Learning Sinhala: As easy as ekka, dekka, thuna

After our ten day tour of the island, it was time for the students to turn to their studies. For my mom and I that meant back to school shopping. We took a trip to a hole in the wall shop that carried school supplies. The back wall was lined with shelves containing paper of many hues which had been used to create colorful decorations that hung from the ceiling. I had learned over the past several weeks that Sri Lanka was different in almost every conceivable way than home, so that there was something new to see in even mundane things. Notebooks, for example, were all bound flat rather than spiral bound and were shorter and fatter than a standard page in the U.S. or taller and skinnier. We opted for the squatter variety and I also purchased a plastic pencil case, pencils, sharpener and eraser. Accumulating new school supplies was always one of the most exciting things about starting the school year for me. I loved the order and possibilities of sitting at a desk with a clean notebook and newly sharpened pencils.

I was excited when we arrived at the University of Colombo on Monday morning at 9am for our first Sinahala lesson.  My enthusiasm for nine am college classes did not remain when I was actually in college, but on this day, with fresh supplies in hand, I was ready to begin. The university entrance was marked with a modest sign in three languages.


The top line was the rounded script of Sinhala, the language I would be studying. The second line was the more flourished angular Tamil and the last line was English.  From the outside, the University resembled a luxury hotel with a white central tower and several floors with many large windows.  Grand trees shaded a drive up to the main entrance which looked like it should have valet parking. Walking inside though, the halls resembled, and I noted smelled, like any learning institution, and our classroom could have been anywhere.


I sat next to my mother on the left side of the room near the windows.  The students entered the morning class in various states of alertness and filled in the seats around us as I set up my desk with my materials and wrote my name on the front of my notebook in bubble letters.  A petite woman in a colorful Sari quietly entered the room and most of the chatting students did not notice. Although small in stature, she was not shy and did not hesitate to take control of the class. She said that class would be intense and that by the end of our four weeks she expected us to be able to carry on a conversation in a language that until recently none of us had ever heard.


Sinhalese or Sinhala as it is referred to in Sri Lanka is the language of the majority ethnic Sinhalese population. The name Sinhala is derived from a Sanskrit term that is associated with “lion-killer” or “lion-blood.” Lions are an important symbol to the Sinhalese as their ancient founder, Prince Vijaya was the result of a union between a princess and a lion. The language belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages and came to Sri Lanka from Northern India. As it is related to European languages there are some words that have vaguely familiar roots especially if one is familiar with some of the other romance languages like Spanish or Italian that evolved from Latin.

For example counting to three…sinhalasentences

ONE – Sinhala: Ekka Latin:Unos

TWO  Sinhala: Dekka Latin: Duo

THREE Sinhala: Thuna Latin: Tria

Then there are the words that taken directly from English. Once we discovered those words such as car ekka, bus ekka, bag ekka, phone ekka, ticket ekka, tv ekka we would add ekka to any vocabulary word we did not know in the hopes that we would be understood. Unfortunately those words are limited or we would have been golden.

Although we were able to ask for a toilet by simply saying toilet ekka with an inquisitive look, reading proved more of a challenge.

The script is very different than the English alphabet and is descended from the Brahmi script which also gave rise to many modern Indian languages. It has a syllabary of 56 beautifully rounded characters. I was told by an old Buddhist monk that Sinhalese characters were rounded because ancient scribes who wrote important Buddhist texts used palm leaves. Writing on such leaves with angular strokes caused the leaves to split along the veins of the fronds, and so Sinhala became a round alphabet. In our class we were to be introduced to the script as well as the spoken language.  To read transliterated Sinhalese we used the International Phonetic Alphabet which was also new to me.


“We have started Sinhala lessons. Our teacher goes very fast. It is our second day and we are on lesson six! I don’t think I am having any trouble keeping up with everyone. In fact, I think I am doing a little better than mom!” –Johanna August 31, 1982 sinhalanotebook

With the mind of a 10-year old and three hours a day for a month of intensive lessons I did learn a lot. And, since each day of lessons was rewarded with a trip to the Oberoi hotel swimming pool, it was worth it.

“Johanna is doing well in Sinhala class and isn’t afraid to practice what she has learned. Of the four hours we spend at the pool every day, she’s in the water about 3 ¾ hours. So, her swimming is really getting good too. I think we are all going to wear out our bathing suits before we leave Colombo.”-Judith Sept 3, 1982

At the end of the month-long session the other students who were taking the course for credit had their final exam which I decided to take just to see how I would do. I received a combined 79 on my oral and written exam. Not a grade I would have appreciated in college, but not bad for a ten year old. What I gained by studying and more importantly practicing Sinhala was invaluable. So many encounters and friendships were made possible by reaching out, however crudely at first, in the local language. In anticipation of my trip in 2017, I am desperately attempting to reach into the recesses of my aging brain to pull out my long-dormant Sinhala ability. I hope that any fragments I am able to rescue come with my ten year old lack of inhibition so that I can try once more to speak with the friendly Sri Lankans in their native tongue.


My sister turns one and we celebrate with a trip to hell

We were at the tail end of an introductory 10 day tour of Sri Lanka that was kicking off the semester-long stay for the students and the year-long stay for my family. Focusing on the Southern part of the island, we had seen temples and tradesmen, wildlife and worshipers. It was my sister’s first birthday. For her, however, this day would seem no different than any other as she was celebrated every day and everywhere we went. Crowds of smiling Sri Lankans flocked around her pinching her cheeks and stroking her hair, and her blond head could be seen bobbing through the sea of people who all wanted to hold and play with her. As an added celebration, Mom did arrange a bit of cake which we ate while enjoying a relatively cool wind off of the water.

“Today we are staying at a lovely rest house or government run hotel right on a lake. The breeze off the lake is wonderful and very cooling. There are fishermen on the lake, people washing their clothes and others bathing. We also saw a very large crocodile just off on an island several hundred yards from us. Don’t think we’ll go swimming here! The people here are so friendly. They always have a ready smile. And they really love babies – especially pretty blond ones. Janelle draws a crowd everywhere we go. If she gets fussy during dinner one of the waiters just comes over, pickers her up and we don’t see her until we’re finished eating.” –Judith August 27, 1982

As a ten year old, you go where your parents tell you to go and I often would board the vans with the students on this island tour and have really no idea where I was going. Once such excursion was a memorable trip to the Southern coastal town of Dickewella. Although I didn’t know exactly where we were going, I was certain we had arrived at our destination when we pulled up to Wewurukannala Vihara Temple. A statue of a sitting Buddha eight stories tall in bright yellow-orange robes peered down at us from under mostly closed eye lids. Legs folded lotus style with hands resting open palmed on top of one another, the Buddha looked like he was about to fall asleep. He leaned against a building behind him which extended up to his head and was only surpassed in height by a decorative swirl that resembled multi-colored soft-serve ice cream.wewurukannalabuddha Several small white stupas dotted the temple complex but reached no higher than the statue’s knees in contrast to many temple complexes we had visited where the stupa was the main feature. Entering the temple there were also many brightly colored statues of the Buddha sitting, standing and reclining as well as figures of monks and other worshipers dressed in ceremonial clothing.  buddhagraphicstoryWe walked up inside the building behind the large Buddha and as we climbed behind the statue we enjoyed portrayals of the Buddha’s life- like a graphic novel of the journey of a prince turned ascetic turned spiritual leader that unfolded as we moved towards the top. At the peak we peered into the Buddha’s head and could see a representation of the knowledge he garnered throughout his lifetime. A series of scrolls and a lotus flower illustrated the enlightenment he ultimately attained.

The most striking images at Wewurukannala Vihara temple were the vivid depictions of Buddhist hell. Brightly colored statues showed gruesome accounts of punishments for various behaviors. A man standing on his head is being sawn in half by two devilish minions.

sawinhalf Another does a painful back bend over a large spike that impales him in the middle. A guilty individual has molten lava poured down his throat. The bright cartoon-like statues gave this section of the temple a feel of Disney’s It’s a Small World meets the harsh Old Testament. dickwellapunishements

Another long dimly lit hall shows cartoon-strip pictures of various behaviors and the punishments that befall those who take part in such practices. Conducts worthy of terribly violent retribution were many but burned in my memory were walking nude through another person’s house, killing a cow or particularly interesting to the students and me, wearing Western clothing. Punishments included sliding naked for eternity down a spiked pole, having your head cleaved with a saw and being stabbed forever with a burning spear. nailthroughstomach

buddhisthellWewurukannala Vihara temple was in stark contrast to other temples we had visited in Sri Lanka with gentle calm imagery.

If it seems ludicrous to you that something like wearing Western clothes should get you a ticket to eternal suffering, think about what you were taught in your religious tradition. In Leviticus for example, shared by Christians and Jews, there are many rules mentioned that seem absurd to most today – Do not wear clothing made of more than one fabric or allow different types of cows to graze together. It should make you ponder other acts or lifestyles labeled as transgressions by religious clerics. Maybe even some that you and those in positions of authority have deemed sinful. Are they equally absurd?

After our tour of hell to celebrate my sister’s first birthday, we concluded our ten day island tour with a trip to the central mountainous region and ended with a day of rest at a beach-side inn. Some of the famous and interesting places we would investigate again many times as family and friends visited us or my father conducted research trips. But after a week and a half of dusty, hot travel and cramming heads with history and culture we were all anxious to get back to the relative structure of our days in Colombo.