The first printed edition and English translation of the Mahavamsa was published in 1837 by George Turnour, an historian and officer of the Ceylon Civil Service. A German translation of Mahavamsa was completed by Wilhelm Geiger in 1912. This was then translated into the English by Mabel Haynes Bode, and the English translation was revised by Geiger.
A companion volume, the Culavamsa ("lesser chronicle"), compiled by Sinhala Buddhist monks, covers the period from the 4th century to the British takeover of Sri Lanka in 1815. The Culavamsa was compiled by number of authors of different time periods. The combined work, sometimes referred to collectively as the Mahavamsa, provides a continuous historical record of over two millennia, and is considered one of the world's longest unbroken historical accounts. The historical accuracy of the document, given the time when it was written, is considered to be astonishing, although the material prior to the death of Asoka is not trustworthy and mostly legend. However, that part of the Mahavamsa is one of the few documents containing material relating to the Nagas and Yakkhas, the dwellers of Lanka prior to the legendary arrival of Vijaya.
As it often refers to the royal dynasties of India, the Mahavamsa is also valuable for historians who wish to date and relate contemporary royal dynasties in the Indian subcontinent. It is very important in dating the consecration of the Maurya emperor Asoka, which is related to the synchronicity with the Seleucids and Alexander the Great.
The Mahavamsa account of the Empire of Asoka led to important Indian excavations in Sanchi and other locations, confirming the account. The accounts given in the Mahavamsa are also amply supported by the numerous stone inscriptions, mostly in Sinhala, found in the Island. Modern historians, including Karthigesu Indrapala have also upheld the historical value of the Mahavamsa. It is in this sense that the Mahavamsa differs from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and other epics that have no direct historiographic value. If not for the Mahavamsa, the story behind the large stupas in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, such as Ruwanwelisaya, Jetavanaramaya, Abhayagiri, and other works of ancient engineering would never have been known.
Besides being an important historical source, it is the most important epic poem in the Pali language. Its stories of battles and invasions, court intrigue, great constructions of stupas and water reservoirs, written in elegant verse suitable for memorization, caught the imagination of the Buddhist world of the time. The Ruvanwelisaya was the tallest edifice in the world in that age. The engineering works of King Parakramabahu were the greatest hydraulic works in the world in those times. Unlike many texts written in antiquity, it also discusses various aspects of the lives of ordinary people, how they joined the King's army or farmed. Thus the Mahavamsa was taken along the silk route to many Buddhist lands. Parts of it were translated, retold, and absorbed into other languages. An extended version of the Mahavamsa, which gives many more details, has also been found in Cambodia. The Mahavamsa gave rise to many other Pali works of the chronicle genre, making Sri Lanka of that period probably the world's leading center in Pali literature.
Various writers have called into question the morality of the account given in the Mahavamsa, where Dutugamunu regrets his actions in killing the Chola king Elara and his troops. The Mahavamsa equates the killing of the invaders as being on par with the killing of "sinners and wild beasts", and the King's sorrow and regret are assuaged. This is considered by some critics as an ethical error. However, Buddhism does recognize a hierarchy of actions as being more or less wholesome or skillful, although the intent is as much as or more important than the action itself. Thus the killing of an Arahant may be considered less wholesome and skillful than the killing of a ordinary human being. Buddhists may also assert that killing an elephant is less skillful and wholesome than killing an ant. In both cases, however, the intent must also be considered. An important thing to note is that Dutugamunu regretted his act, and this was also true of King Asoka who became a pacifist after a series of bloody military campaigns.
An eminent historian who has come to the defence of the Mahavamsa is Karthigesu Indrapala . He has argued that the popular presentation of the Mahavamsa as a work of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism is incorrect, and that the Mahavansa writer was singularly fair in his presentation.
Possibly an early edition (of parts?):
Guruge, Ananda W. P. Mahavamsa: The Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka, A New Annotated Translation with Prolegomena, ANCL Colombo 1989