by Florence Wickramage - DN Fri Aug 20 2004
"Let us leave the last of the Vedda alone and not try to fashion them to our way. Let them die scattered and the Vedda will be a name"
- R. L. Spittel "Wild Ceylon" 1925
Is the Aadivasi community a vanishing tribe? I posed myself this question during a recent visit to Dambana where evidence of `modernism' was thinly visible.
R.L. Spittel's descriptions of this community in his writings are facing a challenge with little children and youth of the Aadivasi community trying to keep pace with the changing world.
Gone are the days where members of this community were seen in half sarongs worn up to the knee, the traditional axe on their shoulders, unkempt long hair and long beards.
The younger members of this community are fast changing - with education, employment and city life as attractions superseding jungle life.
Today we see the truth of Spittel's astounding words of premonition in regard to the rehabilitation of this fast dying out race, our aborigines of Sri Lanka. Even during British times rehabilitation and resettlements of Veddas had been considered.
Dr. R.L.Spittel in his "Far off Things" (1933/57) has observed: "So far all attempts by government officials and missionaries to civilize the Veddas have failed. Better is it not, to leave the Veddas in their green mansions where they wish to be, that their dust might mingle with that of their ancestors.
Let us take the benefits of our civilization gradually to them. Let it not be charged to us that we weaned them too suddenly from the solitudes they loved, and forced on their unready minds, conditions of life with which they are unfitted to cope".
Dr. Seligmann, an American anthropologist from the Cambridge University who did research on our aborigines in 1910 says, "the veddas are coming more and more in contact with their Sinhala neighbours and it is extremely unlikely that the next generation will remain pure".
According to historical confirmation the indigenous people of Sri Lanka had lived in the country before the Indian and Arabic colonisations. Anthropologists have categorised the Veddas of Sri Lanka in three distinct groups (Weerasekera).
The traditional “Kiri Koraha” ritual.
Veddas who live in scattered hamlets in the South Eastern part of the country living and hunting in the forests of Ampara, Badulla, Batticaloa Districts. Their numbers have dwindled.
Veddas who live in the North Central Province and in the Anuradhapura area. They are engaged in chena cultivation and agriculture.
Veddas who live in the Eastern Coast, between Valachchenai and Trincomalee. These Veddas are known as "Coastal veddas". They differ vastly from the above two categories in two respects. The language of coastal veddas is Tamil: their livelihood is mainly chena cultivation and fishing.
Veddas are the inheritors of our forests from the dawn of history and had been scraping a mere existence by living in rock caves, hunting game, gathering honey and in later years doing scanty chena cultivation.
The original vedda country of Maha Vedi Rata once upon a time nestled in the present Gal Oya Valley. With the inroads of civilization and multi-purpose development projects vedda settlements were subjected to change.
Unspoilt Vedda settlements like Hennebedda and many other idyllic Vedda hamlets like Gal-Ebbe were impounded by the waters of the Senanayaka Samudraya. Thus began Vedda resettlements which caused transition of their primeval lives to that of civilization in their new habitat.
The early Vedda-resettles faced two opposing factors - their newly built homes to those of bark huts or mud walled huts with roofs thatched with illuk grass and adjusting to new livelihoods.
While some elder folk reverted to hunting others took to Chena cultivations. Today Paragahakelle and Wawinna villages along the main Inginiyagala-Ampara road are flourishing farming lands. (Punchihewa).
Vedda resettlements continued under the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Programme. System "C" in Girandurukotte lies in the verdant Bintenna Pattuwa, the traditional homeland of these Vedda aborigines.
Dambana and a cluster of vedda settlements like Kandegamwela, Damanewela, Kivuleyaya were caught up in the ambit of development. The Maduru Oya National Park also lies in the precincts of these vedda settlements.
While a few elders like Tissahamy opted to stay behind in their "green mansions" like their ancestors have done, some opted to accept compensation and move out. They invested their monies in Savings Accounts and started to run village boutiques where provisions and eatables are available.
The gradual disappearance of ancient races is not a novel feature - but a psychological disposition is certainly conducive to the survival of a race, both amongst the most primitive and the most advanced state of mankind. What now is the fate of the last remnants of a dying race, the Veddas, our aborigines, now living in scattered places like Pollebedda, Rathugala, Dambana and Henanigala?
Present day Aadivasi Chieftain Uruwarige Vanniyala Aththo is fighting for the survival of his tribe in their traditional homelands - "green mansions" despite legal obstacles imposed by successive governments.
His appeal for a Cultural Centre and Museum has seen the light of day with the present Environment and Natural Resources Minister commissioning same in Dambana. Vanniyala Aththo said that the Museum, plastered with mud and roofed with illuk grass will house traditional implements used by their ancestors.
These will include Bows and arrows and the stone bow (galdunna); the typical short handled axe; velan sticks used to ignite fire; bags and pouches - Hangotuwa, Maludena made out of deer skin to collect honey.
Riti bags made out of the bark of the riti tree; monkey skin pouches to hold betel, arecanut and betel chews; Arecanut cutters; specimens of barks of trees like Demata,Opalu, etc. used as substitutes for betel and arecanut; artifacts used for rituals like Kiri Koraha dance, wooden arrow heads; vedda ayudas such as axe specimens made out of wood; skeletons and skins of animals.
Vanniyala Aththo said that their tribe lived in the forests over the past 3000 years and consists seven clans. Out of which four clans live in Dambana - Kalawarige, Uruwarige, Unapanawarige and Moranawarige.
The writer while watching the Kiri Koraha dance performed by some members of the community spoke to a young schoolboy, dressed in shirt and trousers with a pair of sandals on his feet. He is 17 year old Uruwarige Amith Gunaratne, an Advanced Level student of Dehigolla Maha Vidyalaya. He said Vanniyala Aththo was his elder Uncle.
He explained that the Kiri Koraha is a 7 day ritual performed to invoke the blessings of "relation demons" (Ne Yakun). To a question as to how his present status would affect his relationship with the community, Amith said that their birthright was intact and this could not be changed by outer forces like education etc.
The question now is for how long? The modes of dress of the younger generation are fast changing along with their traditional names replaced with those like Amith, Chamila, Nayani etc.
Moreover the writer witnessed over-zealous "civilized helpers" stepping over each other to attend to the needs of the Aadivasi members. One elder said that some "Huras were enticing their youth to engage in illegal activities such as timber felling and hunting for game meat, and while the Huras escaped through the loopholes in the `law' the Kekulas had to face the music.
How ethical or moral is it that the "civilized people" take advantage of the innocence of this simple and unsophisticated community and/or make them "tourism exhibits"?
Vanniyala Aththo along with the Environment Minister trudged a two mile distance into the interior of the Maduru Oya National Park to request the Minister to construct a tank on the Pahurekandiya waterway for the use of the community in their cultivations.
The Minister agreed to do so and to grant their requests within the confines of the laws pertaining to the Maduru Oya National Park status. To a question as to how satisfied he was with the promises made by the Government, Vanniyala Aththo said that so many Ministers previously had made similar promises but he views everything with a certain amount of scepticism.
An educated youth of the community who was a teacher by profession and who preferred to remain anonymous said "It's useless commenting - we are not satisfied with the arrangements arrived at with the Minister - our problems are not being solved".
In a paper presented to the Commonwealth Geographical Bureau Workshop on Indigenous Land Rights, Wellington and Christchurch, New Zealand by U.A. Chandrasena, Department of Geography, University of Kelaniya sums up: "It is a well-known fact that the Veddas had not been considered through development policies more appropriate to them.
Although there were specific projects for them from obtaining maximum benefit. Besides their eagerness to continue traditional life styles hardly allowed them to fully integrate with modern economic sectors.
Due to lack of recognition of their wants and rights, in most instances the development projects made them more disadvantaged. ... As their hunting and food gathering life faded away, their social and cultural values, too are gradually waning. "
Although it is realistic to think of change in the lifestyles, when the resources for traditional livelihood are declining, such a change cannot be superimposed on their long established mode of life. The most considerate means therefore is to allow them the Rights of Choice".
The Aadivasi community is an integral component of Sri Lankan history and culture. Let them continue to live in their "Green Mansions" and preserve their culture and identity. I would like to conclude with the words of Jawaharlal Nehru quoted in 'Dharmadasa at 1990' p.116 - "Let change come gradually and be worked out by the tribals themselves".