Translating Worlds through Words: The Bird-View of the Selalihini Sandeshaya (The Starling’s Message)
This essay is a reflection on the process of translating into English the Sinhala epic poem සැළලිහිණි සංදේශය / Selalihini Sandeshaya (The Starling’s Message), which is a canonical text of Sinhala literature. Selalihini Sandeshaya was composed in the fifteenth century, around AD 1450, a period during which local Sinhala literature flourished. The poet, Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thera, was a Buddhist monk renowned for his literary genius and considered as one of the greatest writers of the classical Sinhala literary tradition. He was the Head and Chief of Sangha (order of monks) at the Vijayabahu Pirivena at Totagamuwa, Sri Lanka. Being a polyglot, he was honored with the title of sadbhasa paramesvara (“supreme master of six languages”). This poem, which is his most celebrated work, belongs to the popular Sinhala sandesa kavya genre (“message poems”), in which a message is dispatched through a bird. The word “sandesa” is derived from Sanskrit, meaning “successful communication.” The word has also been used to mean “information,” “message,” “news,” and “errand.”
In the Selalihini Sandeshaya, the messenger is the bird selalihiniya, or the starling. In the Sinhala sandesa kavya tradition, all the messengers are birds (unlike in the Indian sandesa kavya tradition). Other poems of this genre have been named after messenger birds such as peacocks, pigeons, geese, parrots, cocks, doves, and golden orioles. This poem features all four elements that a sandesa kavya is required to include: a sender, a courier, a recipient, and a message. As Jayasuriya points out, other requisites include “that the hero or the heroine should be a celebrity, the poem should start with a blessing, the courier must be praised, the destination must be mentioned, the route must be outlined describing distinguished persons on the way, the message must be narrated and the courier must be blessed,” which are all featured in the Selalihini Sandeshaya.
The message carried by the starling in the Selalihini Sandeshaya is sent to the local deity Vibhisana, who is the younger brother of Ravana (once the king of Sri Lanka), as depicted in the ancient Indian epic Ramayana. Fifteen stanzas of the poem (out of 111 stanzas) are devoted to portraying the god Vibhisana in detail, which indicates the importance the poet accorded the portrayal of the god. The poem describes the starling’s journey from Sri Jayawardenapura (the capital of the Kotte kingdom) to Kelaniya (where Vibhisana’s shrine is located) during the course of a single day. The message entreats Vibhisana to grant a son to princess Ulakudaya Devi, the younger daughter of the reigning King Parakramabahu VI. Given that King Parakramabahu had only two daughters, a male grandchild was a necessity to continue the royal lineage. The epilogue (stanzas 109 to 111) narrates how the princess eventually gave birth to a son, indicating that the starling successfully delivered the message to the deity, and that the deity fulfilled the request. Ulakudaya Devi gave birth to Vijayabahu, who, after the death of King Parakramabahu in AD 1467, was crowned king.
The main poem consists of 111 quatrains (known as sivupada in Sinhala). The Selalihini Sandeshaya is the shortest of the sandesa kavyas, but it is often cited as the sandesa that exemplifies the highest poetic quality. The divisions in the poem are based on what is being described in each section, such as descriptions of cities like Sri Jayawardenapura and Kelaniya, descriptions of places of interest, religious shrines (both Buddhist and Hindu shrines), places of natural beauty, celebrations, festivals, accounts of the king and the queen, invocation of the deity Vibhisana, and “odes” to the morning and the evening. Given the level of detail, the poem sheds light on several social, cultural, religious, and political aspects of fifteenth-century Sri Lankan society. Thus, apart from its poetic/literary value, this poem embeds information detailing the history of the times. As Jayasuriya notes in the introduction to his translation of the Selalihini Sandeshaya, “[u]nlike the earlier works of poetry that mostly dealt with Buddhist religious themes, the Sandesa kavya mark a clear turning point in that they deal with mundane subjects. Through them, we could understand the changes in the political arena and the aspirations, beliefs and other religious tendencies of the elite.” However, references to Buddhism and Sinhala Buddhist culture are found in abundance throughout the poem.
One of the key purposes of this project was to translate into English a renowned fifteenth-century Sinhala epic poem composed in elu (pure) Sinhala, which is different from contemporary Sinhala (though not a wholly alien language variety to the contemporary reader). The decisions made with regard to the readership during the translation process were dynamic rather than static. At the beginning, the specific target audience imagined for the translation consisted of the contemporary bilingual Sri Lankan readership, assuming that they would be familiar with certain historical, cultural, and religious aspects of Sri Lanka. However, as the translation process evolved, the audience was expanded to include a broader international audience, who would potentially be unfamiliar with not only the language and content but also the cultural, social, and religious aspects of the source language text. The text and the content have not been modified to accommodate familiar styles and forms of contemporary readerships. In fact, one of the purposes of this project is to preserve the source language text’s form and content as much as possible. Since one of the goals in undertaking this translation is to provide not just a literary understanding of the text, but also a broader sociocultural understanding of fifteenth-century Sri Lanka, culture-specific vocabulary in the target language text has been preserved as much as possible, such as dageba, Triple Gem, Deva, Devi, and kovil. The source language text provides insights into some key sociocultural features of the period during which it was composed. For instance, verses 73, 74, and 75 provide details of the shrine at Kelaniya, which was, and continues to be, a very important religious center. The stanzas provide a description of a troupe of female dancers who are part of a religious celebration. These examples highlight the role women played in public pageants and religious celebrations during the time the poem was compiled. Certain scholars have commented on how women were not allowed to take part in public performances in Sri Lanka prior to gaining independence from the British in 1948 (see, for instance, Susan A. Reed’s Dance and the Nation: Performance, Ritual, and Politics in Sri Lanka). The depiction of women performing in public and religious spaces in Selalihini Sandeshaya challenges such views.
The translation process of this poem consisted of three stages. The first intralingual translation stage involved translating the source language text in classical elu Sinhala to obtain a source language text in contemporary Sinhala. The second stage is gloss translation: translating the source language text in contemporary Sinhala to the target language text in contemporary English. The third stage was transforming the target language text in English (gloss) to metered verse to generate the final target language text in English. One issue that came up at the intralingual translation stage was in ascertaining the meaning of some of the Sinhala words and expressions in the source language text. Not only were some of the words, expressions, and idioms archaic and no longer part of contemporary Sinhala, but they were also altered to accommodate the poetic diction and style of classical Sinhala poetic conventions. Thus, words were abbreviated, adapted to fit the internal rhymes, and merged with other words in a way those words ordinarily would not have been used together. While these usages display the poetic creative genius of the author and his masterly use of language, they created considerable translation challenges. The existing translations of this poem (William Charles Macready, 1865; N. D. de S. Wijesekara, 1934; K. W. de A. Wijesinghe, 1940 and 2006; and Edmund Jayasuriya, 2002) are prose/gloss translations. None of the prior translations have attempted to maintain the form of the poem, which is an important feature of the sandesa kavyas. Although the end-rhymes were mostly preserved, the internal rhymes were not easy to replicate or preserve in the English translation (consider, for instance, verse 74). Despite difficulties in maintaining internal rhyme, in most instances, the meaning, content, and form of the verses were sustained. However, features such as alliteration, consonance, and assonance had to sometimes be sacrificed in order to preserve the meaning, content, and form (for example verse 75, line 1).
In retrospect, the form of the translation can be considered as a hybrid—a combination of the mimetic form and the content-derivative form or organic form. While the form of the source language text was respected, there was concern about preserving the semantic content as much as possible. The Sinhala verses are composed using a traditional meter known as samudraghosa (which translates to “the sound of the ocean”): a meter that imitates the rhythm of rising and falling ocean waves. It is also a meter that is dependent on the many vowel sound combinations used in Sinhala. It is therefore a difficult meter to maintain as the language changes, supporting a popular view that a verse form cannot successfully exist outside of its own language. Instead, in the attempt to maintain the poetic form, a different meter has been adopted. In addition, the dialogic/conversational style of the poem, suggesting a familiar relationship between the starling, the reader, and the poet, was an important feature that was preserved in the translation. The poet frequently makes his presence felt by addressing the starling directly and by giving the bird various instructions and advice.
Condensing the content/meaning of the source language text into the target language text posed another challenge. As the gloss translations illustrate, the English gloss translations are wordier when unpacked from the source language text, which uses a minimal number of words and a more compact style to convey its meaning. As Jayasuriya observes, “Sri Rahula Thera shows his unmistakable skill in poetic delineation and precision in the sensitive handling of language. It is mostly free from lengthy descriptions and overused similes and metaphors as are customary in sandesa poetry.” In the final translation, it was challenging to condense the content in English within the restricted form of rhymed verse. As a consequence, there were times when form was sacrificed for content and vice versa. Internal rhyme is a prominent feature of this poem, which could not always be sustained in the target language text. Verse 74 is a delightful example of such internal rhyme (indicated below in boldface):
විදෙන ලෙළෙන නරු බර පුළුලුකුළැ රැඳී
හෙළන නඟන අත නුවනග බැලුම් දිදී
රුවින දිලෙන අබරණ කැලුම ගත යෙදී
සැලෙන පහන සිළු වැනි රඟන ලිය සැදී
Additionally, there were instances when certain references in the source language text did not “make sense.” For instance, verse 27 describes how the shoreline is strewn with beads, which are human-made and artificial (as opposed to natural elements such as pearls or shells that can be found on the shore). It is difficult to grasp why and how that particular word is used in the source language text given the context in which it is used. One hypothesis is that it may have had a meaning which is no longer in use. Jayasuriya has translated the word as “corals” in his 2002 translation. However, the Sinhala word does not have a meaning corresponding to this particular interpretation.
The difficulty in locating and accessing reference and research material related to the source language text, in both Sinhala and English, was another key challenge encountered in the translation process. Although a copy of the Selalihini Sandeshaya is available at the Widener Library at Harvard University (from where the source text was borrowed), no records of existing translations of the Selalihini Sandeshaya, or records related to its secondary literature, can be found on widely used online catalogues such as WorldCat and UNESCO’s Index Translationum. While the Anthology of Sinhalese Literature up to 1815 by C. H. B. Reynolds contains an English translation of the Selalihini Sandeshaya, unless the reader is already aware of its inclusion in the anthology, it is not possible to deduce its inclusion by looking at the bibliographic entry in WorldCat. The absence of a phonetic alphabet for Sinhala and the lack of standardized English spelling for source language texts also generate challenges. For instance, “selalihini” is also translated as “selelihini” and “salalihini” in previous translations and in references to the source text, complicating searches for both primary and secondary texts. The article, “A Preliminary Survey of Translations (Sinhala to English) in Postcolonial Sri Lanka, and Some Comments on the Compilation of Bibliographies,” discusses in detail these and other extra-textual challenges that translators encounter, particularly when working with texts written in little-known minority/minor source languages such as Sinhala. The experience of translating excerpts from the Selalihini Sandeshaya, which resembled an attempt at a metapoem, has highlighted not just the textual challenges but also the extra-textual challenges a translator could face when working on a text while being away from the source language text’s “home.” The next section provides a detailed discussion of some of the translated verses as well as specific examples that highlight some of the challenges encountered during the translation process.
Verse 07 is from the section titled “Ode to Jayawardhanapura.” Jayawardhanapura was the capital of the kingdom of Kotte during the time this poem was composed. This city is still considered as the executive and judicial capital of Sri Lanka and is known today as Sri Jayawardhanapura Kotte. On the one hand, the poet uses this section to celebrate the beauty, prestige, opulence, and prosperity of Sri Lanka’s capital city. On the other hand, he highlights the qualities of the inhabitants of the city, which add to the appeal and reputation of Jayawardhanapura. The first line of the poem is a comment on the key quality of the city-dwellers: piety and devotion to Buddhism. According to the poet, the people of Jayawardhanapura have great respect for the “Triple Gem,” which refers to the three principal constituents of Buddhism: “Buddha” (the Buddha), “Dhamma” (the teachings of the Buddha), and “Sangha” (the Buddhist monks). The verse also highlights how the city outdoes the beauty, richness, and prestige of even the city of gods (“සුරපුර” can also be translated as “heaven” or “celestial city”). The polytheistic characteristic of the fifteenth-century Sri Lankan “religious” belief system reveals itself in these two lines alone. Despite a deep belief in and respect for all three aspects of Buddhism (the “Triple Gem” explained above), there is also equal engagement with an alternative but complementing belief system founded on pantheism (influenced by Hinduism). The third line provides context as to how the city acquired its name. “Jayawaddana,” used in the source language text, is the poetic and abbreviated form of the name of the city “Sri Jayawardhanapura.” The unabridged name of the city is “Sri Jayawardhanapura,” which means “resplendent city of growing victory,” and was so named in 1391. The name given to the city is a comment on Sri Lanka’s political situation at this time, when the king, ruling from Sri Jayawardhanapura, was able to secure a high number of victories against invading foreign armies and various regional chieftains. During this historical and economically prosperous period, all of Sri Lanka was united politically under a single king: King Parakramabahu VI. Prior to his political unification of the island, different regions were ruled by autonomous chieftains. The capital city is referred to in two other sandesas, or messenger poems (mayura, or peacock, and gira, or parrot, messenger poems). Keeping the dialogic form of the poem, in the final line of the verse, the poet directly addresses the starling as “honored friend” and entreats the bird to become familiar with the city’s background. The starling is an important ambassador, entrusted with the responsibility of delivering an imperial supplication to a powerful deity. In fact, the poem begins with a tribute to the starling, complimenting its beauty and goodness. Throughout the poem, the bird-messenger is treated with great respect.
Verse 22 is from the section “Ode to Evening,” which describes what the starling observes in the evening as he flies in the direction of the shrine of Vibhisana. The bird observes a row of flags fluttering amid the fumes of camphor and black aloe-wood rising in the air. Camphor and black aloe-wood are routinely lit, particularly in the morning and the evening, at Hindu kovils, or Hindu temples (also translated as “residence of God”) as ritual offerings to deities. This is a practice common at shrines as well as at some households even in contemporary Sri Lanka (in both Hindu and non-Hindu households). The camphor and the wood emit fragrant yet heavy fumes which envelop the kovil premises. Echoing the soundscape of verse 10, the evening is full of the sounds of drums, conchs, and bells, which seem to be spreading everywhere. Unlike in verse 10 where the sounds were associated with victory in battle, however, the sounds in this verse consist of music used for religious ceremonies and chanting at the Hindu kovil. The third line refers to eulogistic hymns chanted in Tamil by beautiful women, and these hymns have a gladdening effect on the listener. It is important to note how the poet, Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thera, who was a renowned Buddhist scholar-monk in the fifteenth century, included in this verse the detail about the Hindu kovil and the serene and calming effect of the hymns, sung in Tamil by (presumably) Tamil women present at the kovil. The final line of the verse reveals the name of the kovil to be Isvara Kovil, which lies between the capital city and Kelaniya. The poet finds the kovil to be picturesque, and he instructs the starling to rest and spend the night at this kovil before resuming his journey on the following day. The verse is of special significance for multiple reasons. For one, Isvara Kovil, a Hindu temple, is portrayed positively and respectfully by the Sinhala Buddhist monk. Second, the poet refers to hymns sung in the Tamil language, which are described as having a soothing effect on the listener and contributing positively to the vibrant soundscape. Third, the verse depicts Tamil women participating in religious rituals and performances by singing at the Hindu kovil (similarly, verses 73, 74, and 75 portray a troupe of female dancers at the Kelaniya temple, a very important Buddhist center of worship). Fourth, the poet advises the bird to rest and recover at the Isvara Kovil. Finally, this kovil is located between the capital city of Jayawardhanapura and the temple of Kelaniya, between which the distance is roughly 5.5 miles, indicating that kovils were located in close proximity to the capital city as well as to major Buddhist temples (and not merely in majority Tamil/Hindu areas of the country such as Jaffna in the northern part of the country). On the one hand, given the context of the political rift between the Sinhalese and the Tamils (which was marked by the violent thirty-plus-year civil war that concluded in 2009), and the contentious issues around the topic of language equality (consider the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 that had a discriminatory impact on users of Tamil), this verse reveals how Hinduism and the Tamil language were likely an organic part of Sri Lankan culture and community during the poet’s time. In fact, it is important to note that Lokanatha, the younger daughter of King Parakramabahu VI, on whom this poem invokes blessings, was married to a Tamil prince called Nannurtunaya. It is only after marriage that she came to be known as Ulakudaya Devi. Perhaps given this context, the Sinhala Buddhist poet-monk has no hesitation in painting a positive poetic picture of the Hindu kovil and the hymns sung in the Tamil language, and in choosing the kovil as an appropriate resting place for the starling carrying a message to a deity. This verse is of special significance considering the recent development of a politicized and almost militarized Buddhist clergy culture in countries such as Sri Lanka (and Myanmar), which in turn incites communal hostility toward the non-majority races, religions, and languages.
Verse 27 is from the section “Ode to Passing Scenery,” in which the poet describes the various scenic aspects of the starling’s journey. In this verse the poet invites the bird-messenger as well as the reader to appreciate the beauty of the ocean. It is also one of the best examples of how the poet skillfully uses onomatopoeia, or sabda dhvani, which is unfortunately lost in translation. The first two lines describe how the vast and powerful ocean waves rise up skyward, propelled by the strong winds, as if trying to reach the sky. The personification of the sky as a “heavenly lady” and the ocean waves as attempting to embrace the “heavenly lady” imbue these natural elements with an amorous relationship. Attention is also drawn to the dazzling beaches, which are strewn with sparkling pearls, conch shells, and beads. In the gloss translation, the word පබළු has been translated as “beads,” which are artificial and human-made. Other instances of the usage of the word පබළු in classical literature indicate that this was the meaning assigned to පබළු even at the time this poem was composed. It is curious, however, how “beads” came to be found strewn on the shoreline. It could be that the word possessed another meaning in the fifteenth century which has become obsolete. Jayasuriya has translated the word as “corals” in his 2002 translation of the poem. However, the present translation avoids using such a translation due to the ambiguity of contextual meaning and the apparent difference in meaning rendered when පබළු is translated as corals. Conch shells and pearls are traditionally considered as symbols of prosperity and opulence. According to historical records, these items were also commercial goods sought after by international merchants. The fact that such valuable items are part of Sri Lanka’s natural resources and are to be found in abundance, simply strewn along the coastline, could be an indication of the richness of the island’s natural resources and wealth at the time the poem was written. Maintaining the dialogic style of the poem, the verse ends with the poet addressing the starling and asking him to observe the majesty of the great ocean in the north, of which the waves are reaching up as if trying to embrace the heavenly lady—the sky—and which constantly sprinkles the shoreline with natural riches like pearls and conchs.
Verse 45 depicts yet another natural element that the poet brings to the starling’s attention. This verse is from the section titled “Ode to the Kelani River,” in which the poet highlights the beauty of one of Sri Lanka’s longest rivers (ninety miles in length). This verse focuses on a group of beautiful maidens who are playing veenas while seated on the riverbank. The women belong to the “Na” group, “Na” being a derivative of “Naga.” “Naga” (meaning “serpent”) is conjectured to have been one of the several indigenous groups who inhabited ancient Sri Lanka before the arrival of North Indian settlers. The Mahavamsa, the oldest historical record of the island, describes the Naga as supernatural beings whose natural form was not that of a human but that of a serpent. They are also said to have possessed the ability to change their form to anything at will. The Na maidens’ veenas, which are stringed musical instruments used in the Indian subcontinent, are studded with gems. The women pluck the strings delicately with the tips of their fingernails while sweetly singing about the virtues of Lord Buddha. The poet asks the starling to take a break and to rest awhile on the riverbank while enjoying the music of the Na maidens. This is yet another example of how The Starling’s Message portrays women freely engaged in public performances, particularly in performances of a religious nature. There is, however, a special relationship between the Nagas and Buddhism. The Mahavamsa describes how Lord Buddha visited the kingdom of the Nagas in 581 BCE to resolve a conflict over a gem-studded throne between the two Naga kings Chulodara and Mahadora. The Nagas are said to have embraced Buddhism after Lord Buddha’s visit to their kingdom. Verse 65, discussed below, portrays another instance that demonstrates the close relationship between Buddhism and the Nagas. The kingdom of the Nagas is said to have been located on the riverbanks of the Kelani River where the city of Kelaniya was eventually established.
Verse 65, from the section “Ode to Meritorious Deeds,” instructs the starling on how to correctly pay homage to one of the important Buddhist temples that the bird passes by. The poet first provides some historical background about the temple. The temple is said to have been built on a site where Lord Buddha once preached the Dhamma (Buddhist teachings). The first line describes how the king of the Nagas, King Mini Akkhika (meaning the “possessor of eyes resembling gems”), invited Lord Buddha to his kingdom in Kelaniya to preach the Dhamma. The line states that Lord Buddha arrived through air. “Arhat,” or individuals who have reached the final stage of enlightenment (nirvana), such as Lord Buddha, are said to possess the ability to move from one location to another by traveling through the air. The Buddha is said to have visited Sri Lanka thrice, the occasion referred to in this verse being the third and last visit. The verse describes how, on this last visit, Lord Buddha sat on a gem-studded throne in the midst of other arhat monks and preached the Dhamma. According to the Mahavamsa and other chronicles, five hundred arhat monks accompanied Lord Buddha on his visit to Kelaniya. The poet then reveals that a sixty-cubit high dageba, which is a large, dome-like Buddhist architectural structure, was built to mark the occasion on the spot where Lord Buddha preached the Dhamma. Dagebas customarily hold Buddhist relics. The inside of a dageba is hollow and contains a shrine at which Buddhists engage in religious practices. The relic placed inside this particular dageba is said to have been the bejeweled throne on which the Lord Buddha was seated and over which the Naga kings Chulodara and Mahadora once quarreled. This dageba, known today as the Kelani Temple, is to date one of the most cherished and popular Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka. According to a popular Buddhist aphorism, all of one’s sins could be absolved by a single visit to this temple. The poet concludes the verse by using the familiar imperative form and commanding the starling to pay respect to the “great dageba,” which he personifies, and to which he adds the honorific prefix “හිමින්.” The starling is commanded to worship the dageba from the vantage point of sixteen locations. This is an act of high veneration and piety (the number of locations is based on the circumference of the dome at the base of the dageba). Coincidentally, there also exist sixteen places of revered Buddhist shrines/places of worship in Sri Lanka.
Although only a few verses from the Selalihini Sandeshaya have been discussed in this essay due to length and scope constraints, they facilitate a considerable understanding of not only literary and poetic conventions used in the fifteenth-century Sinhala sandesa kavya genre, but also aspects of the sociocultural, political, and religious background of fifteenth-century Sri Lanka. The process of translating this poem has also revealed a number of challenges that a translator-scholar working on minor/minority literatures from a non-Western Global South nation can encounter. In his recent book Comparing the Literatures, David Damrosch acknowledges the problem of the “chronically disadvantaged” languages and literatures of the world and how historical disparities that generate such a class of chronically disadvantaged literatures “continue to this day.” The act of translating the classical Sinhala poetry of the Selalihini Sandeshaya to modern English poetry is, on the one hand, an attempt to address this imbalance. On the other hand, it is a form of critical engagement with factors that engender such chronic disadvantages vis-à-vis local literatures from underrepresented and overlooked parts of the world.
 Edmund Jayasuriya, Salalihini Sandesa of Totagamuve Sri Rahula Thera (Pitakotte: Central Cultural Fund for the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, 2002), 21.
 Edmund Jayasuriya, Salalihini Sandesa of Totagamuve Sri Rahula Thera (Pitakotte: Central Cultural Fund for the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, 2002), 19.
 Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010.
 Although these translations of the Selalihini Sandeshaya can be accessed via WorldCat, there likely exist other versions published in Sri Lanka locally which are not discoverable via catalogues such as WorldCat. For a more detailed discussion, see Dharshani Lakmali Jayasinghe, “A Preliminary Survey of Translations (Sinhala to English) in Postcolonial Sri Lanka, and Some Comments on the Compilation of Bibliographies,” Phoenix: Sri Lankan Journal of English in the Commonwealth 15 and 16 (2018–19): 61–69.
 Edmund Jayasuriya, Salalihini Sandesa of Totagamuve Sri Rahula Thera (Pitakotte: Central Cultural Fund for the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, 2002), 32.
 London: Allen & Unwin, 1970.
 Jayasinghe, “A Preliminary Survey.”
 A similar image occurs in verse 70 of Muvadevdavata.
 David Damrosch, Comparing the Literatures (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020), 35.