Letters from Sri Lanka, Pt. 1

I recently returned from an extended trip through Sri Lanka and found all sorts of wonderful, and odd, letterforms. In this two-part blog post series, we will explore letterforms, old and new! Let’s start with the old.

Located on the eastern side of the country, Polonnaruwa was the second capital of the Sri Lankan kingdoms, from the 11th century until 1310 CE. Unfortunately, it was particularly vulnerable to attack by invaders from India and eventually was abandoned in favor of a more defensible location. Happily, much of the stonework of the city remains, including some stunning inscriptions.

The Velikkara Inscription is a mix of Grantha Tamil and Sinhala scripts. In the 12th Century CE, Velikkara Soldiers were engaged to protect major sacred relics—the Tooth and Bowl of the Buddha—during a period of unrest. This inscription states assurances by the Velikkaras to protect these relics no matter what.

Sinhalese inscriptions in the central religious areas.

Galpota (Stone Book). This thing is amazing. Not only is it 9 meters long and 1.5 meters wide and weighs 25 tonnes, but was dragged by elephant some 100km to this location! It is shaped in the form of a palm-leaf manuscript, and includes three pages describing the genealogy and deeds of King Nissankamalla (1187–1196 CE). As you might expect, it is the largest such inscription in Sri Lanka. Sadly, I didn’t get a better picture of the text itself, but the object alone is stunning.

Dutch Reformed Church – Galle
Formerly controlled by the Portuguese, Galle was captured in 1640 by Dutch forces in partnership with King Rajasinhe II. Unfortunately, their alliance fell apart as King Rajasinhe II determined that the Dutch were no better than the Portuguese, leading to years of conflict. Galle, however, remained a Dutch stronghold on the island.

The current Dutch Reformed Church was completed in 1755 and stands at the highest point of the Galle Fort. It contains many, many grave stones both from the time of Dutch control and British control.

There’s so much to love in that AR ligature. And the happiness of the R tail.

This stone was fascinating to me. It is clearly two separate grave stones that have been put together since they have a similar top.

Note the interesting low crossbar on the E. Some really lovely forms!

I loved these embossed letters. Very common of the early Dutch examples at the church.

Unfortunately, because this church was quite small, many of the grave stones were covered with tables, chairs, pews, etc. Made it hard to photograph!

One of the most unusual stones in the church was this one, written in Tamil. Unfortunately, it is quite worn and hard to make out, but I thought to include it as it is quite special. [Edit] Apparently this is the grave of the first Tamil convert to Christianity (thanks Ben)!

Almost all the gravestones outside were completely worn down due to the annual rainstorms and wind. This one has survived better, but it is still fun to see how it is slowly falling apart.


Also while in Galle, the hotel we stayed at had a rather intriguing framed piece on the wall.

Not recognizing the language, I asked my friend Ben Mitchell (who knows much about South East Asian scripts). He identified it as a Buddhist Kammavaca manuscript usually produced for the ordination of monks. These documents were highly sacred texts usually commissioned by lay-people when a son entered a Buddhist monastery. The language is Pali (used for the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism) but the script is a Burmese square script often called Magyi-zi, or “tamarind seed script”.

How could such a document have ended up in Sri Lanka? As I began to investigate, I was surprised to discover that Sri Lanka had, at times, close religious ties with other countries in South East Asia and in particular Myanmar. For example, in 1070 CE, after a period of particularly difficult warfare, the King in Polonnaruwa invited eminent monks from Myanmar to help re-establish Buddhist practice in Sri Lanka.

One particularly interesting example happened in the 1600s. By that time, Buddhism was somewhat on decline in Sri Lanka and Portuguese priests were working hard to convert the local population to Catholicism. To combat their efforts, the Dutch helped the Sinhalese king organize religious missions to come to Sri Lanka from the Buddhist Kingdom of Rakhaing on the west coast of Myanmar. The first, in 1684, included 40 monks (and their collection of religious texts), and helped to re-establish Buddhism as the dominant faith on the island.

For more history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, check out this great article.

That’s it for today! Check out Part 2 for more contemporary samples!

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