The word "Pirivena" is found even in the Tipitaka to denote a separate apartment or a cell of a monastery in which monks were dwelling from the Buddha’s time. Having evolved through centuries, in the history of Sri Lanka, the traditional educational institution of Buddhist monks has been known as the Pirivena. Young and small monks who are residing in Pirivena together with senior and erudite monks study and practice the teachings of the Buddha and the classical subjects like Pali, Sanskrit, history, prosody, rhetoric, astrology and logic etc. Apart from reading, recitation, discussion, retention and analysis the education system in Pirivena gives prominence to learn by heart the scriptural knowledge. Pirivena is also the place where young and small monks are trained by masters to follow the rules and regulations promulgated in the Vinaya Pitaka of the Buddha’s teaching..
Kalapasada Pirivena (monastery) built by King Devanampiyatissa in the 1st century is considered as the oldest Pirivena in Sri Lanka. Then the two renowned monasteries Mahavihara and Abhayagiri have also been functioned as education centers of monks in Anuradhapura period where both local and foreign monks were trained. Subsequently, there had been another eight centers called Mulayatana which were also functioned as centers of monk’s education. Most Venerable Welivita Saranankara sangharaja is remembered as the pioneer of the monks’ education in the present era for his outstanding contribution to reestablish Pirivena education in the Kandy period. .
In the past Pirivena was a self-managed institution, however, after the colonial era, it has become a part of government education which functions under the Ministry of Education in Sri Lanka. Today there are 753 government approved Pirivenas in Sri Lanka where over 6000 teachers and nearly 60000 students are engaged in teaching and learning. There are three categories of Pirivenas today, namely Mulika Pirivena, Mahapirivena and Vidyayatana Pirivena. Though the main objective of Pirivena is to train monks, throughout the history it has been a seat for education of laymen as well including the princes of royal families. Today, a half of the Pirivena students are consisting of boys probably dropped outs from schools.