Unheard Cries of the Children of the Forest
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is celebrated on 9 August every year. On this day the rights of indigenous people and their issues are addressed and solutions are sorted.
The International Labour Organisation defines Indigenous people as follows; ‘Indigenous people have their own cultures and institutions, which distinguish them from other parts of the societies in which they find themselves.’
The term ‘indigenous’ means originating or occurring naturally in a particular place/native. ‘Indigenous’ refers to the notion of a place-based human ethnic culture that has not migrated from its homeland and is not a settler or a colonial population. Therefore, being indigenous by definition means being different from a world culture such as the Western or Euro-American culture. Indigenous people are also known as the ‘First People’, ‘First Nations’, ‘Native People’ or ‘Aboriginal People’. In contrast to the groups that have settlements, occupied or colonised an area more recently, indigenous people are an ethnic group who are the original or earliest known inhabitants of an area.
It is estimated that there are more than 370 million indigenous people spread across 70 countries worldwide. Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the societies in which they live.
Forest dwellers of Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, the Vedda community is known as an indigenous group. Veddas or the Vannilaththos, are known as the ‘forest dwellers’ of Sri Lanka. They are Sri Lanka’s own children of the forest.
“The very land we, the Vannilaththo share with other beings is also shared by our ancestral forefathers, gods and goddesses and forest spirits. We are not alienated from them”, these are words of the present Vedda community leader, Uruwarige Vannilaththo. These words echo the core of their life, culture and philosophy.
The Esala season is when the Vannilaththos pay tribute to their god at Kataragama by participating in paada yatra and the Kataragama Perahera which culminated on the Nikini Poya Day last week. However, it seems as if the mighty god at Kataragama does not hear the cries of the children of the forest. For decades they are praying and pleading for their rights of land that they have been deprived of, but it seems as if these pleads are gone unnoticed by the gods and by the authorities.
I was fortunate enough to visit some of the Vedda villages in Sri Lanka and built up a close bond with them during the past couple of years. What captured my heart was the simple lifestyle of these innocent people. Their needs are simple. For centuries they have lived in the forests. To them, forest is their mother, their life, their existence, and their identity. Yet, recent irrigation and development projects have done great injustice to these people as they were forced to leave their homes and to be relocated in villages. They are not allowed to enter the forest for hunting or for chenna cultivation without permission, which is the greatest challenge they have ever faced. They were forced to adopt a lifestyle that is alien to them. Such restrictions and scarcity of recourses have influenced them to split into small groups and live in scattered clusters.
Today, these Vedda communities are scattered in many parts of the island while most of them are displaced. Originally, they lived in the North Central Province and the Sabaragamuwa area. Later due to development projects, they were forced to leave their homes and settle in villages such as Dambana, Rathugala, Pollebedda, Hennanigala, Dalukana, Yakkure, Dimbulagala and Bintenna to name a few. The Eastern coastal Vedda communities believe that their forefathers migrated to the East from a place named ‘Gala’ which researchers assume as Nilgala or Dimbulagala.
We share a common ancestor
The term Vedda finds its roots in the Sanskrit word Vyadha. The meaning of which is hunter with a bow and arrow.
Former Director General of Archaeology in Sri Lanka Dr. Siran Deraniyagala points out in his research work titled, The Early Man and the Rise of Civilisation in Sri Lanka: Archaeological Evidence (1992) that the genetic continuum from at least 18,000 BCE at Batadombalena to 16,000 BCE at Belilena and to 6,500 BCE at Bellan Bandi Palassa connects to the modern Veddah population.
He opines that in actual fact, the Veddahs could find a common ancestor in the form of the ‘Balangoda Man’. All these sites where human remains have been found were subject to detailed scientific studies. They are considered to yield the earliest evidence of the anatomically modern man in South Asia. These anatomically modern prehistoric humans in Sri Lanka are referred to as ‘Balangoda Man’ in popular parlance (derived from his being responsible for the Mesolithic ‘Balangoda Culture’ first defined in sites near Balangoda).
He stood at an estimated height of 174 cm for males and 166 cm for females in certain samples, which is considerably higher when compared with the genetics of the present-day population in Sri Lanka. The bones are robust, with thick skull-bones, prominent brow-ridges, depressed wide noses, heavy jaws and short necks. The teeth are conspicuously large. These traits have survived in varying degrees among the Veddahs and certain Sinhalese groups, thus point to Balangoda Man as the common ancestor.
Recent scientific studies reveal that the Veddas were found to be distinct but closer to Sinhalese than to other South Asian groups (including the Sri Lankan Tamils). Another study showed the Veddas and Sinhalese to be more biologically related to each other than to most other ethnic groups in Asia. Looking back at our chronicles and folklore it is evident that the Sinhalese and the Veddas shares the same roots and a common ancestor. It is also believed that the Yakka tribe is a common ancestor of both the Sinhalese and the Veddas.
Injustice to them
We have shared this land together for more than many a millennia. At one point in history we parted from them as we chose and decided to walk further, leaving the forests towards urbanisation, creating a more complex lifestyles for us. Yet, they decided to remain where they were - in the forest. Their contribution towards the diversity and richness of civilisation and culture of the Sinhalese is immense. We can witness this at places such as Kataragama, Mahiyangana and Ratnapura.
For centuries Sinhala monarchs never interrupted or hindered their lives. However, it is indeed heart-breaking to hear and witness what happened to them due to the development projects in the country that took place during the 20th century. The authorities decided that Veddas should be removed from their traditional homes – the forest. It is unfortunate that we did not understand the fact that these people are a part of the natural heritage. The systematic civilisation of the Vedda communities was initiated by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. The first two, forced-settled the Vedda people in agriculture lands hoping that they could be used for cultivation, and that the Government could benefit from taxes collected.
Between 1977 and 1983 under the Mahaweli Development Project, a massive amount of land was turned into gigantic hydroelectric dam irrigation projects. A large portion of Vedda community lost their native lands due to this. The Maduru Oya National Park declared, deprived the Vedda communities of their homelands.
Although the forest dwellers are prohibited to enter the boundaries of these newly-created national parks yet, poachers backed up by politicians are free to roam in them. Also, the destruction of forests and wildlife seem to be thriving in the country without any restrictions.
Their cries go unheard
Removing them from the forest was an act of eradicating their identity, challenging their existence, and hindering their lifestyle and culture. They do not want complex things in life like we do. They do not want to learn ‘rocket science’ and reach the moon, nor do they want to trade land. They want their traditional lifestyles which were ripped off from them back.
It is surprising to see how and why so-called human rights activists do not focus on these peoples’ lives and the great injustice that fell upon them. To this day, they are not given the right for the land and this is the only plea they have for the authorities.
Senior community members still fondly talk about the peaceful simple lives they spent in the forests as cave dwellers. The urban life is not a place where they can thrive. Their language and cultural practices are under threat due to the vast social changes they are forced to go through. It was disheartening to realise that their children are reluctant to continue their school education due to lack of prim and proper clothes, shoes and stationary and due to being mocked as ‘vedi lamaya’ or ‘vedda’.
Although they were given land to cultivate, the knowledge, and facilities are not sufficiently provided. Also, due to their innocent and naïve nature they are easily deceived by buyers.
It is high time that the governing bodies should divert their attention towards these communities. What they want is simple and they deserve it. It is unfortunate and devastating to see how these people are losing their pride despite being one of the island’s oldest inhabitants.
We destroy nature. We deprive the rights of the forest dwellers and the wild life.
As Chief Seattle once said, “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
(Special thanks to; Sri Lanka Indigenous Community Chief Uruwarige Vannilaththo, Rathugala Vedda Community Chief Danigala Mahabandilage Sudu Vannilaththo, Indigenous Communites at Dambana, Kotabakiniya, Rathugala and Pollebedda, Central Cultural Fund, Archaeologist Harendralal Namalgamuwa, Udeshika Jayapali, Dulmina Chamathkara, and Randika De Mel.)
(Pix courtesy Udeshika Jayapali)
Facts and Trivia about Our Ancestors
The early inhabitants of Sri Lanka are known as Yakkas, Nagas and Devas, and the Sinhalese and the Veddas are descendants of these ancient tribes. During the first visit of Buddha to Mahiyangana or Bintenna which is known to be an ancient Veddda settlement, the Yakkas had shown displease at first. This historical event is remembered every year at the Mahiyangana Vedi Perahera where Veddas apply honey all over their body, paste cotton wool, hoot loudly, and parade along with their spears and bows and arrows. One of their chief deities - Maha Loku Akka is believed to be the sister of Saman, who became a disciple of Buddha. Unlike Saman, Maha Loku Akka did not follow Buddhism but remained faithful for her first religion.
According to chronicles and folklore, Kuweni, the Yakka princess bore two children to Vijaya. However, when Vijaya decided to get married to another queen, Kuweni was thrown out of the kingdom. Out of sorrow and anger she cursed Vijaya and his entire clan at Thonigala (The rock where she screamed and cursed) and went back to her kingdom, Sirasawaththupura. Out of rage, her relatives killed Kuweni but her children were able to escape. They retreated to the hill country and lived there and their descendants were known as the ‘Pulindas’. It is believed that this is the Sabaragamuwa area and the Pulindas and Sabaras are synonyms for Veddas or the forest dwellers.
Facts and Trivia about Our Ancestors
Paada yatra is an annual foot walk pilgrimage which starts from Jaffna and goes to Kataragama, along the Eastern coast. The coastal Veddas take part in this pilgrimage every year. This long and strenuous journey displays their profound devotion and dedication to their much-feared god Skandha or Kande Yaka. The Veddas play a vital role in the Kataragama Esala festival. They also believe that they are related to god Kataragama as he married a Vedda tribal girl, the beautiful doe-eyed Walli Amma.
Contribution to Kandy Perahera
During the Kandy Esala festival, the Veddas offer bees honey to the sacred Tooth Relic at the Temple of Tooth in Kandy. This is an age-old practice which has been followed for centuries and the Vedda communities consider this as an honour for them.
Veneration of Yakkas
The Veddas believe that their ancestors reincarnate as Yakkas after death. Therefore, they make sure to keep the Yakkas pleased by performing poojas for them. They also venerate a large number of female deities. These female deities are referred to as Kiri Ammas. They have yadinis (religious poems) they recite while praying and special dances they perform to please these
Yakkas. Names of their prominent deities include; Vanniye Bandara Muttha, Bilindi Yaka, Kande Yaka, Indigolle Yaka, Kalu Bandara devi, Indigolle Kiri Amma, Kande Kiri Amma, and Unapane Kiri Amma.
Sri Lankan forest dwellers or the indigenous people consider themselves as a part of nature. To them, nature and its aspects are sacred. The bond between them and their beloved dogs are heart-touching. Especially in ancient times, dogs were precious to them as they were their hunting companions and protectors. They were also given away as dowry. When they were dwelling in caves, their dogs would lay near the entrance of the caves as guards. There was a practice among them to gift puppies as a token of friendship. Their bows and arrows were protected by dogs and they would never forgive those who harm their dogs. Seligman in his book The Veddas records an incident that happened in 1849 at Bintenna. A person has killed two dogs and the owner of the dogs murdered the killer out of furry with his axe. Seligman further says that the dog owner did not regret his act as he had said, “Yes, I killed him because he killed my two loving dogs; they were my pets and my hunting companions. He deserved this.”
However, things have changed now. They do not hunt anymore but their love for dogs still remains.