Pali-the Language of the Buddhist Scriptures and its presence on the Internet

Pali-the Language of the Buddhist Scriptures and its presence on the Internet

Harsha Wijayawardhana B.Sc. in Biochemistry (Miami), CITP (UK), FBCS (UK)

Chairman, Local Language Working Group (LLWG) in collaboration with LK Domain Registry


Pali is the ecclesiastical language of the Theravada Buddhist scriptures. It is a language without its own written script and uses many different scripts ranging from Sinhala, Thai, and Myanmar to Devanagari. Rhys Davids, the author of Buddhist India, not only founded the Pali Text Society in 1881 in Britain but he developed a Romanized version of a script to write Pali. Robert Ceaser Childers released the first English to Pali-Dictionary in 1872. Later, Rhys Davids compiled Pali-Pali and Pali – English Dictionary, which later most scholars would accept as a pioneering work. Rhys Davids and his wife, Caroline, would contribute immensely to popularizing Theravada Buddhism and Pali texts in the West.

Pali became the lingua franca of several Theravada Buddhist countries by the fifth century. For Sinhala speakers, typing Tripitaka in Pali using the Sinhala script is of great value and importance. With the development of Sinhala Unicode fonts, several fonts makers labored to have a font that supports Pali in the Sinhala script. Fonts that have Pali support in Sinhala are categorized under level 3 fonts ( essay looks into the presence of Pali using the Sinhala script on the Internet and how important Pali is to Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka and the world. 

Origins of Pali

Pali belongs Indo-European Language family and to the subfamily of middle Indo Aryan. According to scholar-monk, Venerable Walpola Rahula, Pali was not found in India in either written or spoken form. According to him, Pali evolved in Sri Lanka in the first or second century from Magadhi. According to him, Pali is a composite language derived from several dialects that were spoken in North West and East India.

“What we call Pali is not a homogenous but a composite language, containing several dialectal forms and expressions. It is probably based on the Magadhi, which the Buddha generally spoke, and out of it a new artificial, literally, language later evolved.” (Walpola Rahula, in his essay, “Pali as a language for Transmitting an authentic religious tradition”)

Buddhists believe that Buddha spoke one or several of the dialects of Magadhi, which was the vernacular language commonly spoken in the Kosala Kingdom located in the North of India at Buddha’s time. Buddha refused to have his Word (Buddhavacana) in ‘Chandas’ or Vedic Language (Sanskrit). Instead, he advocated that his disciples must preserve his word in the vernacular of the day (Shakaya Niruttiya).

In the 3rd century BC, Asoka sponsored Buddhist missionaries throughout his known world. According to Mahavamsa (Sri Lankan chronicles), Emperor Asoka’s son, Arahant Mahinda, brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka. Arahant Mahinda’s teacher Arahant Moggaliputtatissa spearheaded the Third Buddhist Council, which put the groundwork for Buddhist missionary work. According to Sri Lankan tradition, Arahant Moggaliputtatissa Maha thera belonged to the lineage of Upali Thera and was the pupil of Siggava Thera. Arahant Upali Thera was anointed as the custodian (Chief) of Monastic Rules and Codes (Vinaya) while Buddha was living. And also, he was given the task of preserving Vinaya Pitikaya, or the basket of discipline (which contains rules and codes on which the Buddhist monastic order is based) at the first Buddhist Council. Sri Lankan tradition, according to Dipavamsa, states that Arahant Mahinda belongs to the direct lineage of Upali Maha Thera, and, after the demise of Moggaliputtatissa Maha Thera, Arahant Mahinda became the custodian of Vinaya. With Theravada Buddhism, most probable that Magadhi, which was spoken in Asoka’s India, arrived in Sri Lanka.

Arahant Mahinda took to Sri Lanka in the 3rd Century Theravada Tripitaka (with commentaries), which was cleaned, elucidated, and closed after the Third Council at Patliputra (closed canon or Ceylonese Canon). Mahinda Maha Thera translated Attakatha (commentaries) from Magadhi to Elu (Old Sinhala). These commentaries were called Sihala Attakatha. These scriptures and commentaries were propagated orally, handed down from generation to generation.

Transcribing of Tripitaka and Commentaries on Palm leaves

During the reign of Valagamba (Vattagamini) in the first century, Sri Lanka underwent a seven-year drought (Baiminitya Saya). Many erudite monks passed away. Some monks who memorized Tripitaka and commentaries fled to India. Drought followed famine and disease. Several foreign usurpers of the throne of Sri Lanka ruled one after another while King Valagmaba hid in different caves in thick jungles organizing armies to reclaim the throne. Finally, Valagmaba managed to unify Sri Lanka and began rebuilding the country in 77BC (Geiger 29BC).

As a precaution to prevent the loss of Tripitaka and Sihala Attakatha and other religious texts, which were handed down from generation to generation orally since Arahant Mahinda, were recorded on Palm leaves after the Fourth Buddhist Council. This landmark event is recorded as follows in a short single verse in Mahavamsa:

“The text of the three Pitakas and Attakatha thereon did the wisest bhikkhus hand down in former times orally, but since they saw that the people were falling away (from religion) the bhikkhus came together, and so that the true doctrine might endure, they wrote them down in books.” (Mahavamsa, verse 100)

Although it is not recorded in the Mahavamsa, transcribing Tripitaka would have taken place at the Matale, Aluvihara. Some modern scholars have put forward another location in Kegalle, Sri Lanka.

Translation of Sihala Attakatha and other documents to Pali

By the fifth century, Sri Lanka played a major- role in propagating Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar, Khmer, etc. Also, Sri Lanka became the center of Buddhist learning, and foreign scholars arrived in Sri Lanka looking for Buddhist religious books. Buddhagosha Thera, an Indian Brahmin Buddhist monk, came to Sri Lanka to translate Sihala Attakatha and other religious texts into Pali. The arrival of Buddhagosha Thera in Sri Lanka and his work is recorded in his life story Buddhagosupatti. Myanmar King Dhammaceti Ramadhipati (1461-1492) provides the following record of the translation of Pitakas and Attakatha on palm leaves in Sinhala to Pali in the Nissaya of Kalyani inscription found in Myanmar:

” After eighteen Kings had ruled in Ceylon, the excellent rahandas, during the reign of King VattaGamini, seeing that the religion could not be transmitted orally, and so that it might not be confounded with other religious creeds, had written the Pitikas and Attakatha on palm leaves in the Sinhala language. In the year of religion 903 (306 AD) in the reign of the ninety-ninth King of Ceylon, Mahanama, the thera Buddhagosha went to Ceylon from Jambudipa and transcription from Sinhala to Magadhi.” (Buddhagosuppatti, James Gray, pages 20-21)

Buddhagosha Thera translated Pitikas and Attakatha into Pali in the fifth century. Also, he wrote his celebrated work Vissudhimagga in Sri Lanka. Buddhagosha Thera carried these translations to Myanmar and India. Sri Lanka lost some of these books later after the destruction of the Anuradhapura and Pollonaru Kingdoms, and Myanmar was to return some of the books to Sri Lanka in 13th century.

Pali- writings in Sinhala Fonts

Sinhala script is utilized to write Pali. In the Pali Alphabet, two vowels Ae (ඇ) and Ae: (ඈ) found in the Sinhala are not used. When writing Pali in Sinhala, conjunct letters and touching letters are commonly used. Ananda is written in Pali: ආනන්‍ද. The word dhamma is written in Pali in the following manner: ධම‍්ම‍. When typing touching letters, one can type the letter ම+(shift+back slash)+ම = ම‍්ම on the computer using the Wijesekera keyboard (Please, refer to SLS 1134 3rd revision).

To type Pali, the font must support Level 3, as mentioned before. Iskoola and Bhashita fonts support Conjunct Letters (Level 2) and touching letters (Level 3).


Writing down Tripitaka and Sihala Attakatha had been a landmark event in Theravada Buddhism. And later, Buddhagosha Thera contributed immensely to the preservation of Theravada Buddhism by translating Sihala Attakatha and other texts to Pali and writing Vissudhimagga in Pali. Sri Lankans monk also took Upsampada or the higher ordination to Myanmar, Thailand, and Khmer. Dr. Rhys Davids claims in his book, Buddhist India, that Sri Lankan monks treated Tripitaka as a closed canon. He further states Tripitaka has been preserved in Sri Lanka in the same form as Arahant Mahinda brought to Sri Lanka. Therefore, it is easy to assume that Sri Lanka has contributed very much to the preservation of Buddha’s word (Buddhavachana) in its original form as it was handed down to Sri Lankans in the third century BC. By having Sinhala fonts with touching and conjunct letters, Tripitaka in Pali is rendered in the same form on the computer and the Internet as it was once written on palm leaves many centuries ago.


  1. Mahanama Thera, The Mahavamsa (Translated into English by Wilhelm Geiger, Ph.D), 8th Century, First published 1912, Reprinted by Government Printers of Sri Lanka, 1986.
  2. Walpola Rahula Thera, Prof. Ph.D., Pali as a Language for transmitting an Authentic religious tradition (one of the essays found in the “Humor in Pali Literature”), Page 9-21, Published Walpola Sri Rahula Foundation, 1997
  3. T. W. Rhys Davids Ph.D., Buddhist India, T. Fisher Unwin, Putnam’s Sons, 1911, Reprint in 2010.
  4. James Gray, Buddhagosupatti or The Historical Romance of THE RISE and CAREER of BUDDHAGOSHA, LUZAC & CO., 1892, Reprint 1998.
  5. Walpola Rahula Thera, Prof. Ph.D., ලක්දිව බුදුසමයේ ඉතිහාසය, S Godage and Bro., 10th print, 2009.