During this season when the world is celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ with related religious festivities it is relevant to trace briefly how the poetry, prose, and hymns of Christ in Sinhala, began in Sri Lanka. During our school days under Catholic brothers we sang carols and were accustomed to hymns like, ‘Bethlehem pure-dilindu [...]

Sunday Times 2

The birth and life of Jesus retold


During this season when the world is celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ with related religious festivities it is relevant to trace briefly how the poetry, prose, and hymns of Christ in Sinhala, began in Sri Lanka. During our school days under Catholic brothers we sang carols and were accustomed to hymns like, ‘Bethlehem pure-dilindu gavalene, (In the City of Bethlehem-in a poor manor), or re tharu babalanawa-mal pipila wage- ‘Stars are shining, like the flowers blooming – Eliyen ehewenawa, mal wehela wage. Bathed in the rays – like fallen flowers. Rew pilirew denawa-geethanada wage. Chirping and singing – like the music of song – bilindeku hinahenawa-muhudaka reliwage. An infant is smiling – like the waves of the sea.


A Christian worshipper kisses a 14-pointed silver star at the Grotto, believed to be the exact spot where Jesus Christ was born, as others pray at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Pic AFP/Thomas Coex

Irrespective of children’s religious beliefs, we all participated in singing hymns to the lord at school. Annual participation at carols for Christmas by all children was voluntary and all enjoyed them. The lyrics and their meanings fascinated hearts of the young ones. We all have those nostalgic memories and when reading through a commemoration volume on Rev. Father Marcelline Jayakody a whole host of thoughts naturally re-emerge.

More than two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ was born to a young mother Mary, who was engaged to be married to a young person named Joseph. As prophesied by angel Gabriel, to them before their marriage that, ‘Thou shalt bring forth a son and thou shalt call him Jesus’, the Messenger of Peace was born to them. The Christ chose an underprivileged family in Bethlehem, in a manger, as the ‘Son of God’ obviously, to uplift the conditions of the then society from material and spiritual poverty.

Jewish followers called him messiah, ‘the anointed one’. The Greeks translated it to the word ‘Khristos’. Thus Jesus was known as Jesus Christ the world over. Jesus knew the people’s suffering as he too laboured with his father Joseph. In the early years of his life, he visited Jerusalem, during the passover feast, with his parents at the age of 12. He was inside the temple in a little while, preaching his message, and conversing with the learned persons of the city. Meeting John the Baptist, Jesus started the religious movement, by getting baptised at the banks of river Jordan. He was followed by persons who adored his preachings at public places even at synagogues, of the Jewish adherents, for he himself was born to that faith. His message was, that the messenger of God is born and appealing for a new start.

Jesus Christ knew of the suffering the Jews underwent, being oppressed as slaves in Egypt and exiled from their own land. They were waiting for their messiah to arrive to rescue and protect them. He in fact preached he was that messenger and there was a following. He preached quoting parables, stories about the common people. Jesus’ gift of healing made people come to him for material assistance and spiritual guidance. The existing leaders of society did not like it, as it posed a threat to their position. They wanted to find a person among his followers who was disloyal to him, to dislodge him. There were people who said, he was not the messiah, and some said he had come only to prepare the way, and some believed that he was only a prophet. When his disciple, Peter said that he was indeed the Christ, Jesus said that he was not an earthly ruler but a messenger who taught spirituality with no material comforts. It was to give this message that he travelled to the feast of passover later in life, to commemorate the Jews rescue from slavery in Egypt.

The crowds gathered hailed him as the ‘son of God’. Jesus, however knew there was opposition to him even among his closest disciples. He gathered them together for a meal to tell them that he was to leave this earth so that there would be a bond, or a covenant, between humans and God. If he leaves this world the disciples too would do their best to spread his message, he said. After the meal Jesus and the disciples left for Mount Olives and to the Garden of Gethsemane. It was to this garden that Judas brought men to arrest him. He was taken to Jewish courts who asked him, “Art thou the Christ, the son of God’. He replied ‘I am’. The court leaders found him guilty of treason, and he was sentenced to death, when this decision was referred to the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, saying that he was conspiring against the Roman emperor. Pontius Pilate made efforts to release Jesus. But he was afraid there would be consequences from the Roman hierarchy and finally when the crowds demanded he be punished he was crucified at Mount Calvary, on Friday later called ‘Good Friday’. As Jesus’s remains disappeared and appeared to Mary Magdalene, he rose again on easter Sunday. This emotional story was told in varied languages and in literature, drama, and Sinhala was one language having all the forms of depiction of Jesus Christ. It started in the 16th century, when the religion was brought to the Ceylon by the Portuguese. Although foreign occupation by the westerners was fought back by the Sinhala people, the Buddhist doctrine they professed allowed religious freedom and Catholicism remained and spread in the land. The missionaries, who arrived in Sri Lanka and Goa understood, that these lands have a vibrant literary culture ingrained in an ancient civilization. They understood, that they had to learn Sinhala, as also instructed to them by Pope Benedict the 15th. Of course, as foreigners they used the internal rivalries among royalty to retain political and religious power. In fact they said they came here for trade and religion.

In 1545 A.D.when King Buwanekabahu wanted to give the throne to his grand-son, Dharmapala some princes fled to Goa with a few chieftains and imbibed the Christian faith there to get the viceroy’s help to obtain the throne. For their use a book of instructions was published in Sinhala by the Jesuit priests. Historian Diogo Gnatho states this. Among other priests who wrote stories of saints for school children were Rev. Emmanuel de Costa. The French pastor Pierre translated in 1645 a book on Christianity to Sinhala, titled ‘Sinhala Bhasha Shashraya ha Viyakaranaya.’ Based on this reverend priests, Louis Maththias, Pelin Gotti and Johannes Metlla wrote lyrics, prayers and dramas, but they cannot be found according to authors.

In 1620 Alagiyawanna Mukaweti wrote the ‘Konstantinu Hatana’. He commences the book by worshipping the three deities ‘Piya Puth Weedi’. It is a follow-on similar to Sinhala Buddhist literary works which start with ‘The Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha worship’.

‘Basakara arutha mena- noma pe pawa nisa- ‘As the meaning was not clearly said, Pith, Puth, Weedi, yana-thewak eksura wandimi adarina.’ I worship Pitha, Puth, and Weedi with love’. It is said that Alagiyawanna became an adherent of Christianity changing his name to Jerenimo and his wife’s name to Dona Luisia. With the advent of the Dutch there was persecution of Catholics as the Dutch were protestants. The Sinhala kings protected the Catholics. A good example is the Wahakotte St. Anthony’s Church, the third Catholic shrine, which was built with the help of King of Kandy, Rajasinghe 11. The persecuted Catholics were settled by the king in this village in Matale. The book on St. Mathews was translated by a Portuguese priest Simon Carty, titled, ‘Aposthuluwarunge Kriya Potha’. There were other priests like Henricus Ellips who wrote Sinhala grammar for Christian clergy to learn. In 1759, a dictionary in Sinhala was written by father Wetceleus. Along with it came prayers, hymns and prose for Christians. During King Wimaladharma Suriya’s reign Father Joseph Vaas, who came to Sri Lanka from Goa rejuvenated the religion. It was during his time that Father Gonsalves arrived from India and Father Vaas used his services to write hyms, poetry, and advice to local Sinhala people who were Christians and Catholics.

For Sri Lanka under reconciliation this is the time to look closely at the life of Jesus Christ and use the lessons in his teachings for living together in harmony. As also written by faithful lyricists we should be together in this land of ours…

(The writer was formerly attached to the foreign service.)

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.