March 2017


Sandeshaya Kavya: Poetry on the Wing
March 2017




''The Peacock's Message'' was the first Sandeshaya Kavya

The Kotte Kingdom has long been considered the Golden Age of Sri Lankan literature. During this era the arts prospered and Sandeshaya Kavya (Sanskrit) or "Message Poems" too were written in a local style.


Words: Richard Boyle | Antique paintings by GM Henry


At the dawn of the 15th Century, in the Kingdom of Kotte ruled by King Parakramabahu VI (1412-1457), the last monarch to unite the Island, there was a great aesthetic renaissance. Prose and verse, in particular Sandeshaya Kavya, evolved and flourished to become part of the Island's significant literary tradition. The best source for translations of the Sandeshaya Kavya is 'An Anthology of Sinhalese Literature (1970)'.


The composition of a Sandeshaya Kavya follows a strict format. The poem begins in praise of the bird-messenger and then conveys the need for a message to be flown to a certain destination. The poem's substance is a description of the flight the bird takes from becoming airborne to arriving at its destination and the many delights along the way: religious sites, villages, natural wonders, bathing beauties...


The Paravi Sandeshaya, or "The Pigeon's Message", was written by revered Buddhist monk, Ven Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero (1408-1491), a distinguished scholar. The bird probably referred to, the much-domesticated rock pigeon (Sinhala Gal Paraviya), was dispatched from Kotte to the guardian deity Upulvan, praising Parakramabahu and his kingdom.

Prose and verse, in particular Sandeshaya Kavya, evolved and flourished to become part of the Island’s significant literary tradition.


The Kokila Sandeshaya, "The Koel's Message", was composed by the chief Buddhist monk of a monastic college, pirivena, at Mulgirigala, near Matara, to be received by Upulvan to ensure the protection of Kotte's Prince Sapumal during his invasion of Jaffna. The poem contains a description of the passage of this bird, of the cuckoo family, known locally as the koha with a mating call coinciding with Sri Lanka's Aluth Avurudda (New Year).


The well-known Hamsa Sandeshaya, or "The Goose's Message", was written in around 1420, though the author's name has not been recorded, and relates to how it was sent on the wing from Kotte to the chief monk at Keragala, 48 km away, to request the protection of Parakramabahu.


The messenger is advised about the journey, starting with the departure:


''Your eyes and heart will rejoice when you see the various flags
Slapping each other, flapping in the sky above the city,
And the women sauntering on both banks of the river
And girls in the river's waves sporting to their hearts' content.''


Portrayed is the goose's destination, Keragala, specifically the 13th Century Raja Maha Viharaya:


''Where on every side the sweet rice ripens in the fields unbroken
And from very far away are heard the cries of calves and children,
While like a mansion of the gods the temple gleams, the delight
That comes to him who sees this place is nectar's very savour.''


In Selalihini Sandeshaya, "The Starling's Message", the bird in question, selalihini, is the hill mynah species, which belongs to the starling family. Written by Ven Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero, the message - of great importance to Parakramabahu - must be conveyed from Kotte to nearby Kelaniya to request the regional God Vibhishana that his daughter gives birth to a son:


''Enter, O Selalihini, the great city of Kelaniya,
Whose beauty from moment to moment is ever renewed.
Forests bell-hung banners enclose its fine dwellings,
And glittering gems are set on its pinnacles' tips.


As the sun at dawn unfolds the lotus-flower
With abounding love all my intent unfold.
Go live, O Selalihini, a hundred years with friends and kinsfolk,
Just as you may please with blessings attained.''


Gira Sandeshaya, "The Parrot's Message" was written around 1455. Yet, the author's name has been lost with time. The message was to be sent to Thotagamuwa from from Kotte, more than 96km, to Ven Sri Rahula Thero, to ask him to pray to Natha, a Buddhist deity, for the protection of the faith. This poem contains much information on King Parakramabahu and the pirivena (monastic college), which the Ven Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero headed. But the most outstanding part portrays the forest:


''Fly on through the lovely forest regions,
Where gleaming waterfalls break through and tumble down,
Where sandy tracts are covered with scattered pollen
And companies of swans are maddened by desire.


When you see forest women, whose graceful hair
Is twined with screw-pine petals, who dust themselves
With pollen of blown blossom, and in that wild region
Long for love's contents, speak not to them but go on your way!''


Other messages include the Kaha Kurulla Sandeshaya, "The Golden Oriole's Message", also from the Kotte era, regarding the road to Kataragama, and the Savul Sandeshaya, "The Cock's Message", originating from the kingdom of Sitawaka (1521 - 1594) to protect the king and his army. Finally there is the Neelakobeyiya Sandeshaya, "The Dove's Message" - the emerald dove species - composed by an astrologer with a certain occult reputation, Barana of Matara, to God Kataragama to invoke blessings in the cure of a skin disease.

During the 14th Century, when the kingdom of Gampola was ruled by King Bhuvanekabahu V (1372-1391), the first Sinhala Sandeshaya Kavya appeared; Mayura Sandeshaya, "The Peacock's Message". Written by Kaveeshwara - grandson of Gurulugomi, an authority on Sinhala literature - its aim was to protect the king and his people, and was sent from Gampola to Upulvan, a guardian deity linked to an ancient temple at Devinuwara, near Matara.

Another 14th Century example is the Thisara Sandeshaya, “The Swan’s Message” – although the swan is not a bird indigenous to Sri Lanka. The message in the kavya is about safeguarding King Parakramabahu V (1344-1359) of Dedigama in the Gampola kingdom, his ministers and mother. This fictitious messenger flies from Dedigama to deliver the message to Upulvan at Devinuwara.

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    The rock pigeon of ''The Pigeon's Message''
    Illustration: Sujith Heenatigala

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    Of the cuckoo family, the koel of "The Koel's Message" is known as koha

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    In "The Starling's Message" the bird is the selalihini, a member of the species

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    The swan is not indigenous to Sri Lanka, but features in "The Swan's Message"
    Illustration: Sujith Heenatigala

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    "The Parrot's Message" is delivered by the Ceylon Large Parakeet

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    The emerald dove is featured in "The Dove's Message"

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    The golden oriole beautifies "The Golden Oriole's Message"

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    The jungle cock brings magnificence to "The Cock's Message"

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