WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Ahikuntika: Sri Lankan gypsy clan

(By Pujitha Wijetunge)

Clad in a sari and with a red mouth that showed signs that she was chewing beetle, Lili didn't look any different from those fortune-tellers or palm readers who were a common sight in the streets few years back. But the next generation, Lucki, looked very much like those village boys, wearing a sarong and a gold painted wristwatch.

Lakshman with his dancing cobra.

When we entered their camp, there were plastic, coloured buckets and pots and pans scattered on one side. A monkey all dressed up, was looking at a little girl who started poking a stick at him. There were only three tents covered with black plastic sheeting, which looked hardly enough for the more than 30 people who gathered around us.

Beside Lili and the huge cobra which started moving to the tune of gypsy Lakshman's flute, was a rather untidy environment around them.

Although Lili was very happy to talk about herself as a member of the so-called gypsy clan in the country known as 'Ahikuntika', a very reluctant Lucki said, "We are living like this because we have no place to live."

"I make a living by selling joss sticks. People used to call us donkeys just because we had no place to live. We speak proper Sinhala. There is another group that speaks Telugu. We were born in Sri Lanka. We are also people and we have a right to live. No one gives us land," he said angrily.

Kanmali, who looked very much a teenager, said that she doesn't go around palm reading anymore. "I look after my children. I don't go out anymore," she said, carrying an infant in her arms.

Gypsies or Ahikuntikas, are among the few isolated communities in the country like Veddahs and Rodiyas, say experts.

Prof. J. B. Dissanayake is of the view that the Ahikuntikas are also changing slowly as a result of economic and social factors.

"This cannot be called a radical change. Just like the Rodiyas, who were later absorbed into the Sinhala community, some day the Ahikuntikas will also be provided the opportunity. There is a section of these people who would prefer to remain in the clan while others want to join the Sinhala comminity like the Veddhas and Rodiyas did," he said.

According to Prof. Dissanayake, Ahikuntikas are believed to have come to Sri Lanka from Andra Pradesh in India. "We don't know when they came.

They are called nomads since they travel from place to place. 'Ahi' means serpents. This name must have been adopted because they made a living by using snakes, monkeys and palm reading or fortune telling," he said.

"It is believed that they can't stay at one place for more than seven days. This may be true because of their unhygienic lifestyle. A group of Ahikuntikas were given houses in the North Central in a village called Kuda Wewa. Since they cannot be living continually as a group of nomads this may be a good move," he said.

Anthropologist Prof. S. Hettige observed that the constant movement keeps Ahikuntikas aloof from mainstream society. "If they settle down in one place, integration and assimilation may have taken place.

They do not participate in economic activities and social practices as others when they move around. It depends on their contact with others and the media, education etc. All will help change their identity and they will tend to identify with other youth and will no longer want to engage in work that is not accorded same kind of recognition," he said.

Prof. Hettige said that it is difficult to say whether it is good or bad for them to change their lifestyle and identity. "It depends on what they want. What we do not want is their marginalisation and stigmatisation in society. In that sense, it is good that they have the same opportunities as others if they wish to make use of them. Some of their cultural practices may not disappear even if they are integrated, at least not soon.

Some may continue to engage in livelihood activities so long as there is a demand and they are not considered lowly," Prof. Hettige observed.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka