- Sinhala society placed a high value on education
- Construction of Mahavihara opened a new chapter in history of education
- Priests in colleges insisted learning native languageslearn the native languages
In March 2016, Thisuri Wanniarachchi wrote what can only be described as a confrontational essay. Titled “What your schools didn’t teach you?”, it was aimed at one institution: the elite public school in the towns. Half the tirade was against “the culture of fraternity” surrounding the Big Match culture (matches played between rival schools, the Royal-Thomian being the prime example); the other half was against the (alleged) racism of Buddhist schools which belong to that culture. It was by all means an opinionated piece, and it raised quite a number of hairs (the Facebook comments indicated that very well), and yet, despite the daring, radical tone, Thisuri was wrong on one count: she had compared the elite schoolboy (and schoolgirl) culture in Sri Lanka with the Ivy League culture of the US, where she was studying. To put it politely but frankly, that’s like comparing apples and oranges.
The Big Match, as Malinda Seneviratne observed 17 years ago, “is not just about cricket – it is about spectacle.” No one actually writes about it, except as an Old Boy or a bewildered admirer. Those who castigate it – and the rise of social media has seen an influx of those who do – tend to do so on the basis of it being an anachronism, a historical paradox indulged by infantalised adults (a point even Ralph Pieris, writing about secondary schools in Ceylon in his time, made). And yet, it is not. It is as much a part of Sri Lanka as Eton-Harrow is a part of England, and it is as much a part of contemporary history as monastic seats of learning were a part of ancient history. On the other hand, there’s an entire story to relate before we get to Big Matches and Cycle Parades. We must begin at the beginning.
Sinhala society placed a high value on education. Vijaya, according to the Mahavamsa the first king, came with 700 followers, among whom was a chaplain or purohita called Upatissa. We don’t know much about prehistoric Sri Lanka, but we do know that following Vijaya’s colonisation, an active Brahmanical tradition took root.
Brahmins took to teaching locals. Pandukhabaya, on the run from his uncles, is said to have been taught by Pandula: for this he is said to have been paid a hundred pieces of gold. These teachers were, we can assume, rich; they were probably like the tuition teachers of today; to give one example, Pandula is said to have contributed a hundred times the fees paid to him by Pandukabhaya towards the war against the uncles. Obviously we do not know, despite these stories, whether these Brahmins had a school under them as the Greeks did.
After the third century BC, when Buddhism spread in the island, the role of teachers began to be shared by Brahmins and Buddhist monks. Since it was not the custom of the time to record incidents and events connected to the life of ordinary people, we have no evidence as to whether peasants and villagers were taught by these religious leaders. There was, however, a strong literary tradition, particularly after the coming of Buddhism; literary activities were limited to the nobility (even the Brahmi inscriptions, which come to us from the seventh century BC onwards, were the work of the upper classes of the time) and the teaching of their children, and of newly ordained monks, took precedence over everything else.
The construction of the Mahavihara at the time of Devanampiyatissa and the Abhayagiriya at the time of Vattagamini-Abhaya opened up a new chapter in the history of education in Sri Lanka. The Vimativinodani Vinayatika defines a pirivena as a dwelling place set for monks who studied at these institutions. The pirivenas took education beyond the aristocracy. As Ananda Coomaraswamy noted in Medieval Sinhalese Art, monks took to the teaching of lay children. The first real schools in Sri Lanka were thus the monasteries.
Widespread literacy in Sri Lanka was not unheard of, even by the British. Although Knox denigrated the education system of the time as useless and unworthy, other writers, from the Portuguese to the British, praised it. In 1807 James Cordiner wrote that the “greater part of the men can read and write”, in 1821 John Davy observed that “[r]eading and writing are far from uncommon acquirement”, and in 1845, William Knighton noted that “it is rare to see a Ceylonese, even of the poorest class, who cannot read and write his own language.” All three, British writers and products of elite schools, would doubtless have seen in the compulsory and universal nature of education a phenomenon far, far removed from their country.
We know from records that a child’s education in ancient Sinhala society began at the age of five; according to the Muhurttacintanani and the Saddharmalankaraya, it was supposed to. On the day of initiation the child would normally be taken to the village temple. According to Coomaraswamy, the child was invariably male, since “the education for boys was carried on by Buddhist priests at the village pansala… just as the village priest taught at the church door in mediaeval England.” The relationship between the teacher and student was rigid; the teacher was offered “a cluster of betel leaves and camphor”, while lessons began with an exhortation to the gods: “svasti siddhan”, or “let prosperity attend.”
The Portuguese gained an advantage upon their arrival: they found in Sri Lanka a system of education based on memory. Even with the writing down of Buddhist tracts on palm leaves, this tradition of rote learning continued; “[t]he frequent repetitions in texts… were an aid to ancient students who had to memorise long texts together.” The Portuguese found the eidetic memory of the population to be an advantage. The so-called bahusattas could recite Buddhist texts. They did the same with foreign texts. Thus the author of the Savul Sandeshaya, the Dahamsonda Kavya, the Kusa Jathakaya, and the Subasithaya, Alagiyawanna Mukaveti, is said to have memorised the Bible in six months, and was later honoured with a title for his assistance in compiling the land register (or tombo).
We do not know in what language Mukaveti committed the Bible to his memory. Since it was felt that interpretation of the Scriptures must be left to the priests and not the inhabitants, it is not likely that a one-off translation was ever made, even though records indicate that a Jesuit missionary in Malvana translated a catechism in 1610, two years before Mukaveti converted to Catholicism. The Kustintanu Satana (which begins with an exhortation to the Holy Trinity, a transmogrification of the exhortation to the Triple Gem) is usually attributed to Mukaveti (though Godakumbura disputed this); if he did write it, it indicates the lengths to which “local intellectuals” went to adapt to a changing social order.
But the legacy of education the Portuguese left behind was not limited to the study of holy texts. As Abeyasinghe has observed, one of their greatest contributions was a curriculum that stressed on the mind and the body: as the aphorism ran, “mens corpora e mens sano.” They were influenced by Aristotle’s teachings, of the Peripatetic school, which had laid an equal emphasis on the performing arts and on the three R’s (writing, reading, and arithmetic). Be it the Franciscans (1543), Jesuits (1602), Dominicans (1605), or Augustinians (1606), they privileged education extending to, and beyond, “learning to read and write and to sing.” Even in a rudimentary sense, these were more far-reaching than the British system.
Furthermore, from their inception the priests in charge of the colleges prioritised the need to learn the native languages: as Valignano wrote to Father Mercurium, “without the knowledge of the[ir] language nothing or very little can be achieved.” We know that initially priests were unwilling to translate the Scripture to the vernaculars. However, they were also aware of the need to educate local priests. In 1564 Father Aviriggen became the first European to work on and publish a Tamil grammar: according to him the language seemed “better, shorter, and easier.” Later, with the establishment of Jesuit colleges in Mannar and Colombo, they made it compulsory for young priests to learn and speak in Sinhala and Tamil. On the other hand, they continued to preach in Portuguese; this meant that locals had to study it.
In fact, so pervasive did Portuguese become that it not only contributed words and idioms to Sinhala, it also became the established lingua franca of much of the population. Try as they might, even with a proclamation in 1659, the Dutch (whose contribution to the language was, by contrast, minimal) could not quite ban the use of Portuguese among locals. Interestingly enough it was being spoken widely even when the Colombo Academy commenced classes in 1836; one reason why the Academy was established in the first place was to promote the use of English among the Burgher elites.