World from differing perspectives


Anthropological Gleanings continue for the fifth week with this article, focusing on getting an insight into three sub-disciplines of anthropology; political anthropology, economic anthropology, and indigenous studies. Senior Professor at Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Prof. Yasanjali D. Jayathilake, who is an expert in all these three fields and teaches the Economic and Political Anthropology with Indigenous Studies at the university, joined with Ceylon Today to speak in this regard.

Indigenous community

Before digging into the field of study of indigenous studies, Prof. Jayathilake suggested that we better get an idea on whom the indigenous people are. “Indigenous peoples are distinct social and cultural groups that share collective ancestral ties to the lands and natural resources where they live, occupy or from which they have been displaced. The land and natural resources on which they depend are inextricably linked to their identities, cultures, livelihoods, as well as their physical and spiritual wellbeing. They often subscribe to their customary leaders and organisations for representations that are distinct or separate from those of the mainstream society or culture,” mentions the World Bank in their reports.

“When we talk about the indigenous people in Sri Lanka, we have a limited community of them. It is only the Vedda community oh Sri Lanka, that can be identified as indigenous people. The Kinnara, and Rodi communities, which tend to be mistaken for indigenous people, in fact are not recognised as such. This has to be understood with an anthropological sense,” explained Prof. Jayathilake. “Those communities are also parts of the mainstream society, or in other terms castes which have been considered low by the elite. Actually, those who belong to these castes were the people that were expelled from the community or caste they originally belonged to. Further, the Ahikuntaka community are also migrated from south India recently, in the mid of 20th century.”

The process of expelling is also interesting. According to Prof. Jayathilake, it is done by the ‘Variga Sabha’ which had been consisted of several people of power in the village. When someone of the community commits a crime, he or she would be punished and advised to refrain from any crime in future at the Variga Sabha, but if they continue to un-follow the law further, they would be expelled from the caste and the community, so that the expelled has to join a lower caste such as Rodi or Kinnara.

“So, Veddas are the only indigenous people in Sri Lanka, and their total population is as low as 5000 – 6000. They are limited to the regions such as Dambana, Pollebedda, Rathugala, Wakare, and Hennanigala” she shared.

Studying the indigenous societies

“You might wonder what use is there in studying about a community as small as that. Nevertheless, the approach of our study doesn’t confine to the local context, but it looks at the larger picture. Thus, we study the indigenous societies in other countries in the world as well. There are an estimated 476 million indigenous peoples worldwide and they make up just 6 per cent of the global population. So, we can’t just ignore them and move on with our lives. They do play a vital part in the world and that’s why we study and try to comprehend their lives as anthropologists.

“Mahatma Gandhi once has mentioned that India can never even think of development without given consideration to the indigenous people who represent 10 per cent of the total population. In Africa, almost the whole nation is indigenous. When it goes to South and North America, there are Red Indians. Then there are Polynesians. In this token, it can be observed that a huge fraction of the world population is marked by indigenous people,” Prof. Jayathilake briefed. “So, these indigenous people have various issues unique to them; they haven’t been given their rights and they have become unable afford the used way of life due to deforestation, hunting, development projects and so on. For an instance, Eskimos find it really struggling to thrive in their native habitats as they are prohibited of killing whales and seal fish, which they are accustomed to feed on. So, we can’t simply neglect their issues and continue with our lives. It is after this realisation that the United Nations (UN) declared the Indigenous Year in 1993, which later was extended to a whole decade because of the importance of the topic.”

Economic and political approach

“The indigenous communities do no differ from the others just because they have different cultural values, but more importantly, they have unique knowledge system, which have sustained their lives over many years. Hence, we study them with an anthropological approach so that we can learn from them,” said Prof. Jayathilake. “These knowledge systems might have answers for burning issues we face such as global warming or environmental pollution. They might not fall into the modern and technical approaches we take today, yet they have proven to be true and fruitful. As an example, there is small community of indigenous people called Sentinelese who live in the Sentinel island of Andaman Islands and does not allow outsiders into the habitat; they shoot with arrows. It is a very primitive type of a civilisation, but the significance is that they have sustained over 60,000 – 100,000 years as an isolated unit in the wilderness of Sentinel. Thus, if we could study their knowledge, it could be utilised to find answers for global concerns,” she added.

As, Prof. Jayathilake explains having a sound familiarity with economic and political anthropological disciplines will be an added benefit to study the indigenous communities in this manner. “Simply, economic anthropology means the studying of economy and how it influences or reacts with culture. Ergo, economic anthropologists, when studying indigenous people, can observe the mechanisms of economy and the flow of economic activities in the communities. They, for sure, are not complex and wide-spread as ours, yet they still function at a primarily level sufficing for the needs of the particular society.

“Also, since culture holds a high market-value, cultures are being utilised heavily in the tourism industry. Nonetheless, if this is done only with a business mind, it could probably harm the culture and affect the people. Thus, anthropological touch is needed in this regard. Even when tourists are taken to the indigenous villages which are a common trend in cultural tourism, we should be very keen not to disturb their culture or harm the dignity of the people who dwell there. These are very sensitive issues.

“Since we are discussing economic anthropology, I’d make this a chance to exemplify how the economy of the society has played a sublime role in shaping its culture. Take the Wewa (tank) culture in Sri Lanka; it is the best example for sustainable development. The ancient life style was almost entirely dependent on the agriculture – both chena cultivation and paddy cultivation – and for agriculture people needed water. That’s the reason for our ancestors to construct massive tanks; to supply water for their agricultural activities,” she elaborated.

“It is like a circle; if the water (the tank) is protected, the cultivations are protected. If the cultivations are protected, a good harvest is ensured and eventually the lives of the villagers are secured. The ancient people had a perfect understanding of this, and therefore, they had a great respect and awe towards the tank. There had been four ‘Mankada areas’ (places of entering into the tank) in a tank according to the purpose. ‘Diya Mankada’ is the area of the tank used to obtain drinking water; the water in this part of the Wewa is therefore cleaner than any other part. ‘Nana Mankada’ is reserved for bathing and is located at a distance from the Diya Mankada and is always located down from it so the dirty water from the bathing area is prevented from the reach to the drinking area. The area allocated for bathing is shallow and does not get muddy even after extensive use. ‘Rada Mankada’ is the portion dedicated to washing clothes, and the ‘Boradiya Mankada’ is the place used to bathe working animals such as oxen and Buffalos used in agriculture. Misusing any of these Mankada was considered a grave crime and was punished at the Variga Sabha. The beauty is that these practices had been embraced by the society not as laws but as parts of their culture.

“Another instance to demonstrate how the economy has shaped the culture is holding of various ancient festivals and rituals. ‘Aluth Sahal Mangalle’ or the ‘Mutti Mangalle’ is a festival which celebrates the good harvest as well as paying tribute to gods for helping them during the cultivating period. Apart from that, all these Gammadu, Devol Madu and Yakmadu are also closely related to the economic activities. So, we can understand how economy creates culture. This is common in any country, in any society,” Prof. Jayathilake furthered.

In the same manner in which the economic aspects in cultural society are identified, the mainstream society as well as any indigenous society could be looked into from a political anthropological point of view. “Though they differ from the present day power structures, indigenous people also have power hierarchies to suit their particular community. There are chiefs, doctors, priests and so on who are given a higher power in decision making and controlling the members of the society. So, they were the leaders and the rest of the community had to obey them. Not only in the indigenous societies but we have also studied all ancient, rural and modern societies with a political anthropological approach. In these studies, it can be recognised how the ancient political systems have influenced or inspired modern concepts too. One classic example for that is the Variga Sabha.

It has been consisted of five super powers in the village such as ‘Maha Gamarala’ (village headman),’ Villambu Atha’, ‘Weda Mahattaya’ (doctor), ‘Maha Hene Mama’ (chief laundryman), and ‘Loku Hamuduruwo’ (chief priest). They had the power and responsibility of establishing the justice of the society. This has been the basis for ‘Pancha Maha Balawegaya’ or the ‘five great powers’ (clergy, doctors, teachers, farmers, and labourers) which was invented later-on in an election campaign of Late Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike,” Prof. Jayathilake explained. “In fact, these societies have had the solidarity, cohesiveness and peace. Hence, we can assume how well-imagined this system had been to make their societies sustain and cherish over the time,” she furthered.

Wrapping up the discussion, Prof. Jayathilake invited all the students as well as other stakeholders who are interested in anthropology to join with them through the official Facebook page Anthropology crew of University of Sri Jayewardenepura or the university website on behalf of the Department of Anthropology of University of Sri Jayewardenepura, since they are planning to conduct many interesting events and programmes related to anthropology and related fields, in future.

By Induwara Athapattu