On holiday in Sri Lanka, type designer Aaron Bell found this hanging in a hotel in Galle.
Not recognising the script, he asked a friend, Ben Mitchell, to identify it for him and was told it was a Burmese square script called Magyi-zi, or ‘tamarind seed script’. Blocks such as this in the Pali language, used in the earliest Buddhist texts, were commissioned by a Sri Lankan family when a son entered a Buddhist monastery, for use in the ordination ceremony. Can anyone spot an initial capital letter?
But why would a Burmese script be used in this context in Sri Lanka? It appears that from time to time, Sri Lanka had close ties with other Southeast Asian countries, in particular Burma. In 1070 CE, for example, after a period of internecine warfare, a king in Polonnaruwa, in the central north part of the island, invited monks from Burma to come and help re-establish Buddhist practice in Sri Lanka.
Another interesting example cited by Aaron Bell happened in the 1600s. At that point in time, Buddhism in Sri Lanka was in decline as Portuguese priests were putting in lots of effort to convert the people to Catholicism.
To combat these Catholic efforts, the Protestant Dutch offered help to the Sinhalese king, organising religious missions from the Buddhist kingdom of Rakhaing on the coast of Burma to Sri Lanka. The first such mission, in 1684, included 40 monks who came with a collection of religious texts, helping re-establish the dominance of Buddhism on the island.
Find out more in HR Perera’s Short History of Buddhism in Sri Lanka here.