Forces That Shaped Sri Lankan Literature
Posted on October 20th, 2014

By Prof. Suwanda H J Sugunasiri (writing from Canada)    

This is my  Introduction to an Anthology of Sri Lankan Literature, co-edited with Prof A V Suraweera, as a special Issue of the Toronto South Asian Review (Vol. 3, Number 2, Fall 1984, 2-10). The first anthology to bring together works in Sinhala, Tamil and English within the same cover, here I provide an overview of the forces that has shaped the literature: Buddhism, South Indian Colonialism and British Colonialism,  pointing to both the positive and the negative dimensions of the last two. It also includes the first poetic translation of Prof. Saracchandra’s Maname.


Of the Sri Lankan Canadian poets, a more motley group could be hard to conceive of,” Arun Mukherjee (1984) observes. This description is true also of the Sri Lankan literary scene in general, as a glance at any of the several anthologies of this literature would show.1 Who, then, is a Sri Lankan writer”? Reflective of the truly multicultural reality of the country, he or she is of Sinhalese, Eurolankan (Burgher) or Tamil ethnic origin (the order reflecting the extent of activity), of Buddhist, Christian or Hindu background, writing in Sinhala, English or Tamil.2 To complete the picture, we have native and émigré writers.

There is thus a range of writers, from those writing in Sri Lanka in one of three languages all the way to emigrants writing only in English. In between can be found any combination of ethnic, religious and linguistic backgrounds and places of domicile. Noteworthy is the Sinhala writing only in English, in Sri Lanka.3

The conditions for the emergence of such a complex matrix are rooted, obviously, in history; and in particular in three sociohistorical processes: Buddhism, South Indian colonialism and British colonialism.

The short story by Amarasekera and Vithana, in Sugunasiri and Suraweera (1984), belongs to a tradition of serious short fiction that dates back to 1924, with the publication of Martin Wickramasinghe’s collection Geheniyak (A Woman) [see Sugunasiri, 2002 for a study], the same period around which Morely Callaghan was writing short stories in Canada. Wickramasinghe’s stories, as laconic as Callaghan’s, derived their strength from their characterization, as did the first serious Sinhala novel, Gamperaliya (The Changing Village; 1944), also by him. While undoubtedly the structure of Wickramasinghe’s works, as those of other pioneers of fiction and poetry, can be attributed to the influence of western writers, Chekov, Maupassant and Poe in particular [see Sugunasiri (2002) for a discussion], their sophistication in terms of realism, language and characterization must be attributed to other influences as well.

One of these influences, as Wickramasinghe (now turned critic) persuasively argues in  the The Buddhist Jataka Stories and the Russian Novel (1956), lies in the Jatakas,4 stories of the Buddha’s Birth in 550 previous lives and part of the Buddhist canon (Tipitaka). Unlike the early narrative works of Sanskrit, such as the Pa¤catantra and the Hãtopadesa, which are animal stories, the past story of the Jataka contains character study—the sexually aroused elderly woman who has her sadistic yearnings satiated by having her husband blindfolded and knocked on the head by her young lover, in the Andhabhuta Jataka, or the wise minister who, in the Mahàsàra Jataka, through logical thinking and scrupulous enquiry worthy of a Sherlock Holmes, bails out an innocent vagabond accused of the theft of a pearl necklace belonging to the Chief Queen Consort, recovering from the real thief, a she-monkey, who had conceived a longing to wear” the article.

The influence of Buddhism on Sinhala literature is, of course, part of a larger tradition that spread over several golden eras of civilization, beginning with Anuradhapura (sixth century BCE to tenth century CE), perhaps the longest unbroken civilization anywhere in the world,5 through Polonnaru, Dambadeni, and Kotte, and ending with Mahanuwara in the nineteenth century.

The origins of Sinhala poetry as well can be traced to at least the seventh century CE. Although there are only references in literature to the twelve great poets” of the Anuradhapura period but no trace of their works, the haiku-type” poems, as Reynolds (1970) calls them, inscribed on the mirror wall of Sigiriya by hundreds of folk poets, in response to the over 500 heavenly damsels,” and which even recently inspired Michael Ondaatje to write:

Women like you

make men pour our their hearts.

(Running in the Family, 1982), are concrete evidence of a great poetic tradition that continued to be reflected in later poetic works—the Kavsilumina (The Crest Gem of Poetry) of the thirteenth, the Guttilaya of the fifteenth, and the Sandakindura-daa-kawa (The Bodhisatta Born as a Centaur) of the sixteenth centuries. Preceding all these works, which are in Sinhala, is, of course, the Mahàvaüsa (sixth century CE), a history of the Sinhalese in poetic form in Pali (see Wickramasinghe 1963).

The quatrain-type formula poetry of the Colombo school of the fifties shows the latest decline of Sinhala poetry. Nevertheless, it still shows a conformity with tradition in its use of colloquial Sinhala, which had been used in the earliest literature and had later been replaced with a Sanskritized version. The works of Munidasa Kumaratunga, the turn-of-the-century nationalist and founder of the purist hela hauwla” movement, and those of his pupil, Raipiel Tennakone, basically still written in quatrain but more elegant than of the Colombo poets, points to an excellence derived from yet another tradition of language: the Sanskrit-free Elu,” fossilized from the Amavatura and Butsarana period (c. 1200–1300 CE). The first shaping influence on Sri Lankan literature, then, was Buddhism.

The hela hauwla movement serves as a symbolic backdrop against which we can begin to look at the impact of the second sociohistorical force—South Indian colonialism—on Sri Lankan literature. For Kumaratunga’s movement (1887–1944), by its insistence on going back to a pre-colonial language and culture, stands out above other similar twentieth century movements—Piyadasa Sirisena’s (1875–1946), for example, which was willing to accommodate a Mixed Sinhala. Kumaratunga saw the roots of the underdevelopment of Sinhala—its weakening in the very same process of the development of the colonial language and culture—in the Polonnaru period that followed the first successful though short-lived invasion of Raja Raja (eleventh century). In this period, Sinhala, which had up to then developed as a prakrit under the influence of Pali and Magadhi (the Buddha’s language), came under the increasing influence of Sanskrit. Theistic notions and themes, alien to Buddhism, crept into the content of literature; literary flexibility, both in technique and theme, gave way to rigidity and formula writing—as is evident from the several messenger” poems of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, poor imitations of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta (The Cloud Messenger). And finally, simplicity, the hallmark of Buddhist culture, as seen in the architecture and sculpture of Sanchi, the paintings of Ajanta (in India), and the Samadhi statue of the Buddha in Anuradhapura, to give a few examples, gradually came to be replaced by an ornate complexity exemplified in Hindu works. The decline of Sinhala language, literature and culture continued through a sociopolitical instability brought about by the intermittent and short periods of South Indian rule which ended with the advent of Portuguese rule in 1505.

The earliest Christian newspapers of the nineteenth century, the works of W.A. Silva (1892–1957), credited with popularizing the Sinhala novel, and the translations of Iriyagolla (for example of Hugo’s Les Miserables) serve as contemporary examples of a weakened and Sanskritized Sinhala. (With some works even glossaries were supplied!) The use of such a highly Sanskritized language is, however, symbolic of yet another trend that emerged under the influence of Hinduism. This was a particular world view, one result of which was literary elitism. While the Sigiri poetry of the seventh century is evidence of access to literature for the ordinary person, the new attempt seemed to be to direct it consciously at the educated and the elite. Indeed the highly charged invectives directed more recently at the Peradeniya school—the criticism of university dons by the Sinhala-only and even bilingual, elites and critics for embracing western literary norms and values—must be seen as a social rather than a literary conflict, in defence of an elitism in literature—an attempt to keep it in the hands of the few. For it was certainly the literary movement headed by Wickramasinghe, Gunadasa Amarasekera and Siri Gunasinghe, and the critical norms popularized by Sarachchandra, that has led to the present literary flowering, that both Goonetilleke (1984) and Suraweera (1984) allude to.

Be that as it may, there was one significant development that was at least partly conditioned by this rising elitism. This is the emergence of a popular literature of the Deeman Ananda variety, directed at the not-so-educated but the literate and the highly politicized—thanks to a Marxist movement that predates Independence (1948), working and middle classes.

South Indian colonialism, though it had a generally debilitating effect on Sinhala language, literature and culture, wasn’t without its positive influences. One of the most important of these is that it served to enrich Sinhala, not only in terms of its vocabulary (through Sanskrit and Tamil) but, perhaps more importantly, also in contributing to the emergence of the present diglossic (more appropriately, perhaps, triglossic or mesoglossic) condition, in which different varieties of the language are used for different purposes (for example, a Sanskritized Sinhala in literature, Parliament, radio and television, and a more prakritic one in everyday speech). This development, too, however, undoubtedly also had a hand in driving the wedge between writers and their audience.

The contact with South Indian culture also contributed to the development of the Sinhala folk theatre Nadagama, which more recently, in the hands of Sarachchandra, inspired by Japanese Kabuki theatre, provided the most powerful impetus to the development of the vibrant contemporary theatre. Sarachchandra, in his The Folk Drama of Ceylon (1966) traces the history of Nadagama to the South Indian street theatre Terukkoottu. But, here again, we also find the influence of the earlier Buddhist tradition, in its themes, stories and characters, and in its simplicity.

It is entirely understandable that South Indian colonialism would underdevelop the Sinhala language and culture, but the irony is that it seemed to have underdeveloped Sri Lankan Tamil literature, language and culture as well. This is the inevitable conclusion one arrives at from the little evidence available on Tamil literature, which indicates that a Sri Lankan Tamil literature failed to emerge until the seventeenth century. As scholars of both shores sought to continue a South Indian and Sanskrit tradition in its pristine form, the very first Sri Lankan Tamil literary works were primarily religious in tone” (Kanaganayakam 1984), limited to commentaries on the ancient classics, and monotonous and convention ridden” (Indrapala 1973, 356). The language of the commentaries was as compendious and terse as the original masterpieces,” (Indrapala 1973, 357) similar to some of the Sinhala works.

The first thaw in the scene appears in the late nineteenth century, with the growth of propagandist Christian literature, different both in content and style from Hindu literature, the growth of journalism and polemic literature, and the genius of Arumuga Navalar. While this resurgence produced isolated creative minds such as Pulavar of Navaly, who introduced variations of old verse forms and themes, fiction and even plays, the rigidity and conventionalism allowed no real breakthrough. The presence of a large reading public in India no doubt did not help. But the trend, once set, continued, with writers like C. Vaiththiyalingam, Sivagnana Sunderam (Ilangeyarkone), T. Sabharatnam and others. Only from the 1950s on, however, after Independence, do we see the emergence of writers who were determined to break free of South Indian models, of established conventions, and speak with a genuine Sri Lankan voice” (Kanaganayakam 1984). The absence of a serious Sri Lankan Tamil film industry or a local ballet, and the continuation of art forms like the Bharata Natyam, Kathak and Kathakali, for example, as the major if not the only popular forms of mass entertainment, indicate on the one hand a continuing South Indian hold on Sri Lankan Tamil culture. On the other hand, the appearance of the numerous stories, novels, poems and plays (encouraged by Literary Academy awards and drama festivals) indicates a burgeoning Sri Lankan Tamil literary activity that is increasingly reaching out to the local dialects as well.

Twentieth century developments in both Tamil and Sinhala literature take us to the third force that shaped Sri Lankan literature. This is British colonialism. The influence of western literature (including a large amount of Russian literature translated into English) on Sinhala writing has already been noted. It started even before Wickramasinghe and G.B. Senanayake began to write in the twentieth century. Already in the nineteenth century, it had spurred the Christianized Sinhalese, as it had the Christianized Tamils, to use literary forms in the newspapers for proselytizing. This prompted the Buddhist nationalist elements to use the same tools in counteraction. The outcome was a healthy one.

The discouragement of ethnocentrism in Buddhism (as seen, for example, in the concept of anattà, soullessness”, and anicca, change”) and the encouragement of freedom of thought (for example in the Kàlàma Sutta),6 the presence of a realism-based tradition and a prakritized language well allowed for an easy entry of western literary forms into Sinhala. This was first accomplished, ironically, not by the Buddhists but by the Christians, who have continued to provide initiatives in all areas of contemporary culture, and then by the Buddhists.

Undoubtedly, English education had a hand in all this. Perhaps the most significant development here has been the emergence of a class of writers among the Sinhalese, who write only in English—Yasmine Gooneratne of Australia, Ashley Halpe of Sri Lanka and Asoka Weerasinghe of Canada for example. Marxism is another influence, as writers, both young and old, reminded perhaps of certain similarities between Buddhism and Marxism (for example the principles of equitable distribution and rational analysis), sought out the social realism of Soviet literature.

Colonialism is curiously though understandably responsible for a trend that is increasingly becoming visible, more so in English than in Sinhala works. This is a return-to-roots theme, so much in vogue now in Canada. Thus Halpe, an English professor, sings of Gemunu, the Sinhalese hero of the second century BCE, who humbled the Tamil King Elara to unite the country (a story which Colin de Silva captures in his 500 page novel, The Winds of Sinhala), and of Yasodhara, the wife of Prince Siddhartha. Lakdasa Wikkramasinha, for whom writing in English becomes a form of cultural treason” (Goonetilleke 1984), writes (cited in Ondaatje 1982, 85–6):

Don’t talk to me about Matisse

the European style of 1900

the tradition of the studio

where the nude woman reclines forever

on a sheet of blood.

Talk to me instead of the culture generally

how the murderers were sustained

by the beauty robbed of savages: to our remote

villages the painters came, and our white-washed

mud huts were splattered with gunfire.

Lucien de Soyza, one of the few English dramatists in Sri Lanka, bases his best play, Fortress in the Sky, on the life of the seventh century king Kassapa—the king, his rock citadel and the period in general also providing a source of inspiration for other writers (for example, Suraweera’s novel Sada Melesa Pura Derane and Ondaatje’s Women like you”).7 James Goonewardene (A Quiet Place), Raja Proctor (Waiting for Surabiel) and Sarachchandra (Curfew and the Full Moon) are three novelists who have returned to history, the last two dealing with the Sinhalese youth insurgency of 1971.

It is intriguing to conjecture why British colonialism did not succeed in producing Tamil literary writing in English, despite the fact that one finds full Tamil participation in the professions, government service, judiciary and politics, all requiring English. One plausible explanation lies in the general lack of Tamil literary development, as observed earlier. A second possible explanation is that the Tamil community’s preoccupation with science8 as a means of getting ahead, perhaps underdeveloped its literary potential. The fact that any novel direction would have challenged tradition whereas science could steer clear of a collision course could well have contributed to this situation.

Buddhism, South Indian colonialism and British colonialism all having influenced the literature of Sri Lanka, where do the Sri Lankan Canadian writers fit in? They can be viewed as a microcosm of the writing scene in Sri Lanka. One notes first the fact that a community of a mere three to six thousand has produced six poets with a total number of twenty-four published collections, two of them (Ondaatje and Weerasinghe) having won gold medals and others critical acclaim, and two producers of plays. These writers come from Eurasian, Sinhalese, Buddhist and Christian backgrounds. Conspicuously absent are writers of Tamil (Hindu or Christian) background, despite the fact that the percentage of Sri Lankan Tamils is much higher in Canada than in Sri Lanka.

Given the background of these writers, it is not surprising, then, that Mukherjee (1984) sees a motley lot.” The themes, situations, characters, images and symbolism in their works are as diverse as the backgrounds, from Ondaatje’s universalism to Bhaggiyadatta’s revolutionary fervour to Crusz’s sun-man motif (see Sugunasiri 1992 for a discussion). Ondaatje’s Running in the Family is not the only return-to-the-roots work. Weerasinghe, who took to writing after leaving Sri Lanka, names one of his later works Home Again Lanka (1981). Many of his poems, in fact, display the influence of the tradition of rhyme and (quatrain type) formula poetry, even though his rhymes sound contrived, as in the works of the Colombo Era (when poetry was very popular). His Tikiri Liya” is an example. But it goes further. Based on the Sinhala nursery rhyme, it seeks to capture the original rhythm:

Tikiri, tikiri, tikiri-liya

The bosomed, lissom, maiden fair,

With a coveting smile on her lips

And hugging a pitcher on her hip,

Went down the path to the well

To fetch a pitcher of water …

The Sri Lankan Canadian writers, unlike their Punjabi counterparts, and also unlike many East European writers, write exclusively in English, reflecting often a lack of written skill in their own language,9 but perhaps the elitism noted earlier as well (indicated additionally by their practice of conversing in English). It is not surprising that they would read each other’s works, but generally their writing does not have much relevance to the everyday life of their community. Their attempt to write only in English can be seen as a continuation of the tradition of open-mindedness; but the result may be that they write mostly for an audience consisting of the Canadian mainstream literary community when and if they are accepted.

In striking a balance between the Canadian and the Sri Lankan material on the one hand, and critical and creative work on the other, we believe we have been able to present a representative overview of Sri Lankan literature in general.10 Here we have the first poetic translation of Sarachchandra’s epoch-making Nadagam play Maname (1956), the works of relatively new writers, and a collection of Tamil poetry. It is our hope that the Tamil collection, introduced by Kanaganayakam and translated by several writers, will go some way in making Tamil literature more accessible to the wider Sri Lankan community and the world, and encourage more translations.11 One regret we have is that the selection contained here is not indicative of the high level of literary activity among women writers in Sri Lanka. In the Canadian material, we have been able to include works by all the active poets.

The Sri Lankan literary scene, as it emerges in this issue,12 is one that can be characterized as vibrant, independent and multicultural. It is vibrant in its quality and quantity of output; independent in that it shows how Sri Lanka, a country with a mere thirteen million people, has been able to withstand the cultural onslaughts of its giant neighbour India, which is also the mother country (in terms of ethnic and cultural origin). Despite the Tamil community’s regrettable literary isolation, Sri Lankan literature is multicultural in that language, religion or ethnic origin have not come in the way of literary activity or cultural involvement by writers working in close cooperation with each other, multicultural to the extent that creative minds can come together. In addition, the literature is not closed to outside influences.

This is surely a model that Canada can emulate as it strives for a multicultural society. It is particularly relevant since, like Sri Lanka, it has (in Britain and France) mother countries which have provided both its original (European) settlers and cultures, and, besides, has a giant, politically and economically dominating, neighbour (the United States). It is relevant further in that Canada is historically bi-ethnic (tri-ethnic when we include the Native peoples), and currently multi-ethnic, as Sri Lanka has been.

On the negative side, the Sri Lankan Tamil literary scene should serve as a stern reminder to the Canadian literary establishment of the dangers of ethnic enclavism. While the wider literary tradition in English will ensure that Canadian literature will not go into oblivion, it faces the definite danger of losing its identity in the face of American, British, and other English literatures. Precisely because Canadian literature is at the critical stage of developing its own identity, it is the right moment to take the first steps to ensure that it does not end up as just another manifestation, or mere continuation, of British literature. This it can do by including within its ranks and identifying with other literary traditions besides British and American, traditions originating in other parts of Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America.13 All that is needed for such an efflorescence beyond ethnic enclavism is a hospitality of mind—inspired by a Sri-Lanka-type (Buddhist) model, Tagore’s pronouncement Let my windows be open to the world,” and Mao’s famous dictum, Let a hundred flowers bloom,” or indeed a literary free enterprise where the market forces (readership), rather than a literary establishment, decides what should stand the test of time.


  1. The articles by Goonetilleke (1984) and Mukherjee (1984) in this issue contain some references.
  2. The tiny Muslim population has produced no writers, with even the Qu’ran translated into Sinhala only in the sixties.
  3. This breakdown is purely for analytical purposes and is not to be construed as reflecting a literature developed along segregated lines.
    1. A Jataka has two parts: the past story” linking the characters and events to the present story.”
    2. We have some indication or the extent of this civilization from the engineering marvel of the Jaya Ganga Canal, which had a gradient of six inches per mile, and the unique irrigation system of multi-layered catchment areas, which rendered the country the granaries of the East.”
    3. In the Kàlàma Sutta the Buddhaproclaims: Do not go by hearsay, nor by what is handed down by others, nor by what people say, nor by what is stated on the authority or your traditional teaching, nor out of respect … but when you know yourselves …”
    4. Lester J. Pieris’s film God King and A.C. Clarke’snovel Fountains of Paradise are Sinhalese examples.
    5. Missionary education reached the Tamil community first, and science texts were translated into Tamil a hundred years before such translations began to appear in Sinhala (after 1956).
    6. The present writer is an exception, with two collections of short stories in Sinhala.
    7. This chapter was originally the introduction to Sugunasiri and Suraweera 1984.
    8. There is only one translation of Tamil works into Sinhala, Kanakaratnam’s (1979), which contains twelve stories.
    9. The reference is to Sugunasiri and Suraweera 1984.
    10. See, for example, the special issue Canadian Ethnic Studies XIV (1982).

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