Brahmi Inscriptions in Sri Lanka

Brahmi Inscriptions in Sri Lanka

Numerous Brahmi inscriptions are scattered across Sri Lanka, particularly in the dry zone encompassing the North, North Central, North Western, Southern, and Uva Provinces and they give an indication of the early settlements of the Sinhalese (Dias, 2001; Paranavitana, 1970). The language used in all these Brahmi inscriptions is an Indo-Aryan language (known as Old Sinhala/ Sinhala Prakrit) and it was the precursor of the modern Sinhala, the main language of Sri Lanka (Dias, 2020; Paranavitana, 1970). The Old Sinhala is identified as a Prakrit, which means in Sanskrit the original form of a language unadorned with grammar (Dias, 2020). Further, it is an accepted fact that the Brahmi script in Sri Lanka evolved into the present-day Sinhala script (Dias & Miriyagalla, 2007).

The largest inscription recorded in Sri Lanka, found in the forest of Dimbulagala Monastery, is an early Brahmi rock inscription (45 feet long and 18 feet high) belonging to the beginning of the 2nd century B.C. or earlier. It was discovered in July 2023.

Introduction of Brahmi Script and Its Evolution

It has been widely believed that the Brahmi script made its way to Sri Lanka no earlier than the middle of the third century B.C. (Coningham et al., 1996). This development is commonly attributed to North Indian, particularly Mauryan, influence. Evidence supporting this view comes from two primary sources: the Sri Lankan Pali chronicle, the Mahavamsa, and one of the rock edicts of Asoka (circa 268 to 232 B.C.) of India (Coningham et al., 1996). According to the Mahavamsa, during the Third Buddhist Council convened in Pataliputra, Moggaliputta Thera directed the dispatch of Mahinda, Emperor Asoka's son, to Sri Lanka to propagate Buddhism to King Devanampiya Tissa and his people. This tradition finds support in Asoka's thirteenth major rock edict, which mentions the dispatch of envoys carrying the Dhamma to southern regions, including the Colas, Pandyas, and extending as far as Tamraparni [(Sri Lanka) Coningham et al., 1996]. Additionally, this aligns with the earliest known evidence of writing in Sri Lanka, represented by Brahmi inscriptions documenting cave donations to the Sangha [(Buddhist monastic community) Coningham et al., 1996; Paranavitana, 1970].

Sri Lankan Brahmi inscriptions exhibit an uninterrupted continuity, spanning from the latter part of the 3rd century B.C. to the conclusion of the seventh century A.D. (Dias, 2001). These inscriptions can be broadly categorised into four classes: cave, rock, pillar, and slab. They encompass information about various common activities, including the donation of cave dwellings, monasteries, land, tanks, sluice, rock-cut beds, villages, revenue from taxes, and some aspects of the daily life of the people (Dias, 2001).

Palaeographically, the Brahmi inscriptions of Sri Lanka are classified into three periods (Dias, 2001);

1) Early Brahmi (3rd century B.C. - 1st century A.D.)
2) Later Brahmi (2nd century A.D. - 4th century A.D.)
3) Transitional Brahmi (5th century A.D. - 7th century A.D.)

Oldest Brahmi inscriptions from South Asia?

It is widely acknowledged that the Brahmi script used in the country's oldest inscriptions was introduced by Buddhist missionaries who arrived in Sri Lanka during the time of Asoka (Paranavitana, 1970). However, some types of letters in Sri Lankan Brahmi have not been found in Asokan edicts (Paranavitana, 1970). Also, a few potsherds with Brahmi writing belonging to 600-500 B.C. have been discovered from the excavations at the citadel in Anuradhapura carried out in 1969 and 1984 (Coningham et al., 1996; Deraniyagala, 1990; Dias, 2020; Dias & Miriyagalla, 2007).

Early Brahmi Inscriptions

Early Brahmi Inscriptions

The earliest form of script identified in the Brahmi inscriptions of Sri Lanka can be traced back to the edicts of Asoka (circa 268 to 232 B.C.) and certain early Prakrit inscriptions found in India (Dias, 2001; Dias & Miriyagalla, 2007; Paranavitana, 1970). These inscriptions adhere to a standardised formula, dedicating caves to Buddhist monks. The language used in these inscriptions represents the oldest example of the Sinhalese language (Sinhala Prakrit), characterised by the absence of long vowels and conjunct consonants (Dias, 2001). It is generally acknowledged that all the early Brahmi inscriptions uncovered in Sri Lanka are composed in Sinhala Prakrit (Dias, 2020).

These inscriptions, originating from the era when Buddhism was first introduced to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century B.C., are predominantly found on the brow of the caves, with rare occurrences on rocks, up until around the 1st century A.D. (Dias, 2001; Dias & Miriyagalla, 2007). Initially, the donations of these caves were directed towards the entire community of Buddhist monks rather than specific groups or individuals. Those offering these cave gifts mentioned their names, titles, and occasionally their genealogy. In the case of royal dedications, the kings indicated their royal titles, though the lack of regnal years poses challenges for identification (Dias, 2001; Habib & Habib, 2004; Paranavitana, 1970). However, some scholars have managed to identify a few of them by using the names provided in historical chronicles (Dias, 2001).

Later Brahmi Inscriptions

Later Brahmi Inscriptions

Around the end of the 1st century A.D., significant changes took place in both the script and content of Brahmi inscriptions (Dias, 2001). The earlier Brahmi cave inscriptions were replaced by rock inscriptions in the format of extensive documents. These records mainly focused on donations of land, tanks, and tax revenues to the Buddhist order (Dias, 2001). The evolution of the script during this period, characterized by the utilization of more letters in composing these lengthy records, persisted until the 4th century A.D. (Dias, 2001).

In later Brahmi records, kings emerged as prominent donors, offering contributions to specific monasteries identified by name. These records provided details, encompassing information about the situation, extent and names of the lands involved in the donations.

Transitional Brahmi Inscriptions

Transitional Brahmi Inscriptions

By the end of the 4th century, various writing styles from India made their way to Sri Lanka, leaving their influence on the country's inscriptions (Dias, 2001). This influence led to a transformation in the angular forms of the Brahmi scripts, transitioning towards more curved shapes. Scholars have proposed several reasons for this evolution. In essence, these inscriptions embody a transitional phase between the Brahmi and the emerging Sinhalese script (Dias, 2001).

During this period, a common element in inscriptions was the mention of donating money or land to accumulate merit to achieve Buddhahood in a future birth (Dias, 2001). While some records by kings were lengthy, the majority were short. Additionally, a new form of inscription known as Vaharala emerged during this period (Dias, 2001). According to the renowned archaeologist Senarath Paranavithana, Vaharala cidavi translates to manumission from slavery. Sirimal Ranawella suggests that it signifies redemption from Vihara salaka, while Malini Dias believes it denotes freedom from compulsory service.

In the late 7th century, additional script changes are noticed in inscriptions. Engravings were executed using Brahmi, but a blend of scripts from Pallava, Grantha, and Nagari also became evident (Dias, 2001). These inscriptions featured extracts from Mahayana texts or praises dedicated to the Buddha and Bodhisattvas in Sanskrit (Dias, 2001).

Reading and Publication of Brahmi Inscriptions

In Sri Lanka, mechanical reproductions of inscriptions in ink serve as a crucial method for epigraphical research, regarded as the most effective means to preserve the details of an inscription (Dias, 2001). Photographs are commonly employed in conjunction with ink reproductions to enhance documentation. When producing an ink reproduction is not feasible, eye copies are taken to ensure the comprehensive preservation of the inscription's content.

Numerous Brahmi inscriptions in Sri Lanka have already been published in various journals, with more awaiting publication. The earliest attempt to decipher and interpret Brahmi inscriptions in the country began with the reading of epigraphs at Tonigala and Paramakanda by A. C. Brodie who contributed a paper to the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon Branch in 1855 (Paranavitana, 1970). T. W. Rhys deciphered an inscription in Dambulla and published it in the Indian Antiquary, Vol I in 1872 (Paranavitana, 1970). In 1882, Edward Muller, the epigraphist of the Ceylon Government published  the book "Ancient Inscriptions in Ceylon," containing a number of cave inscriptions in Brahmi (Paranavitana, 1970). Subsequently, articles on the subject were written by Huge Neville for "The Taprobanian," published in 1887. H. C. P. Bell who initiated archaeological work in Sri Lanka in 1890 discovered, deciphered and translated a large number of Brahmi inscriptions and published them in his "Report of Kegalle District" and "The Seventh Progress Report" (Paranavitana, 1970). Following the establishment of the Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka, the first journal dedicated to epigraphy, "Epigraphia Zeylanica," was initiated in 1904 by D. M. de Z. Wickremasinghe. Over time, it spanned seven volumes under the editorship of S. Paranavitana, H. W. Codrington, C. E. Godakumbura, S. Karunaratna, A. Veluppillai, J. S. Uduvara, and M. Dias (Dias, 2001). Another significant effort in this field is the Corpus of Inscriptions titled "Inscriptions of Ceylon," initiated by S. Paranavitana in 1970 (Paranavitana, 1970).

Besides them, the Archaeological Survey of Ceylon's Special Seasonal Papers (1875-1892) and the Ceylon Antiquary and Literary Register (1917-1919) featured articles discussing inscriptions (Dias, 2001). The Ceylon Journal of Science and Annual Reports from the Archaeological Department also published epigraphical summaries, including information on location and discovery dates (Dias, 2001). Occasional articles on inscriptions appeared in the Ceylon Literary Register, the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon Branch, and the University of Ceylon Review. Additionally, the Department of Archaeology still publishes details on inscriptions in some of their journals such as Epigraphical Notes and Sellipi Sangrahaya (In Sinhala).


1) Coningham, R.A., Allchin, F.R., Batt, C.M. and Lucy, D.J.C.A.J., 1996. Passage to India? Anuradhapura and the early use of the Brahmi script. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 6(1), pp.73-97.
2) Deraniyagala, S.U., 1990. Radiocarbon dating of early Brahmi script in Sri Lanka: 600–500 BC. Ancient Ceylon, 11, pp.149-168.
3) Dias, M., 2001. The growth of Buddhist monastic institutions in Sri Lanka from Brahmi inscriptions. Epigraphia Zeylanica, Vol. VIII. Department of Archaeology Survey. ISBN: 955-9264-04-4. pp.1-7.
4) Dias, M. and Miriyagalla, D., 2007. Brahmi script in relation to Mesopotamian Cuneiform. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, 53, pp.91-108.
5) Dias, M., 2020. The language of the early Brahmi inscriptions of Sri Lanka. Epigraphical Notes (Nos. 22-23). Department of Archaeology. ISBN: 978-955-7457-30-7. pp.12-19.
6) Habib, I. and Habib, F., 2004, Early historical geography of South India and Sri Lanka from inscriptions. In Proceedings of the Indian History Congress (Vol. 65). Indian History Congress. pp. 218-224.
7) Paranavitana, S., 1970. Inscriptions of Ceylon: Volume I: Early Brahmi Inscriptions. Department of Archaeology Ceylon. p.i,xiii-xv,xxiii,xlix,lxxxix.

This page was last updated on 10 February 2024
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