Sinhala studies at the university date back to the time of the University College in the 1920s. Initially Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit were taught in one department. In 1942, when the University of Ceylon was established, Sinhala studies were brought under a separate department with Dr. M. D. Ratnasooriya as the first Professor. The history of language and classical texts was the main focus of attention at this time. Professor Ratnasooriya also introduced a course on culture in which, apart from classical art, attention was focused on folk arts and folk culture. With the untimely death of Professor Ratnasooriya on the eve of the shift to Peradeniya, Dr. D. E. Hettiarachchi was appointed as Professor and Head of the Department. During his long tenure as Head, he introduced to the curriculum the study of modern linguistics, and more important, the study of modern literature.
The development of modern Sinhala literature studies was the special contribution of Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra, who joined the department in 1951. By the mid-1950s the study of modern fiction, poetry, and theatre, had become the main focus of the department. With that and Sarachchandra's monumental contribution to the development of modern Sinhala theatre, the Department of Sinhala achieved national, if not international, recognition. Subsequently, the university, in recognition of Prof. Sarachchandra’s outstanding contributions, created a special professorship for him.
In the area of language studies, the research publications of Prof. D. E. Hettiarachchi and Prof. D. J. Wijeratne on Sinhala historical linguistics, and the pioneering work of Prof. M. W. Sugathapala de Silva on descriptive and structural linguistics, are considered classics in the field. In the area of cultural studies, Prof. P. E. E. Fernando and Prof. M. B. Ariyapala made singular contributions. Prof. Ananda Kulasooriya's four volume history of Sinhala literature has become a standard text for those studying Sinhala literature. The scholarly achievements of the academics of the Department of Sinhala are well known. Special mention should be made, however, of Prof. Hemapala Wijayawardhana, Prof. Nandasena Ratnapala, Prof. Ariya Rajakaruna, Prof. D. D. de Saram, Prof. J. B. Dissanayake, Prof. Wimal Dissanayake, Prof. P. B. Meegaskumbura, Prof. Sucharitha Gamlath, Prof. K. N. O. Dharmadasa, Prof. Anuradha Seneviratne, Prof. Tissa Kariyawasam, Prof. W. M. Gunatilake, Prof. Piyaseeli Wijemanne, and Prof. Udaya Maddegama.
The Department of Sinhala at Peradeniya pioneered the teaching of Sinhala to foreign students. In the recent past, postgraduate courses, too, including MA and M Phil programmes, have been introduced to the department’s curriculum.