By Alexis Brown
Alexis Brown is a doctoral student at Harvard University, who recently traveled to Sri Lanka over the winter break to perform field research for her dissertation, centered on a Buddhist narrative anthology entitled Rasavahini, written in medieval Sri Lanka. As Brown notes, “the Rasavahini is considered one of the most important works among post-canonical Pali literature in Sri Lanka, as well as Thailand, Burma, and Laos. Despite the Rasavahini’s importance in South and Southeast Asia, relatively little scholarship has been published on it.”
With a student grant from the Mittal Institute, I carried out preliminary research in Sri Lanka for my dissertation over the winter break, where I visited important sites within the country and met with scholars.
While there, I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Liyanage Amarakeerthi at the University of Peradiniya. His scholarship is deeply related to my own research into how the literary and formal features of Buddhist narrative shape readers and contribute to the formation of persons. He directed me toward a number of relevant resources, including both primary sources in Sinhala that are related to the texts I am reading, as well as secondary scholarship that will prove valuable going forward. My conversations with him were fruitful and informative, and I am certain that I will benefit immensely from forging this academic relationship with such an important scholar within the Sri Lankan academic community.
I also met several times with a colleague, Ms. Chamila Somirathna, who generously helped me to begin reading relevant portions of the ancient Sinhala version of the text upon which my dissertation is centered. I hope to continue reading literary Sinhala with Ms. Somirathna in the future in order to carry out the kind of comparative work that is critical for my dissertation. Additionally, I visited the Post Graduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, as well as the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies, where I had the opportunity to meet and speak with several individuals who offered me access to their libraries and resources.
I also had the invaluable experience of visiting a number of sites around Sri Lanka that are of great cultural and religious significance, including several temples, ancient cities, and geographical regions that are mentioned throughout the text that I am studying. This offered a particularly powerful lens through which I could envision and conceptualize the settings and descriptions of places and activities. For example, I visited Anaradhapura, one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka, famous for its well-preserved ruins of an ancient Sinhala civilization. While in Anuradhapura, I had the opportunity to witness an important Buddhist ceremony and observe firsthand the scenes and ritual activities described in the medieval texts that I am currently reading. It was very illuminating for me to see such an enactment, including ritual objects, to be able to better understand certain descriptions in the texts, including the procedures and objects used for making offerings, and the layout and architecture of the sites.
I also visited several other important temples and places of worship that date back to the time period in which my research is based, such as Kelaniya Temple, Temple of the Sacred Tooth, Dambulla caves, and Sigiriya rock fortress. One of the most fruitful and fascinating components of these site visits was the opportunity to see the artwork — cave paintings and sculptures — as well as inscriptions. Many of the paintings were of particular importance because they illustrated scenes from the very stories in the text I am reading, which offered a unique lens into the way Buddhists during that time and in that place imagined these narratives.
My experience in Sri Lanka was incredibly valuable to my academic growth and provided an excellent jumping off point for my research into medieval Sri Lanka and the ways in which the literature of this time period shaped and continues to shape its readers.