History in the making | Sunday Observer

History in the making

2 July, 2023

Only a very few countries have a written history – and one dating back more than 2,000 years at that. Sri Lanka, Greece, Italy, India (and the greater region), Egypt and Libya are among a handful of countries whose history can be traced back to millennia gone by. However, the history of most countries has been written by travellers and explorers who visited those countries. But Sri Lanka is perhaps unique in having a native document that has chronicled its history. This is called the Mahawamsa (Great Chronicle), which is actually a work in progress as it is still being written and updated even as you read this article. However, for most scholary purposes the era described by the Mahawamsa falls between 6th Century BCE and 1815, when the British took over the whole of Ceylon. The events that occurred afterwards are rather well known in any case.

Eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Sri Lanka, despite being a small island, has eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which compares rather favourably with much bigger countries such as Italy and Spain. But world heritage is not only about cultural or natural attractions per se. In recognition of this fact, UNESCO has a category called “documentary heritage” which covers mainly literature, arts, historic accounts etc. This is also called the “Memory of the World Register”, as these signify the collective memory of humankind.

Now UNESCO has added the ancient Ola leaf original copy of the “Mahavamsa” (Great Chronicle) currently kept at the library of the University of Peradeniya, to its Memory of the World Register among the 64 new items of documentary heritage added to the list this year.

The Memory of the World Register lists documentary heritage that has been recommended by the International Advisory Committee and endorsed by the Director General of UNESCO as corresponding to the selection criteria regarding world significance and outstanding universal value.

Mature historiographic tradition

According to the description cited in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, Mahawamsa, one of the world’s longest unbroken historical accounts, is the first of its kind in South Asia, initiating a mature historiographic tradition, presenting Sri Lanka’s history in a chronological order from the 6th century BCE.

The authenticity of the facts provided in the document has been confirmed through archaeological research conducted in Sri Lanka, India and Nepal. It is an important historical source in South Asia containing crucial information about the lifetime of the Buddha, Emperor Asoka and the rise of Buddhism as a world religion.

The document played a significant role in popularizing Buddhism in Southeast Asia and contributed singularly to the identity of Emperor Asoka in Indian history. The monuments he built are still standing in India and Nepal. He was also instrumental in spreading the message of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, which the Buddha once described as the country where Buddhism will survive in its purest form.

Given that the Mahawamsa has been written in Pali on Ola leaves, it was extremely difficult at first to decipher its contents. In fact, elsewhere in this newspaper we carry an article about an Englishman who devoted much of his life to translating several volumes of the Mahawamsa into English. It was an arduous exercise but the results were well worth the effort, as the world was astonished to learn about the richness of Sri Lankan history from those who have lived and breathed it. In fact, translations gave a new lease of life to the Mahawamsa, which could otherwise have faded into obscurity. It also spurred a new generation of monks and lay persons to study Pali, courses which are now regularly offered by both Sri Lankan and Indian Universities. India’s new Nalanda University, built close to the ruins of the old Nalanda University, is expected to be a focal point for these studies.

As UNESCO says “the existence of a number of manuscripts of the Mahavamsa in several countries as well as the transliteration and translation of the text to several Southeast Asian and European languages stand testimony to its immense historical, cultural, literal, linguistic and scholarly values”.

The new recognition gained by the Mahawamsa will no doubt spur scholars around the world to peruse it and more are also likely to come forward to translate it to other languages including more Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean. The number of people fluent in English is low in many Asian countries and this will help spread the word about Sri Lanka’s pre-colonial history.

History, a fascinating subject

Henry Ford famously said that “history is bunk” (though he later opened a Museum), but a country’s place in the world is more or less defined by its history. It is a fascinating subject – we will know more about ourselves if we know more about our collective past. There are calls to drop the subject of history from school and university curricula, which is a dangerous move. A future generation that does not know about the past will not know how to face the future. But this does not mean that we should be obsessed about it either. In fact, some of the most developed countries in the world have only a history of a few hundred years.

Thus a thousand-year history does not always guarantee success in the modern world. Also, no attempt should be made to erase any dark chapters in history – we should come to terms with the past to deal with the present and the future.

This recognition should also give a fillip to the study of archaeology in Sri Lanka, for it is the only science that can back up the claims made by historians in their books. So many intricate details of our history, from the magnificent Stupas of Anuradhapura to the complex waterworks of Sigiriya, would have been lost to the sands of time if not for the tireless work of archeologists. These are the professionals who bring history alive for others to experience. But history will always be open to several interpretations and debates will rage on about certain aspects of history and historical figures such as kings and queens. In this context, the study of history, as facilitated by the likes of Mahawamsa, is part time travel and part self-discovery.