Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

A Glimpse into Sinhalese Poetry

By J. Vijayatunga

I really ought to have given this a sub-title to qualify the word 'glimpse,' for it is only a merest glimpse at a long range that I am able to give and writing as I am for those who, for aught I know, may not be very clear as to where Simhala Dvipa is.

It may be stated that the Sinhalese began to have a literature and began to find means of preserving that literature with the introduction of Buddhism into Ceylon by Mahinda, the son of Asoka. Naturally then, they followed very closely the practices and ideas of their civilizers. The earliest examples of writing are the inscriptions of Devanampiya Tissa, who was the first convert of Mahinda. These inscriptions are carved on stone-pillars which are exactly similar to the Asoka pillars. The subject matter of the inscriptions is also very similar to those of Asoka. They usually commemorate some religious or historical event and the date is given as being in such and such an year of the King Deanampiya Tissa and so on. The script of these inscriptions as well as the language are very different from later day Sinhalese, and require experts to decipher them. However, it is correct to say that literature began for us with the advent of Buddhism. Naturally also, therefore, the early attempts at perpetuating ideas, whether on stone or ola leaf, were limited mostly to religious matters. Our great history, the Mahavansa, though it traces a royal dynasty, is permeated through and through with religious dissertations and is actually more a history of the Sangha and religion than of kings, successions and wars. This was quite right, for history ought to be the history of civilisation, and individuals should be no more than landmarks, and for us, as for all Eastern nations, civilisation and progress has meant the growth and advance of religion.

And so, as with the poetry of India, our poetry, if not directly religious, is placed against a ground of .religion. The initiative in every instance came to the Sinhalese from India. But one would' be overlooking a goon deal who said that they did not develop any characteristics of their own. Thus, while our scientific works - those pertaining to medicine, astronomy or astrology - are in Sanskrit and our Teligious lipi and granthas in Pali, our poetry is in a dialect which has come to be known as Elu. Sanskrit and Pali words preponderate, but the remainder is no doubt the language, of the aboriginal people and. this mixed language is Elu.

I need not lengthen out these prefatory remarks and shall content myself with giving a few examples of our poetry. The ultimate aim of our poetry has been not to give pleasure but to moralise and to teach. In this it is different from Indian religious poetry, for the obvious reason that the teaching of the Buddha did not stop at any transient worldly pleasure but rested, from the examination of fundamental causes, on ultimate truths. The Sinhalese poet had to be very restrained; he did not have the freedom to burst into lyrical ecstasy, which under religious excuses, his Indian brother managed to obtain, Take, for example, our great poem the Guttila Kavya, This is not an early work, having been written about 500 years ago. The story is about an incarnation of the Bodhisattva when he was born as Guttila, an expert veena player. It relates how Guttila was persuaded much against his inclination to take one Musila as pupil. The pupil having learned the art thoroughly from his master, challenged him to a contest at the Court-Guttila was the Court musician-intending to oust the aged master from his office. Guttila was more overwhelmed by the ingratitude of human nature than by any likelihood of impending degradation and defeat and was sitting disconsolate in the forest when the Devas approached him, bade him take heart, and promised their help. Guttila returned to the contest. To the surprise of everybody, Guttila performed the most marvellous feats such as snapping off his veena strings till there was only one left. But so wonderful was the music produced by the single string that the Devas descended from Heaven and danced to his music. There is the defeat of ingratitude and the victory of Guttila, who was incidentally the Bodhisattva. The theme is grand and allows the poet a great range in which to traverse. From descriptions of the king's capital he plunges into highly artistic descriptions of the descent of the angels and of their dancing. Here is a transliteration of a short-lined quatrain:

Dutu dutu danan situ
Thutu kaTana sav siri utu
Samaga mal pol vatu
Geval karava demin sanga satu

It means :-

Donating for the use of the Sangha houses situated in the midst of parks with flowers and coconut palms of such beauty as to gladden the eye of anybody . . . . (This refers to the King Parakrama Bahu, though which one of that name is not clear).

While proceeding to a description of the age and its special characteristics, he makes mention of the fact that the king has donated such and such to the Sangha. Observe the subtle hint, an invitation to others also to make similar donations. The author of the Guttila Kavya, by the way, was a Bhikku by name Vettawa. Though the idea looks simple, it is put in an exquisite form which can be felt only by one who knows the language. The poem begins with those short-lined quatrains. There are 224 such quatrains, and then with the increasing solemnity of the story, the poet uses a more dignified and a slow-moving metre. Stanzas 225 to 242 are in this metre; then, to introduce a change and quicken the interest of his audience, he resumes the more brisk short-foot lines, and we have 45 more shorter stanzas. Then the theme very appropriately assumes again a tone deeper than before and the author takes a quite complicated metre. I shall give the transliteration of the stanza which describes the dancing of the Heavenly Beings as they danced to the accompaniment of Guttila's music. It is as follows :-

Ru rese andina lese ath lela didi viduliya paba
Ran rase ekvana lese vena nada nupa taba taba
Kampase dena sera lese desa bala bala nethagin Sabha
Mam kese pavasami ese vara sura landun dun ranga subha

Like figures of a picture moving their hands with the grace and lightness of lightning flashes, keeping time with their feet to the music with the beauty and soft (want of harshness) harmony with which gold mixes with mercury, sending such sharp piercing flashes of looks at the members of the audience like the arrows despatched by Cupid, that being how these Heavenly Devas danced, how can I possibly describe that scene?

This metre is varied by other kinds and towards the close of the story the author adopts the short metre with which he began.

I shall now give an example of Sinhalese poetry from the poet Alagiya wanna Mohottala or Mohotti.1 Alagiyawanna wrote a number of books among which I might mention Sevul Sandesaya and Parangi Hatana. The latter is the history of our struggle with the Portuguese. I shall quote from his more popular work Subha Sitaya which is now a school text-book. It contains one hundred and one stanzas of a uniform metre, and in poetical diction of the highest order, full of imagery, similes and metaphors, extols the Dhamma of the Buddha and the virtues in general. Here is a typical one:-

Nidos guna barana sadaham kirula dara
Vesas sil senaga gena math shuranga ara
Keles rupun sindha nenaka gini noma hera

Bathos raja sirin peminev nivan pura '

It means :-

Dressed in the robe of virtue, crowned with the crown of Duty or Righteousness, accompanied by the army of the Precepts of Right Living, mounted upon the horse of Mettha (or Love), having cut down the enemy army of Desires by the sword of wisdom, arrive at the citadel of Nirvana with a joyful heart.

The similes and the idea may appear to be common place but to one acquainted with the language, the charm of the words and their musical rhythm is very appealing.

If there is any truth in the surmise that Alagiya wanna was an ancestor of mine, I shall be proud of him for one reason more than for anything else. That is that he possessed a sense of humour as may be understood from this verse he is said to have written on his death-bed addressed to Mara, or the Lord of Death.

Kath nethayi nosithanna maruva mage perabale
Math mage vage danno ma nodamathi kele
Math gathim nam Yama rajugen oya Maru Nile
Tath thage abuvath natavami mama dorapile.

Do not think, O Mara, that I am so helpless. Those who know me will not leave me in the lurch (lit. to leave in the forest. Kele means 'forest' and rhymes with the other endings. Also it is an idiom among us meaning 'to desert a man'). If I also should get from Yama your office, beware, I shall make you, O damnable one, and your spouse dance on the door-step. (dora pile, means door-step; here again, it is a current idiom, while rhyming with the other endings).

I shall now give one example from Selalihini Sandhesaya of the famous poet Sri Rahula who jived in more recent times. The Selalihini is a bird somewhat like the myna but with more beautiful plumage and sings more sweetly too. According to an old custom of employing birds to carry messages, the poet sends this bird on an imaginary errand and thereby gives a most poetical description of the scenic beauties of our land, its cities, with their history, and that of the reigning monarch, and in passing, pays a tribute to the Buddha's Dhamma. In the following verse, he instructs the bird where to rest for the night during the flight:

Nimal sandha pahan veni veki pita udula
Supul mal yahan liya madu liya gepela
Ekal kelina vana dev liya deka komala
Usal rukeka sethapev lapalu sihilala

"On the sands which resemble the cloud-disturbed moon, among the flowers, on the creepers, among the rows of trees, there are the wood-nymphs carolling. On a Sal tree which is cooled and cheered by the sight of these beautiful creatures, go make the rest for the night."

Sri Rahula employs a large range of metres in this poem and his similes and metaphors are of the highest order. We have not been free from the 'oriental' characteristic of exaggeration for the sake of effect, and there has been among us also a tendency to use stereotyped similes and metaphors as among the Chinese and I believe; among our kinsmen, the Indians.

With regard to love poetry, ours is not even as rich as Indian literature. At least taking shelter under the love-affairs of Radha and Krishna, the Indian poets have produced some good love-poetry. They lack only that human sincerity which is a prominent feature of English poetry. But a wrong interpretation of Buddhism has been responsible for the restraint we have imposed on ourselves in this, the chief field for the expression of human emotion. However, I shall I conclude this paper with some extant specimens.

Raja Sinha II was one of our later kings whose reign was disturbed by the encroachments of the Portuguese. He was a great patron of poetry and was himself a poet of no mean order. True to his poetic nature-but against his better judgement, he married a princess much younger in age. She was also a poetess and of a romantic turn of mind. The Chamberlain of the king's household was a dashing young man by the name of Daskhon. An affair grew up between these two. The king detected it and threw Daskhon into prison to await his trial. Among the many passionate poems that the Queen wrote to her lover while he languished in prison was this:

Thun kala thumula vanaye mal rasa novindha
Kanthala gajan kopulatha bingu ronata veda
Kunthala pahara veni ginjuduta asuva inda
Pinkala hita nuvani nuba thevenu kumatada

"The bee forsakes the pleasure of the sandal-scented wood and enters the ear of the elephant mistaking it to be a store-house of honey. With one flap of the giant ear is the foolish one crushed. Similarly art thou placed, O erst-while fortunate one and thy repentance availeth not."

To this Daskhon replied in the following strain:

Visas kamalava rasa pahasa novindha ma
Dasis duni parana esa dutu pamana tama
Mesas nube amayuru pahasa lath mama
Masis ekak giyenam nube namata kima

"If of old Ravan paid with his ten heads for an unfulfilled love, what matters it if I sacrifice one head in thy name?"

Daskhon was doomed to death and as he was passing to the place of execution, the grief-stricken queen thus spoke :-

Sakman karana maluwe di deka hada
Sith santhosin dun muva mee bivadha
Ikman gaman himi ada oba yanavada
Daskhon mage namata J'ivita denavada

"Ah ! it was on this fateful balcony that we first met and that you deigned to drink the honey of my proffered lips. And now goest thou, my Beloved, on a quick journey? Givest thou, O Daskhon, for my name thy life?"

1 My mother comes from a long-standing family by the name of Mohotti and they claim kinship with the great poet. Perhaps some day if I become sufficiently great, some scholar might come forth with an up-to-date genealogical table as has happened to Mussolini recently!

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