They do not know that our country is the oldest continually Buddhist country in the world. They do not know that history and culture of our people have been shaped and mounded by Buddhism since its introduction to the island over 2200 years ago. Being unaware of the richness of their cultural heritage, most youth have become indifferent to their culture. Our youth did not have proper role models to follow and genuine youth leaders to guide them. It is the greatest tragedy that befell our nation, because youth are our greatest resource and they determine the future of our country and its cultural heritage.

There is definitely no case for not learning English. But what is necessary to emphasize is that the Sinhala language needs equal emphasis as English. Undue emphasis on learning English will have the effect of undermining the Sinhala language faster. Equal importance should be accorded to the learning and use of Sinhala language.  Otherwise it will be a cultural genocide much like the effects of the propagation of western culture and evangelism in our country, in the name of globalization. The learning of Sinhala literature, Sinhala culture and history by our children is fundamental to bringing about an attitudinal change in our younger generation. This will make them develop a sense of pride in their outstanding cultural heritage. They will begin to be appreciative of the wholesome values of their glorious culture. And, this will help them to develop a lifestyle and livelihood that is beneficial to them and the society in general. 

Among the encouraging developments in the country during the last decade was the  introduction of the teaching of the History of Sri Lanka in schools which was stopped by previous government in the late 1970s. It was made a compulsory subject for children from Grade I, right up to ‘GCE O’ levels. Also evident during this time was an increased interest in development and promotion of Sinhala performing arts, especially traditional dances. The teaching and study of Sinhala Aesthetic studies became popular in the school curriculum. Sinhala music and songs received a boost owing to the influence of  television, radio and the increased production of CD’s, DVD’s and associated electronic devices. The cultural pollution promoted by some of so called Super Star” programmes and tele natya” were subject to criticism during this time.

During this time, an extreme degree of popularity was attained by some Sinhala television programmes focused on discussions by reputed Sinhala professionals on important national issues and Buddhist issues. These had a definite positive impact on reinforcing our traditional cultural norms including the effective use of the Sinhala language.  Another blessing in disguise during the last stages of military action against LTTE Tamil terrorists was the popularly watched on-site Sinhala television programmes highlighting the untold sacrifices and heroic deeds of our Sinhala youth in the war front. People were made to realize that these gallant Sinhala youth were engaged in activities that were focused on protecting not only our land and people but also, most importantly, the glorious national culture that forms the foundation of this great nation of ours. Among Sinhala songs during this period that attained an exceedingly high degree of popularity were those on our gallant military personnel : api venuven api”…

The Sinhala community of Sri Lanka is being exposed to and subject to excessive influences of other cultures, both Western and Eastern, largely brought about by the globalization process, increased interactions with other cultures owing to foreign employment and travel for diverse purposes including education, business and recreation. The internet, foreign media and publications, tourism and the increased importance given and attention paid to the use of the English language are other means by which people are being subject to undue influences of other cultures. However, in spite of the varied cultural influences there appears to be no signs that the Sinhala culture or its integral component the Sinhala language, are in the process of decline and deterioration. No patriotic Sri Lankan will allow the defining element of their glorious cultural heritage to be sacrificed for the sake of ‘modernization”, westernization’ and globalization”.  

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane   

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