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Ven M . W ijithadham m a JR A SSL (N S), Vol.

60 Pari 2 - 2 0 1 6 49

Pali Grammar and Kingship in Medieval Sri Lanka

Ven. M. Wijithadhamma


It is possible that the relationship between literature and kingship

was the lens through which the monastic community developed
a similar relationship with Pali literature, Pali grammar in
particular, thereby turning this literature into a symbol o f prestige
fo r the wider society, not ju st fo r the king. This expansion o f
the role o f Pali literature into symbolic capital, used to provide
coherence among the elites o f a kingdom, is perhaps reflected in
the increasing use o f the language fo r secular purposes and as a
trans-regional language. For instance, during this period, letters
between the kings o f Lanka and Southeast Asia began to be sent
in Pali.

Steven Collins in ‘What is Pali Literature?’ has observed

that at the beginning o f the second millennium, the Theravada
tradition produced a wave o f literature in new styles and genres,
heavily influenced by Sanskrit and its literary ideals.1 Speculating
on this literary revolution, Hallisey argues that through nfew
technologies o f grammar and poetry, created largely during the
reign of Parakramabahu I, Sinhala and Sanskrit literary models
were superimposed onto Pali, generating a literary ideology for
Pali that was analogous to those languages.2As part of this literary
revolution, Hallisey singles out the Vuttodaya (Exposition of
Metres) and the Subodhalankara (Ornament of True Knowledge),
two works of Sangharakkhita, Moggallana’s pupil, and a Pali
lexicon, the Abhidhanappadipika (Illuminator of Words), which
was also produced in the literary ferment of Parakramabahu I’s
50 Pali G ram m ar and K ingship in M edieval Sri L anka

I would like to mention three works in Pali that were

meant to support those writings in these new ways: a handbook
of prosody, Vuttodaya, (Exposition of Metres); a handbook on
poetics, Subodhalankara\ and a lexicon, Abhidhanappadipika
(Illuminator o f Words). They represent a new attitude towards the
potential o f Pali as a language, and indeed, we may say that they
represent the initial developments of a transformation, though
truncated, of Pali into a literary language.3

In his discussion o f this upheaval in Theravada literary

culture, Hallisey does not address the creation o f the Moggallana
system directly. However, it also seems reasonable to view
the creation o f this new system o f Pali grammar as part o f this
transitional period in the history of the Pali language. While there
appears to be academic consensus concerning the fact that Pali
developed into a literary language akin to Sanskrit or Sinhala
during this period, the reasons for this development have yet to
be fully explored. Collins speculates that Pali underwent this
transformation since political powers used these new literatures
to create a greater coherence within the sarigha, thereby also
providing greater stability to their kingdoms as a whole:

In premodem South Asia - a world of constantly enlarging

and diminishing mandalas o f royal organization - kings with
enough power and wealth aimed to build or maintain centralized
states, aiming in Lanka to amass enough territory to give credence
to the rhetoric o f the world-conquering wheel-turning king"
(cakkavatti). They were also patrons (and controllers) of Pali
Buddhism, and of the pluralist high cultures o f which it formed a
part. Pali literature in both ideological and kavya senses was part
of the process of providing coherence to the elite on which such
kings and states depended.4

Collins postulates that Pali literature provided coherence to

the elites by lending them a certain shared cultural legitimacy. It was
not the contents of Pali literature that made it culturally effective,
but its potential to signify power. In this way, Pali literature can be
considered a potent symbol in the semiotic economy of prestige.
Ven M . W ijithadham m a JR ASSL(N S), Vol. 60 P art

Monks and their texts, as also their relics and im

prestige objects, circulating in an exchange system of p
goods: law texts, for example could be and were put togeth
with other power objects by kings in impressive displays. In the
perspective of socio-historical analysis, it is an element in the
rhetorical, theatrical constitution of civilization-bearing state-
systems: symbolic capital contributing to the prestige of both the
mandala-OTgamzmg king and his clients.5

It is not unthinkable that the role Collins imagines for

Pali ‘literature’, a term taken by him to refer more specifically
to kavya, may also apply to the accessory technologies used to
codify language, such as grammars, lexicons and manuals on
poetics. This would certainly place his ideas on the symbolic
capital of this literature in harmony with Pollock’s theories6 on the
role Sanskrit literature and its technologies played in legitimising
political power and shaping polities in premodem South Asia. It is
possible, then, that Pali grammar also became a symbol of power
during this period. In fact, I argue in this paper that scholarship
on Pali grammar became an almost de facto requirement for the
legitimacy of monastic power within the sangha.

Therefore, at the beginning of the second millennium, the

relationship between the production of Pali grammar and social
power structures also began to mirror the Sanskrit model of courtly
grammatical production outlined by Pollock. However, while the
patronage of Pali philology during this period evinces certain
similarities with the pan-South Asian courtly patronage of Sanskrit
grammar, it never escapes its religious foundations. Its politics o f
production, therefore, reflects Pali’s dual role in this period as
a courtly language and as a religious language. In this wav? iae
patronage of Pali philology shares many of the concerns that maA
the Tibetan translation of Sanskrit grammatical literature.

The development o f these new ideologies for (be W i

language perhaps mirrors the changing ideologies o f kingship assS
their relationship to culture in Lanka at the time. For m atreg,
S. Pathmanathan has shown that, in its accounts of the f a y r f
>2 Pali G ram m ar and K ingship in M edieval Sri Lanka

the Polonnaruva period ( l l lh-13th c.), the Mahavatnsa (Part II), a

history of Lankan kings covering the 4th to the 19th century, begins
to adopt Brahmanical conceptions of kingship alongside the usual
Buddhist motifs.7 For instance, the kings o f this period are often
depicted as masters o f arthasastra (the science of government and
politics) and dharmasastra (the science o f law). Descriptions of the
Lankan kings at this time in historiography and inscriptions were
also increasingly influenced by the ideals of Puranic mythology
and the Epics. In support, John Holt has noted that the Culavamsa’s
description of this period contains more ‘state-sponsored Hindu
cultic practices and Sanskrit literary activity.’8Pathmanathan links
these increasingly Brahmanical descriptions o f Lankan kings with
an exposure to South Indian cultural currents directed to Lanka
via contact with the Cola, Kalinga and Pandya dynasties. In
this regard, Bardwell Smith has linked the introduction of these
Brahmanical motifs o f kingship with the shared desire for political
centralisation among Lankan and South Indian kingdoms at the
time, and cites Parakramabahu I as the epitome of this new fusion
of Brahmanical and Buddhist concepts of kingship. The theme
o f unity becomes the overriding one both on the sub-continent as
the Colas under Rajaraja (985-1016) break up the confederacy of
Pandya, Cera and Ceylon, and on Lanka as Vijayabahu I (1055-
1110) begins and Parakramabahu I (1153-1186) completes the
process of centralization. The concern to bring all Ceylon under
one umbrella is epitomized in the soliloquy o f Parakramabahu
I in Chapter 64 of the Mahavamsa, ,as he weds statecraft with
normative tradition in his determination to take possession o f all
Lanka and in associating himself with the heroism of old. From his
lips fall names from the Jatakas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata,
from Itihasa tales and the wisdom o f Canakka (Kautilya). Here
in one canticle is niti ethics solemnized and legitimated by
association with the entirety of tradition. The king as protector, as
the establisher o f order, is being elevated by the Sasana tradition.
The Mahasammata o f old appears in new form and legitimates
his power by protecting the powerless, by dispelling the forces
o f adhamma, whether yakkhas from abroad or rebels in Rohana.
The influence o f the Arthasastra is unmistakably present not just
in the monarch’s words but in his whole campaign to capture
Ven M. W ijithadham m a JR A SSL (N S), Vol. 60 P art 2 - 2 0 1 6 53

power, centralize the forces o f government, establish a broad

economic base, flex his military muscles abroad, unify the sangha
and disengage it from political involvement, and in his expansive
artistic and cultural endowments. The clear blending of Indian and
Sinhalese elements is nowhere more present in Ceylon’s history
than in this reign.9

It is within these increasingly Brahmanical descriptions

that Lankan kings also begin to flaunt philological mastery. The
relationship o f philology and political power during this period,
then, also evinces a greater conformity to a pan-South Asian
topos, where the symbolic value o f literature and its technologies
conferred prestige on the powerful elite. For instance, the
Mahavamsa emphasises the philological prowess o f a young
Parakramabahu I when boasting about his intelligence:

Due tb the strength o f his vast intelligence, which was like

a lightning bolt, he learned easily and quickly from his teachers
many skills. In the traditions of the Jina, in the many didactic
works such as that o f Kotalla, in grammars and works on poetics,
along with lexicons and the rules of ritual (kefubha), in the treatises
on dance and music, and those on elephant husbandry, and in the
treatises on archery and swordsmanship, he became especially
accomplished, educated, and a past-master, always behaving only
in accordance with the wishes o f his father the king.10

Within the curriculum o f Parakramabahu I, the study

o f grammar and poetry sits comfortably alongside the study of
Buddhist religious texts and Brahmanical manuals on politics,
such as Kautillya’s Arthasastra.

This tendency of the kings ofthe period to flaunt their learning

and intelligence is epitomised by descriptions o f Parakramabahu
II (1236-1271). The Mahavantsa states that, on account o f his
learning, at his coronation the king gave himself the title ‘the wise
one who knows all the literature of the kali age’ (kalikala-sdhicca-
sabbanfiupan4ita).n According to the Dambadeni A sm (The Da
badeni Narrative, 13th c.), a Sinhala pamphlet depicting the reign
54 Pali G ram m ar and K ingship in M edieval Sri Lanka

of Parakramabahu II, the king had mastered (1) Sinhala, (2) Pali,
Moggallana and Kaccayana grammars, (3) Sanskrit, (4) Grantha
script, (5) Tamil, (6) jurisprudence, (7) religion, including the
three pitakas, (8) botany, (9) prosody, (10) logic, (11) rhetoric,
(12) semantic analysis (nirukta), (13) the Vedas, (14) Puranas,
(15) astronomy, (16) phrenology, (17) Buddhist birth stories,
(18) medicine, (19) customs, (20) biography, (21) fencing, (22)
archery, (23) mineralogy, (24) drawing, (25) cookery and (26)
music.12Within the curriculum o f Parakramabahu II, it is clear that
the study of languages and their technologies was central to the
education o f kings and was a symbol of prestige. In addition, the
Dambadeni Asna shows that Pali grammar was maintained as a
key component of royal education, with both the Moggallana and
Kaccayana traditions of Pali grammar being studied.

The role of educating the kings in all these literatures appears

to have been left to the sangha. For instance, the Mahavamsa
states that the sangha led by Sangharakkhita was entrusted by
Vijayabahu III with the education of his son Parakramabahu
II.13 Therefore, while the kings needed education in grammar
and poetics, he entrusted his eldest son Parakkantibhuja (i.e.
Parakramabahu) to the assembled sangha, having promoted
the renowned Sangharakkhita to [the position of] Grand Master
(mahasdmi). It is possible that the adoption o f a pan-South Asian
ideal of kingship by Lankan monarchs, one in which literature was
considered to be a symbol o f power and prestige, led the Lankan
courts, closely associated with the monastic sangha, to develop
their own currency of prestige in the form of Pali ‘literature’, one
which could provide a cultural coherence to the elites o f the region
and be exported along with Pali Buddhism to Southeast Asia and

It is possible that the relationship between literature and

kingship was the paradigm through which the monastic community
developed a similar relationship with Pali literature, in particular
Pali grammar, thereby turning this literature into a symbol of
prestige for wider society, not just for the king. This expansion
of the role o f Pali literature into symbolic capital, used to provide
Ven M . W ijithadham m a JR A SSL (N S), Vol. 60 Part 2 -

coherence among the elites of a kingdom, is perhaps reflectedfflB M

increasing use of the language for secular purposes and as a t r a n P |
regional language. For instance, during this period, letters between
the kings of Lanka and Southeast Asia began to be sent in Pali.14
In addition, it appears that Pali was being used in Burmese courts
too and that royalty were composing Pali grammars themselves.
For instance, the Sasanavamsa (Chronicle of the Religion), a 19th
century Burmese history of Buddhism, states that the Burmese king
Kyocva (13th c.) wrote the Saddabindu (Droplet of Language), a
short introductory Pali grammar, for his wives and that also his
daughter wrote the Vibhattyattha (The Meaning of Case Endings),
a short work on nominal declension.15 The changing use of Pali
in this period is perhaps also reflected by the fact that the first use
of the word ‘Pali’, as a language name referring to both canonical
and non-canonical literature, can be traced to the Khuddasikkha-
abhinavatikd (A New Commentary on the Minor Trainings, 13th
c.) of Sangharakkhita, Moggallana’s pupil and the author of the

However, while kings of this period certainly placed

themselves within trans-local archetypes of kingship, the emphasis
on the learning of Pali and Buddhist' texts alongside Brahmanical
literature created an ideal of kingship unique to Lanka. That this
ideal was seen as superior to the tops of kingship found on the
mainland is perhaps latent in Parakramabahu II s bold claim to
being the ‘wise one who knows all the literature of the kali age’


1. Collins, Steven, “What is Literature in Pali?” in Literary Cuitmns

in History: Reconstructions from South Asia, edited by Shelter
Pollock, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2003, 680#
2. Hallisey, Charles, “Works and Persons in Sinhala Literary Cotac*
in Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Jam,
edited by Sheldon Pollock, Berkeley, University of California Pmess,
2003, p. 742
3. Ibid
56 Pali G ram m ar and K ingship in M edieval Sri L anka

4. Collins, 2003, p. 683

5. Collins, 2003, pp. 682-683
6. Pollock, Sheldon, “The Theory of Practice and the Practice of Theory
in Indian Intellectual History”, Journal o f the American Oriental
Society, 1985, Vol. 105, no. 3, pp. 501-512.
7. Pathmanathan, S., “Kingship in Lanka: A.D. 1070-1270”, Lankan
Journal o f the Humanities, 1982, pp. 120-145
8. Holt, John Clifford, The Buddhist Vi$nu: Religious Transformation,
Politics and Culture, New York, Colombia University Press, 2004,
p. 37
9. Smith, Bardwell L., “The Polonnaruva Period (ca.993-1293 A.D.): A
Thematic Bibliographical Essay”, in Religion and the Legitimation
o f Power in Sri Lanka, edited by Bardwell L. Smith, Chambersburg,
Pa., Anima Books, 1978, p. 137
10. Culavamsa (CL), Geiger, Wilhelm, ed. Culavamsa: Being the more
Recent Part o f the Mahavanisa, Vol. I, II, London, The Pali Text
Society, 1980, Ch. 64: 2-5
2. Vajirupamorupahhaya Balena Gurusantike Lahum
Bahum Ca Gatihanto Sippajatam nekakam.
3. Jindgamesu 'Nekesu Kofalladisu Nftisu
Saddatthesu Ca Kaveyye Sanighandukakefubhe
4. Naccagitasu Satthesu Hatthisippadikesu Ca
Dhanukhaggadinekesu Satthesu Ca Visesato
5. Parapatto VinTtatto Piturahho Samacari
Adhippdyanukulam Va Sada Bhattipurassaro
11. Ibid: Ch. 82.3
3. Kalikdladhisahiccasabbannupandito Ti SoPatitam Namadheyyatfi
Pi Panditatta Sayarri Labhi.

‘On Account of His Learning (Panditatta) He Gave Himself The

Renowned Name “The Wise One Who Knows All The Literature of
The Kali Age’”
Ven M. W ijithadham m a JR ASSL(N S), Vol. 60 Part 2 - 2 0 1 6 57

12. Obeyesekere, Donald, Outlines o f Ceylon History, New Delhi, Asian

Education Services, 1999 (Repr. fr. 1911), p. 180
13. CL Ch. 81.76-77
76 Atha Tesu ParakkantibhujaseUham Sutani Tada, Mahasamint
Purakkhatva Sarfigharakkhitavissutatfl,
77 Samagatassa Samghassa Niyyadetva...
14. Cf.

Barnett, L.D., “Manavulu-sandesaya”, Journal o f the Royal Asiatic

Society, 1905, pp. 265-283.
Buddhadatta, A.P., ed. Palisandesavali, 1962
Codrington, H.W., “A Letter From the Court of Siam”, Journal o f
the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch), 1945, Vol. 36, pp. 97-99
Fernando, P.E.E., “An Account of the Kandyan Mission sent to
Siam in 1750”, The Ceylon Journal o f Historical and Social Studies.
Peradeniya, 1959, Vol. II, 1, pp. 37-83
von Hiniiber, Oskar, “Remarks on a list of books sent to Ceylon from
Siam in the 18th century”, Journal o f the Pali Text Society, 1988, Vol.
XII, pp. 175-183
Minayeff, J.P., “Sandesa-katha”, Journal o f the Pali Text Society,
1885, pp. 17-29
Mudiyanse, Nandasena, “Correspondence between Siam and Sri
Lanka in the 18th century”, The Buddhist, 1973, Vol. 44, pp. 15-22
Paranavitana, S., “Religious Intercourse between Ceylon and Siam
in the 13th-15th Centuries”, J.R.A.S. (C.B.), 1932, Vol. XXXII, No.
85, pp. 190-213
---------, “Report on a Pali Document in Cambodian Characters
Found in Malvatte Vihare, Kandy”, In Second Report o f the Ceylon
Historical Manuscripts Commission, Colombo, 1935, Appendix IX,
pp. 58-61

Supaphan na Bangchang, “APali Letter Sent by the Aggamahasenapati

of Siam to the Royal Court at Kandy in 1756”, Journal o f the Pali
Text Society, Vol. XII, 1988, pp. 185-212
jg Pali G ram m ar and K ingship in M edieval Sri Lanka

15. Bode, Mabel, “Early Pali Grammarians of Burma”, Journal o f the

Pali Text Society, 1908, Vol. VI, p. 25
16. Crosby, Kate, “The Origin of Pali as a Language Name in Medieval
Theravada Literature”, Journal o f the Centre for Buddhist Studies,
Sri Lanka, 2004, Vol. 2r pp. 70-117