Home

Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Korea, Japan

Image Map

Buddhist Music of Sri Lanka



Sri Lanka is the oldest continually Buddhist country.  Theravada Buddhism was introduced to the island in the 2nd century BC by Mahinda, the son of the Emperor Ashoka of India.  Later, the nun Sanghamitta, the daughter of Asoka, was said to have brought the southern branch of the original bodhi tree, where it was planted at Anuradhapura. From that day up to the present, the Buddhists in Sri Lanka have paid and continue to pay the utmost reverence to this branch of the bodhi tree under the shade of which Sakyamuni achieved enlightenment.

Monks from Sri Lanka have had an important role in spreading both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism throughout South-east Asia. It was in Sri Lanka, in the 1st century AD during the reign of King Vatta Gamini that the Buddhist monks assembled in Aloka-Vihara and wrote down the tripitaka, the three basket of the teachings, known as the Pali scriptures for the first time. It was Sri Lankan nuns who introduced the sangha of nuns into China in 433AD. In the 16th century the Portuguese conquered Sri Lanka and savagely persecuted Buddhism as did the Dutch who followed them.

When the British won control at the beginning of the 19th century Buddhism was well into decline, a situation that encouraged the English missionaries that then began to flood the island. But against all expectations the monastic and lay community brought about a major revival from about 1860 onwards, a movement that went hand in hand with growing nationalism. 
Since then Buddhism has flourished and Sri Lankan monks and expatriate lay people have been prominent in spreading Theravada Buddhism in Asia, the West and even in Africa.

Wherever Theravada Buddhism exists one finds music distinguishable from the music of Mahayana Buddhist traditions by its more restrictive character.  Although certain restrictions on music have been cited as evidence that music was negatively valued in the Theravada tradition, in fact the reverse is true: music was understood to be so powerful a means of affecting perception and cognition that forms were developed to harness and control that power.  
In the MahaParinibbana-Sutta, for example, Buddha talks of the grand vitality of the city of his own demise, Kusinara, with reference to the sensuous mingling of musical sounds of drums, vina, singing, and cymbals. He also suggests that instrumental musical offerings by lay people constitute important forms of worship.  He discusses styles of chanting in detail in the Cullavagga, advocating chant ("intoned recitation") as a form of musical worship.

The music and performance associated with the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy is a case in point with regard to the place of music within Theravada Buddhism. This temple is known as the Tooth Relic Temple, or the Temple of the Tooth (right), because it holds one of the Buddha's teeth in safekeeping. During the reign of King Narendrasinghe (1707-1739), the Tooth Temple underwent a considerable increase in status and importance. The relic began to be included in the annual asala perahera, which had hitherto been connected to worship of the major Hindu deities; it also shed its identity as an object of Mahayana worship and began to acquire a Theravada identification.

The early rulers in the Nayakkar dynasty in Sri Lanka (1739-1815), to which Narendrasinghe's court was connected, are thought to have sought out the support of the Sinhala Theravada monastic community (sangha), and it was to bolster their claim to authority in Sri Lanka that they became patrons of Buddhist worship. Under their patronage, several important musical forms flourished, including prafasti, 'praise songs'. Ariyaratne has suggested that they are closely related, if not directly analogous, to the Tamil cintu (Sinhala, sindu), a five-line composition with a shortened first line (pallavi) and a long second line (anupallavi).

Other elements of kavikara maduva musical performance, such as the incorporation of the udakki  'hourglass drum' and the panteru 'tambourine', reflect the broad religious and musical influences operating within Theravada Buddhist contexts. The udakki, also known as the damaru, is an hourglass drum identified with both the cosmic dance of Shiva and Buddhist tantric practice. The panteru, an idiophone, is a metal-frame instrument with jingles that are thought to signify the circle of planets. The panteru, like other elements of the kavikara manduva musical performance, is of great antiquity and exemplifies the diverse social histories that are inscribed in the music ofTheravada Buddhist worship.

Buddhist music in Sri Lanka, including chanted recitation of religious texts by monks (Bhikkus) and instrumental musical offerings by lay people, appear to be broadly consistent with the portrayal of music in the Theravada texts. These include the music of the lay Buddhist instrumental ensemble (hevisi) and Buddhist chanting (pirit).  Pirit (from paritta 'protection' in Pali) is a style of intoned recitation (sarabhanna) based on phonological properties of the Pali language, but restricted melodically to the Vedic three-tone scale. As the oldest among all the Theravada traditions outside India, the Sinhala Theravada chant traditions may afford rich insights into Indian Buddhist musical principles.



Temple processions (perahera) involve professional and amateur dance, music, and theater troupes that draw from diverse musical sources and temporal strata. Such processions are often contexts for political commentary and fun, as when the colonial overseer in his pith helmet appears, harassing groups of dancing tea pluckers. The pappara, a snare drum and trumpet ensemble, is a regular feature; its jazzy melodies and rhythmic drive are also popularly associated with the highenergy cheering sections at cricket matches. West Asian musical instruments have been incorporated into the primary lay Buddhist instrumental ensemble, hevisi. Both the Theravada and the Mahayana branches of Buddhism in Sri Lanka have nourished or provided a framework for the flowering of diverse performance genres, styles, and contexts. As a result, forms authorized in the canon as well as the heterogeneous music and performance arts that flourish in everyday contexts of Buddhist worship are included under the heading of Buddhist music.




* * * * * * * * * *

Further reading (compiled from Paul D. Greene, Keith Howard, Terry E. Miller, Phong T. Nguyen and Hwee-San Tan, "Buddhism and the Musical Cultures of Asia: A Critical Literature Survey," in The World of Music,Vol. 44, No. 2, Body and Ritual in Buddhist Musical Cultures (2002), 135-175 (VWB - Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2002).
  • Kulatillake, Cyril de Silva.  "Buddhist Chant in Sri Lanka and Its Musical Elements." Jahrbuchftir Musikalische Volks- und Volkerkunde (198) 10:20. 
  • Laade, Wolfgang.  "The Influence of Buddhism on the Sinhalese Music of Sri Lanka." Asian Music 25(1-2; 1993-94):51-68.
  • Mei Meisig, Konrad.  "Der Bodhisattva im Musikerwettstreit: Redefiguren in der Singalesischen Guttila Dichtung."  Mitteilungen fur Anthropologie und Religiongeschichte 11:57-74.Meisig, Konrad, 1996.
  • Sarachchandra, Ediriweera.  The Sinhalese Folk Play. Colombo: Dept. of Cultural Affairs, 1952.
  • Sarachchandra, Ediriweera.  The Folk Drama of Ceylon. Colombo: Dept. of Cultural Affairs, 1966.
  • Sheeran, Anne.  White Noise: European Modernity, Sinhala Musical Nationalism, and the Practice of a Creole Popular Music in Modern Sri Lanka. Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 1997.
  • Taki, Doni and Yoshida, Tsunezo
    1942 Tendai Shomyo Taisei (Collection of the Tendai sect's shomyo). Rieizan Monastery.Taki, Doni and Yoshida, Tsunezo
    1942 Tendai Shomyo Taisei (Collection of the Tendai sect's shomyo). Rieizan Monastery.Taki, Doni and Yoshida, Tsunezo
    1942 Tendai Shomyo Taisei (Collection of the Tendai sect's shomyo). Rieizan Monastery.Tsuge Gen'ichi
    2000 "Toyo Ongaku Gakkai and Music Research in Japan." Yearbook for Traditional Music 32:157-65.Tsuge Gen'ichi
    2000 "Toyo Ongaku Gakkai and Music Research in Japan." Yearbook for Traditional Music 32:157-65.Tsuge Gen'ichi
    2000 "Toyo Ongaku Gakkai and Music Research in Japan." Yearbook for Traditional Music 32:157-65.