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Mahāvaṃsa (lit. "Great Chronicle") (5th century CE) is a famous chronicle of Sri Lanka written in the Pali language.[1] This text follows the outline of the earlier Dipavamsa, tracing the history of Buddhism from its beginning until its introduction to Sri Lanka by the monk Mahinda.[1]

A subsequent work known as Culavamsa extends the Mahavamsa to cover the period from the reign of Mahasena of Anuradhapura (277–304 CE) until 1815, when the entire island was surrendered to the British throne.[2]


he contents of the Mahavamsa can be broadly divided into four main topics:[3][4]

  • The Buddha's Visits to Sri Lanka: This material recounts three legendary visits by the Buddha to the island of Sri Lanka. These stories describe the Buddha subduing or driving away the yakkhas and nagas that were inhabiting the island and delivering a prophecy that Ceylon will become an important Buddhist center. These visits are not mentioned in the Pali Canon or other early sources.
  • Chronicles of Kings of Sri Lanka: This material consists of genealogies and lineages of kings of Sri Lanka, sometimes with stories about their succession or notable incidents in their reigns. This material may have been derived from earlier royal chronicles and lists of kings that were recorded orally in vernacular languages, and are a significant source of material about the history of Sri Lanka and nearby Indian kingdoms.
  • History of the Buddhist Sangha: This section of the Mahavamsa deals with the mission sent by Emperor Ashoka to Ceylon, the transplantation of the bodhi tree, and the founding of the Mahavihara. It includes the names of prominent monks and nuns in the early Sri Lankan sangha. It also includes accounts of the early Buddhist councils and the first recording of the Pali canon in writing. This is a significant source of material about the development of the early Buddhist community, and includes the names of missionaries dispatched to various regions of South and Southeast Asia, some of which have been confirmed by inscriptions and other archaeological evidence.
  • Chronicles of events in Sri Lanka from Vijaya to Mahasena: This material begins with the arrival of Vijaya from India with his retinue and continues until the reign of King Mahasena, recounting wars, succession disputes, building of stupas and reliquaries, and other notable incidents. An extensive chronicle of the war between the Sinhala King Dutthagamani and Tamil King Elara (861 verses in the Mahavamsa compared with 13 verses in the Dipavamsa) may represent the incorporation of a popular epic from the vernacular tradition.[5]

While much of the contents of the Mahavamsa is derived from expansions of the material found in the Dipavamsa, several passages specifically dealing with the Abhayagiri vihara are omitted, suggesting that the Mahavamsa was more specifically associated with the Mahavihara.[5]


Authorship of the Mahavamsa is attributed to a monk called Mahānāma by the Mahavamsa-tika (a commentary on the Mahavamsa). Mahānāma is described as residing in a monastery belonging to general Dighasanda and affiliated with the Mahavihara, but no other reliable biographical information is known.[3] Mahānāma introduces the Mahavamsa with a passage that claims that his intention is to correct repetitions and shortcomings that afflicted the chronicle compiled by the ancients- this may refer either to the Dipavamsa or to the Sinhala Atthakatha.[5]

A companion volume, the Culavamsa "Lesser Chronicle", compiled by Sinhala monks, covers the period from the 4th century to the British takeover of Sri Lanka in 1815. The Culavamsa was compiled by a number of authors of different time periods.

The combined work, sometimes referred to collectively as the Mahavamsa, provides a continuous historical record of over two millennia, and is considered one of the world's longest unbroken historical accounts.[6]

The Mahavamsa first came to the attention of Western readers around 1809 CE, when Sir Alexander Johnston, Chief Justice of the British colony in Ceylon, sent manuscripts of it and other Sri Lankan chronicles to Europe for publication.[7] Eugène Burnouf produced a Romanized transliteration and translation into Latin in 1826, but these garnered relatively little attention.[8]:86 Working from Johnston's manuscripts, Edward Upham published an English translation in 1833, but it was marked by a number of errors in translation and interpretation, among them suggesting that the Buddha was born in Sri Lanka and built a monastery atop Adam's Peak.[8]:86 The first printed edition and widely read English translation was published in 1837 by George Turnour, an historian and officer of the Ceylon Civil Service.[8]:86

A German translation of Mahavamsa was completed by Wilhelm Geiger in 1912. This was then translated into English by Mabel Haynes Bode, and revised by Geiger.[9]

Related works

The Mahavamsa is believed to have originated from an earlier chronicle known as the Dipavamsa (4th century CE). The Dipavamsa is simpler and contains less information than the Mahavamsa and probably served as the nucleus of an oral tradition that was eventually incorporated into the written Mahavamsa. The Dipavamsa is believed to have been the first Pali text composed entirely in Ceylon.[10]

A subsequent work known as Culavamsa extends the Mahavamsa to cover the period from the reign of Mahasena of Anuradhapura (277–304 CE) until 1815, when the entire island was surrendered to the British throne.[2]

Editions and translations

  • Geiger, Wilhelm; Bode, Mabel Haynes (transl.); Frowde, H. (ed.): The Mahavamsa or, the great chronicle of Ceylon, London : Pali Text Society 1912.
  • Guruge, Ananda W.P.; Mahavamsa. Calcutta: M. P. Birla Foundation 1990 (Classics of the East).
  • Guruge, Ananda W. P.; Mahavamsa: The Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka, A New Annotated Translation with Prolegomena, ANCL Colombo 1989
  • Ruwan Rajapakse, Concise Mahavamsa, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2001
  • Sumangala, H.; Silva Batuwantudawa, Don Andris de: The Mahawansha from first to thirty-sixth Chapter. Revised and edited, under Orders of the Ceylon Government by H. Sumangala, High Priest of Adam's Peak, and Don Andris de Silva Batuwantudawa, Pandit. Colombo 1883.
  • Turnour, George (C.C.S.): The Mahawanso in Roman Characters with the Translation Subjoined, and an Introductory Essay on Pali Buddhistical Literature. Vol. I containing the first thirty eight Chapters. Cotto 1837.
Early translation of a Sinhalese version of the text
  • Upham, Edward (ed.): The Mahavansi, the Raja-ratnacari, and the Raja-vali : forming the sacred and historical books of Ceylon; also, a collection of tracts illustrative of the doctrines and literature of Buddhism: translated from the Singhalese. London : Parbury, Allen, and Co. 1833; vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3


  1. 1.0 1.1 Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Mahāvaṃsa.
  2. 2.0 2.1 von Hinüber 1996, pp. 88-89.
  3. 3.0 3.1 von Hinüber 1996, p. 90.
  4. Erich Frauwallner identified these as the main topics of the Dipamvamsa, upon which the Mahavamsa is based.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 von Hinüber 1996, p. 91.
  6. Tripāṭhī, Śrīdhara, ed. (2008). Encyclopaedia of Pali Literature: The Pali canon. 1. Anmol. p. 117. ISBN 9788126135608. 
  7. Harris, Elizabeth (2006). Theravada Buddhism and the British Encounter: Religious, Missionary and Colonial Experience in Nineteenth Century Sri Lanka (1st ed.). New York: Routledge. p. 12. ISBN 0415544424. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Kemper, Steven (1992). The Presence of the Past: Chronicles, Politics, and Culture in Sinhala Life (1st ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. p. 33. ISBN 0801423953. 
  9. Mahavamsa. Ceylon Government. 1912. 
  10. von Hinüber 1996, p. 89.


External links

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