Buddhist monks of Mahavihara, maintained this historical record of the Sri Lankan history starting from 3rd century B.C., some what similar to a modern day diary. These records were combined and compiled into a single document in the 5th century CE by Buddhist monk Mahathera Mahanama. There is evidence as per Wilhelm Geiger, there was another compilation prior to this known as “Mahavamsa Atthakatha” and Mahathera Mahanama relied on this text.
Earlier document known as “Dipavamsa” also come down to us which is much simpler and contain less information than Mahavamsa, probably compiled using previously mentioned “Mahavamsa Atthakatha”. Overall, the Chronicle has over 200,000 words of text in about 960 printed pages. First part (Chapters 1-37) the Mahavamsa, the second part (Chapters 38-79) the Culavamsa part 1, and the third and final part (Chapters 80-101) the Culavamsa part 2.
The first part of the Mahavasam was written in the 6th century AD by by Ven. Mahanama Maha Thera, an uncle of king Dhatusena (460-478), who lived in the Dighasanda Senapathi Pirivena, which belonged to the Mahavihara Fraternity in Anuradhapura. His work ends with Chapter 37:50. His work was greatly influenced by the Dipavamsa written five centuries earlier. It describes the foundation of the Lankan monarchy with the consecration of King Vijaya and continues to the end of King Mahasena’s rule in the 4th century AD.
The second part of the Mahavamsa, more commonly known as the Culavamsa was written in the 13th century AD. This chronicles the time between the arrival of the Tooth Relic in the 4th century AD and the end of the reign of King Parakramabahu the Great. Credit for this part is given to the thero Dhammakitti, but many historians believed that it was authored by many monks.
The third and final part was written over many years, concluding in the year 1815, when the British occupied the whole of Lanka by military force.
The first printed edition and English translation of the Mahawansha was published in 1837 by George Turnour, an historian and officer of the Ceylon Civil Service. The official German translation of Mahawansha was completed by Wilhelm Geiger in 1912 and subsequently the Culavamsa in 1930. This was then translated into English by Mabel Haynes Bode, and the English translation was revised by Geiger.
When Mahavamsa appeared after the Dipavamsa, it assumed such popularity and importance that it not only superseded the earlier work, but also prompted authors to gradually produce supplementary work based on it.
The later chronicles of the island, written from time to time, are the Attana-galu Vihara Vamsa, the Dhatuvamsa, the Elu-Attanagaluvamsa, the Elu-Bodhivamsa, the Maha Bodhivamsa, the Thupavamsa, the Daladavamsa, the Viharavamsa etc.
Importance of the Mahavamsa
Mahavamsa (Mahawansa) is the oldest and longest chronology in the world. It tells a story that spans nearly 2,500 years. If not for Mahavamsa, men who constructed large structures in Sri Lanka such as Ruwan Vali Saaya (Maháthúpa), Jethavana, Abhayagiri will never be known. The first printed edition and English translation was published in 1837 by George Turnour, an historian and officer of the Ceylon Civil Service. A German translation of Mahavamsa was completed by Wilhelm Geiger in 1912. This was then translated into English by Mabel Haynes Bode, and the English translation was revised by Geiger.
While not considered a canonical religious text, the Mahavamsa is an important Buddhist document of the early history of Sri Lanka, beginning near the time of the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama. As it often refers to the royal dynasties of India, the Mahavamsa is also valuable to historians who wish to date and relate contemporary royal dynasties in the Indian subcontinent. It is very important in dating the consecration of the Maurya emperor Asoka, which is related to the synchronicity with the Seleucids and Alexander the Great.