“Indigenous people from every corner of the globe recognise that other species are part of nature and as human beings, we are also part of nature.”
—Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim
Indigenous people play an important role in world cultures and natural environments. They are inevitable contributors to the community, social, economic, and political aspects of the globe. In New Zealand, a Maori community member, Nanaia Cybele Mahuta was appointed as the minister of Foreign Affairs. In many countries of the world, indigenous people are cherished and they play an active role in development. However, in Sri Lanka, the Vedda people are not sufficiently involved in the country’s social, economic, and political development. Although every year a large number of scholars conduct studies about them, and publish articles and books about them, very little is done for the benefit and betterment of the Vedda people of Sri Lanka. Very little is done to uplift the quality of their lives and to make them involved in Sri Lanka’s social, economic, and political development.
The Vedda people of Sri Lanka, known to be an indigenous community that has a legacy and a bond deep-rooted in the soils of Sri Lanka, are unique among the indigenous communities of the world for some of their characteristics. Their culture is extremely simple and minimalist and they have been living a humble lifestyle, extremely close to nature. To them, Mother Nature is their mother and they are a part of nature. These humble people have lived their lives sharing the land along with the Sinhalese for more than 2500 years, being a part of the country’s culture.
A series of unfortunate events took place in the 20th century as the modern irrigation and agriculture projects resulted in displacing some of the indigenous people as the land was required for water reservoirs. Also, the scattered indigenous communities today are not a big part of Sri Lanka’s development and sufficient measures are not taken for their betterment.
The Vedda people of Sri Lanka at present although share common traits with the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, originally, they unlike the Sinhalese who speak an Indo-Aryan language and have Aryan descent, are known to be descendants of Austro- Asiatic people. The many indigenous communities who live in parts of South Asia are descendants of Austro-Asiatic people.
The Veddas of Sri Lanka have ancient origins, based on our chronicles and inscriptions. The term Vedda derives from the Sanskrit term Vyadha which means hunters. This is believed to be the term used by the Sinhalese to identify the Vedda people.
During the time of king Pandukabhaya, a sacred place was dedicated to the Vyadha deva or the Vedda – deity.
Veddas played a vital role as they supplied meat to the king. It had also been an age-old tradition that Vedda’s offer pure bee’s honey to the dalada perahera.
According to popular belief, Veddas are descendants of the Yakka tribal queen, Kuweni, and the Aryan prince Vijaya, while the Sinhalese are believed to be descendants of Vijaya’s brother’s son. Thus, making the two communities share a common ancestor. However, as Kuweni is believed to be a local tribal queen (Yaksha tribe), the Vedda people become closer to the Yakka tribes that had been living on the island when the arrival of the Aryan people happened.
As folklore and local chronicles narrate, the two children of Vijaya and Kuweni ran away from the Yakkha kingdom and settled in the mountainous Sabaragamuwa area. Pali chronicles refer to them as the Pulindas. Local scholars such as Nandadeva Wijesekara write that the term Sabaragamuwa means the area of the Vedda people. It is also believed that Sabaras is another term used to identify the Vedda people.
Archaeological evidence revealed in Sri Lanka suggests that the Vedda people are closer to the Balangoda man. Dr. Siran Deraniyagala in his research work explains that there is a close connection between the humans who lived in Batadombalena, Belilena, to Bellanbedi palassa and the Vedda people.
Although the Vedda community is mainly living in the Dambana area, which is also considered their main centre, they are scattered in the Uva province, Eastern province, and the North Central provinces.
Veddaa’s of the Eastern Coast, Sri Lanka
The Vedda people living in the East are also referred to as Muhudu Veddas. However, according to studies, these Muhudu Veddas, unlike the Veddas in Dambana and the Uva Province, has lesser connectivity to the original Vedda people of Sri Lanka. This could be due to the spread of the community away from the original Vedda homelands and being mixed with local Sinhala and Tamil communities; mostly the Tamils.
It is noted that Muhudu Veddas are reported in the Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts of the east, but according to many of them and local scholars’ research, they are migrants from the island Veddas who later settled in the coastal areas.
When they migrated from the inland to the coastal areas, is not a question that is clearly answered by scholars. According to some, it is as late as the 17th century and not beyond that. Hugh Neville’s studies suggest that they were originally from the Sabaragamauwa area and the migration occurred during the 17th century.
However, Seligmann, who has done extensive research on Sri Lankan Veddas, points out similarities between coastal Veddas and the Dimbulagala Veddas. This does not agree with the suggestion of Neville which says that the coastal Veddas are descendants of the Veddas of Sabaragamuwa. Folklore among the coastal Veddas, as narrated by Seligman, says that their ancestors arrived at the coastal areas in an unknown time, from a place that bears the name ‘gala’. In the celebrated book The Veddas (1911) Seligman writes that, “The coast Veddahs do not know when they came or how they came, but they say that long ago their ancestors came from the Gala, far beyond the hills to the west. They also sometimes say they came from Kukulu-gammaeda and spread out along the coast. Some say this is Kukulugam near Verukal; others suppose it to be somewhere far away.”
Could this place be Dimbulagala?
According to chronicles and folklore, Dimbulagala is known to be an ancient centre of the Yakkha tribe. It was known as a strong military stronghold of the Yakkhas, especially during the battles of Pandukabhaya. Later, Dimbulgala was known as the native land of the oldest Vedda communities.
The other place that is associated with the Veddas and has the name gala is Nilgala and Rathugala. Nilgala is one of the oldest places of Vedda people and pre-historic human settlements. Today, descendants of the Vedda people live in the Rathugala area.
If the folklore of the coastal Veddas is true, they could be descendants of the inland Vedda people of Dimbulagala or Nilgala.
Neville, Seligmann, and Dutch records reveal many interesting stories about coastal Veddas including names and stories about coastal Vedda Varigas (different tribes), and leaders.
A journey of faith
Every year, coastal Vedda people, along with Tamils and Sinhalese join the sacred Paada Yatra, the sacred walk to Kataragama to pay homage to the god residing in the holy jungle shrine at Kataragama. The Vedda people and the god Kataragama have a sacred bond. According to some folklore, the gods’ consort Walli is a Vedi maiden. And the god at Kataragama is a Vedi deity named Kande Yaka or the Deity of the Hill.
Venerating Yakkas is the traditional belief of the Veddas. They believe that the dead are being born as Yakkas and have the power to help or hurt the living.
Today, as their traditional beliefs are mixed with the beliefs of Sinhalese and Tamils, they have folklore about Skandha and Ganesh too. Although the coastal Veddas too venerate god Kataragama and take part in the paada yatra with great devotion, it is often said that they are somewhat ignored and the Dambana Veddas are given priority during the perahera ceremonies.
Coastal Veddas; rapidly vanishing trails
Local studies on coastal Vedda people also reveal that they do not speak the Vedda language spoken by the inland Veddas nor do they bare the traditional legacy of their ancestors. This may be due to once again, being mixed with local communities and socio-cultural and political pressure.
At present, the coastal Vedda people are rapidly moving away from their traditional Veddda identities due to socio-cultural waves that are affecting them. In the areas the coastal Veddas reside, the caste system plays a very important role and Vedda communities are considered to be among the lowest in the social hierarchy. Thus, due to avoid discrimination and neglect, they are shedding their Vedda identities.
The current state of the coastal Veddas is not satisfactory, in scholarly views, in terms of originality and legacy bearers. However, as they are also human beings, and desire to move along with contemporary society, to expect them to be frozen in time, maintaining their original roots, is far beyond practicality and is of course unfair.
Also, the coastal Veddas face great unjust when it comes to freely revealing their identity. One example is in state census reports, they are mostly reported as Tamils due to political pressure put on officials. Due to this reason, in government census reports, the number of coastal Veddas especially in Batticaloa is shown extremely low, as a large number of them are reported as native Tamils.
The coastal Vedda communities are also believed to be Sinhalese, about three or four generations ago. This is mentioned in local studies conducted by scholars. Also, their names, traditions, and customs, including traditional hunting methods and livelihoods are rapidly changing and fading due to socio-cultural and political pressure. During the LTTE war, many of the coastal Vedda people were under the control of the LTTE. However, during post-war times they were subjected to rehabilitation.
The unjust and troubles faced by the coastal Vedda people also happened greatly during the times of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. Especially during the British, their attempts to ‘civilise the savage’ by anglicising them has not ended even after the British left. This was witnessed in Rathugala Vedda village too.
Indigenous people are not primitive, savage, or uncivilised
In fact, seeing the indigenous communities around the globe as uncivilised or savage, or barbaric was mainly by the Europeans who colonised the world. Even the Colonial times are long gone, modern studies often conducted in ‘European perspectives’ define and categorise the indigenous people as primitive or barbaric. One reason for this is that, when they voyaged across the globe and spread European colonies by conquering lands, they saw the native cultures as primitive, savage, and uncivilised. Looking at the past in the same terms, modern European scholars were of the view that a similar trend occurred in the ancient world too, thus labelling the early cultures of countries as primitive and uncivilised. The irony is that those who conquered lands and converted natives through force and terror called the natives barbaric.
But the reality is that these communities had their own cultural identities and lived within other communities, together in harmony. They were not considered primitive or savage, yet they contributed to the development of local social, economic, and political aspects.
Today, we need to return to this mend our perspective, shed the colonial thinking, and give back the Vedda people their stolen dignity and identity.
“I do not think the measure of a civilization is how tall its buildings of concrete are, but rather how well its people have learned to relate to their environment and fellow man.”
—Sun Bear, Chippewa
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy