India is a country of rich cultural diversity where 22 officially recognised languages and over 1650 dialects are spoken across 29 states and 7 union territories, as in 2019. The 2011 Census of India last listed 1369 ‘mother tongues’, however, our country has been a witness to a great number of tongues over the centuries. One such distinctive, literary and nearly dead language is Pāli.

Let us take a look at an archaic, literary and extinct Middle Indo-Aryan language, which was used to compose Buddhist scriptures back in the day, when Prakrit was yet to reach its prime. Closely related to Sanskrit, yet firmly rooted in the northern and then-vernacular Prakrits, it is often referred to as “Magadhan” or the “language of Magadha”. So say hello to the ancient language of the Buddhists: Pāli.


Pāli – What’s that?

Pāli is an MIA language (i.e. Missing in Action, if you know what I mean) that belongs to the Indic group of the Indo-Iranian subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. It was the primary literary language of the Buddhists in which the Buddhist scriptures (the Tipitakas) were composed, and was also used to preserve the Buddhist canon of the Theravada Buddhist tradition, which is regarded as the oldest complete collection of Buddhist texts surviving in an Indian language.

Traditional Theravadins regard Pāli as one of the languages spoken by the Buddha himself, in which he conveyed his original teachings, but in the opinion of many eminent linguistic scholars, Pāli was nothing more than a synthetic language created from several vernaculars to make the Buddhist texts comprehensible to Buddhist monks who were scattered in different parts of northern India back then.


History and fun facts

Pāli is known as the language of the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism, (the Pāli Canon or the Tipitaka in Pāli), which were written in Sri Lanka around the 1st century BC.

While Sanskrit is much older than Pāli, which was in vogue during the Vedic period, Pali is considered more of a Prakrit language; and another interesting fact, is that the word ‘Pāli’ by itself is derived from the root ‘pal’, which means “to preserve”, thereby implying the texts which preserve the teachings of the Buddha.


Tracing back the links

As Theravada Buddhism spread to other parts of southern Asia, the use of Pāli as the language of the texts spread along with it, and thus Pāli became a sacred language in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Pāli was primarily used almost exclusively for Buddhist teachings, although many religious and literary works related to Buddhism were written in Pāli at a time when it was already forgotten in India. As the number of Buddhists in India gradually declined, Pāli ceased to be used in the country.


Factor in Globalisation

Pāli died out as a literary language in mainland India in the fourteenth century but survived in other parts until the eighteenth century. Today Pāli is studied to primarily gain access to or study the original Buddhist scriptures, and is frequently chanted in rituals. There are non-religious texts in Pāli including historical chronicles, medical texts and inscriptions, which are also of great historical importance.

The main areas where Pāli is still studied include Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. It is, however, not far from purely a liturgical aspect.


Content curated & SmartRead by: Team Vernac
Author: Alifya Thingna