It was a Ratnapura Government Agent (GA) who brought the Mahawamsa to the world’s attention. British civil servant George Turnour was the first to bring out an English translation of the Pali chronicle. After ten years of hard labour, along with a select group of Buddhist monks, Turnour brought the translation out in 1837.

A German translation of Mahavamsa was completed by Wilhelm Geiger in 1912. And that was translated into English by Mabel Haynes Bode in 1921.

The Mahawamsa has now been included in the list of 64 new items of “documentary heritage” inscribed on the Memory of the World International Register of UNESCO.

The Memory of the World (MoW) Register lists documentary heritage which has been recommended by the International Advisory Committee, and endorsed by the Executive Board of UNESCO. on the basis of their world significance and outstanding universal value.

Inscription on the Register publicly affirms the significance of the documentary heritage, makes it better known and allows for greater access to it, thereby facilitating research, education, entertainment, and preservation over time. There are 494 inscriptions on the International MoW Register, as of May 2023, UNESCO’s website says.

Regarding the Mahawamsa, UNESCO says that it is one of the world’s longest-unbroken historical accounts. “The Mahavamsa is the first of its kind in South Asia, initiating a mature historiographic tradition, presenting Sri Lanka’s history in a chronological order from the 6th century BCE.”

“The authenticity of the facts provided in the document has been confirmed through archaeological research conducted in Sri Lanka and India. It is an important historical source in South Asia containing crucial information about the lifetime of the Buddha, the Emperor Asoka and the rise of Buddhism as a world religion. The document played a significant role in popularizing Buddhism in Southeast Asia and contributed singularly to the identity of Emperor Asoka in Indian history.”

“The existence of a number of manuscripts of the Mahavamsa in several countries as well as the transliteration and translation of the text to several Southeast Asian and European languages stand testimony to its immense historical, cultural, literal, linguistic and scholarly values,” it added.

George Turnour

The man who brought the Mahawamsa to the world outside Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as it was called) was a British colonial civil servant George Turnour.

Hugh Karunanayake, writing in the daily Island said that George was born in Ceylon (as Sri lanka was then known) in 1799. His father had come over to Ceylon in 1789 with the 73rd British Regiment and was appointed Fort Adjutant in Jaffna in 1795. Young George was sent to England for his education, and on his return as an 18-year-old, joined the Ceylon Civil Service.

Harry Williams writes in his “Ceylon Pearl of the East” that the Colonial Service at that time, attracted men of culture “for whom the betterment of mankind in general, and not personal prosperity, was the principal objective.” George Turnour who was Government Agent in Ratnapura, was one of these men.

It was by chance that Turnour became aware of the Mahawamsa. A Buddhist monk who he knew had placed some palm leaf manuscripts on his desk.

Williams says: “The documents which lay on the desk before him that morning (in 1826) were not connected with his routine duties as Government Agent. 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 that time, the existence of a historical record called the Mahavamsa, or Great Dynasty, was known only to a handful of Buddhist priests.

Williams explains: “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, verbose, 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, and 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.”

Proceeding further, Williams writes: “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 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.”

Williams goes on to say that Turnour was inspired by the beauty of Ratnapura’s imposing landscape to take up the onerous task of translating the manuscripts. The result: some thirty books of the Mahavamsa were translated, edited and arranged by him during his lifetime and published in 1836; ten years after his first glimpse of the “tika.”

Sadly, Turnour 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 civilization. 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 Polonnaruwa, abandoned and forgotten in the arid plains of central Ceylon,” Williams writes.

When the news of Turnour’s death in 1843 reached Ceylon, there was widespread grief in the island among colonial officialdom and local elites, writes Hugh Karnanayake.

“It was decided to establish a suitable memorial to Turnour aand subscriptions were collected for the purpose. The subscription list was headed by Chief Justice Sir Anthony Oliphant with a donation of £2-2sh. This was matched by similar donations from the following: Mr Justice Stark, Donald Davidson, Capt Kelson, Dr Cameron, Joseph Read, Lt Col Fletcher, J Jumeaux, JG Firth, CR Buller, Francis Hudson, Lt Hawkins, Capt Lillee, William Morris, F de Livera, TC Power, FB Norris, JH Rabinel, R Jefferson, H De Alwis Mudyr, David de Silva Mudyr, C Webster, S Northway, Don Hendrick Mudyr.”

Be that as it may, according to Williams, Turnour never received the recognition which was his due. He was almost unknown. A small and obscure road in Borella in Colombo, named after him, is the only reminder. .

“But his work is of an importance which increases with the passing of the years,” Williams says.