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The Mahavamsa (Sinhala: මහාවංසය ˈmahavaŋʃəyə; Pali: Mahāvaṃsa, trans. "Great Chronicle"; abbrev. Mhv. or Mhvs.) is a historical poem written in the Pali language, of the Kings of Sri Lanka. The first version of it covered the period from the coming of King Vijaya of the Rarh region of ancient Bengal in 543 BCE to the reign of King Mahasena (334–361).
The first printed edition and English translation of the Mahavamsa was published in 1837 by George Turnour, an historian and officer of the Ceylon Civil Service. A German translation of Mahavamsa was completed by Wilhelm Geiger in 1912. This was then translated into English by Mabel Haynes Bode, and revised by Geiger.
While not considered a canonical religious text, the Mahavamsa is an important text in Theravada Buddhism. It covers the early history of religion in Sri Lanka, beginning with the time of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. It also briefly recounts the history of Buddhism in India, from the date of the Buddha's death to the various Buddhist councils where the Dharma was reviewed. Every chapter of the Mahavamsa ends by stating that it is written for the "serene joy of the pious". From the emphasis of its point-of-view, it can be said to have been compiled to record the good deeds of the kings who were patrons of the Mahavihara temple in Anuradhapura.
Buddhist monks of the Mahavihara maintained chronicles of Sri Lankan history, starting from the 3rd century BCE. These annals were combined and compiled into a single document in the 5th century by the Buddhist monk Mahathera Mahanama. It was written based on prior ancient compilations known as Sinhala Atthakatha, which were commentaries written in Sinhala . Mahathera Mahanama relied on this text, as he mentions in Mahavamse tika, that is the preface to Mahavamse. Another, earlier document known as the Dipavamsa, which survives today, is much simpler and contains less information than the Mahavamsa, and was probably compiled using the Sinhala Mahavamse Atthakatha as well.
A companion volume, the Culavamsa ("lesser chronicle"), compiled by Sinhala Buddhist monks, covers the period from the 4th century to the British takeover of Sri Lanka in 1815. The Culavamsa was compiled by a number of authors of different time periods.
The combined work, sometimes referred to collectively as the Mahavamsa, provides a continuous historical record of over two millennia, and is considered one of the world's longest unbroken historical accounts . It is one of the few documents containing material relating to the Nāgas and Yakkhas, the dwellers of Lanka prior to the legendary arrival of Vijaya.
As it often refers to the royal dynasties of India, the Mahavamsa is also valuable for historians who wish to date and relate contemporary royal dynasties in the Indian subcontinent. It is very important in dating the consecration of the Maurya emperor Asoka, which is related to the synchronicity with the Seleucids and Alexander the Great.
Indian excavations in Sanchi and other locations, confirm the Mahavamsa account of the Empire of Asoka. The accounts given in the Mahavamsa are also amply supported by the numerous stone inscriptions, mostly in Sinhala, found in Sri Lanka. Karthigesu Indrapala has also upheld the historical value of the Mahavamsa. If not for the Mahavamsa, the story behind the large stupas in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, such as Ruwanwelisaya, Jetavanaramaya, Abhayagiri, and other works of ancient engineering would never have been known.