@ WWW Virtual Library Sri Lanka

Veddas - now only a household name

(@Script & Photos: Gamini G. Punchihewa/The Island)
The Veddas, our aborigines are almost now extinct. According to anthropoligists, Dr. Seligman and his wife, Brenda who researched our aborigines in 1910 the Veddas descended from the Australoid, Negrod Indian races as described in their book, 'The Veddas’ (1910).

Later our famed 'Surgeon and author about the Wilderness', Dr. R. L. Spittel at the turn of the century studied the Veddas in their original settlements and wrote many books on these aborigines, among them 'Wild Ceylon' (1925), ‘Far Off Things' (1930), 'Vanished Trails’, ‘Savage Sanctuary’(1939/45) the last being the epic life story of Wannaku Tissahamy, the jungle outlaw.

Prior to the coming of Prince Vijaya and his 700 followers, Lanka as it was then called was inhabited by two fierce tribes, the Nagas (cobra worshippers), Yakkas (demon worshippers). The former confined to the coastal belt while the latter to interior of the jungles.

Chieftain Kalu Appu and Thappal Bandiya of Henanigala Veddha re-settlement
Vijaya married Kuweni, a beautiful daughter of a Yakka chieftain. When he took a consort from India, he deserted Kuweni and her two children. Her tribe in wrath killed her while the two children took asylum in the Peak Wilderness (Sri Pada Adaviya). Kuweni's descendants were called the Pulindas who according to legend are the descendants of the present day Veddas.

Another tradition states that the Veddas' ancestors were the Yakkas. The Mahavamsa records that King Pandukabhaya (5th century BC) built shrines dedicated to ‘vyaadha deva', the god of the hunters.

The word Vedda is derived from sanskrit Vyaddha — meaning one who lives by chase, thus meaning a hunter. The Vedda language itself is a mixture of Pali, Sanskrit and Elu, a form of archaic Sinhala. In the 6th century BC King Panduvasdeva and his retinue arrived in Lanka, and were welcomed by Yakka tribes who showed them the way to Vijithapura.

Sabaragamuwa means the land of jungle tribes (Sabara means primitive people), hence it is said in some traditions that the Vedda habitat once upon a time existed in Sabaragamuwa. With places like Veddagala, Veddacombe, Veddawala (lying close to Kalawana) and Pothupitiya.

Coming to the reign of Pandukabhaya (5th century BC) he fought his seven embittered uncles with the support of the Yakka chieftain and his tribe.

In the reign of King Datusena (6th century A.D.) the Mahaweli ganga was diverted at Minipe in the Minipe canal nearly 47 miles long said to be constructed with help from the Yakkas. The Mahawamsa refers to the canal as Yaka-bendi-ela. When the Ruwanweli Seya was built in King Dutugemunu's time (2nd century B.C.) the Veddas procured the necessary minerals from the jungles.

King Parakrama Bahu the great of (12 century) in his war against the rebels employed these Veddas as scouts.

In the reign of King Rajasinghe II (17 century A.D.) in his battle with the Dutch he had a Vedda regiment. In the abortive Uva-Welessa revolt of 1817-1818 of the British times, led by Keppetipola Dissawe, the Veddas too fought with the rebels against the British forces.

Dr. Seligmann classifies the Veddas into three groups.— the Gal Veddas (Rock Veddas) who dwelt in caves-hunting animals with bow and arrow and lived a food gathering existence, Gam Veddas (Village Veddas) those who intermarried with the neighbouring Sinhalese and cultivated chena and other food crops with the Coastal Veddas (Mudu Veddas) were confined mostly to the eastern coastal belt, like Kalkuda.

Today no Rock Veddas exist, instead a few Gam Veddas are still confined to the aboriginal settlements like Pollebedda (Maha Oya), Rahtugala (off Bibile and Gal Oya Valley), Dambana (off Mahiyangane).

Inroads of Civilization
With the damming of the Gal Oya river (lying in the eastern province and Uva) in 1950 and the creation of the Senanayake Samudraya well known Vedda settlements like Hennebedda, Gallobe, vanished. Other vedda settlements were submerged and they were then called 'tankbed people'. Some of them were re-settled in new settlement under the Gal Oya scheme, like Paragahakelle and Wavinna (first village units to be created in 1950/52), while the rest opted to seek other pastures like Pollebedda, Bandaraduwa and even in Namal Oya.

The Mahaweli Accelerated Development Programme in the 1980's extended into the Bintenna called in ancient times, as Maha Vedirata and Mahiyangana, Maduru Oya, Yakhura, Dimbulagala regions. Consequently the few remaining shoots were either wiped out, or integrated into the Mahaweli settlement in Systems B and C.

Among the other traditional Vedda settlements is the Dambana which lies between the Mahaweli Ganga and Maduru Oya.

Dr. Seligmann who had studied almost all the aboriginal settlements in 1910, like Danigala, Hennebedda, Yakhura, Nilgala, Sorabora had also visited Dambana.

A few Vedda settlements around Mahaweli systems, like Keragoda, Kotabakina, Koteya and Kende Ganwila were displaced. Most of those age old aboriginal settlements got engulfed in the newly created Maduru Oya National Park (in 1983) and eventually were displaced. Those Vedda evacuees about 113 were re-settled in an exclusively carved out settlement at Hennanigala lying off Mahaweli System C, in Giriandurukotte, about 15 miles away from Mahiyangane.

Most of them accepted the new life style but chieftain of Dambana-Uruwarige Tissahamy and a few others refused to discard their Vedda trappings and sought refuge in the sanctuary of the Maduru Oya National Park.

The Veddas believed in the cult of their dead whom they propitiated rituals and dances to invoke their blessings. When death stalked their cave homes, they abandoned them and went in quest of other caves.

They believed in Nae Yakka (after death-the spirit of the dead relative haunted them). To appease the Nae Yakka they did a ritual accompanied with dance and song called Kirikoraha which these Gam Veddas still indulge in. Their other spirits were Kande Yakka, Bilinda Yakka, Rahu Yakka, Kiri Amma, etc.,

The two Vedda patriarchs Hennanigala re-settlement are Kalu Appu (the chieftain) and Tappal Bandiya. They and a few other elders did not fit with the new self-style in their new settlements as they had no jungle to hunt or collect bee's honey. Each of these evacuees were given 1/2 acre of highland, a 2 acre irrigable plot at Henanigala in System C, off Girandurukotte.

@ WWW Virtual Library Sri Lanka

Chieftain Kalu Appu and Thappal Bandiya with their families.