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Updated by Joanna James on May 05, 2020
Headline for The Sinhala script in ancient Sri Lanka - The Evolution of Sri Lanka's Sinhala Script
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The Sinhala script in ancient Sri Lanka - The Evolution of Sri Lanka's Sinhala Script

With a rich cultural heritage that dates back 2500 years, Sri Lanka's official language Sinhala is also one of the oldest in the world. Here's how the lingua franca emerged over the annals of time.



The Sinhala language has a rich and long history that's interconnected with many states in India. This includes Kalinga and Gujerat are two states from which scholars believe the Brahmin script travelled to the island via the sea route. One of the most compelling findings regarding how early Sinhala script developed are the Sinhalese letters and words found in ancient Brahmin inscriptions. Potsherds unearthed in Indian cities of Kodumanal, Arikamedu, Kaveripattnam, Alangulam in the state of Tamil Nadu showcase evidence of Sinhala Prakrit which was written in Sinhala Brahmin script that belongs to the 2nd century BC.


Artefacts as Evidence

Artefacts discovers in Sri Lanka also demonstrate the widespread use of Sinhala script across many of the former capitals of the country. The ancient capital of Anuradhapura has yielded many findings in the way of relics uncovered during excavations. This is especially true in the site around the Anuradhapura citadel where archaeological digs yielded 32 pieces of pottery with writing and inscriptions in Sinhala. These were unearthed back in 1984 and the broken pottery pieces were so inscribed with the name of the owner of the utensils according to archaeologists.


Dating the Findings

The relics found during these excavations were dated to belong to the 500-600 BC by Cambridge University experts and the technology used to date the items include thermo luminescent and radiocarbon or carbon dating techniques. The letters carved onto the pottery were also found to be identical to those of the Asoka script which existed 200 years after in neighbouring India. This serves as clear evidence that writing in Sri Lanka existed before the Maurya era in India. The dating of these pottery pieces means the lower boundary of writing in the island nation was pushed by two centuries to coincide with the period when Lord Buddha was alive in India.


Early Inscriptions

Ancient Brahmin inscriptions include both prakritic Sinhala grammar as well as words and vocabulary. This means that the native language of Sri Lanka, or Sinhala, evolved on its own and independent of other regional languages the likes of Maghadi (Pali) and Sanskrit. Words such as "aya" which means nanny and "maha aya" are no parallel words in India. Experts also state that Sanskrit was once itself a part of prakrit. This is how the Brahmin script used earlier in Sri Lanka evolved to becoming Sinhala script as we recognize it today. Visitors based at Ulagalla or any other Anuradhapura hotel will encounter these early versions of Sinhala script in many landmarks across the former capital. This includes ancient palaces, monasteries and temples where plaques declaring the monarch who built the structure are often found.


Determining Influences

While many scholars earlier believed that Tamil script influenced Sinhala script, research has proved that it is in fact, the other way around. The influence of Sinhala on Brahmin inscriptions in Tamil Nadu is clear evidence of this fact.