The Vedda are descendants of nomadic hunter-gatherers that are believed to have been Sri Lanka's first residents. After living in the jungles for more than 12,000 years most are now assimilated into normal life. A few remain in their jungle homes near national parks and reserves. They are also known as Wanniyala-aetto (“People of the Forest”) as well as Vadda, Veddah, Veddha, Vaddo.
The Vedda are the last descendants of the ancient inhabitants of Sri Lanka, predating the arrival of the Sinhalese. They have long been viewed in the popular imagination as a link to the original hunting-and-gathering societies that gradually disappeared as the Sinhalese spread over the island. In the 1980s, Vedda lived in the eastern highlands, where some had been relocated as a result of the Mahaweli Garga Program. They have not preserved their own language, and they resemble their poorer Sinhalese neighbors, living in small rural settlements. The Vedda have become more of a caste than a separate ethnic group, and they are generally accepted as equal in rank to the dominant Goyigama caste of the Sinhalese. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]
The Veddas are ethnically similar to Senang Negritos of Malaysia and the Andaman Islanders of India — both of whom have traditionally been people of the forest living outside normal modern life. The Vedda have traditionally lived in jungles and bush country of the dry zone in eastern and central Sri Lanka. Throughout their history they have lived in the edges of society and civilization.
Vedda is a Dravidian word meaning “hunter,” and has traditionally implied “uncivilized”. According to the ancient chronicle the “Mahavamsa,” dated the A.D. 5th century, when the legendary King Vijaya arrived in Sri Lanka around 500 B.C., the island was inhabited by evil spirits known as “yakkhas”. Vijaya married a yakkha princess and used to union to stake a claim to the entire island. He then sent his wife and their children back to her people and married an Indian princess. The yakkha regarded the first wife as a traitor and killed her. The children — a son and daughter — retreated to the forest, married each other and gave birth to the Veddas. [Source: James Brow and Michael Woost”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
The Veddas are divided into three regional groups: 1) the Bintenne Vedda, who live in an area inland from the east coast between Trincomalee and Batticaloa; 2) the Anuradhapura Veddas, who live in North Central Province; and 3) the Coast Veddas, who live along the eastern coat between Trincomalee and Batticaloa. The three groups traditionally have had little or no contact with one another: although they acknowledge a remote kinship. |~|
Books: The Seligmanns and Dr. R. L. Spittel, have produced authoritative and interesting works on the Veddas.“The Veddas” by C. G., and Brenda Seligmann (1911). Cambridge University Press. “Vanished Trails. The Last of the Veddhas” by R. L. Spittel, 1950, is based on his adventures and experiences with three generations of Veddha and deals with the progressive loss of the traditional Veddha life-style and culture.
Dr. R.L. Spittel (1881-1969) rests his fame on his life-long dedication to wildlife and distinguished himself as a naturalist, anthropologist, and ethnologist. Although he was an eminent surgeon, he is best known for his studies of the Veddas, and he is considered one of the foremost Sri Lankan writers on this subject. [Source: My Sri Lanka mysrilanka.com ]
Population and Location of the Veddas
There are only a few hundred or few thousand Veddas. Estimates of their number varies because its is not clearly defined what a Vedda is since so many have intermarried over the years and been assimilated. Some count only those that still live in the forest. There are only a few hundred of these at most. Others count those that have been assimilated. There are thousands of those. The Anuradhapura Veddas are the largest and most assimilated. Some say the Veddas no longer exist.
James Brow and Michael Woost wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ Veddas formerly lived in all of the more isolated parts of Sri Lanka, but today they are restricted to the arc of country between the predominantly Sinhalese areas in the west, south, and center of the island and the predominantly Tamil areas in the north and east. The Bintenne Veddas inhabit an area in the southeast of the island, inland from the towns of Batticaloa and Trincomalee and extending westward to the Verugal, Mahaweli, and Gal Oya rivers. The Coast Veddas live along the coast between Batticaloa and Trincomalee. The Anuradhapura Veddas live in the North Central Province. All three groups are located within Sri Lanka's dry zone, where the annual rainfall is normally less than 190 centimeters, most of which falls between October and December. [Source: James Brow and Michael Woost”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“The Veddas constitute only a very small proportion of the total population of Sri Lanka, They were last enumerated separately in the census of 1963, at which time they numbered 400.” A census in 1953 counted 803 Veddas. In 1970, however, a census of the Anuradhapura Veddas, conducted as part of an Ethnographic study, counted more than 6,600 of them. The main reason for this discrepancy is that government officials have tended to treat as Veddas only those who subsist from hunting and gathering — a criterion that would have excluded virtually all of the Anuradhapura Veddas — while the ethnographer's census included all those who identified themselves as Veddas. Estimates of the size of the Bintenne and Coast Vedda populations are not available, but both are probably much less than that of the Anuradhapura Veddas. |~|
Veddas speak either Sinhala or Tamil. Their original language has been lost. “Only faint traces of what might once have been a distinct Vedda language have been detected. Contemporary Veddas speak colloquial forms of either Sinhala or Tamil, depending on which of the two main ethnic groups predominates in their local area. The Bintenne and Anuradhapura Veddas mostly speak Sinhala, which is an Indo-European language, while the Coast Veddas speak Tamil, which is Dravidian. Peculiarities in the speech patterns of the Veddas can be attributed to their relative isolation, low level of formal education, and low socioeconomic status. [Source: James Brow and Michael Woost”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
Asiff Hussein, a Sri Lanka journalist and writer, wrote: “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): “In these woods there are wild beasts, so wild men also... they call them Veddhas, dwelling no other inhabitants. They speak the Chingulayes (Sinhalese) language,” 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.
History of the Vedda
In ancient times, the Vedda were cave dwellers. Their drawings can be found in the Bintenne Caves. They used bows and arrows, and rough-stone cutting tools. Iron and steel were unknown until a few centuries ago. There is a fascinating study on the "bambara" honey collectors of Uva Province and the Bintenne Pattu of Batticaloa District by A. C. Dep. In "The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest for Ceylon", written between 1671-1686, Father Queyroz details how the Vedda collect honey from trees and rocks. [Source: Faith Ratnayaka, Lanka Monthly Digest]
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The weight of physical anthropological evidence is that Certain groups of Veddas show stronger biological affinities with prehistoric inhabitants of the island than do any other groups in present-day Sri Lanka. This lends support to the common assertion that the Veddas are the remnant descendants of an aboriginal population that inhabited Sri Lanka before the emergence of a literate civilization in the later centuries of the first millennium B.C. The extent to which this civilization was an indigenous development and not just the creation of Immigrant settlers remains a matter of controversy, but undoubtedly there was considerable exchange — both cultural and genetic — between the descendants of the prehistoric inhabitants and later immigrants. These relations are expressed in the popular myth that the contemporary [Source: James Brow and Michael Woost”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992;C. G., and Brenda Seligmann, “The Veddas”. Cambridge University Press. 1911 |~|]
“Veddas are descended from a union between Kuveni, an aboriginal demoness, and Prince Vijaya, the legendary founder of the Sinhalese nation who came from India. In historic times, however, the most prominent feature — virtually the defining characteristic — of the Veddas has been their social marginality. They have made their living on the peripheries of Sinhalese and Tamil polities, in relation to both of which they came to represent the uncivilized element in society. Thus while actual Vedda culture reveals a variable pattern that merges readily with that of the rural Sinhalese, the categorical opposition between Vedda and Sinhalese radically distinguishes the former, as a group of savage and pagan foragers, from the more civilized, paddy-cultivating Buddhist Sinhalese. A similar pattern obtains between the Tamil-speaking Coast Veddas and the Hindu Tamils. |~|
“In the last hundred years, however, with the rapid expansion of Sri Lanka's population, improved communications, and increased settlement in the dry zone, embodiments of the ideal or typical Vedda, defined in polar opposition to the civilized Sinhalese or Tamil, have become extremely hard to find. Nevertheless, because of its compatibility with the disposition of nineteenth-century European scholars to discover a pristine Vedda culture that was unambiguously associated with a distinct racial group, this idealized representation of the Vedda has exercised a commanding influence over the anthropological imagination. Recent studies of the Anuradhapura and Coast Veddas have encompassed groups that deviate significantly from the ideal, but representations of the Bintenne Veddas are still dominated by C. G. and Brenda Seligmann's classic study, published in 1911, which, in its ambition to describe the pure culture of pure-blooded Veddas, depicts a way of life that was followed only by a small minority of those who then identified themselves as Veddas.” |~|
Original Inhabitants of Lanka: Yakkas and Nagas?
Sri Lanka is said to have been inhabited by Yakkas (demon-worshippers) , Rakshasas and Nagas (snake-worshippers) before the arrival of Vijaya and his men who colonized the island. They were totemic tribes not supernatural beings. There is in north-east India today a state called Nagaland the home of the Naga people. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]
The Nagas of pre-Vijayan Lanka lived around Kelaniya and in the peninsula in the North. Nagadeepa (Nainathivu) was an island off the peninsula joined to the mainland about 30 years ago by a causeway. Does Nainamadama the name of a village in the NWP, hark back to a time when there was a Naga settlement in that area.
It was at Nagadeepa that Mani Akkhika (one with eyes like gems) met the Buddha who had come there to bring peace between two Naga chieftains Chulodara and Mahodara, who were fighting to claim a precious seat, and invited the Buddha to his homeland Kelaniya. Mani Akkhika was an uncle of the two warring Naga chieftains.
Nagas were living in Kelaniya as a distinct group of people or in today's parlance as "an ethnic entity", when the poet monk Sri Rahula wrote the Selalihini Sandesa in the 15th century, and they were Buddhists. The poet points out to the Selalihini bird, the Naga maidens seated on the Sandy bank of the river, strumming their veenas and singing hymns to the Buddha (Budu guna gee).
The 'yakkas' were numerous and very powerful, and held themselves aloof and confined themselves to the mountain fastnesses of the North- Central region, whereas the 'nagas' confined themselves to the sea-board, and Maniakkhika was the 'naga' king of Kelaniya.
Buddha and the Yakkas
The luxuriantly wooded Mahanaga garden, on the right-bank of the river Mahaveli, which discharges its confluence into the sea near Trincomalee, was at that time a strategic stronghold of the 'yakkas'. When Buddha arrived at the Mahanaga garden to intercept the 'yakkas' who were assembled there, they were more surprised than alarmed, when they saw him clad in a yellow robe and shaven-headed. Being inquisitive of the intruder and to know who he was, the 'yakka' chief asked the Buddha, "Who art thou to come here and disturb us?" At once, the Buddha, to their bewilderment, performed a miracle by sitting cross-legged in the air. Now, the 'yakkas' through fear, emotional excitement and apprehensive of danger, begged the Buddha to save their lives and set them free. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]
Whereupon, the Buddha, addressed them saving "I shall, O yakkas,save thee from all danger, provided I am offered a place to sit down, and make known to thee my mission". The evil horde verily agreed saying "O Great Being! We shall offer thee the whole island". Buddha, having seated at the spot, where the Mahiyangana cetiya now stands, delivered to them a discourse, whereby they became spiritually evaluated and attained the stages of holiness (i.e., the fruits of Sovan, Sakadagami, Anagami and Arhat). Among them was the 'yakka' commandant Saman who, after listening to the discourse, became elevated to the first phase of spiritual eminence ('Sovan'), and came to be known as Saman deviyo, who is now propitiated as the tutelary deity of Sri Pada. The god, thereupon, appealed to the Buddha to give him something as a token of symbolic worship, in the absence of the Buddha. Buddha in accedence of the earnest request, gave the god a handful of hair from his head, which the god accepted with great devotion. The god had the hair-relic secured in a golden reliquary and enshrined it in a small tope 10 ft. high and 24 ft. in circumference (Mhv. 1:36). It is the first cetiya in Sri Lanka, built during the life-time of the Buddha. All other cetiyas were of later construction.
The Bintenne Veddas, who have traditionally been the most isolated group, worshiped the spirits of deceased relatives, demons and spirits associated with trees, mountains and thunderstorms. They used drum rituals to placate the spirits. The Coastal Veddas live close to Tamils have adopted many Hindu beliefs. The Anuradhapura Veddas live close to Sinhalese and have adopted many Buddhist beliefs. Veddas also perform exorcisms and have festivals honoring village gods. Many of their myths and rites have been absorbed into late medieval popular Sinhala folklore.
James Brow and Michael Woost wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The religious beliefs of the Veddas overlap considerably with those of Sinhalese villagers, who are predominantly Buddhists, and with those of Tamil villagers, who are mostly Hindus. All worship a hierarchical pantheon of deities, to whom offerings are made in the hope of gaining favors or relief from suffering. As described by the Seligmanns, the Bintenne Veddas had no knowledge of Buddhism. Their religion was apparently based on worship of recently deceased ancestors, various local demons, and other minor gods. In contrast, the Anuradhapura Veddas describe themselves as Buddhists, although their participation in Buddhist rites is infrequent. The Coast Veddas are more influenced by their Hindu Tamil neighbors and engage in various forms of temple worship associated with Hindu deities, as well as propitiating local deities and demon spirits. The pantheon extends from locally resident spirits and demons whose disposition is generally malevolent to powerful and benevolent, but more remote, major gods. For those who profess Buddhism, these major gods themselves derive their authority from the Buddha. The most important high gods for the Anuradhapura Veddas are Kataragama and Pulleyar. For the Coast Veddas they are Shiva, Murugan, Pillaiyar, and Valli. The Bintenne Veddas cut off the hierarchy at a lower level and attend only to more localized gods, demons, and ancestor spirits, although a few also worship the high god Kataragama. [Source: James Brow and Michael Woost”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992; C. G., and Brenda Seligmann, “The Veddas”. Cambridge University Press. 1911 |~|]
“Among the Anuradhapura and Bintenne Veddas one of the most important religious practitioners is the kapurala, who intercedes with a god on behalf of his fellow villagers. Among the Anuradhapura Veddas there is also the anumatirala, who becomes possessed by a minor god or demon and performs exorcisms. Specialized religious practitioners are rare among the Coast Veddas. |~|
“ The Bintenne Veddas engage in many different ceremonial dances in which a specialized practitioner becomes possessed by a god or demon. These dances are always a part of an exorcism or an attempt to procure favors or information from the spirit being. The Anuradhapura Veddas hold an annual ceremony at which offerings are made collectively to the village's tutelary deity. Other ceremonies, such as exorcisms, are organized by individual households. The Coast Veddas observe the Hindu festival calendar, but their most important rituals are locally organized possession ceremonies, which are conducted jointly by all concerned Vedda villagers. Personal rites of propitiation and protection are also common among all groups of Veddas. |~|
Asiff Hussein wrote: “Death too is a simple affair sans any ostentatious funeral ceremonies and the corpse of the deceased is promptly buried without much ado. “Among the Anuradhapura and Coast Veddas, beliefs and practices regarding death are shaped by Buddhist and Hindu concepts of karma, reincarnation, and the transmigration of souls. The Bintenne and the Coast Veddas also practice rituals to propitiate and communicate with recently deceased ancestors who are believed to be able to influence events in the present life. |~|
Family, Kinship and Marriage of the Veddas
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Veddas practice cross-cousin marriage. Among the Anuradhapura Veddas approximately 15 percent of marriages are between first cross cousins. The percentage is lower among the Coast Veddas, who also intermarry with outsiders more frequently than do the Anuradhapura Veddas. Almost all marriages within all three groups of Veddas are monogamous. The independent family household is the ideal. Most newly married couples, however, live for a while either in or close to the household of one of their Parents. Divorce is common in the early years of marriage. [Source: James Brow and Michael Woost”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992; C. G., and Brenda Seligmann, “The Veddas”. Cambridge University Press. 1911 |~|]
Asiff Hussein wrote: 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.
“Among the Anuradhapura and Coast Veddas the normal unit is the nuclear family household whose members work together and eat from the same hearth. Among the Bintenne Veddas, it is common to find more than one related family living in the same shelter or house. Children are raised by parents and older Siblings. Vedda children have comparatively poor access to the educational institutions in Sri Lanka. All sons and daughters have equal rights of inheritance, but among the Bintenne Veddas the daughter's inheritance, usually land, is typically given to her husband at the time of marriage, although this is not specifically referred to as dowry. Dowry is not significant among the Veddas as a whole, although some wealthier Veddas in all three groups give it in emulation of higher status Tamil or Sinhalese Families living in the vicinity. |~|
“The Seligmanns' claim that the Bintenne Veddas practiced matrilineal descent has been strongly challenged by other researchers. The Anuradhapura Veddas reckon kinship bilaterally. Above the level of the household their significant kin groups are the village Community, all the members of which consider one another to be their kin, and the variga, a largely endogamous grouping that includes all the Anuradhapura Veddas. The Coast Veddas also reckon kinship bilaterally, but they do not recognize variga as a cultural category for regulating descent and Marriage. They do, however, see themselves as related to all other Veddas in the vicinity and generally marry among themselves, forming loosely structured kindred groups. Traces of matrilineal descent and clan organization have also been noted among the Coast Veddas. |~|
Veddas are thought to have originally been hunter-gatherers that roamed the forests and bush country of Sri Lanka, foraging edible wild plants and fruits and using axes and bows and arrows to hunt animals. They have traditionally have had a relationship with villagers similar to the one that pygmies have traditionally had with villagers in Africa, trading or selling dried bush meat and wasp honey in nearby village markets. Veddas have traditionally lived in settled villages or temporary settlements or both. Most live in wattle-and-daub hut that are not that different from those used by poor Sinhalese and Tamils. Some Bintenne Veddas used to live in caves but by the time they were studied they lived in huts.
By time they were studied most Veddas had settled, and were practicing slash and burn agriculture. They grow many of the same crops that Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans do and also keep water buffalo, goats, chickens and dogs. The coastal Vedda fish using nets from outrigger canoes. Their primary catch is prawns. The Bintenne Veddas were the most accomplished hunters. They formally made their own hunting tools, including bows, arrows, spears and axes. By 1900 they were using metal for ax heads, arrow heads and spears that they obtained through barter. Later they used guns.
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “According to the Seligmanns, Bintenne Veddas lived both in permanent villages of up to 40 families and in temporary settlements, near their cultivation plots, which contained Between 1 and 5 families of varying size. The Anuradhapura Veddas occupy 32 villages and 14 satellite hamlets that are scattered among the much more numerous Sinhalese villages in the region. In 1970 their largest village had a population of 552. Their settlement pattern is similar to that of the local Sinhalese, the core of the village being a cluster of houses built close to the village reservoir. The Coast Veddas live in small villages near the sea consisting of a cluster of compounds with two or three houses to a compound. Some of the Bintenne Veddas are reported to have been cave dwellers formerly, but by the Seligmanns' time they were mostly living in huts made of wattle and daub or in more temporary shelters consisting of a wooden frame covered with animal skins, bark, and/or leaves. The Anuradhapura Veddas live in wattle-and-daub houses with floors of packed earth. Coast Vedda houses are simple huts made of plaited palm. Some Veddas have Recently received government-subsidized housing built of brick and plaster with concrete floors and tin roofs. [Source: James Brow and Michael Woost”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992; C. G., and Brenda Seligmann, “The Veddas”. Cambridge University Press. 1911 |~|]
“Men do most of the agricultural work, especially in paddy cultivation, while women gather wild foods and firewood, cook, care for children, tend domestic gardens, and assist in shifting cultivation and harvesting paddy. Among the Coast Veddas men do most of the fishing. Both male and female Veddas engage in wage labor. Occupational specialization and economic differentiation between households are not pronounced. |~|
Everyday social life in Vedda villages is still largely governed by norms of kinship, although recourse is also made to state officials, and the police are a more frequent presence than in the past. Sorcery accusations can also act as an informal means of social control. Competition between kin-based factions has long been a prominent feature of village life. The Coast Veddas usually participate in local politics as subordinate members of Tamil-led factions. Today factional struggles typically appear in the guise of conflict between the local branches of the national political parties and focus on the distribution of welfare and development resources.
Vedda Food and Clothing
Asiff Hussein, a Sri Lanka journalist and writer, wrote: “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 centerd round a cult of ancestral spirits known as Ne yaku , whom the Veddhas invoked for game and yams.
“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.
It is possible that in ancient and medieval times the king made use of the Veddhas, to hunt game for the royal kitchen. However, kings too went hunting. However, this does not mean that royalty altogether abstained from eating meat. It is possible that the kings employed Veddha folk to do the hunting for them, as during Kandyan times. Robert Knox, an English exile who spent nearly 20 years (1660 — 1679) in the Kandyan kingdom, has noted in his book An Historical Relation of Ceylon' (1681) that the tamer sort of Veddhas who acknowledged the king's sovereignty, supplied his officers with honey and venison. It occasionally happened that the wilder sort of Veddhas carried on a silent trade' with Sinhalese smiths, bartering flesh for arrowheads, as has been alluded to by Knox. [Source: Asiff Hussein, Culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and epigraphic sources]
Spittel (1924) and others mentioned by Bodenheimer (1951, pp. 245-253) discuss honey-hunting by the Veddas of Sri Lanka, and more briefly, by other Asiatics.
Vedda Society, Culture and Medicine
Vedda society is mostly egalitarian. Caste comes into play when they interact with the Sinhalese and Tamil who have traditionally treated the Veddas as they do members of the lowest castes. Vedda men have traditionally done most of the agriculture work and hunting while women foraged and collected wild foods.
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Social relations within Vedda Villages are structured mainly by rules of kinship. Apart from hierarchies of age and gender, social relations are generally egalitarian. Caste also plays a role in regulating interaction between Veddas and their Tamil and Sinhalese neighbors, at least in the Anuradhapura and Coast regions. The caste specialization of the Veddas has been identified both as hunting and as spirit mediumship, although it is also claimed that the Veddas stand entirely outside either the Sinhalese or the Tamil caste system since they lack formai structural ties with other castes. The Anuradhapura Veddas collectively constitute a single variga (caste or subcaste), but their variga court, which used to regulate internal caste affairs, has not functioned since the 1950s. The Coast and Bintenne Veddas have apparently never had any kind of overarching caste court. [Source: James Brow and Michael Woost”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992; C. G., and Brenda Seligmann, “The Veddas”. Cambridge University Press. 1911 |~|]
The Veddas formerly enjoyed considerable autonomy, being located at or beyond the effective limits of Sinhalese or Tamil political power. Within the Villages leadership was provided by influential male elders. The Veddas were increasingly subordinated to state authority during the period of British colonial rule, a trend that has intensified since Sri Lanka became independent in 1948. Agricultural cooperatives, development societies, and other state-sponsored organizations have been established in many villages. In Anuradhapura and Bintenne the local officers of these organizations often are village leaders, but among the Coast Veddas the leadership is nearly always provided from among the Tamil elite in nearby Tamil villages. |~|
“Ritual performances, especially possession Ceremonies that include dancing, chanting, instrumental music making, and the construction of temporary shrines, provide some of the principal occasions for artistic expression among all Vedda groups. The plastic arts are otherwise little emphasized beyond acts of individual decoration. The Seligmanns noted that the Bintenne Veddas were once adept at making artifacts and utensils from animal skins and also engaged in rock and cave drawings. Singing is a popular form of recreation among the Veddas. Other record a wealth of folk songs and poetry, called "bambara kavi," or "maligi". |~|
“Persons familiar with at least some aspects of the South Asian tradition of Ayurvedic medicine are found among both the Anuradhapura and the Coast Veddas. They use herbal compounds to adjust the balance of humors in the body. Some illnesses are attributed to demonic possession and are treated by exorcism. Among the Bintenne Veddas, almost all illness was treated through ritual ceremonies. Many Veddas now have access to the free medical care, based on Western science and technology, that is provided by the state. |~|
Asiff Hussein wrote: 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.
Vedda Agriculture and Economic Life
James Brow and Michael Woost wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The distinction between "Wild," "Jungle," or "Rock Veddas," who live from hunting and gathering and sometimes also shifting cultivation, and "Village Veddas," who live in permanent settlements and subsist principally from cultivation, is long established, but already by the time of the Seligmanns' study there were very few Veddas who lived principally from foraging. The Anuradhapura Veddas until recently have derived their living mainly from shifting cultivation, supplemented where possible by wet-rice agriculture. Crops grown under shifting cultivation include millet, maize, beans, squashes, manioc, chilies, eggplants, tomatoes, and okra. Under present conditions of rapidly increasing population pressure and greater market involvement, many of the Anuradhapura Veddas now obtain the major part of their livelihood as agricultural wage laborers outside their own villages. At the same time an increasing proportion of what they produce in their own fields is now marketed rather than consumed at home. [Source: James Brow and Michael Woost, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992; C. G., and Brenda Seligmann, “The Veddas”. Cambridge University Press. 1911 |~|]
“Coast Veddas put a greater emphasis on fishing, combining this with shifting cultivation and, less frequently, paddy cultivation. Fishing is done with nets cast from outrigger canoes, from rafts, or from platforms set up in the surf. Prawns are the principal catch. Like the Anuradhapura Veddas, many Coast Veddas now also work as casual wage laborers. A few individuals in all three groups hunt occasionally as a means of supplementing their income. Some Veddas also collect wild honey, one of their traditionally ascribed occupations. Veddas keep cattle, water buffalo, goats, chickens, and dogs, although the relative importance of these species varies greatly between different communities. |~|
“The Bintenne Veddas formerly made most of their own hunting equipment, such as bows and arrows, spears, axes, etc., although by 1900 those who hunted had already come to rely on metal for the heads of their spears, arrows, and axes, which they obtained through barter. Some had even begun to use guns to bring down their prey. The Anuradhapura Veddas obtain their agricultural tools in the market, as do the Coast Veddas. The Coast Veddas are, however, capable boat builders. |~|
The Bintenne Veddas are reputed at one time to have engaged in "silent trade" with the Sinhalese. Exchange relations among the Veddas were formerly governed principally by rules of reciprocity, but in the last few decades all groups have become much more deeply involved in market Relations. Only a few Veddas, however, have successfully established themselves as traders or shopkeepers. |~|
“Access to irrigated land is normatively obtained by inheritance, but sales and mortgages are common. Most of the jungle land on which shifting cultivation is practiced is claimed by the state, but Veddas see it as the communal property of the village it surrounds. Rapid population growth and the shift to cash cropping have intensified Pressure on the land, resulting in increased landlessness and a dangerous reduction of the fallow period in shifting cultivation. A few Veddas have obtained land in development Projects funded by the state. Some Bintenne Veddas who claim still to live from hunting and gathering have joined a movement to have a Vedda reservation established in the region.
Robert Knox's 1681 Account of the Veddas
The English sea captain Robert Knox, held captive in Sri Lanka for 20 years, is credited with providing the first accurate description of the Veddas: In 1681 he wrote: "Of these Natives there be two sorts Wild and Tame. I will begin with the former. For as in these Woods there are Wild Beasts so Wild Men also. The Land of Bintan is all covered with mighty Woods, filled with abundance of Deer. In this Land are many of these wild men; they call them Vaddahs, dwelling near no other Inhabi―tants. They speak the Chingulayes Language. They kill Deer, and dry the Flesh over the fire, and the people of the Countrey come and buy it of them. They never Till any ground for Corn, their Food being only Flesh. They are very expert with their Bows. They have a little ax, which they stick by their sides, to cut hony out of hollow Trees. Some few, which are near Inhabitants, have commerce with other people. They have no Towns nor Houses, only live by the waters under a Tree, with some boughs cut and laid about them, to give notice when any wild Beasts come near, Which they may hear by their rustling and trampling upon them. Many of these Habitations we saw when we fled through the Woods, but God be praised the Vaddahs were gone.
"Some of the tamer sort of these men are in a kind of Subjection to the King. For if they be found, tho it must be with a great search in the woods, they will acknowledge his Officers, and will bring to them Elephant-teeth, and Honey, and Wax, and Deer's Flesh; but the others in lieu thereof do give them near as much, in Arrows, Cloth, etc. fearing lest they should otherwise appear no more.
"It had been reported to me by many people, that the wilder sort of them, when they want Arrows, will carry their load of Flesh in the night, and hang it up in a Smith's Shop, also a Leaf cut in the form they will have their. Arrows made, and hang by it. Which if the Smith do make according to their Pattern they will requite, and bring him more Flesh: but if he make them not, they will do him a mischief one time or another by shooting in the night. If the Smith make the Arrows, he leaves them in the same place, where the Vaddahs hung the Flesh.
"About Hourly the remotest' of the King's Dominions there are many of them, that are pretty tame, and come and buy and sell among the people. The King once having occasion of an hasty Expedition against the Dutch, the Governour summoned them all in to go with him, which they did. And with their Bows and Arrows did as good service as any of the rest but afterwards when they returned home again, they removed farther in the Woods, and would be seen no more, for fear of being afterwards prest again to serve the King.
From Knox's account it is evident that in his time or a little before this, some of the Veddas were in touch with the court and were even sufficiently amenable to discipline to be of use as an auxiliary fighting force, indeed, there is abundant evidence that long before this a part of the inhabitants of Ceylon, with enough Vedda blood in them for their contemporaries to call them Veddas, were politically organised and constituted a force whom the rulers of the island found it necessary to consider.
Robert Knox's 1681 Account of Vedda Hunting and Jungle Life
Robert Knox wrote in 1681: The Veddas " never cut their hair but tye it up on their Crowns in a bunch. The cloth they use, is not broad nor large, scarcely enough to cover their Buttocks. The wilder and tamer sort of them do both observe a Religion. They have a God peculiar to themselves. The tamer do build Temples, the wild only bring their sacrifice under Trees, and while it is offering, dance round it both men and women.
"They have their bounds in the Woods among themselves, a one company of them is not to shoot nor gather hony or fruit beyond those bounds. Neer the borders stood a Jack― Tree; one Vaddah being gathering some fruit from this Tree, another Vaddah of the next division saw him, and told him he. nothing to do to gather Jacks from that Tree, for that belonged to them. They fell to words and from words to blows, and one of them shot the other. At which more of them met and fell to skirmishing so briskly with their Bows and Arrows, that twenty or thirty of them were left dead upon the spot.
"They are so curious of their Arrows that no smith can please them: The King once to gratifie them for a great Present they brought him, gave all of them of his best made Arrow-blades: which nevertheless would not please their humour. For they went all of them to a Rock by a River and ground them into another form. The Arrows they use are of a different fashion from all other, and the Chingulays will not use them.
"They have a peculiar way by themselves of preserving Flesh. They cut a hollow Tree and put honey in it, and then fill it up with flesh, and stop it up with clay. Which lyes for a reserve to eat in time of want.
"It has usually been told me that their way of catching Elephants is, that when the. Elephant lyes asleep they strike their ax into the sole of his foot, and so laming him he is in their power to take him. But I take this for a fable, because I know the sole of the Elephants foot is so hard, that no axe can pierce it at a blow; and he is so wakeful that they can have no opportunity to do it.
"For portions with their Daughters in marriage they give hunting Dogs. They are reported to be courteous. Some of the Chingulays in discontent will leave their houses and friends, and go and live among them, where they are civilly entertained. The tamer sort of them, as hath been said, will sometimes appear, and hold some kind of trade with the tame Inhabitants, but the wilder called Ramba Vaddahs never show themselves."
Disparaging, Racist Account of The Veddas from the 1880s
An article in “The Graphic, a British weekly illustrated newspaper, from 1994 read: “This strange and primitive race is generally considered to be the remnant of the aborigines of Ceylon, and its members are but a degree removed from wild beasts. They are divided into two classes, the Rock and Village Veddas. The latter dwell in rude buts, and are a shade more civilised than the former, who, in caves or the jungle, maintain themselves as they best can, their greatest delicacy being a roast monkey. They are exceedingly harmless, and know nothing of history, religion (beyond a few relics of demon worship), or any art whatever, and are only skilled in archery. They are capital marksmen, and when they want to send an arrow to great distance draw the bow with the foot. [Source: “Veddas, or "Wild Men" of Ceylon, one of the lowest types of the human race,” "The Graphic" of June 14, 1884.
“They cannot count, know of no amusement save dancing, and are popularly supposed not to laugh. During the Prince of Wales's visit, however, one of those brought before him managed to grin when presented with a threepenny piece. The Veddas have, however, of late years shown some signs of becoming civilised under British influence, but comparatively few, to judge from the following note forwarded to us by Lieutenant A. W. Gordon, Royal Fusiliers, together with the photograph from which our illustration has been engraved:
“"The two Veddas were photographed by Mr. Scowen, of Kandy, and are two of the party of Veddas brought up to Kandy for the Prince of Wales to see at the time of his visit to Ceylon, and I am not aware of any Veddas having appeared until last month, in this or in any other civilised place, since that occasion. Had these men not been here once before, I doubt if the natives I sent after them would have been able to persuade them to come this time.
“The Veddas are supposed to be the original inhabitants of the island, and though quite inoffensive people are sunk lower in barbarism than perhaps any other race in the world. They reside in the dense forests in the central and eastern districts of Ceylon, and live by hunting. They possess a language of their own, which is fast dying out, and they cannot count beyond two. Their appearance is that of complete misery and apathy to all around. Efforts have been made by the Ceylon Government to encourage them to leave their wild life and to settle down in villages, which doubtless before long they will all do."”
Veddas and the Modern World
The Veddas enjoy chewing betel nut. One gift they all appreciate is betel leaves, not and tobacco. Many Veddas now work as laborers on plantations and farms. A few stand by the road waiting for tourist to came along take their picture for a fee. If the money's good they'll even dance.
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “The Vedda community are nearly in a state of cultural extinction. They survive in waning pockets of wilderness in the island's east-central regions. Their cultural survival, especially in a future likely to include more intensified rural economic development, remains questionable at best. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
One Vedda chief, whose clan was restricted to a sliver of land near a forest reserve, told National Geographic, "This land is not big enough for us. And if we go into the reserve to hunt, they arrest us. We feel like cattle being herded." One Vedda man who went to university but returned to his jungle village to work as a school teacher told National Geographic, "Our life is very simple. We don't think about tomorrow. We don't save or collect things. But here we can do what we want. Freedom is the most precious thing."
Some Veddas that still live in the forest live around Madura Oya, a national park that prohibits hunting and gathering. There is a controversy as to whether a the Vedda should be allowed to hunt and gather there. At one time there were five Vedda villages in the park. Only one was left in the late 1990s. Many of those that left wanted to return. They were allowed to go back but not to the area where the used to live. In their new home they could not produce enough to sustain themselves. In 1999, a Vedda was shot by rangers for allegedly hunting in the park.
Faith Ratnayaka wrote in the Lanka Monthly Digest: “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.”
Dambana, Last Refuge of the Veddas
Until a few decades ago, Veddha settlements could be found scattered in the Uva, Sabaragamuva, North-Central and Eastern Provinces in areas like Nilgala in the Eastern Province and Yakkure in the North-Central Province. Linguistic assimilation and intermarriage with their Sinhalese neighbours contributed to their decline in these places. In the early 2000s, Dambana, a Vedda settlement about 10 kilometers from Mahiyangana was considered the last bastion of Veddha culture.
Faith Ratnayaka wrote in the Lanka Monthly Digest: “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. [Source: Faith Ratnayaka, Lanka Monthly Digest]
“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.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022