Veddah women as legacy bearers

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Indigenous people can be defined as a unique community of people living all over the world, with their own unique subcultures.

Every year, 9 August is declared World Indigenous Day by the United Nations (UN), and various countries around the world celebrate this day with great festivity. The date marks the day of the first meeting, in 1982, of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations. On this day, people from around the world are encouraged to spread the UN’s message on the protection and promotion of the rights of indigenous peoples.

Who are the indigenous people?

A number of names are used to refer to indigenous communities in different contexts. Among them, Aborigine people, traditional people, tribal people, ethnic people, primitive society, and savage societies can be named as a few examples, although the legitimacy and the how ethically and politically correct some of these terms are can be questioned. These indigenous communities can be termed as sub-cultures that have distinct characteristics from the main population.

This year, the theme designated by the United Nations is, ‘The Role of Indigenous Women in the Preservation and Transmission of Traditional Knowledge’. Accordingly, the unique contribution of indigenous women in preserving and transmitting the traditional knowledge of the Vedda community, the only indigenous people living in Sri Lanka, has been discussed in this article.

Who are the Veddas?

The earliest written evidence of the origin of the Veddas can be traced back to the Mahavamsa. Accordingly, the first description of the Veddas dates back to the 5th century BC. It states that the Vedda people are descended from Kuveni’s two children who fled to Samanthakoota (known as Samanala Kanda).

Commenting that the Veddas are descended from the Balangoda man, Dr. Siran Deraniyagala says that the Balangoda man is physically close to the Vaddas living in Sri Lanka. Physical anthropology researchers such as K.A.R. Kennedy highlights that archaeologically the Veddas can be identified as a group of people who are closely related to our earliest ancestors from prehistoric times.

The Veddas identify themselves as Vannilaththo. But according to historical documents and historical records, it appears that they are known by different names. According to Wilhelm Geiger, the Sabaragamuwa region, which is known as the Vedi Rata, got its name from the Sanskrit words Sabara and Avara. There is also an opinion that Sabaragamuwa Province got that name because it was their original area of residence. Sabara and Savara are synonyms for Pulinda or Vedda.

Mahavamsa says that King Pandukabhaya of Anuradhapura dedicated a Palmyra palm tree as the abode of Vyadha-deva. According to Wilhelm Geiger, the Vyadha-deva was the god of the hunt, and there may be a connection between this god and the Veddas who are engaged in hunting. In addition to this, Dr. Senarath Paranavitana is of the opinion that Milaka, which is also mentioned in the original Brahmi inscriptions, is a reference to the Veddas. Dr. Paranavithana has further mentioned that the term Milaka is similar to the Pali Milakkha and Sanskrit Mleccha, and such mentions have been found in the inscriptions of Kossavakanda and Maradankadawala.

Vedda Women’s role in transferring knowledge

Like other indigenous people living in the world, the indigenous Vedda women of Sri Lanka play many unique roles and make a great contribution to preserving their identity by passing on traditional knowledge.

It is evident when examining the economic role of the family and the role of Vedda women who contribute to the preservation of social and cultural values.

Birth holds an important place among the special occasions of the life of these people. In most of the primitive societies of the world, as well as in this society, the role of women in childbearing and childbirth is particularly important. Dr. Nandadeva Wijesekara has described the rituals performed here. According to that description, there was a small hut (kili pela) built in a house to perform the delivery. A pregnant mother and an adult woman go to that hut when the delivery draws closer. Three days after the birth of the child, they return to the main house. The reason why childbirth is not so troublesome for Vedda women is that they are engaged in daily household activities until the child is born. Elder women make sure to feed the pregnant mother only easily digestible food. It was often customary to give her a soup made from iguana meat and its bones.

After about ten days of giving birth, everything is back to normal, and women are engaged in normal daily activities.

Rituals built around this extinct kili pela are rarely seen in indigenous villages today. However, when babies are born, it can be mentioned as a ritual that is still performed today, to change the offerings to God Dives. Here, on the day the child is born, a piece of white cloth is taken, bangles, necklaces, and a bundle of pepper are hung on it, and a coin is tied and fixed above the place where the child is. There is a belief among them that the baby will not cry until three months later due to the custom of changing the offerings to the god on this day.

Vedda woman also plays a special role during the coming of age (in Sinhala – Malvara). With the first menstruation, the adult woman takes the girl to a small hut named kili pela built for her. In this hut, female friends of the same age or women stay with her. From that time, not only young, but even married women had to spend their menstrual periods in this small hut. After a few days, the girl is bathed by her sister-in-law or an aunt under a banyan tree or another milk tree. This custom may differ according to certain Vedda villages. The custom of building kili pela is also rare among some Vedda women today.

The songs sung by mothers while lulling their babies are a perfect illustration of the traditional knowledge handed down to women by these indigenous elders.

This type of singing of the Veddas can be described as their own intangible cultural heritage which is displayed to the whole world. Today, only a few of these songs remain. These songs are passed on to future generations orally. The language of lullaby songs can be described as different from the colloquial language of Veddas. Except for a few words of their songs, the rest of the words can be well understood.

The value given to women in their society can be seen through the ritual of Kiri Amma. Although it is a ritual associated with God Patthini, they consider a dead Vedda woman as the kiri amma. Among these kiri ammas they believe in, the Idigolle Kiri Amma, Kande Kiri Amma, Divas Kiri Amma, and Unapane Kiri Amma are very important. They consider these kiri ammas to be reincarnations of Vedda women whose children have died. There is a belief that out of envy of pregnant women, these kiri ammas cause diseases to babies and cause illnesses to destroy the pregnancy. Therefore, the Kiri Amma ritual is performed to protect pregnant mothers from the wrath of kiri ammas.

In these rituals, singing is performed in a high tone, and dancing and singing take a special place here. C. De S. Kulathilake says that the belief of the Kiri Amma among the Veddas is a unique belief that is not found anywhere in the world.

The contribution of the Vedda woman can also be understood when examining the economic role of the family. Although the traditional way of livelihood of the Vedda was hunting and food gathering, today it is common to see them engaging in Chena cultivation as well. In Chena cultivation, as well as cereals such as maize, mung beans, kurakkan, cowpea, sesame, vegetables such as cucumbers, pumpkins, brinjals, long beans, and so on are grown. Both men and women are very efficient in supporting Chena farming, where a certain area of ​​the forest is selected, cleared, and burnt, and the soil is turned and cultivated. There, the work of cutting and burning the forest, and the work of guarding the plants to protect the crops is done by the men, while the women turn the soil and plant the crops. Also, women provide a lot of support to men in watering and harvesting.

Food consumption has a special place in the traditional lifestyle of the Vedda. The traditional knowledge on preparing food, the quality of food, different methods of food preparation, how to eat for immunity, different beliefs related to food, and how to provide food for special people such as elders, pregnant women, babies, and so on are transmitted from generation to generation, mainly through women.

It is clear that these indigenous women are the backbone of the Vedda community and play a crucial role in the preservation and transmission of traditional ancestral knowledge about the environment, traditional medicines, food systems, preservation of language, and cultural heritage in the rapidly changing social pattern. Therefore, it should be mentioned that the Government of Sri Lanka, as well as the public, should work to encourage and empower the Vedda women economically, socially, and culturally by giving priority to the preservation of the cultural heritage of the Vedda people. It should also be mentioned that we as a country are responsible according to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

(Special Thanks to;Vedda Chief Wishwakirthi Wanaspathi Uruwarige Wannila Aththo, Moranawarige Dingiri Menika, Uruwarige Somawathie, and Uruwarige Rathnapala.)

(The author is an Archaeology Officer,  

By Jayani Fernando