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Elu langauge and ancient Sri Lanka


by Nalin de Silva


I agree that the indigenous tribes in the country spoke Elu. Ven. Baddegama Vimalawansa thero has stated that the language spoken by the Yakshas, Nagas and the others was known as Hela. Elu is another word for Hela in Hela (or Elu) and there are references to both Hela and Elu in the Sinhala literature, denoting the Sinhala language. Elu, Hela, Sihala and Sinhala mean the same language that has gone through various stages of evolution as shown by numerous evidence from inscriptions and early Sinhala works. Most probably Elu, Helu, Hela, Sihela, Sihala and Sinhala denote terms used in Hela Basa to identify the language as it evolved through thousands of years. Not only the language but the word used to identify the language has evolved over the years. Nobody would call the language used in the Sinhala newspapers Elu or Hela today, though it has clearly evolved from the language used in the Vessagiri inscription. Today we use the words "pemini", and "nopemini!" instead of "agatha" and "anagatha" found in early inscriptions. However even the present day Sinhalas, use the word "nonagatha" to describe the period of transition of the sun from Pisces to Aries, on the Sinhala new year day to indicate that the sun has neither arrived or not arrived fully in the constellation of Aries during that period.


The evolution from Elu to Sinhala should have been the subject of a number of studies by scholars but unfortunately only the Hela Havula, founded by the great grammarian Mr. Munidasa Cumaratunga is still interested in this work. How Elu or Hela absorbed words from the Prakrit languages of the Vedic civilisation, especially Magadhi (Pali ?) to become Sihela and then Sihala (Sihala could probably be either a corrupted version of Sihela, as it is easier to pronounce it than the latter or re-derived from Seehala the Magadhised version of Sihela) which after being exposed to Sanskrit later on, could have become the present Sinhala. Parallely the Sihela nation was formed during the time of King Pandukhabhaya by absorbing the "Aryans", meaning those who brought the Vedic civilisation to the country around 9th century BC, into the Hela tribes. Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera in his "Sinhala Kavya Sampradaya" reminds us that the language of Sinhala poetry is still Sihala in the sense that the Sinhala poets in general use a language that does not have many Sanskrit words. Dr. Punchi Bandara Sannasgala in the "Sinhala Sahithya Vanshaya" - History of Sinhalese Literature, mentions the Sinhala books, "Helatuwa", "Heladiv Abidana Vatha", "Heladiv Rajaniya", "Helu Kankhavitharaniya", "Helu Getapadaya", "Helu Dalada Vansa Kavya", "Helu Da Ruvanakara", "Helu Mahabodhi Vansaya", "Helusuthra", "Eluakaradiya", "Elu Aththanagalu Vansaya", "Elu Umanda", "Elu Daladavansa Kavya", "Elusandasa", "Elu Sandas Lakuna", "Elu Sandas Lakuna Sannaya", "Elu Silowa", "Elu Silo Sathakaya", "Eluhathvanagaluvanshaya", works starting with Hela, Helu or Elu. Some of the works mentioned are now known only by name. However some later authors have referred to these works and have quoted from them thus enabling scholars to study the language they had used. Dr. Sannasgala and many others have observed that the language in all these works clearly show how the Elu or Hela or Sihala or Sinhala has evolved over the years. A parallel evolution is observed in the Sinhala alphabet and the script from the ancient inscriptions to the present day alphabet and the script in the printed books. Incidentally, according to Dr. Sannasgala, Eluakaradiya is a Sinhala dictionary that had been used by Rev. Benjamin Clough in compiling a Sinhala - English dictionary in 1821. Neither Rev. Clough nor anybody else has used an Eluakaradiya to prepare a Tamil - English or even a Tamil - Sinhala dictionary. It has to be emphasised that even the Deepavansaya and the Mahavansaya written originally in Pali are based on Helatuwa. In any event it is clear that the indigenous Yakshas, Nagas and other tribes having interbred with the people who brought the Vedic civilisation to the country around the 9th century BC, had created a nation by about the 4th century BC, together with a culture and a language, that was not found in Bharat. The Hela or Sihala language and the culture may have many similarities with the languages and cultures of the Vedic civilisation but there are important differences as well. The Sinhalas are very open minded and through out history have not been reluctant to assimilate various features from other cultures and languages, including Tamil, in to their own culture and language, without losing their identity. Even Ashokan Buddhism was assimilated into the Sinhala culture resulting in a unique Sinhala Buddhist culture with not only gods and "bodhi poojas" but also "neketh" , "gammadu", "devolmadu", "bali", "thovil", "daha ata sanni" and what not, that may appear to be un-Buddhistic or irrational to those "scientific" and rationalist Buddhists. Sinhala Buddhism is neither Ashokan Buddhism nor any other Buddhism, just as much Anglicanism is not the same as Roman Catholicism. In all these cases we refer to cultures under the guise of religions. No religion exists purely as a religion in a vacuum but only in connection with a culture. If we refer to the Dhamma or the doctrine by the term religion, then the religions exist only in the libraries throughout the world. Even Dhamma is preached or discovered or whatever only in a cultural milieu. In the Buddhist literature it is said that the Bodhisathva went through the "pas maha belum" or looked for five requirements before he departed the "Thavthisa" to be conceived as the son of Maha Maya Devi. If the Bodhisathva was born into a European culture nearly 2600 years ago he would not have attained Buddhahood. Can anyone imagine an "Eskimo" Buddha? "Religions" could give rise to cultures and cultures in turn could give birth to and absorb "religions". (This is not a so-called dialectical relationship. Anybody with average intelligence can understand it without resorting to "dialectics" of either the idealistic or materialistic variety. There is nothing that can be understood with so-called dialectics that cannot be explained using formal logic. For a detailed analysis please refer to "Apohakaye Rupikaya" or Formalism of Dialectics.)


Though the Sinhalas in general had absorbed and assimilated from other cultures into their culture, there had been periods of blind imitation. But fortunately the periods of imitation had been short in a history of more than 2500 years. At present we are going through such a period, under the hegemony of western cultural imperialism and the sooner we get back to absorption and assimilation from blind imitation it would be for the benefit of the Sinhalas as well as the others living in this country.