He was born on 26th December 1896 at Metaramba, Galle. He had his early education at the Metaramba Government School and later entered Bona Vista School in Galle. He studied oriental languages at Ranweligoda Pirivena in Heenatigala. He was a school teacher at the Udugampola Government School and joined the Department of Archaeology in 1923. He married in 1930. Senarath Paranavitana received his Ph.D. in 1936 and was appointed Commissioner of Archaeology on 1st October 1940 in which capacity he served diligently till December 1956. The next year (1957) he was appointed Professor of Archaeology at the Peradeniya University.
Even though Dr. Paranavithana's period began with the on set of the Second World War, his erudition and energy resulted in a very fruitful 17 years as the Archeological Commissioner of Ceylon, when he retired in 1956. Today, Sri Lankan history and prehistory are illuminated by his highly-regarded academic and popular writings. The most well-known "magnum opus" of course was "Sigiri graffiti", published in two monumental volumes by the Oxford University Press.
Besides his numerous contributions to foreign and local journals in the fields of epigraphy, history, art, architecture, religion, languages and literature are the following publications: