Scripts in ancient Sri lanka | Sunday Observer

Scripts in ancient Sri lanka

14 February, 2021
Brahmi  script
Brahmi script

Sri Lankan history is recoded, interpreted and commented by scholars and academics and also by racial minded people in such, way to portray their political stances and an agenda of ethnic superiority.

However, inscriptional evidence is often not considered for an impartial establishment of facts. Parts of our precarious maladies are due to falsifying facts and conveniently ignoring them. This is seen in accounts by nondescript commentators who cannot sufficiently claim authority and authenticity. This indifference on their part comes from ethic-oriented ultra-nationalists belonging to different ethnic communities in the island.

In this context, I wish to give a few facts gleaned from a few articles written in Tamil by a living historian. But that information, I hope, would not prevent you from reading what Prof S Pathmanathan has got to say. In this piece, I am retelling in English his introduction on two terms that are not completely understood by many: Brahmi and Prakrit.

What follows are selections of what Professor Emeritus S Pathmanathan has written in his articles. From the 3rd century BC to 4th century AD, all documents in the subcontinent of South Asia were written in Brahmi script. The Brahmi script used in Thamilnadu was known as Tamil Brahmi script. This was because there were special alphabets peculiar to the Tamil language.

South Asian languages

Prakrit language does not have these peculiar sounds. The South Asian languages that prevail at present, such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Sinhala, Bangla, Marathi and others are based on Brahmi scripts. Brahmi is different from Prakrit which was a link language in a specific period in the South Asian subcontinent.

Prakrit was a spoken language in North Indian States. It was prevalent even during the period of the Buddha and Mahavirar. The basic literature of the Buddhist and Jain religions was in the Prakrit language.

There were regional dialects of the Prakrit language. Four such usages are mentioned in some works. In Southern India, Prakrit was only a communication language.

But by the 4th century, Prakrit lost its influence as a link language. Sanskrit replaced Prakrit. There is a relationship between Brahmi and Prakrit. Inscriptions in Prakrit were written in Brahmi letters. The early documents in post-Indus Valley Civilisation were available in the Prakrit language but in Brahmi form. Those documents were inscriptions.

When the original Prakrit language lost its impact, even in North India, the Devanaagiri script came into existence. In Sri Lanka, there are many Brahmi inscriptions. They are mainly found in hills and large rocks. In Maddakkalappu and in Ampara district in the east, Brahmi inscriptions are found on large rocks. There is a long inscription at Kaayankuda towards four kilometers west to Chengaladi in the Batticaloa district.

Brahmi inscriptions

In Sri Lanka, the Brahmi inscriptions are written in the Prakrit language. Most are relates to Buddhism. They are within the caves. They were inscriptions regarding donations. We find inscriptions belonging to more than six centuries. There are nearly 2,000 Brahmic inscriptions. Dr Senarath Paranavitana said these inscriptions were written in the Sinhala language. He interpreted the words found in the inscriptions in terms of Sanskrit grammar. The Sinhala did not derive from Sanskrit. It grew through the Prakrit language.

Sanskrit used in Vedas lost its value in the 5th century AD. The second stage of the development of Sanskrit was flourishing in literature. It became a language for documentation and as an instructional language. It functioned as a link language in South Asian countries. No body spoke in Sanskrit in Sri Lanka.

According to Paranavithana, the Naagas outline in the Mahavamsa were descendants of the Aryans who came from North India. There is no mention in any place that no section of Lankans was Aryans.

Tamil Brahmi letters were found in the country. Arya Abeysingha and Saddamangala Karunaratne have explained this feature showing examples.

Three letters were differently written Tamil Brahmi and Ashoka Brahmi. These two kinds were in existence in the country until the demise of Brahmi scripts.

The formation of letters of two different languages –Tamil and Prakrit- was found in the inscriptions. This shows that the inscriptions were written in both languages. Prof. K. Indrapala said that the words, such as marumahana, parumaka, vela, aya and the like found in Brahmic inscriptions are not Prakrit words.

Prof Indrapala said that Tamil words are also found in Brahmic inscriptions.