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Buddha in Polonnaruwa temple - medieval capital of Ceylon whose history the Mahavamsa describes.

The Mahavamsa: An Epic Poem that Sheds Light on Sri Lankan History

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The Mahavamsa (meaning ‘Great Chronicle’) is one of the most important works of ancient literature from the island of Sri Lanka. This work takes on the form of an epic poem and was written either during the 5th or 6th century AD. The Mahavamsa was written in the Pali language and is a chronicle of the early history of Sri Lanka. It may be pointed out, however, that the Mahavamsa deals mainly with a supposed history of Buddhism coming to the island and with dynastic succession on the island, rather than with its political and social history.

Text in Pali from a Buddhist ceremonial scripture called "Kammuwa". (Olaf Studt / Public Domain)

Text in Pali from a Buddhist ceremonial scripture called "Kammuwa". (Olaf Studt / Public Domain )

The Writing of the Mahavamsa

The composition of the Mahavamsa is generally attributed to Mahanama Maha Thera, a Buddhist monk at the Mahavihara temple of Anuradhapura. He was also an uncle of Dhatusena, a Sri Lankan king who reigned during the second half of the 5 th century AD. The Mahavamsa was heavily influenced by the Dipavamsa (meaning ‘Chronicle of the Island’), which was compiled around the 4th century AD.

Additionally, oral tradition handed down by Buddhist monks was used by Mahanama as an important source of information for his work.

Ruins of stone columns at Mahavihara temple of Anuradhapura in the Sacred City of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. (mlnuwan / Adobe)

Ruins of stone columns at Mahavihara temple of Anuradhapura in the Sacred City of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. ( mlnuwan / Adobe)

The Mahavamsa contains 37 chapters and begins with the Buddha’s three legendary visits to Sri Lanka. According to the Mahavamsa, the Buddha foresaw that the island was destined to become an important center of Buddhism and therefore he himself set out for the island. The Buddha also knew that the island was inhabited by Yakshas (nature spirits), who had to be driven out before the island’s destiny could be fulfilled, and therefore set out to accomplish this task. The subsequent four chapters deal with the lineages of the Buddha and the first three Buddhist Councils, events that took place on mainland India.

Plaque of a Yakshi, a nature spirit who is benevolent, sometimes mischievous or capricious. 3rd-2nd century BC. (Hiart / CC BY-SA 1.0)

Plaque of a Yakshi, a nature spirit who is benevolent, sometimes mischievous or capricious. 3rd-2nd century BC. (Hiart / CC BY-SA 1.0 )

What Does the Mahavamsa Focus On?

The focus of the Mahavamsa returns to Sri Lanka once more and an account of the island’s founding is provided. The Mahavamsa attributes the establishment of Sri Lanka to a prince from India by the name of Vijaya. The grandmother of the prince was a daughter of a Vanga king and her union with a lion was prophesized by soothsayers. The prophecy was fulfilled and the princess, as a result of her intercourse with a lion, bore a pair of twins, a boy Sihabahu and a girl Sihasivali. Sihabahu eventually established a city called Sihapura, became its ruler and married his sister. Together, they had 16 pairs of twin sons, the eldest being Vijaya.

As he grew up, Vijaya became an evil man and the people of Sihapura complained to the king about this. The king was approached by the people three times and as Vijaya did not change his ways, the king had him, 700 of his followers, as well as their wives and children, placed on ships and exiled. Eventually, the prince landed on Lanka, slayed the yakshas of the island and became its first king. Vijaya gave up the violent way of life he indulged in in the past and became a righteous ruler. The Sinhalese people believe that they are the descendants of Vijaya and his followers.

The coronation of Prince Vijaya - detail from the Ajanta Mural Of Cave No 17. (पाटलिपुत्र / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The coronation of Prince Vijaya - detail from the Ajanta Mural Of Cave No 17. ( पाटलिपुत्र / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The subsequent chapters of the Mahavamsa speak about the kings who succeeded Vijaya. During the 3 rd century, Sri Lanka was ruled by Devanampiyatissa and it was during his reign that the island was converted to Buddhism. The man responsible for bringing Buddhism to the island was Mahinda, the eldest son of Ashoka, the Mauryan emperor .

Buddhism and Dynasties Recorded in the Mahavamsa

In the chapters that follow, the development of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, along with the dynasties and kings that ruled the island, are dealt with. The last chapter of the Mahavamsa is about the reign of Mahasena, who ruled the island between the 3 rd and 4 th centuries AD. While the Mahavamsa comes to an end at this point, the recording of Sri Lanka’s history continued and the period from the 4 th century to 1815 is chronicled in the Culavamsa (meaning ‘Lesser Chronicle’).

Mahasena's Palace, Anuradhapura. (Royston Rascals / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Mahasena's Palace, Anuradhapura . (Royston Rascals / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Today, the Mahavamsa is still regarded to be one of the most important literary works of Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, its reception today in Sri Lanka may be seen as emblematic of the ethnic divisions that continue to plague the country. On the one hand, the Mahavamsa is held in high esteem by the Sinhalese, who regard it as the basis of their history and identity. Moreover, some have also advocated that the Mahavamsa be used to construct the national identity of Sri Lanka . On the other hand, there is opposition towards the Mahavamsa by other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, in particular the Sri Lankan Tamils, who form the largest minority on the island. As criticism of the Mahavamsa is viewed not merely as literary criticism, but an assault on Sinhalese identity, exchanges between supporters and opponents of the work often becomes vitriolic.

Top image: Buddha in Polonnaruwa temple - medieval capital of Ceylon whose history the Mahavamsa describes. Source: Freesurf / Adobe .

By Wu Mingren

References

de Silva, N., 2014. The Mahavamsa phobia. [Online] Available at: http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2014/01/24/the-mahavamsa-phobia/
Devananda, J. L., 2010. The Sinhala (Mahavamsa) Buddhism Revisited. [Online] Available at: http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2010/12/sinhala-mahavamsa-buddhism-revisited.html
Mahanama, Mahavamsa [Bullis, D. (trans.), 1999. Mahavamsa: The Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka , Fremont, Calif.: Jain Publishing Company, Inc.]
Serasinghe, S., 2013. Mahavamsa- An Insult To The Buddha!. [Online] Available at: https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/mahavamsa-an-insult-to-the-buddha/
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013. Mahāvaṃsa. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mahavamsa
The Mahavamsa.org, 2007. The Mahavamsa. [Online] Available at: http://mahavamsa.org/mahavamsa/
Wickremasinghe, K., 2018. Reconciling with the Mahavamsa. [Online] Available at: http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=192844

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