Journal: Percutio

Cover: S. Bianciardi

An annual published in hard copy in New Zealand and France paying special attention to the creative process and issues relating to translation.


Percutio is dedicated primarily to reflections upon the creative process, particularly in relation to work that bridges cultures.

Cover: N. Bunn

Percutio may, therefore, feature poetry, essays, extracts from novels, choreography, approaches to composition and journal entries in English and the language of creation.

Cover:A. Loeffler

The deadline each year is April 10th.

Submissions are welcome.

View the pilot issue (without images) free of charge here.
View the contents lists and editorials of past issues here.

Download past issues
Format: Adobe
Suitable devices: Tablet PCs, PCs, Macs, Laptops



A Buddhist Debate in the Sigiri Graffiti by Jacques Coulardeau. (added 13.06.2010) First published in Percutio 2008.



A Buddhist Debate in the Sigiri Graffiti

Jacques Coulardeau



Sigiriya is a magic place. The Buddhists arrived in Sri Lanka around the third century BC and got settled in caves they transformed into some habitable retreats. Sigiriya's Rock, and other caves in the area, like Dambulla's caves, was occupied like that quite early after the arrival of these Buddhists. But the great chance of Sigiriya, a chance that will give it its name which means the Rock of the Lion, came with King Kasyapa who seized power from his father in 477 because his father wanted to give the throne to his younger son, the son of his second wife, instead of to Kasyapa, his older son, the son of his first wife. As soon as he had conquered power he decided for unclear reasons to move the capital city from Anaradhapura to this Rock that he took from the monks who were there. The monks were moved to another rock in Pidurangala, about one kilometer away, keeping here a token presence with the bodhighara integrated in the citadel. Then he built a Palace on top of the Rock, a full city with all administrations around the Rock and on the boulders at its foot, and further on the western Precinct dedicated to water-gardens and smaller pleasure buildings, and the eastern precinct for various commercial and administrative services. The whole complex was fortified as a citadel. Kasyapa was ousted from power by his younger half brother in 495. Sigiriya lost its status and went back to Buddhist occupation.

On the west face of the Rock and in lower caves as well as on the outside face of the Mirror Wall along the gallery that runs the west face at one third of its height, Kasyapa had some five hundred women painted. They are extremely debated as for their meanings. We are not going to enter the debate and we will just say they are most often called Apsaras, meaning Heavenly Nymphs. They are both high-society ladies and their maids. About twenty odd women have survived the monsoon and other difficult weather conditions. The ladies are bare down to the waist, wear a lot of jewels and scatter or hold flowers. The maids have some kind of wrapper around their breasts and hold the flower trays for their ladies. Dr Benille Priyanka, in his most recent publication, demonstrate how these paintings have antecedents, and hence 'models', from Persia to Siberia from the 5th century BC to the 5th century CE.

From the 9th century CE to the 13th century CE (essentially 9th-10th-11th centuries) many visitors who were probably pilgrims came to visit the Rock and the Buddhist settlements. They also took advantage of their visit to give a look at the Apsaras. They wrote graffiti on the inside surface of the Mirror Wall down on the gallery running under the frescoes. 685 were published in 1956, edited by Dr Paranavitana. Then 150 more were published in 1990 and 1994 within the archaelogical project managed by UNESCO on this site, classified as a World Heritage Site, by Dr Benille Priyanka, a Sri Lankan himself who holds a position of associate researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles along with that of archaeological counsellor in Sigiriya, who is working on 300 more to finish the job.

These Sigiri Graffiti, as they are known are in standard poetic form for the time of Sinhala poetry : poem of two or four lines, each line divided in two unequal halves, the first one being slightly shorter than the second. It is a syllabic poetry since Sinhala is no longer a stressed language as Pâli or Sanskrt were . These graffiti are of great interest because most of them are signed and thus we can study both the semiological impact of the paintings on the visitors, but also take into account the elements we can gather from the signatures about the sexes, social or political positions, and religious statuses of the authors. It is a rare example of such reactions from a rather wide public confronted to a work of art. At least such a great number of poems is a rare and remarkable element. They are in their very existence the proof that these paintings are of great interest and great quality.


When I examined the 685 graffiti collected by Dr S. Paranavitana in his book Sigiri Graffiti, Oxford University Press, London, 1956 (I had had an inkling about the problem when I first read the 150 extra graffiti collected and published by Dr Benille Priyanka in 1990 and 1994 in the UNESCO reports on the archaeological site, and when I discovered the conceptual model of present studies for regional inscriptions proposed by Raj Somadeva in his article « Epigraphy of the Sigiriya-Dambulla Region » published in these reports), I felt there was an important religious dimension and discussion in them, though the translations seemed rather neutral. I looked more closely at the original text and found three (there are maybe more) words for the heart : 'mana', 'sita' and 'la'. The last one being associated, by Dr Patanavitana, to the 'breast' meaning probably the 'chest', seems to designate the organ. The other two are given by Dr Paranavitana as meaning equally the 'mind' and the 'heart'. I intensively checked these two words in the poems and could not find any system, not even contextu- al, except if we understand a context as being a feeling or an intuition. It is true that Dr Paranavitana considers intuition, from a Buddhist point of view, as being the highest level of intellectual or artistic activity, when, in point 633 of his extensive introduction, he sets the 'patibhana-kavi' at the top of his classification of poets and he defines him as « a poet whose imagination is controlled by his intuition. » It is not enough to say that intuition leads to the knowledge of « real nature ». So I am going to discuss first what is at stake behind the translation of these two words from an ideological point of view (Buddhist for the words in Sinhala and judeo-christian for the words in English, 'mind' and 'heart'). Then I will consider a selection of eight poems that represent the various points of view encountered on or around that subject : what religious attitude, or philosophical attitude can a Buddhist by belief or uinfluence adopt in front of the Sigiri paintings.




If we translate anything from a language to another the translation must reflect as faithfully as possible the original meaning. When we deal with poetry it is even more complex because the prosody, the linguistic form (sounds, rhythm, etc) are also essential in the building of the meaning.

Not being fluent in Sinhala, what's more Old Sinhala, I will not emphasize the formal side of these poems. I will essentially concentrate on the meaning/meanings of words, though I may also consider some linguistic aspects of the poems when significant and/or necessary.

Let's start with English.

The mind is the intellectual machine that enables man to think. The seat of the mind is in the brain, essentially because thinking is centered on the brain's activity, though the brain is also the seat of all sensory, motor and sensory-motor activities.

The heart is the seat of sentiments, passions, like love, hatred and so many more. Sentiments and passions are stated in the west as being uncontrollable, at least by reason, by intelligence, by the mind. A common saying is : the heart has reasons that reason itself ignores (with the two meanings of « ignore »).

So the translation will necessarily convey these two meanings for these two words in agreement with the word used in English, no matter what the meaning of the Sinhala words behind are : the words of a language necessarily have the meanings these words commonly have in this language for the users of the language.

Just to emphasize the complexity of the problem, let me quote a passage of the Gospel according to Mary Magdalene: “I said to him, Lord, how does he who sees the vision see it, through the soul or through the spirit ? The savior answered and said, He does not see through the soul nor through the spirit, but the mind that is between the two that is what sees the vision and it is [ . . . the sequence of this quotation is missing in the original due to a missing section of the document] (5:10-11). The soul is the divine part of man. The spirit is the second dimension of God, and man, as a divine creature, has access to that spirit, at least in this approach of Jesus' teaching, the gnostic approach. For the standard pauline approach, the spirit is always the second dimension of God and that spirit or Holy Spirit, or Holy Ghost is totally out of reach for man and can only be accessed through Jesus Christ, the supreme intercessor. The mind then is seen here as in-between the soul and the spirit, between the divine part of man and the Holy Spirit of God, the mind thus being the medium through which the contact with God's spirit is possible and thus it enables man to get visions from this Holy Spirit, from God. This is of course once again a gnostic approach with which Paul would absolutely disagree. For him man can only get in contact with the Son, Jesus, the thrid part of God, who is the intercessor. Here Man has a mind that is the intercessor between man and his soul on one hand, and the Holy Spirit on the other, and that is divine in nature since it stands between two divine elements. Add to that the 'reason' I have already spoken of, the 'mind' in its ordinary meaning that I have explained before as the thinking machine of man, then the 'brain' which is the organ of thinking, of the mind, and the 'heart'. All those words have clear meanings and some are the locales of difficult and even at times harsh debates and polemics (some of these have led to the hereticization and destruction of one side).

The situation is completely different in Sinhala. 'Mana' and 'sita' seem to be interchangeable. Both mean the mind in the Buddhist meaning, as the sixth sense-door that gives rise to the sixth perception. The mind deals with mind objects : non-tangible objects, objects that cannot be sensed and perceived by the other five sense-doors of the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue, and the body, hence dealing with thoughts and ideas, plus the abstract sense-objects produced by the other five sense-doors before they are processed - by the mind - into analyzed, recognized and identified objects, before they become full perceptions that may imply them getting a name.

We must note here that what we commonly call feelings are from the next 'aggregate of Dukkha', the 'aggregate of mental formations' that have in no way a permanent existence in the subject or his mind, but only the transient existence between the moment a stimulus prompts this mental reactive attitude and the moment when this mental attitude will no longer be necessary and will vanish because the stimulus that prompted it has disappeared.

The problem comes from the fact that the seat of the mind is traditionally stated as being the heart, though the Buddha himself never committed himself on the subject, though this latter fact does not solve the problem. Hence the heart is both the seat of the mind and of most of the « volitional actions » or « mental formations » or « mental states » we have just spoken of.

It is clear that the mind in this approach is quite close to the mind in English. But since 'mana' and 'sita' have their seat in the heart we can (through a metonymy, a transfer of meaning from the whole to the part, from the internal faculty to its seat) consider that 'mana' and 'sita' may mean the heart, just like Dr Paranavitana considers 'la' which obviously designates the organ may also be used to designate the mind (there we have a reverse metonymy, the organ that is seen as the seat of an internal faculty extended to mean that faculty).

But that neglects the ambiguity of the heart in Buddhist thought when we translate 'mana' and 'sita' into English and use the word 'heart'. We reduce the meaning from the organ that is the seat of two things, an internal faculty and most volitional activities which by the way reduces the brain to a simple computing machine to only the seat of sentiments and passions.

The consequences are enormous.

Love is only a passion in western Indo-European languages. Love is also a mind-object in Sinhala and probably many Indo-Aryan languages (Indo- European and Indo-Aryan languages are all derived from Sanskrit, but the two branches don't seem to have followed the same lines of development and thinking, at least for the words we are discussing). If we speak of the heart being captivated by the pictures, in English we mean love and nothing else.

If we speak of the 'mana' or 'sita' being captivated by the pictures, in Sinhala we mean first the mind, and eventually, through a metonymic unexpressed transfer, the volitional activities that could be love, desire, and for some openly erotic poems, a sentiment that has a sexual and even physical dimension. But only the context could tell us that this metonymic transfer has taken place. Otherwise the basic meaning would be the mind, the internal faculty that processes abstract object or the virtual objects produced by the senses, in other words the controlling device of the subject.

From what I have observed in the 685 graffiti translated by Dr Paranavitana, there is no system in the choice between mind and heart in English.

And anyway we should look for a word that may convey the two dimensions. There does not seem to be one, so we should systematically translate 'mana' and 'sita' by the compound mind-heart, and in that order, leaving the task of finding or inventing a poetical equivalent to poets. I am all the more in favor of such prudence, because these Indo-Aryan languages have a dimension Indo-European languages don't have. If I consider the number of words in Pâli to designate the acquisition of some knowledge or its possession, as Shane Blok explained in her recent article 'Mind, its nature and function as described in Buddhism', published in the Daily News in August 2005, I have eight verbs built on janati, third person singular present, and eight prefixes including the prefix zero. Here are these eight words along with their translations:

Janati > knows
Vijanati > knows with discrimination
Sanjanati > recognizes [as in « I recognize this person » that could be seen as equivalent to « I know this person » when I meet someone I seem to recognize]
Pajanati > knows with wisdom
Parijanati > knows comprehensively
Abhijanati > knows with extra-sensory perception (note the prefix abhi- that we find in Abhidhamma, the main reference on Buddhist philosophy, in which 'dhamma' meanings 'the teaching' of the Buddha : this gives you an inkling of the supreme knowledge Buddhism is aiming at : a knowledge that is beyond the simple sensations and perceptions we can get from the six sensedoors, thus including the mind itself in 'sensory perceptions'.)
Ajanati > learns or grasp
Patijanati > admits or approves

The least we can say is that English is poor at this level and Pâli is rich. Just as there is a multitude (more than twenty) words in English to express the idea carried by the general verb 'to shine', showing thus the extreme visuality of English, and yet most of them come from different roots (that is an important difference with Pâli if we want to compare and assess the two languages), there is a great number of verbs expressing the possession or acquisition of knowledge in Pâli, showing thus the extreme development of intellectual activity in this language, what's more all derived from the same root, in short this demonstrates the central value of the mind, 'mana' or 'sita'.



POEM N° 56-536

Pi[ya].paha[sa me] digäsa sandehi lat vemi suvapat Saga-van [beyand] â kala [va]nnemi balay [sita to]s

Translation 1

When the loving embrace of this long-eyed one is obtained by me, I shall become happy. (And), when I am come to this mountainside, which is like unto heaven, I shall become rejoiced in the mind, having looked at (it). (Translation given by Dr Paranavitana. The word 'mind' translates the word 'sita' added in the poem (reconstructed) by Dr Paranavitana.)


This poem represents the reaction of most visitors. They treat these pictures as real women. They can envisage a physical contact with them and the pleasure or happiness they will (not 'would' that would hypothesize the pleasure that they do not hypothesize at all) get out of it. This poem, like so many others, has an erotic dimension if we take the words 'embrace' and 'happy' for what they are, modest understatements. So we could easily imagine that the recollection he will keep after the visit will have this erotic dimension. The word 'sita' is then problematic. Is he speaking of the passion he feels for this woman or these women, or is he really going back to his mind, after having lost it, and thus makes his recollection « sexually-correct », that is to say unsexual, hence aesthetic only ?

I am not sure. Though we could say, since this mountainside was like heaven (a big word though for sexual pleasure, though the ladies are seen as Apsaras or heavenly nymphs), when he is back home he will have to come back to reason : heaven was there and home is not heaven, the pleasure of that heaven can no longer be obtained at home. Hence the mind takes over and controls the passion.

The translation seems to imply that meaning.

This poem is typical because of the pictural trap into which the author falls. How can anyone take a picture for a real human being, or rather for the real human being it is an image of ? It is that enslavement to the picture that would make me think that the subsequent recollection will keep that erotic dimension and that we are dealing with a passion of the heart. 'Sita' can metonymically also carry this meaning, a meaning that is conveyed by the last word, 'os' translated by 'rejoiced'.

In fact the last quarter of this gâ or depada is the perfect oxymoron that plays on the ambiguity of 'sita' which is surrounded on its left by the absolutive of 'look at' = 'balay', and on its right the noun 'tos' meaning 'pleasure' (if it were the verb 'tos' it would mean 'to feel pleasure'), on one side a physical sense-door and on the other side pleasure which may have a physical dimension, whereas 'sita' may be purely mental : the oxymoron is thus either antagonistic if 'sita' is stated as mental, or non-antagonistic, hence nearly non-oxymoronic, if 'sita' is stated as being only the sensual heart. This last remark shows the value of the poem because of this skilful construction of an eventually antagonistic oxymoron. It is also the best expression of the passion for the women in the picture that so many touch with their own bodies.


Translation 2

Happy will I be having you Eyes so long you embrace my heart This mountainside climbs to Heaven My joyful mind saw her radiance [J.C.]

Translation 3

Combien heureux je suis De vous détenir Vous embrassez mon coeur De vos yeux si long Ce flanc de rocher Nous porte en paradis Mon esprit serein Savoure sa splendeur [J.C.]

Notes on Translations 2 & 3

En anglais j'ai choisi de privilégier la rythmique accentuée et en français la rythmique syllabaire. Comme la forme standard de ces poèmes en Sinhala est fondée sur des vers coupés en deux parties inégales, j'ai choisi de créer le déséquilibre en anglais à la fois dans chaque vers avec un renversement d'accentuation à la césure et entre la première moitié de la traduction d'un poème et la deuxième en inversant les moitiés de vers dans la deuxième moitié de la traduction. La langue Sinhala étant très synthétique, la traduction est nécessairement nettement plus longue. Ainsi un poème de deux vers (en anglais) sera construit comme suit :

- ' - ' | ' - ' -

' - ' - | - ' - '

Il suffit de multiplier le modèle pour passer à des traductions qui peuvent, maximum rare atteindre dix vers, mais sont couramment de quatre vers ou de six vers. Les poèmes de ma composition (entre les actes) reprennent ce modèle mais avec des strophes qui peuvent être de douze vers ou plus, toujours coupées en deux parties égales et au schéma inversé.

En français j'ai gardé le déséquilibre syllabaire (comme en Sinhala qui est une langue à poétique syllabaire) en ayant des vers (correspondants parfaitement ou presque à l'anglais coupés en deux parties, et des poèmes de même. Dans la première partie du poème un vers se décompose en 6 puis 5 syllabes, et dans la deuxième partie l'inverse, 5 puis 6 syllabes. J'ai en plus imposé une contrainte sur les demi-vers de cinq syllabes pour éviter le flou entre le cinq et le six : les demi-vers de cinq syllabes ont tous des terminaisons masculines, refusant toute terminaison féminine. Par contre les demivers de six syllabes n'ont pas de contrainte.

En anglais comme en français les traductions ne sont pas rimées, comme d'ailleurs en Sinhala, ces poèmes n'ayant aucune obligation de porter des rimes.

I chose to stick to the standard poetical forms of English and French. In English poetry is based on alternating stressed and unstressed syllables, whereas in French poetry only considers the number of syllables.

Since in Sinhala poetry, and it is the case here, is shaped in lines that are cut in two unequal halves measured in number of syllables (Sinhala is an unstressed language like French), I chose to render that unbalance both with each line and within the succession of lines. In English I inverted the stressing pattern from one half of a line to the next half and I inverted that line pattern from one line to the next line. Sinhala being an extremely dense language a line may be translated by two or more in English. Then these English lines corresponding to one Sinhala line are on the same pattern, whereas the corresponding number of English lines translating the second Sinhala line will be on the inverted pattern. The basic English pattern with a two line translation is then:

' - ' - | - ' - '

- ' - ' | ' - ' -

You just multiply the number of lines and you have the full pattern of a translated poem. The standard size is two lines + two lines, but it may reach six or eight lines altogether in some longer cases.

In French I kept the syllabic unbalance of Sinhala poetry but cutting the lines in the same way as in English. Here too the translations are generally longer as for the number of lines than the Sinhala originals and I made them of the same length as in English. The first part of the translation corresponding to the first Sinhala line will oppose a first six foot half and a second five foot half. The second part of the translation corresponding to the second Sinhala line will oppose a first five foot half and a second six foot half. However I met another difficulty there. To avoid any fuzzy count I decided to ban feminine endings on five foot half lines that thus always end with a masculine ending (refusing a final "mute e" that is traditionally not counted as a syllable in French poetry but in a way lengthens the line with a suspended - even if uncounted - delay. I did not impose this restraint onto the six foot half lines.

The translations are not rhymed, neither in English nor in French, because Sinhala poetry does not use rhymes.

As one can see the main problem here was to transfer a certain rhythmic pattern from Sinhala to English and French knowing that English poetry is different from Sinhala poetry as for measuring meter, whereas French poetry uses the same device."



There is little to conclude. The poems are their own conclusion. There is an obvious Buddhist debate among the visitors and among the graffiti, a debate that has been neglected if not pushed aside for unknown reasons by Dr S. Paranavitana. But to conclude along another line, I want to thank those who gave me the opportunity to discover this immense cultural heritage under the governance of UNESCO. First I will thank the Centre for Eco-Cultural Studies who brought me to Sigiriya. All of them as a collective body that a non-governmental-organization (NGO) is and is to be, if not has to be. Second I will thank the Venerable Doctor Daniyagama Ananda Thera, High Priest of the Pidurangala Temple who accepted my teaching the English of Buddhism to his yound monks and other students of and in the monastery. That was a challenge : to get into Buddhism in exactly two weeks, at least enough to have an intelligent attitude with the concerned students in the following two months and a half. And this enabled me to dive into the next stage.

Third I will thank the managing body in its entirety of the Sigiriya Rock Site, Museum and Complex, who entrusted me with their original copy of Dr Paranavitana's Sigiri Graffiti that provided me with four or five days of sheer pleasure of the mind, discovering a precious treasure, an Indo-Aryan language and some of the deepest insight I have experienced in more than thirty-five years of linguistic studies. Among them, the personnel of this managing body, one stands out more than the others, Dr Benille Priyanka, for the enlightenment and help he provided me with every time I pounced upon him with my questions and my lack of answers.

As a last note I have to thank the accomplice, the accessory of all that, I mean Sujeewa Jasinghe, and my thanks come from my deepest mind and is wrapped in both the darkest and most luminous recollections. Nights are very dark and days are very luminous in Sri Lanka, at least in the dry season. I should probably also thank my pupils or students at the monastery and my colleague, their regular English teacher, for their patience, forbearance and tremendous open-mindedness. They are keen to learn, keen to share, keen to enlighten themselves and those that surround them with the fire of their personal thinking.

I hope I have not been too ignorant, because ignorant people get stuck in words like an elephant in mud. And I definitely do not have a long trunk in the shape of a nose and I don't like mud.



Bandaranayake, Senake, ed, The Settlement Archaeology of the Sigiriya Dambulla

Region, University of Kelaniya, 1990

Bandaranayake, Senake, ed, Further Studies in the Settlement Archaeology of the

Sigiriya Dambulla Region, University of Kelaniya, 1994

Bandaranayake, Senake, Sigiriya, Central Cultural Fund, Colombo, 1999-2004

Coulardeau, Jacques, « Benille Priyanka, Meanings of the Sigiriya Paintings », in

The Island, Colombo, Sri Lanka, October 4, 2005

Nârada Mahâ Thera, A Manual of Abhidhamma being Abhidhammattha Sangaha of

Bhandata Anuruddhâcariya, Buddhist Missionary Society, Kuala Lumpur,

Malaysia, 1979

Narada Thera, The Dhammapada, Buddhist Cultural Centre, Dehiwela, Sri Lanka, 2544-2000

Paranavitana, S., Sigiri Graffiti (two volumes) O.U.P., Oxford, 1956, reprinted by

Government Press, Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Colombo, 1983, gifted by Unesco

Priyanka, Benille, « Readings of the Hitherto Unread Graffiti on the Mirror

Wall and in the Asana Guha at Sigiriya », in Bandaranayake, Senake, ed,


Priyanka, Benille, « Sigiri Graffiti : New Readings », in Bandaranayake, Senake, ed, 1994

Priyanka, Benille, Meanings of the Sigiriya Paintings, Based on Recent Archaeological

Evidence, Godage Int. Publishers (PVT) Ltd, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2005

Rahula, Walpola, What the Buddha Taught, Gordon Fraser Gallery Ltd, London,