WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

The story of the Rodi: Sri Lanka's`untouchables'

by Asiff Hussein

No Sinhalese caste has aroused so much wonder and curiosity as the Rodi once the `untouchables' of Sri Lanka.

Indeed there is something mysterious about this people who claim descent from Sinhalese royalty but who have for centuries been despised and down trodden by society.

Theirs is a very sad story indeed and their plight a yet sadder one. It is only today that this folk are emerging to take their due place in society after centuries of oppression thanks to the progressive legislation and social welfare policies of successive governments since independence.

Rodi legend holds that they are descended from Ratnavalli (also known as Navaratna Valli) the daughter of King Parakrama Bahu 1 (12th century).

About 100 years ago Hugh Nevill, a prominent British civil servant recorded the following tradition current among the Rodi as to their origins:

`At Parakrama Bahu's court the venison was provided by a certain Veddha archer. Who during a scarcity of game substituted the flesh of a boy he met in the jungle and provided it as venison for the royal household.

Navaratna Valli, the beautiful daughter of the king discovered the deception and fascinated by a sudden longing for human flesh ordered the Veddha hunter to bring this flesh. The Veddha accordingly waylaid youths in the woods, and disposed of their flesh to the royal kitchen. The whole country was terrified by the constant disappearance of youths and maidens. It happened that a barber who came to the palace to complain of the disappearance of his only son while waiting was given by the servants of the royal scullery a leaf of rice and venison curry.

Just as he was about to eat he noticed on his leaf the deformed knuckle of the little finger of a boy. Recognizing it by the deformity as that of his son he fled from the palace and spread the alarm that the king was killing and eating the youths of the city.

The facts then came to light and the king stripping his daughter of her ornaments and calling out a scavenger then sweeping out a neighbouring yard gave her to him as wife and drove her out to earn her living in her husband's class.'

Somewhat different is the original legend narrated by Robert Knox in his `Historical Relation of Ceylon' (1681).
Says Knox `The predecessors of these people from whom they sprang were Dodda Veddhas which signifies hunters: to whom it did belong to catch and bring venison for the king's table.

But instead of venison they brought man's flesh. Unknown; which the king liking so well commanded to bring him more of the same sort of venison. The king's barber chanced to know what flesh it was and disclosed it to him. At which the king was so enraged that he accounted death too good for them; and to punish only those persons that had so offended not a sufficient recompense for so great an affront and injury as he had sustained by them. Forthwith therefore he established a decree that both great and small that were of that rank or tribe should be expelled from dwelling among the inhabitants of the land and not to be admitted to use or enjoy the benefit of any means or ways or callings whatsoever to provide themselves sustenance; but what they should beg from generation to generation from door to door, through the kingdom, and to be looked upon and esteemed by all people to be so base and odious as not possibly to be more.' Many were the restrictions placed on the Rodi during the Kandyan period.

Says Knox: `And they are to this day so detestable to the people that they are not permitted to fetch water out of their wells; but do take their water out of holes or rivers. Neither will any touch them lest they should be defiled.' Until fairly recent times till about 100 years ago this was still true of the Rodi in the Kandyan areas.

During Kandyan times both Rodi men and women were compelled to go bare-bodied and forced to reside in separate hamlets known as kuppayam. Their rajakariya (duties to the state) included the supply of rope made of animal hide for trapping wild beasts. During Knox's time the primary occupation of the Rodi was mendicancy and hardly anyone refused them. In more recent times the folk were given to professional entertainment. The women would sing hymns in praise of their legendary ancestress Ratnavalli and spin brass plates while the men played a one-sided drum known as Bum-mendiya.

Rodi women are renowned for their extreme beauty and this may perhaps be explained by the following statement of Knox:

`Many times when the king (i.e. Rajasinghe II) cuts off great and noble men against whom he is highly incensed he will deliver their daughters and wives unto this sort of people reckoning it as they also account it to be far worse a punishment than any kind of death.'

Constant intercourse with the women of the Kandyan nobility may well account for the aristocratic looks and stately carriage of Rodi women to this day though the same cannot be said of their menfolk.

This may perhaps also explain the claims of the Rodi to royal status.

M.D. Raghavan (Handsome Beggars. The Rodiyas of Ceylon. 1957) believes that the Rodi are descended from totemistic eastern Indian aboriginal hunting tribes who came to Sri Lanka along with the sacred Bo-sapling (today the Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura) about 2000 years ago.

Raghavan connects the term Rodi to the Palli rudda (Sanskrit. rudra) meaning hunter.

As for their outcaste and untouchable status Raghavan has an explanation that is worthy of consideration.

He believes that the ancestors of the Rodi were worshippers of the `Black Goddess' Kali whose cult of human sacrifice was prevalent in eastern India until fairly recent times.

He is of the view that in former times the Rodi too were given to human sacrifice as may be gleaned from the invocatory hymns sung by Rodi women to their legendary ancestress.

`The name Ratna-tilaka-valli befits you; with rituals awe-inspiring I propitiate you. And you whose twentieth year has passed you shall not go without the taste of flesh.'

Another verse attributed to Ratnavalli says `prosperity do I bring you with blood flowing like the river waters ' while yet another verse refers to Ratnavalli as one `who wears the fearsome strings of coral `which Raghavan says is `the garland of human skulls round the neck of the awe-inspiring Kali.' In India statues of Kali are traditionally depicted with a garland of human skulls.

Added to all this, the tales of cannibalism attributed to Princess Ratnavalli in the traditions of the Rodi themselves also support this theory. As for their outcaste status Raghavan notes: `That a form of worship in which human offerings formed the essential ritual would have been anathema to the Buddhist way of life goes without saying; and it needs no stretch of imagination that any class of people in whom the cult prevailed or survived even in an attenuated form would have been pronounced by the sangha (i.e. the Buddhist clergy) as exiles from the social order.'

Another indication that the Rodi were originally a nation apart from the Sinhalese is their distinct language which savours of a tribal origin.

The language which is neither Indo-Aryan (like Sinhala) nor Dravidian (like Tamil) has been connected to the Austro Asiatic group of languages spoken by the aboriginal Munda tribes of eastern India.

Raghavan believes the language to be connected to the Munda language spoken to this day by primitive tribes in Orissa and Bihar.

In the olden days, the Rodi chieftain was known as Hula-valiya (lit.torch-bearer) which Raghavan believes is `a traditional institution from the days when the Rodiya was a tribe of hunters.'

Unlike in the olden days, today Rodi have lost their sense of clanishness.

In former times, the Rodi in the Vanni regions were divided into 12 exogamous clans (eg: Mahappola Vapolla and Alpaga) while those in other areas also had distinct clan identities. The Rodi are found concentrated in the up-country areas (the former Kandyan kingdom) especially in the central north western Uva and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. Today they number a few thousands islandwide.

The last census which enumerated the Rodi as a separate community was in 1911. It returned a total of 1.572 Rodi.

The traditional life-style of the Rodi is fast dwindling though some characteristics peculiar to Rodi culture still live on.

Rodi women are said to have enjoyed a high social status in the past. Even to this day these enterprising and progressive minded women are said to dominate domestic life.

They commonly arrange the marriages of their children and earn a considerable income from entertainment and agriculture. The allure of the charming Rodi girls have captivated the hearts of many an `upper caste' youth. A modern day Sinhalese poet thus sings the charms of a Rodi girl


Mount Lavinia Hotel was built in 1810 as a private residence by a fun-loving British Governor who constructed secret passages in the building. Some of these have been discovered in the kitchens, but unfortunately, are not open to the public.

Apparently, a rodiya girl who worked for the Governor fell in love with him. When the Governor was leaving, he asked the rodiya waht she wanted from him. Much to his surprise, she did not ask for the house which he was willing to give her. Instead, she asked for official permission towear a cloth about the waist, a mark of status normally denied to rodiyas. The Governor gave his consent with an official gazette notification and the house was sold and turned into a hotel.

Fair of face like the full blown lotus 
Thy rosy lips match the red lilies 
Thine eyes blue as the induvara flower 
With swelling swanlike breasts; 
Shine resplendent 
the livelong day, 
Rodi girl; the full moon over Ratnapura sky
(Kavsangarava. 1928).

Rodi Photos: @ Images of Ceylon


- A Rodiya Family

- Rodiya Women

- Rodiya Women

- Rodiya Women

- Rodiya Woman

- Rodiya Woman


@Explore Sri Lanka

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka