Veddhas: The unspoilt children of nature

Asiff Hussein

Vedhi Dance S ri Lanka's aboriginal inhabitants, the Veddhas, are truly a fascinating people. Descended from the country's stone age inhabitants, these primitive folk cling tenaciously to their age-old life-style by living off the hunt and gathering the fruit of the land, despite the ongoing process of industrialization and modernization. The Veddhas are proud of their distinct sylvan heritage and call themselves Vanniyalette, Those of the forest .

The term Veddha by which their Sinhalese neighbours denote them, comes from the Sanskrit Vyadha meaning hunter with bow and arrow. The pure Veddhas, unlike the Sinhalese who speak an Indo-Aryan language and claim Aryan descent, are related to the Austro-Asiatic peoples found scattered today in many parts of southern Asia.

Vedhi Hut These include the aboriginal tribes of Chota Nagpur in eastern India such as the Hos and Birhors, the Sakai of Malaysia, the Kubu of Indonesia and the Australian aborigines. A dark, chocolate brown complexion, long head, broad nose, heavy browridges, wavy hair and a pronounced prognathism are characteristic of this sort of people.

The hunter-gatherer mode of existence is also common to all of them. The pure Veddhas are today a numerically insignificant community comprising a few hundred souls at most. The last census, which enumerated the Veddhas as a separate community was conducted in 1953. It showed a total of 803 Veddhas. Until fairly recent times, Veddha settlements were to be found scattered in the Uva, Sabaragamuva, North-Central and Eastern Provinces. Such areas like Nilgala in the Eastern Province and Yakkure in the North-Central Province had a considerable settlement of Veddhas.

Vedhi Chief However, linguistic assimilation and intermarriage with their Sinhalese neighbours have contributed to the decline of the Veddhas as a distinct people and today, Dambana, a Veddha settlement about six miles from Mahiyangana is the last bastion of Veddha culture. The Veddhas, once a numerically strong people, have been declining steadily during the last 2000 years of their existence, due to assimilation with the Sinhalese.

Indeed, these sons and daughters of the soil have contributed to the formation of the Sinhalese nation in no mean measure. Professor Rudolph Virchow in his contribution on the Veddhas to the Royal Academy of Science of Berlin (1881), concludes following a detailed historical and anthropological study, Òmanifold resemblances exist between the Veddhas and the Sinhalese,Ó and that Òthe origin of the Sinhalese race from a mixture of Veddhas and immigrants from India possesses great probability.

Dr. Senarat Paranavitana (Inscriptions of Ceylon 1970) cites epigraphic evidence to show that the Veddhas and Sinhalese coalesced to form one people,Ó in the course of time. R. L. Spittel (Wild Ceylon 1924) also comments on this large-scale intermarriage between Sinhalese and Veddhas.

According to the ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty, the Mahavansa , the Pulindas (Veddhas) are descended from Prince Vijaya (6th-5th century BC) the founding father of the Sinhalese nation, through Kuveni, a woman of the Yakkha clan whom he had espoused. The Mahavansa relates that following the repudiation of Kuveni by Vijaya, in favour of a Kshatriya princess from the Pandya country, their two children, a boy and a girl, departed to the region of Sumanakuta (Adam s Peak in the Ratnapura District) where they multiplied giving rise to the Pulindas. Anthropologists such as the Seligmanns (The Veddhas 1911) believe the Veddhas to be identical with the Yakkhas of yore.

The Ratnapura District, which is part of the Sabaragamuva Province is known to have been inhabited by the Veddhas in the distant past. This has been shown by scholars like Nandadeva Wijesekera (Veddhas in transition 1964). Indeed, the very name Sabaragamuva is believed to have meant the village of the Sabaras or forest barbarians. Such place-names as Veddha-gala (Veddha Rock), Veddha-ela (Veddha Canal) and Vedi-kanda (Veddha Mountain) in the Ratnapura District also bear testimony to this. As Wijesekera observes, a strong Veddha element is discernible in the population of Veddha-gala and its environs. As for the traditional Veddha lifestyle, a number of authorities have delved on this and we can easily describe their life-style as it existed in the past, and as it exists today.

Veddhas are known for their rich meat diet. Venison and the flesh of rabbit, turtle, tortoise, monitor lizard, wild boar and the common brown monkey are consumed with much relish. The Veddhas kill only for food and do not harm young or pregnant animals. Game is commonly shared amongst the family and clan. Fish are caught by employing fish poisons such as the juice of the pus-vel (Entada scandens) and daluk-kiri (Cactus milk). Veddha culinary fare is also deserving of mention. Amongst the best known are gona perume, which is a sort of sausage containing alternate layers of meat and fat, and goya-tel-perume, which is the tail of the monitor lizard (talagoya), stuffed with fat obtained from its sides and roasted in embers. Another Veddha delicacy is dried meat preserve soaked in honey. In the olden days, the Veddhas used to preserve such meat in the hollow of a tree, enclosing it with clay.

Such succulent meat served as a ready food supply in times of scarcity. The early part of the year (January-February) is considered to be the season of yams and mid-year (June-July) that of fruit and honey, while hunting is availed of throughout the year. Nowadays, more and more Veddha folk have taken to Chena (slash and burn) cultivation. Kurakkan (Eleusine coracana) is cultivated very often. Maize, yams, gourds and melons are also cultivated. In the olden days, the dwellings of the Veddhas consisted of caves and rock shelters. Today, they live in unpretentious huts of wattle, daub and thatch. Veddha religion centred round a cult of ancestral spirits known as Ne yaku , whom the Veddhas invoked for game and yams.

Today, however, many Veddhas are Buddhists like their Sinhalese neighbours. The Veddha marriage ceremony is a very simple affair. The ritual consists of the bride tying a bark rope (diya lanuva) of her own twisting, around the waist of the bridegroom. This is the essence of the Veddha marriage and is symbolic of the bride s acceptance of the man as her mate and life partner. Although marriage between cross-cousins was the norm until recently, this has changed significantly, with Veddha women even contracting marriages with their Sinhalese and Moor neighbours.

In Veddha society, woman is in many respects man s equal. She is entitled to similar inheritance. Descent is also reckoned through the female line. Monogamy is the general rule, though a widow would be frequently married by her husband s brother as a means of support and consolation. Divorce hardly ever takes place. The women are said to make faithful wives and affectionate mothers.

Death too is a simple affair sans any ostentatious funeral ceremonies and the corpse of the deceased is promptly buried without much ado. Although the medical knowledge of the Veddha is limited, it nevertheless appears to be sufficient. For example, python oil (pimburu tel) a local remedy used for healing wounds, has proven to be very successful in the treatment of fractures, deep cuts and so on.

Until fairly recent times, the raiment of the Veddhas was remarkably scanty. In the case of men, it consisted only of a loincloth suspended with a string at the waist, while in the case of women, it comprised of a piece of cloth that extended from the navel to the knees. Today, however, Veddha attire is more modest, men wear a short sarong extending from the waist to the knees, while the womenfolk clad themselves in a garment similar to the Sinhalese diya-redda which extends from the breastline to the knees.

The original Veddha language has to all intents and purposes ceased to exist and survives in a few words and phrases they use in their everyday conversation. The Veddha language today is a curious hotchpotch of modern Sinhala, old Sinhala and a non-Aryan speech which would have constituted their original tongue.

This unidentified language may perhaps have contributed to the formation of the Sinhala language, which, although Aryan, contains a large vocabulary of non-Aryan and non-Dravidian words that have perplexed linguists. Robert Knox, an English exile in the Kandyan kingdom for nearly 20 years (1660-1679) says in his Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681): ÒIn these woods there are wild beasts, so wild men also... they call them Veddhas, dwelling no other inhabitants. They speak the Chingulayes (Sinhalese) language,Ó so that even during Knox s time, the Veddhas could converse in Sinhala.

Even the old Veddha names such as poromala (male) and tuti (female) have gone out of vogue; Kandyan Sinhalese names like Tikiri Banda (male) and Dingiri Menika (female) have become popular. R. L. Spittel has written a wonderfully informative book (Vanished Trails. The last of the Veddhas 1950) based on his adventures and experiences with three generations of Veddha folk. The book deals with the progressive loss of the traditional Veddha life-style and culture.

The Veddha s honesty, sincerity, compassion, marital fidelity and sense of duty to the family and clan are lofty ideals and have been commented on by various observers and scholars. They are indeed the unspoilt children of nature. One might ask if they do not epitomize the concept of the Noble Savage that was the subject of much 19th century European romanticism.

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Faith Ratnayaka

A t a time lost in the haze of history, the vedda migrated to Sri Lanka from India. Thousands of years before the Sinhalese arrived, they probably walked over Adam's Bridge, or Rama's Bridge, which then linked the two countries. Up until modern times, they lived by nature's rules - close to nature. Their rituals, and their very language, were threatened by the opening of their forest homelands for resettlement and cultivation, beginning early this century.

In early times, vedda were cave dwellers - their drawings are found in the Bintenne Caves. They used bows and arrows, and rough-stone cutting tools - iron and steel were entirely unknown. Numerous studies have been undertaken on their way of life, their descent from Australoid-Negroid groups, and the changes that civilisation brought to their world. Notable writers like the Seligmanns and Dr. R. L. Spittel, have produced authoritative and interesting works on the vedda community.

Vedda - or "wanniya-laeto" (forest dwellers), as they call themselves - still hunt and are adept at collecting honey. This skill is an art, interwoven into their life fabric, and celebrated in song and dance. There is a fascinating study on the "bambara" honey collectors of Uva Province and the Bintenne Pattu of Batticaloa District by A. C. Dep. The people there, some of vedda descent, still collect honey for domestic use and for sale.

Father Queyroz, in "The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest for Ceylon", written between 1671-1686, details how they collect honey from trees and rocks. And, there is a wealth of folk songs and poetry, called "bambara kavi," or "maligi".

The shotgun has replaced traditional weapons for deer-hunting, although they are still displayed at ceremonies and rituals - even among those who have adopted village life. The vedda have their place in the history and in legends of the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. In fact, they are said to be the world's most studied, yet least understood, people.

In 1993, we visited Dambana, to witness their skill. They make gourds out of skin or use hollowed-out fruits to carry water, bags from bark, and rough clay pots. They turn out wooden items, bangles, and neck ornaments - and they will copy almost any item. Honey, strained rather primitively through an old sarong, is sold in unsealed arrack bottles. The women, who keep aloof in their huts, are also somewhat skilled at weaving leaf sleeping mats and bags. The small children we saw were lively, if poorly nourished. We met the patriarchal chieftain, Tissahamy of Dambana, and his son. The manner of greeting, confined to the men, is to grasp forearms, in the ancient Roman way.

The Vedda lost their homelands in the Eastern and North Central Provinces to agricultural expansion. In the South-East, colonists in the Gal Oya scheme displaced them from Inginiyagala. With the accelerated Mahaweli development scheme, their jungle retreats all but vanished. The vedda became largely absorbed into rural communities, although still clinging to traditional customs, wedding rituals, and spiritual worship. Over 125 families were re-settled in Henanigala, near Girandurukotte, in the North-Eastern Region. Other vedda villages are found in the proximity of jungle areas, where they adopt agriculture and animal husbandry. And catering to tourists in the rural setting is now a basic industry.

Those Vedda who found the change to a village lifestyle insupportable, returned to the jungles bordering the national parks in Maduru Oya and near Mahiyangana. I recall my first visit to Mahiyangana, in 1966, when it was simply a central bus station, with some new boutiques clustered round a muddy square. I found myself under the scrutiny of a pair of sharp, piercing eyes - the owner being less than my height of five feet, with a sharp nose, long wavy hair, and fine Mediterranean features. An axe was perched over his shoulder, and he wore a short loin cloth. He accorded my husband the same close examination. Obviously coming to some conclusion, he gave a satisfied grunt and disappeared forever from view.

Coming literally face to face with an authentic vedda is an experience I savour - the vedda, after all, is a diminishing breed.

Stories and legends of the Vedda are legion in Sri Lanka, their chiefs being appointed royal huntsmen. In turn, their folk tales depict the part they played in royal history. They are a people with a proud narrative. In this century, their integration into the agrarian community has been fraught with difficulties. They have been exploited by settlers, and harassed for violating laws they do not understand - and at times, laws that they never knew existed. Despite receiving aid and support from concerned individuals and non-governmental organisations, their appeals to be allowed to pursue a peaceful lifestyle in their traditional homelands, have largely been overridden, in the name of development.

Now, they are preparing to appeal personally to the United Nations, in Geneva, where the Working Group for Indigenous Populations will consider their case. But the fact that their existence needs to be ensured by legislation is a point for deep reflection. The vedda of Sri Lanka represent a direct link with the first people who inhabited earth. Surely, it is incumbent on society to give them their due place, so that they may exist with dignity, in their time-honoured manner.

The writer's interests include writing prose and poetry, and researching women's and children's development.

@Lanka Monthly Digest

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