George Turnour’s edition of the Mahavansa

In the year 1826 an Englishman, the Hon. George Turnour (1799–1843), sat in his office in the Kachcheri buildings at Ratnapura in the Saffragam Province of Ceylon. Those were the days of Empire, full-blooded and confident. The Colonial Service, in particular, was attracting men of culture and high feeling, for whom the betterment of mankind in general, and not personal prosperity, was the principal objective.

George Turnour was one of these men, and history has shown him scant recognition, for his contribution to a fuller knowledge of the past must be considered unique.

The documents which lay on the desk before him that morning were not connected with his routine duties as Government Agent of the Province. They afforded the key, if a scholar could be found to decipher them, to such fabulous historic riches that the mere sight of them filled Turnour with excitement. He resolved to dedicate his own life to the task of solving the problem.

At the opening of the nineteenth century, the existence of an historical record called the Mahavansa, or Great Dynasty, was known to a handful of Buddhist priests. It was a metrical chronicle, hiding in mystical verse the most astonishing dynastic history of any people, covering a period of no less than twenty-three centuries from the year 543 B.C. to A.D 1758. The language employed was Pali, which had long passed out of use, and to those who had, with difficulty, managed to translate a verse or two, the work had not seemed worth proceeding with. The authors of the chronicle had, it appeared, sacrificed sense for rhyme, the poem being mystical, ver-bose, and incomprehensible. It had fallen into such disrepute that few, even among the Buddhist priesthood, knew of its existence.

One of the priests, however, named Gallé, recognized in Turnour a man of genius, and it is certain that, without Gallé, the history of Ceylon would have been lost. He sought out the Government Agent, and told him of his conviction that a “tika” of the Mahavansa was still in existence. Now a “tika” is a prose key, which, fitted into the mystical verse of the earlier poets, reduces it to a commonsense narrative. Gallé was convinced that that was just what the Mahavansa was, an accurate record of events obscured by the flowery outer-cover of metrical rhetoric.

Turnour ’s interest was aroused, and between them a search was made of the only possible repositories of such a set of documents: the old Buddhist temples. They were successful. The missing “tika” was found at Mulgirigalla, near Tangalle, a temple founded one hundred and fifty years before the birth of Christ. It was this manuscript which lay on Turnour ’s desk that morning in 1826.
The difficulties of his task must have appalled the Government Agent. Although fluent in the Sinhalese vernacular, with a considerable knowledge of Sinhalese script, he knew nothing of Pali; an extinct language at that time. It is the root language of Sinhalese, but clearly distinct from it. There were no textbooks nor vocabularies available, and no parallel documents for comparison. Turnour knew that he would be compelled to spend months delving into the minds of the very few Buddhist priests who were still able to remember a few words of Pali And he would have to dedicate many years of his life to the work of research, for there were one hundred books of the Mahavansa, and they covered, in detail, two thousand years of Ceylon history during which fifty-four kings of the Great Dynasty-the Mahavansa of the title -and one hundred and eleven sovereigns of the Sulavansa or lower race, sat on the throne of Lanka.

I like to think of him faced with that colossal challenge, rising from his desk and turning to the vast mountain wall outside the Kachcheri windows for inspiration. To the north, and very close at hand, rearing its forest-clad summit 7,000 feet into the burnished blue of the sky, stood Adam’s Peak, incarnation of beauty and majesty. The sheer bulk of the cliffs, rising in precipitous grandeur from the foothills, induce feelings of awe and exultation, and it is from Ratnapura that the most devout pilgrims make their ascent of this holy mountain. To George Tumour the sight must have afforded all the comfort, hope, and encouragement he needed. His decision was made, with the result that some thirty books of the Mahavansa were translated, edited and arranged by him during his lifetime and published in 1836; ten years after his first glimpse of the “tika.”

He did not live to complete the whole vast chronicle, but recognition of the value of the record was instantaneous. It was revealed as one of the most remarkable histories in existence, unrivalled as a dynastic narrative of an ancient and cultured civilisation.

That was not all. Turnour ’s research opened the path to the study and translation of carved inscriptions found all over India and among the countless monuments of two of the most remarkable lost cities in the world: Anuradhapura and Polonnaruha, abandoned and forgotten in the arid plains of central Ceylon. His name has never received the recognition which is its due. It is almost unknown, but his work is of an importance which increases with the passing of the years.

“Ceylon” Pearl of the East, by Harry Williams

Bibliographic Citations: Resources and Credit

One Response to “George Turnour’s edition of the Mahavansa”

  1. D Jayakodyon 11 Jul 2009 at 10:32 am

    It is about time that this article is re-published on the main Amarasara website. With the treacherous policies of Ranil Wickramasingha government teaching of Sri Lankan history was abandoned in our National schools; this allowed the terrorists and thie intellectual supporters to re-write their version of Sri Lankan history placing claims for the ownership of the Island to Tamil marauders. The end result is a hotch potch of ideas that corrupted the brains and thinking of our younger generations, and of course of the “Colombians” that ape the western ways.

    This article orginally written by a western traveller and scholar is beneficial to start straigtening the record. I very much urge the editor to consider publishing this item on the main website amongst news items.

    One point I would like to make however. I understand that Sanskrit was the root language of both Pali and then Sinhala. The article says that Pali was the root of Sanskrit, and I think it is wrong. May be the editor ought to correct this error, otherwise the credibility of the article could be questioned by the one’s who is against the main message and just wish to split hair for the sake of it.

    Kind regards

    Dhanapala Jayakody