K. N. O. Dharmadasa, in The Island, 15 June 2015 … honouring the birth centenary of a great scholar
Professor PB Sannasgala (1915-1997) represented a generation of our scholars steeped in what was termed Oriental learning – Pali, Sanskrit, Sinhala and Buddhist Studies. Going through a Pirivena education he later obtained B.A; M.A. and Ph.D as an external candidate displaying his perseverance in the pursuit of knowledge. His contribution to Sinhala Studies was memorable. But above all, he has earned a niche in the history of Sinhala scholarship as the team leader who under many difficulties was able to bring the Sinhala Dictionary protest to completion after a struggle extending to 65 years.
Punchi Bandra Sannasgala was born on 16th of June 1915 in Haputale, then a sleepy village in the Uva Province and had the good fortune to get a good primary education and later came under the influence of erudite Buddhist monks who guided him to study Pali and Sanskrit in the Pravacanodaya Pirivena in Molligoda in the Kalutara District. At that time it was a great seat of Oriental learning. It was here that he obtained the Pracina Pandit degree and it was in this institution that he cut his teeth as a Sinhala scholar.
In association with a scholar monk Pandit Nahalle Pannasena thero, Sannasgala brought out several books such as Kav Silumini Sahityaya and Sinhala Sandesa Sahityaya. It was during his time that Sannasgala came to know the giants in the field of Oriental learning such as Ven. Kalukondayawe Pragnasekara Thero of the Vidyodaya Pirivena, Prof. Gunapala Malalasekara and Prof. D.E. Hettiarachchi of the then University of Ceylon.
Sannasgala joined the Sinhala Dictionary project in the 1950’s. He was associated with many of the notable scholarly activities of the time. For example, he was a joint secretary of the committee which was entrusted with the work of compiling a Sinhala Encyclopedia which was a project launched to co-inside with the festivities of the Buddha Jayanthi Celebrations in 1955. He was a Founder member and office bearer of a Sinhala Lekhaka Sanvidanaya (Sinhala Writer’s Association).
Classical Studies: Sannasgala’s contribution to Sinhala Classical Studies is immense. His Sinhala Sahitya Vansaya first published in 1961, was a monumental work which is a bibliographical compilation of the history of Sinhala literature, from its beginning in circa 3rd century BC up to 1960. It is arranged in four sections – The Ancient Period, The Medieval Period and The Modern Period and an Addendum. The Ancient Period covers the literary activity, during the Anuradhapura period of Srilankan history; in the Medieval Period covered the Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Kurunegala, Gampola, Kotte , Sitavaka and Senkadagala eras. The Modern Period according to him starts with the beginning of the 18th century. The period thus covered is 1700-1960. There are two sections in this period – the Mahanuvara Era begins with the reign of Sri Vira Parakrama Narendrasinghe who was the reigning monarch by 1700, and ends with the capture of Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe in 1815. The Colombo Era begins with the inauguration of British Rule and after its end in 1948 continues with the era of independence ending in 1960. (It needs mention that later Sannasgala updated the book- up to 1990.)
The Sinhala Sahitya Vamsaya is an indispensable work when it comes to Sinhala Studies. It is being consulted by readers ranging from school- children to university professors because this is the one work which lists and describes all the books produced in the Sinhala Language in its literary history. Taking each book, the author gives its date of writing, its contents in summary and its significance in the annals of Sinhala literature. Furthermore, in addition to this information on the books, the author gives a fairly detailed history of the literary and cultural background of each era and in this description he has included all necessary information on the institution of learning and the note worthy scholars who were active during the period. That is how the Sinhala Sahitya Vamsaya becomes a compulsory addition to any library of Sinhala studies.
Other noteworthy publications by Sannasgala are Soragune Devala Puvata which gives in detail the history of a deity shrine in the Uva Province and Sinhala Supa Sastraya, which is an extremely inforciting study of ancient Sinhala Culinary. The basis for this work was the cookery book used in the Mulu Taen Ge (The Royal Kitchen) of the Kandyan kings. Many historical and social facts can be gleaned from this work.
Lexicographical work: As a lexicographer Sannasgala has made an original contribution to our knowledge of loan words in the Sinhala Language by compiling the work Sinhala Words of Dutch origin. Here the author sometimes provides the Portuguese and English equivalents of these Dutch loan- words. As lexicographer his most outstanding contribution was the leadership he gave as Editor-in-Chief of the Sinhala Dictionary to bring the whole protest to a fruition in 1992. I would like to state briefly why this achievement is so significant. The Sinhala Dictionary project was launched in 1927 with Sir D.B. Jayathilaka as the Editor- in-Chief Professor Wilhelm Geiger, the well known Oriental scholar was invite to be its advisor and help in the preparation of the ground-work that was necessary. The project dragged on for several decades under different Editors-in-chief and in the 1970’s one official was to declare that if we want to continue the work at that pace it would take at least 640 years to complete it! That was the challenge Sannasgala faced in 1984 when he was elevated to the post of Editor-in-Chief. He worked day and night, goaded his subordinates to do the same and finally achieved his goal in 1992 so that we now have an authoritative Dictionary of the Sinhala Language. It is a massive work- going into 27 volumes. As much of the later work was done under immense pressure those were imperfections. Still we have the completed work thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Sannasgala.
Scholary articles: Sannasgala has among other work edited, several classical Sinhala works for publication, namely Sinhala Maha Bodhi Vamsaya, Dalada Sirita, Saddharmalankaraya and Maha Hatana. He has also edited in collaboration with others several collections of scholarly articles such as Sinhala Prasasti Kavya. As a Sanskrit scholar he has edited for publication the classical work Nalopakhyanaya.
As we stated at the beginning of this essay, P.B. Sannasgala represented a great; tradition in Sinhala Scholarship. He belongs to a generation of scholars who were steeped in Oriental learning. It needs maintain that it was the Buddhist clergy who were the pioneers in those scholarly endeavour (it was under their tutelage that laymen such as Sannasgala turned out to be great scholars themselves. Sannasgala, Hettiarchchi, Malalasekara and many others of that generation did full justice to the mentorship their teachers gave them. In a way it is unfortunate that such a culture of learning has become almost extinct today.
After his retirement from the Dictionary Office Sannasgala’s service were obtained by two universities – the University of Colombo and the University of Kelaniya. These institutions were anxious that his knowledge and experience as a scholar should be obtained for one benefit of the younger generation.
Scholars such as Sannasgala have left an indelible impression on Sinhala scholarship. This country was fortunate to have scholars like him who did yeoman service to enrich our knowledge about our cultural heritage. May he attain the supreme Bliss of Nibbana.
Sannas Mudiyanselage Punchi Bandara alias Punchi Bandara Sannasgala was born in Ambagasdowe-Gedera, Ambewela at the foot of Pattipola Range at Udukinda….