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Sunday, 19 September 2004    
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How ancient Sinhala Brahmi numerals were invented

by Brigadier (Retd) B. Munasinghe

Man made an attempt to count on their fingers or the use of pebbles and then invented words for numbers and later devised a system of symbols to record them. The people of this Island can be proud that some of these attempts of the ancient Sinhala is preserved on various rock inscriptions.

The inscriptions that record almost all our ancient Sinhala numerals is at the Dhakkina Vihare rock inscription in Anuradhapura. The inscription is a record of donations of land to this Tisa maha stupa during the period of King Sirinaga (195-214 AD).

These ancient numerals of the Sinhala, have a close resemblance to the numerals preserved in most other ancient states in the Indian subcontinent. They all appear to have evolved from a common source. The earliest known specimen is of King Asoka of the third Cent BC, where the numerals 1, 2, 4, 6, 7 and 9, are preserved on at inscription near Bombay in Nanaghat as:

The next important trace of these numerals, are of the second Cent AD at Nasik, India. The numerals are similar to those at Dakkhini Vihare and are of the same period.

The scan of best preserved of the numerals used by the Sinhala, the 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, from Dhakkina Vihare (2 Cent AD) and numeral 2 from Kasimotti (1 Cent AD) and numeral 7 from Baki-ala (1 Cent AD), to complete the list is shown below. A vivid description of these symbols is found in samskrti cultural quarterly No. 17 No. 3 of 1984 by Dr. Abaya Aryasinghe.

As per the book `The History of Mathematics by David M Burton' which traces the origin of the present universally accepted numerals, it was Al-Khowarizmi the famous Arab mathematician who introduced these numerals in his book Algorithmi de numero indorum in 830 AD. Here he described the use of these nine numeral and zero as a place holder in the Indians mathematics. This knowledge was taken to Spain by the moors and the oldest dated European manuscript preserved is the Cordex Vigilanus (976 AD).

The Italian Leonardo of Pisa (Fabonacci) the greatest mathematician of the middle ages in his book liber Abaci (Book of counting) was the first to suggest the advantages of these numerals over the Roman numerals. The Portuguese or the Dutch re-exported these numerals back to the island.

The symbols for ancient Sinhala numerals for 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 40, 50, 70, 100 and 1000 are all recorded at the Dhakkina Vihare ( inscription of Ceylon volume II part II No. 100)- Dr. S. Paranavithana. These are on 17 slabs marked from I to XVII in the same book. These numerals appear with the symbol for the then Sinhala standard measure of land, the Kariha. For the convenience of visitors to this site, a description where to look in the slabs at Dhakkina Vihare is given below along with the scans of the slabs.

The scans of inscription shown above are those at Baki - Ala and Kariamottai. These are described in inscriptions of Ceylon volume II part I -Dr. S. Paranavitana.

Dhakkina Vihare - 2 Cent AD

a. Slab No. V: line 1 ninth letter is the sign for the Karisa (KA) followed numeral 100 and 6 then the KA symbol followed by numeral 3. (Fig i)

b. Slab No. VII: line 2 ; tenth letter is KA followed by numeral 100 and 4, then KA symbol followed by numeral 70 and 7.

c. Slab No. IX: line 7; numeral 100 and numeral 9, the KA symbol and numeral 4. (Fig ii)

d. Slab XI: line 5; numeral 50 Ka symbol then numeral 5. (Fig iii)

e. Slab XII: line 4; first letter numeral 100 and 4 followed by KA symbol and numeral 20. (Fig v)

f. Slab XIII: line 6: third symbol is KA followed by numerals 1000 then KA followed by numeral 100. (Fig v)

g. Slab XIV: line 7 first symbol KA followed by numeral 50 (Fig vi) the letter eighteen KA and 50.

Line 8; first symbol is KA followed by numeral 8. Second symbol first line from bottom (Fig vi) Line 9; first symbol is KA symbol followed by numeral 40.


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