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A Brief History of Sri Lankan Poetry


A Brief History of Sri Lankan Poetry

Daya Dissanayake

Novelist, Poet and Blogger

Colombo, Sri Lanka


Breeze that blows a-rustling a million tender leaves

Trees, rocks, cuckoos calling, the flower on the rock dropped light

Numberless fireflies turning night copper hued as tender leaves

The message you gave, long-eyed one, what solace is it tonight?

An anonymous poet wrote this on the Sihigiri wall about 1400 years ago. It was sung by one of our great modern singers, Sunil Shantha.1

The first social networking site in the world was probably the mirror-like wall at Sihigiriya, in Sri Lanka, where visitors posted their thoughts and comments, 1600 years before the launch of Facebook or Twitter. Sihigiri is the best preserved city center in Asia from the first millennium. The entire western face of the rock had been one painting, of which there are only a few remaining in the sheltered cave pockets. They represent the earliest surviving examples of Sri Lankan school of classical realism, already fully evolved by the 5th century. After the death of king Kasyapa (473-495 CE), people had visited Sihigiri, from the 6th century to about the 11th century, to see its wonders and have recorded their feelings on the mirror-like wall.

The earliest graffiti has been identified by our great archaeologist Prof. Senerath Paranavitana to be in the script used in the 6th century. In addition to the ancient Sinhala, there are a few graffiti in Sanskrit and Tamil too. 'The insatiate itch for scribbling' said Paranavitana, about Sihigiriya graffiti. Man had always had this insatiable itch, and today using a keypad or a stylus or our fingers on a touchpad we continue to scribble.

By way of introducing Sri Lankan poetry, I would like to cite a few examples of the Sihigiri grafitti.

Though the term of endearment 'Sweetheart' had entered the English language somewhere during the 13th century, Prof Paranavitana had found this word in a 9th century graffiti on the Sigiri mirror-like wall. The word is 'Miyelandi', found in one poem, written by the poet Kabaramini. (Sigiri Graffiti 381). According to Prof. Paranavitana, it is a term of affection. Miye (Sanskrit Madhu) is honey and 'la' is the heart, thus we have 'little honey heart' or 'my little sweetheart'.

Another poet, Sivala Bati from Venavana (Velu vana?) wrote2,

'What a delight to see the sky,

the mirror-like wall and the pond. Are the women in the paintings 'gi-rasa pu kalaka'? (drunk with songs). This had been written at least 200 years before Khayyam.

Then the verse,

'like the hare drawn on the moon

may you live

for a thousand years

but for me

it would be like one day'3,

was written by another anonymous writer, about a thousand years before Einstein proposed his Theory of Relativity.

Many of the poems describe the heavenly beauties of the frescoes.

Verse # 332, describes the lady's eyes to a mahanel (water-lily), lips to a banduwada flower (scarlet mallow, Pentapetes phoenicea), the smile to a saman (jasmine) and her gait to that of a hasa-kata (a female swan). Her breasts to the neli-pala ('king'?-coco-nut). In 394, the monk Sen from Kayabura, refers to her eyebrows as nim-pathek (neem leaf). According to verse 399, the ladies are wearing 'sina-pata' (Chinese silk). For all these poets the female breast was  only another beautiful object like her eyes, and face and her hair, it was not seen as an erotic object probably because women did not cover their upper body.

Many of the poets were frustrated because the women did not respond, so in verse 373, the lady's heart is compared to a 'labu-palutaka' (dried bottle gourd, use to carry water by the farmers).

Several verses refer to five hundred damsels of the paintings. Vira Vidur Bati in 249 and 560, mention 'pan-siyak agnan', but it is possible these poets were also referring to the beauties among the visitors.

Though most verses extol the beauty of the women of the paintings, Boyila in 227 had found the real women among the visitors were more attractive, 'sabavin gahenun ran-vanun dutu', as it happens today, when the young men have their eyes more on the female visitors than on the beauties on the rock face.

What is of cultural significance is the beauty they saw in dark skinned maidens. There are several verses where the samvanan (dark-skinned beauties) are admired and preferred over the ranvanan (golden-skinned). 'The dark-skinned one among the golden-hued, made my mind quiver', (232) and 'the dark complexion of the long eyed beauty I preferred', wrote Jetmala from Polonnaru, (233). It is unfortunate that today the young women are brain-washed by big business to consider their dark skin as ugly and tempt them to resort to artificial means of making their skin to look fairer.

Plagiarism probably existed even in the 8th century. There are several verses about the beauties who hurled themselves from the rock, on hearing of the death of the king. Did all of them have the same thoughts? Or did one poet copy from another? An anonymous writer scratched 268, while 296 was written by Dala-sivala. There were several verses, almost identical.

Kitala, also in the 9th century comments on pseudo-poets. 'when the rana-monara (golden peacock) came to dance, the kos too comes to dance (Paranavitana identifies kos as the karuncha bird, Sarus crane - Grus antigone and also as the cuckoo). He refers to another poem and says there are those who boast of their poetic ability, but are unable to write a poem.

Today we tend to think that all five hundred beauties adorned the western rock face, but there are verses addressed to the beauties on the summit, who had been seen even 400 years after the fall of Kassapa. 'beyadehi udugala peha ranvanun dutumo' (golden hued ones on rock face and summit) (371), 'balimi digassan gala mata' (saw the long eyed ones on rock summit), (435).

Our behaviour has not changed over the past one thousand years. Visitors then too had to be requested not to touch the paintings. 'Bitu situ tama ata gesu dosin', Those who touched the ladies could not win their affection. (676), 'atin me no-madimin basu', please go down without touching. (677). And about the selfish visitors, 'what should be said to those people/ who do not think of coming down/ once they reach the summit, so others could go up' (57). The number of visitors at the time could be imagined from this. 'A hundred thousand householders, gazing a hundred thousand times to impress their memory' (162). They had to impress their memory, which they could see and enjoy for the rest of their lives, unlike today when we only record them in our cameras, worrying about the exposure, pixels and memory capacity, without any time to enjoy what is before us.

There were no copyright laws and royalty payments and authors only wanted to share their creative works. Others preferred to remain anonymous. Only 357 authors had given their names alongside their graffiti. Among them could be identified, men and women from distant villages, monks, officials, palace staff and even princes, princesses and kings. Paranavitana has recorded 685 verses, and recently Benyl Priyankara had recorded another 400.

Of the graffiti published by Paranavitana, 403 verses had been written in the Yagi metre, while rest had been written in Duvangagi, Yongi and a few in Kavgi.

Poetry was also very close to the Buddhist culture. In the Tripitaka, Anguttara Nikaya, we read the Kavi Sutta4 where four classes of poets are mentioned.  Cinta Kavi, imaginative poetry. Suta Kavi by poets whose imagination is restrained by his learning. Attha kavi, by  poets whose ideas and imagery are derived from nature. Patibhana kavi whose imagination is controlled by his intuition, and from a Buddhist point of view represents highest type of poet.5 Paranavitana has also identified many of the Sihigiri graffiti to fall into all four categories.

Sinhala poetry goes back to the 2nd century B.C. which were in Early Brahmi script. "Verse, whether for mnemonic or aesthetic reasons is most intimately and constantly connected with the life of the Sinhalese.6 "

The first is at Kossagamakanda, Maradankadawala, North Central Province, which Paranavitana says is written in Yagi Metre, the second in the 1st cent. CE at Kirinda in the Southern Province, and the 3rd is also in the Southern Province at Tissamaharama. There are also ten cave inscriptions, above the drip ledges of caves donated by devotees to the samgha, written between 2nd cent. BCE and 2nd cent. CE. They have been considered as written in verse form by Prof. U. D. Jayasekara. He is of the belief that the origin of Sinhala poetry is perhaps as old as the earliest Sinhala language, and that on inscriptional evidence it could be stated that at least as old as the earliest inscriptions, and by the time of the Sihigiri verses the poet's art in Sri Lanka had developed to the extent of having its own terms for various types of versification.

There are references to Twelve Great Poets from the 6th century, during the time of king Agghabodi. There were several kings who were also eminent poets, among them was  Salamevan 807 - 823, who had written the 'Siyabaslakara' a text book on poetics, which is the  Sinhala adaptation of Dandin's Kavyadarsa. Parakramabahu II (1234 - 1269) wrote the Kavsilumina, the Crest of Jems, based on the Kusa Jataka.

We also have our own Sandesha Kavya dating back to the 13th century. The oldest is Mayura Sandehsa (Peacock's message), of which only fragments are available now. During the 15th - 16th centuries there were several Sandesha Kavya, Thisara (Swan's message), Gira (Parrot's), Paravi (Pigeon's), Kokila (Cuckoo's) and Selalihin (Starling's).

May I conclude, with two poems from the 20th century.

Tangalle, 9th April. 1971

That too was real; the evening suns

Dripped like slow honey through the filtering leaves

Gilding the dried grass cropped by the pied goats

Foam lit blue sea, cloud lit blue sky; and peace

Dawned with clear morning, loitered by our eaves

Flocks of shrill parrots dangled upside down

Nibbling the fat thorn-pods; the kohas lay

Fanned on the sunwarmed hill with songless throats.

Mongooses slid low shadows as they passed

Stars lit the sky, as fireflies lit the grass

That too was real as this night we lie

Silently, listening to the crash of guns.

-          Written by Lakshmi de Silva.


She was stranded at a beach resort on the South coast, during the 1971 southern uprising.

After the Fall

I no longer walk purposefully

but, like a Buddhist monk,

with lowered eyes

scan the terrain. The world

has become dangerous and unpredictable

shrunk to fragility of bones

and tissue. Age alienates,

environment grows hostile

and at night

small hurdles loom, shadows threaten, snakelike,

and slither darkly over moonlit paving.

I leap in panic over shadows

Death is closing in

-          Written by Anne Ranasinghe.


She is a German who managed to escape to England during Hitler's holocaust, and she lives in Sri Lanka now.

Today we do not have the time to impress our memory, when we visit Sihigiri, we only impress the memory card in our camera. We do not have an opportunity to record our thoughts and feelings on the mirror-like wall at Sigiriya, but have to post them on Facebook, Twitter or our blogs.

Because visitors are not allowed to touch the mirror wall I had to post my own poems on my website.


scratch a few lines on my mirror wall

dear scribe

before you leave

a millennium have I waited

thirsting for a new poem

I climbed Sihigiri


wording and re-wording a poem in mind

on the way down

I couldn't raise my hand

to desecrate the mirror wall

and penned it on paper

back in my room




  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XzhzWmQ5zF4
  2. Sigiri Graffiti, # 556
  3. Sigiri Graffiti, # 135
  4. Catukka Nipata, Sucharitavagga, Kavi Sutta

5.      Senarat Paranavitana, Sigiri Graffiti Vol 1. p.cxcii

  1. 12the centuries of Sinhala Poetry, Lakshmi de Silva, p. 1