Sinhalese Manuscripts Digitisation Project


First Buddhist Council at Rajagaha, at the Nava Jetavana, the current Rajgir (around the 5th century BC).

The most profound legacy of the 6th century BC is the endowment of a philosophical doctrine of the most salient order, Buddhism. With tremendous foresight, following Lord Buddha’s parinibbāna (483 BCE), the most erudite great disciples (Mahā-Arahants) amassed, chanted and compiled the Lord Buddha’s teachings had expounded across the breadth of the Indian sub-continent and convened the first Buddhist Council with the intension of preserving Lord Buddha’s pure dhamma for future generations.
Henceforth, throughout history, in the face of subsequent political, socio-cultural and religious dissolution, the most erudite Mahā-Arahant disciples of the time have held the second and third Buddhist councils to purify and reinstate the sacred Buddha dispensation to its former veracity. Such councils and liturgies have been undertaken in the face of several critical moments of history when the Mahā-Sangha felt that the teachings were perilously at risk of being thwarted, diluted or defiled.

In the servings mentioned above of Buddhist councils, the collective ”Buddha-dhamma” was divided into three sections or ”Pitaka”: the Sutra Piṭaka (Buddha’s sermons and dialogues), the Vinaya Piṭaka (Disciplinary rules for the monastic community), and the Abhidhamma Piṭaka (The higher doctrine) and were recited in their entirety. The three Piṭakas collectively form the Tripiṭaka. The Mahā-Arahants disciples who had expertise in each respective discipline and had the highest aptitude in retentive memory were given the responsibility of ensuring its preservation and the epithet of ”Dhamma bhāṇaka”. 

How did Our Great Ancestors Preserve this Heritage for Future Generations?
The purity of Buddhist doctrine has been preserved for thousands of years through this rich tradition of oral recitation (Bhāṇaka) by the supreme Mahā-Arahant disciples with the most superior power of memory and mind. The Bhāṇaka tradition continued well into the 1st century BCE when the fourth Buddhist Council was held in Sri Lanka under the patronage of King Vattagamani Abhaya. This was incited in the wake of a famine that threatened to wipe out the Mahā-Sangha and the entirety of the Buddha’s dispensation from Sri Lanka. Recognising the threat, for the first time, the Tripitaka was served in written form, where the orally-preserved three pitakas of discourses were transcribed into palm-leaf manuscripts(Puskola Poth). From this time until the advent of printed paper, Palm-leaf manuscripts served as the primary bearers of Buddhist doctrine and canonical literature.
The tradition of Palm-leaf inscriptions(Puskola Poth Sampradaya), though synonymous with the Buddhist Theravada Pali Canon, continued to proliferate well into the 19th century, not only in technique but also in disparate fields of study that were recorded. As such, the few surviving palm-leaf collections record important Buddhist scripture and early indigenous knowledge of medicine, literature, agriculture, astrology and the arts. They are the primary historical sources that chronicle the linguistic, cultural and technological development of a country and its people and thus contain an immense anthropological and theological value.

During successive invasions by the Maghas in the 13th century and the colonisation that followed, under the Portuguese, the Dutch, and finally the British, a great repository of Buddhist literature written in palm-leaf manuscripts housed in Sri Lanka dispersed and evanesced as they were requisitioned and moved to Europe.

About the project

In order to ensure the continued preservation of all possible surviving manuscripts housed across the world, it has become imperative to obtain their digital copies and compile an easily accessible collection or anthology. Most of the manuscripts in question are over 150 years old and as such, in extremely fragile conditions, which makes them unsuitable for physical public reference in the first place. These factors have formed a compelling call for obtaining digital copies/scans of the manuscripts, which shapes the first part of this research’s motivation.

Secondly, all most all these manuscripts are written in ancient Sinhalese script, which requires to be translated to modern Sinhala and English, if these master pieces are to contribute to any ongoing contemporary theological, cultural or historical research and studies.

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What We have Achieved so far

Through a generous donation from our supporters, we were able to complete the pilot project’s manuscript conservation and imaging, catalogue creation and online presentation in June 2021. The outputs of this project are four detailed and searchable catalogue records and fully digitised manuscripts made freely available here.

Resources & Publications
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How to Contribute

Generous supporters like you are the key to accomplishing this noble mission. Donations can be made on a one time or monthly basis to the International Centre for Theravada Buddhism UK (ICTBUK) using the details provided below.