The original Alu Vihara manuscript does not exist

As is well known, the Pali canon was first written down in the Alu Vihara monastery in sri Lanka, around 20 BCE. This is based on an account in the Mahavamsa, which is generally reliable as far as historical details go.

The original text copied 2,000 years has long vanished in the mists of history. Manuscripts in Sri Lanka generally do not last longer than a few hundred years, and presumably it would have been re-copied multiple times. The Alu Vihara, it seems, remained a center for preserving manuscripts. Sadly, though, the old library was destroyed, along with any manuscripts, during the Matale rebellion of 1848. So we shall never know exactly what was in it at that time.

We do know, however, that the Sri Lankan Sangha requested that manuscripts be imported from Myanmar and Thailand during the colonial period, due to the widespread destruction of the local manuscripts and difficulty of sponsoring new copies. Obviously this request would not have been made if complete and pristine ancient copies existed at a well-known temple like the Alu Vihara.

This is why we are currently engaged in a project to record and digitize the oldest recognized Sri Lankan manuscript, the Dutiyaparakkamabahu Cullavagga housed in the national Museum of Colombo. Again, if ancient original manuscripts existed there would be no need for this.

Despite all this, it is a common belief among Sri Lankans that the Alu Vihara original Tipitaka still exists. In fact, many people seem to be surprised to hear anything different. I think the story is simply circulated saying that the Pali was written down, and no-one thinks any more about it, and if they do, they assume it’s still there.

Some people get quite attached to this idea, and insist that it is really true. To which I say, great! Please take the scenic and delightful drive an hour north of Kandy to Alu Vihara, and snap a few photos of this ancient manuscript on your phone. You will have single-handedly made the greatest contribution of Sri Lankan archeology to world culture: the confirmation of a genuine Tripitaka dated only a few hundred years after the Buddha! This would be the greatest revolution in Buddhist studies in a century!

Unfortunately, this won’t happen because of the whole “not being real” problem. This is why we have scholars who do the hard work of researching these things and reporting on the facts. If you’d like to know more about the story of manuscripts in Sri Lanka, read Ven Ñāṇatusita’s excellent essay on the topic.


Just in case anyone is wondering, the above post is exactly the kind of conspiracy theory I am trying to dispel. Please ignore it and move on.


Temporary lock for Moderator deliberation

Interesting. It seems a major loss to Sri Lanka to loose these manuscripts.

The oldest surviving palm leaf Indian manuscripts have been found in colder, drier climates such as in parts of Nepal, Tibet and central Asia, the source of 1st-millennium CE manuscripts.[4].

It’s fascinating that birch-bark was also used.

The famous 5th-century CE Indian manuscript called the Bower Manuscript discovered in Chinese Turkestan, was written on birch-bark sheets shaped in the form of treated palm leaves.[4].

What’s more:

the oldest surviving Sanskrit manuscripts on palm leaves is of the Parameshvaratantra , a Shaiva Siddhanta text of Hinduism. It is from the 9th-century, and dated to about 828 CE.[3]

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Sri Lankan people should be told the truth about the manuscript. Recently I told a Sri Lankan student that the Buddha did not visit Sri Lanka and that was accepted saying they “had come to a new place about Buddhism,” meaning they were coming to the western Buddhist view, which is now the most vital school of Theravada.

“Having turned the water dipper right-side up, the Blessed One said to Ven. Rahula, "Rahula, do you see how empty & hollow this water dipper is?"

"Yes, sir."

"Rahula, whatever there is of a contemplative in anyone who feels no shame at telling a deliberate lie is empty & hollow just like that.”—MN 61

What is being said is that a contemplative must ground their practice in reality, and it is a common problem that practitioners are unable to come to terms with applying their practice to conventional reality. CR is the raw material, to be taken in balance with contemplation time.


Enough with the conspiracies, please.

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Thank you for the remarks. I agree, we need to find our basis first in the simple things, in the facts and realities, the “raw material” of the world in which we live. If we cannot do this, it is impossible to see any higher truths.


Temporarily closed, as mods can’t keep up with the flags :frowning: