Rasmus Rask and Sinhala literature



Rasmus Rask (1787-1832) was a Danish specialist on languages. His main interest was in the Icelandic language but he eventually knew twenty-five languages and dialects, and is believed to have studied twice as many. He knew Sami, Swedish, Faroese, English, Dutch, Old English, Portuguese, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Latin, Russian, Polish and Czech. In 1815 Rask won the prize awarded by the Danish Academy of Science for the best essay on the origins of ancient Norwegian ( Norse). On the strength of this, in 1816, Rask left Denmark to learn about languages in the East and to obtain manuscripts for the University Library, Copenhagen. He went to Sweden, Finland, Russia, Persia, India and then Ceylon.

Godakumbura says that Rask learnt Sinhala in the three months he stayed in Madras. From Madras Rask arrived in Jaffna in November 1821 and learned Sinhala from C.E.Layard, the CCS officer stationed there, using the Sinhala version of the New Testament of the Bible. He then came to Colombo where he attended a Christian service conducted in Sinhala. He wrote a paper for the Colombo Literary and Agricultural Society (later the Royal Asiatic society, Ceylon Branch) on ‘Mode of expressing the Indian sounds, especially Sanskrit and Sinhalese, in European characters’.

Rask collected Sinhala manuscripts to take back to Denmark. He made notes on the manuscripts and re-copied some manuscripts himself. He transliterated and also translated into Danish a few extracts from them. He made vocabularies, noted down points of grammar and wrote an outline of Sinhala grammar. He compiled and published in Colombo, in Danish, the book ‘Singalesisk Skriftloere’ (Kolombo, 1821) on the Sinhalese syllabary, using his own money. ‘Syllabary’ is a list of written characters, each representing a syllable. Godakumbura says this book was the first account of the Sinhala language to appear in any European language. It was later reprinted in Denmark with the correct year of publication, 1822. Rask left Ceylon in August 1822. He returned to Denmark and continued his work on languages.

Copenhagen had known about Sinhala language and literature well before the visit by Rask. That may be why Rask visited Ceylon in the first place. A representative of Udarata king Senerat had gone to Denmark to negotiate with the newly formed Danish East India Company. Senerat signed a treaty with the Company in 1618. The Danes built a fort in Trincomalee and some of them went to live in the Udarata. These Danes later helped Rajasinha II in his negotiations with the Dutch.

Godakumbura says it was through Rask's work and the manuscripts he took with him to Denmark that Sinhala language and literature were first introduced to the west. Rask’s notes were later incorporated by N.L. Westergaard (1815-1878), another Danish expert on oriental languages, in his Codices Orienteles (1846) in the section on Sinhala. Westergaard’s work is the first scientific description of literary compositions from Ceylon. Later researchers have recognized this work.

Godakumbura says Sinhalese scholarship also benefited from his visit. Rask had sought out the two groups working in Sinhala. The bhikkus with their traditional approach and the English missionaries with their western perspective. Rask had advised Rev. Clough on his Sinhala –English dictionary. He went to Galle and Matara and had discussion with Koratota Dhammananda and other bhikkus. Godakumbura says Rask would have shown them the importance of the Sinhala language and literature for those doing comparative studies on language.

The Royal Library, Copenhagen was given the Sinhala manuscripts Rask had brought back with him. C.E .Godakumbura was invited to catalog them. Godakumbura found it to be a very representative collection of Sinhala writings, from early times to the second decade of the 20th century. This collection is perhaps the oldest collection of Sinhala manuscripts in any library in the west, he said.

The oriental manuscripts collection of the Royal Library, Copenhagen, as listed in its official website gives considerable prominence to its Sinhala collection. It says "The South Asian collection comprises 1127 manuscripts in Sanskrit , 310 in Pali, 169 in Sinhalese, 152 in Newari, 97 in Tamil, and 13 in Urdu." Then it says "Printed books amount to 2640 in Sanskrit, 12 in Pali, 860 in Hindi, 180 in Sinhalese, and 690 in Urdu." Only six of these collections have been catalogued so far. The first on the list is the ‘Ceylon collection’. This collection consisted of Pali and Sanskrit writings as well as Sinhala ones. The rank order given in the website is: Ceylonese manuscripts (COMDC 1). Followed by Pali manuscripts of Cambodia and Burma, Pali manuscripts of Laos and Thailand, manuscripts of Mongolia, Batak and Indonesia. (COMDC 2-4) This shows the high ranking and priority given to the Sri Lanka collection. (http://www.kb.dk/en/nb/samling/os/orienthaandskrifter.html viewed on 7.4.2016)

The Sinhala collection contained manuscripts in Elu and Sinhala as well as Pali and Sanskrit manuscripts written in Sinhala script. The Sinhala language manuscripts dealt with many subjects. There were manuscripts on the Buddhist doctrine, monastic discipline, religious histories and religious stories. For poetry there were panegyrics, war ballads, eulogies, love poems and didactic verse. There were also manuscripts on prosody, grammar, lexicography, and glossaries.

Rask was not, I think, looking for great literature. He was a linguist and was picking out items which represented different styles of writing and communication. His collection contained, in addition to the literary texts, a ‘Dana vattoruwa’ which gave the proper manner of giving dana to monks, ‘kolam kavipota’ giving the origin of kolam and the Pepiliyana sannasa relating to lands gifted to vihara at Pepiliyana by Parakramabahu VI. Rask had also taken with him, three manuscripts on charms, one cookery manuscript and a Veda pota containing Sinhala medicinal texts. The cookbook turned out to be the royal cookbook of the Udarata kingdom.

The Rask collection helps us to know what Sinhala manuscripts were available in 1822 in the south of Ceylon. All the major, well known Sinhala works seem to have been available. Rask had taken away ola manuscripts of Amavatura, Butsarana, Dharmapradeepika, Jataka pota, Lovadasangarava, Tupavamsaya, Saddharmalankaraya, Saddharmaratnavali, Sidat sangarawa, Rajavaliya and a collection of sandesas, , Selalihini, Gira, Tisara, Parevi ,Kovul, Hamsa, Nilakobo, Kahakurulu and Savul. He also obtained manuscripts of Dalada Pujavaliya ,Kavminikondala, Lokopakaraya, Vadan kavi pota and Gana Devi hella. He took away several copies of Pujavali, an 18 century copy of Tupavamsaya and a Banapota, dated 1707 written by Eremebegoda Kudanakati guruvaraya at the request of Valpita Rajapakse arachchilage Balarala.

Rask had also obtained less well known manuscripts. Here is a selection. Firstly, ‘Kosalabimba varnavana’. This was about a Buddha statue made by king of Kosala, and the text dealt with merit obtained by making statues of Buddha and writing down the Dhamma. Godakumbura dated the manuscripts to approximately 14-16 century and observed in 1980, that copies of ‘Kosalabimba’ are common in the south and central districts of Sri Lanka , they differed from each other.

‘Lakunusara’ another manuscripts taken by Rask, contained rules on the art of poetry. It was dated to 14th or 15th century approximately. This is perhaps the oldest of the Sinhala books on auspicious and inauspicious signs in composing Sinhala verse, said Godakumbura. It gives the lucky words and the lucky and unlucky ganas. In ‘Barasakavya’ (1786) the text is given in an elaborate diagram which can be read in 12 different ways, including left to right, top to bottom. The writer said that he was kept a prisoner in a village by a jealous rival and appealed for rescue to King Rajadhi Rajasinha The king was delighted at the literary skill displayed, freed him and granted him lands.

‘Yakaduruvamsaya’ text opposed the propitiation of demons. People should follow instead the Buddhist principles. The author is Mestri Janis of the ‘village of Kodagoda‘. It is tentatively dated to 18 century . ‘Istutimale ‘ was a garland of eulogies and incantations for invoking blessings on the king of Ceylon. The incantations were occult sivupadas believed to have the power to bring prosperity and good luck to the king. The ‘Viraparakrama Narendrasinha rajastruti’ praised King Narendrasinha and ‘Sirinama kavi’ praised Rajasinha II. ‘Sirinama’ is in a variety of meters, some suitable for singing.

Lastly ‘Viyogamala’ or the garland of separation. It was written by Rajaduru Ananda Pandita mudali in 1724. The setting is a moonlit night. The lover recalls his enjoyment with a woman and laments the separation. He describes the woman’s features in detail from head to foot. This type of manuscript, describing the feelings of lovers was very popular in 18th and early 19th century, said Godakumbura. ‘Upamataranga male’ contains a dialogue between two lovers now reunited. It gave advice on values such as friendship and loyalty. It was dated to late 18 or early 19 century and was possibly from Matara district. This is a rare manuscript, Godakumbura has said.

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