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The ways of the Veddhas

(@by Gamini G. Punchihewa/The Island)
Continuing the series of extracts from the book 'Souvenirs Of A Forgotten Heritage (1990) by the above author Part II - Veddas' Section) reproduced below:-

Chapter 10

Bori Bori Sellam-Sellam Bedo Wanniya,
Palletalawa Navinna-Pita Gosin Vetenne,
Malpivili genagene-Hele Kado Navinne,
Diyapivili Genagene-Thige Bo Haliskote Peni,
Ka tho ipal denne

(A Vedda honeycomb cutter's folk song)

(Meaning of this song - The bees from yonder hills of Palle Talawa and Kade suck nectar from the flowers and made the honeycomb. So why should you give them undue pain when there is no honey by cutting the honeycomb).

In the years I had spent in the wilds of the valley of Gal Oya, which was the undis puted home of the vedda, my wish was to move with the veddas in their own environment. On the first day of my many meetings with the veddas, I was accompanied by my friends, Dharmakeerthie. George Schokman, an amateur photographer and a host of other officers together with my usual trackers D. M. Sudu Banda and one Gamarala from the old village of Tiburuhena Weva (off Mullegama, now abandoned) popularly known as Tiburuhena Weva Gamarala and my then Land Overseer J. A. C. Gunasekera.

We were motoring in a land rover, through the deep woods on the outskirts of Namal Oya reservoir. We were now on the new road that was constructed by the R.V.D.B. up to Galgamuwa (and was later extended to Bulupitiya through the great mountain pass of Maha Kade). On this road the distance to Bibile would be about fifty miles from Ampara as against the distance of about 70 miles from Ampara/Maha Oya.

The alluring woodland here have a music of their own. Shamas were singing, giant hornbills (Ke detta) sailed over us in a laboured flight, giving satanic sqawks. Jungle fowl crossed our path, frightened by the drone of the land rover, sought sanctuary in the shrub. The jungle scenery gave way to orange groves which during the two seasons of the year (March-April and October-December) were heavily laden with fruit. We went past the famous village in the jungle of Mullegama - a favourite village mentioned in Dr. Spittel's books.

In those days Vedda outlaw Tissahamy of Dr. Spittel's Savage Sanctuary, came stealthily to Mullegama under cover of darkness, to get his arrow blade sharpened or replaced. We heard many stories of Tissahamy's exploits at this village from the purana (old) villagers there. The only legacies that have been left behind are a few of those dying orange trees, the remains of the old school building and the old Apothecary's bungalow. One time, these buildings were used by the surveyors of the R. V. D. B. Marasinghe and Gunawardena as their camp, when I was working and living at Namal Oya. Now this place is used by the Game Ranger as his beat camp at Mullegama. Even my friend Dharmakeerthie when he was the Technical Assistant in charge of the road construction work, he too had his camp at Mullegama for some time. The ancient Mulgiri Vihara lies close to this abandoned village of Mullegama. It as at this temple, Vedda outlaw Tissahamy had spent his early life with the Incumbent there. Legend has it that it was at Mulgiri Vihara, King Dutugemunu on his march to meet Elara in battle at Anuradhapura, had given alms to the Buddhist clergy there.

From Mullegama, we sped along the finely constructed broad gravel road. From there we emerged into a luxuriant orange country. The village was known as Rath Mal Gaha Ella or Kahana (so called owing to the presence of Rath Mal trees). Beyond this village, the track was steep and rugged, as at that time bulldozers were at work cutting the road ahead. We reached the next jungle village called Galgamuwa after crossing Rambakan Oya. It was running dry. Village belles were digging the river bed to fill their pots. Here the village looked more prosperous as it was dotted with tiled roof cottages - a rarity in such a place as this. Stretches of orange groves bloomed round the homestead allotments.

Here were also the remains of a vihara and a few stone pillars. The High Priest was a person of excellent physique having a pleasing and imposing personality. I knew him well. This priest was a very hospitable person. He invited us to the temple and then commanded a person to ring the temple bell. When the bell was tolling, it echoed through the jungle solitude. An army of villagers answered its toll and presented themselves before the priest after paying due obeisance. They were ordered by the priest to pluck some oranges. These they brought to us. We relished them greatly.

These villages and the other hamlets of Rathugala, Nelliadda, Kurundwinne, Aralu Uhana, all came within the limits of the Pothuliadda Wasama. The villagers, as is their natural deportment, were all smiles, an index to their inviting hospitality. We paid our due respects to the Buddhist priest and walked through the orange orchards of the villagers.

These forest folk, long before the road was extended to Bulupitiya, were badly handicapped without proper transport. In those days of old, they had either to trek to Maha Oya through Kahana, Kurunduwinna, Pollebedda (famous Vedda outpost of Dr. Spittel's books) and then to Maha Oya by cart. But the route to Bulupitiya through the Maha Kade mountain pass, was impassable. They had to go on foot or take their provisions on the backs of buffaloes. Patients were carried on stretches improvised locally, with the help of jungle poles. The new road when it was constructed was really a boon to these forest folk.

Our next journey started from Galgamuwa along a jungle but vanished trail in quest of Rathugala. We had to hack our way through the jungle entwine, along a footpath - the remains of what was a cart-track. We crossed the lonely Rambakan Oya, and paused near the water's edge. We then moved on and were penetrating dense jungle. The thick canopy was formed by giant forest trees - Rena, Nuga, Vira, Palu and Buratha. The shade of these spreading branches were fraught with flocks of Grackles (Selaleeheeniyas) emiting their melodious whistling tunes. A pair of deer, one with majestic antlers, leapt in front of us. It stopped, looked us over and then gracefully darted into the jungle darkness.

After travelling for about two miles, we came upon a forest glade where a tiny hut made of tree bark stood. Some women cuddling infants on seeing us, immediately covered their bare bosoms with the cloth they were wearing. Our trackers who were well known to these forest denizens, cautioned us to stay near the hut. A short man with wavy hair, stubble on his chin and face and beard sparsely spread over his face, his short axe slung across his shoulder, met our astonishing eyes.

As this person with his piercing eyes was staring at us, we were amazed. From the knowledgeable accounts I had read in Dr. Spittel's books, I learnt that your first approach towards a vedda must be with extreme caution, tact and kindness and with a shower of presents which they liked most, like betel, arecanut and tobacco, you could win them over. Dr. Spittel recalls thus in his 'Wild Ceylon' (1925) "They started mutely at us affecting not to understand a word of the Sinhalese in which I addressed them. I tried again and again, but not by the flicker of an eyelid did they signify comprehension. Civility and persuasion having failed, I tried the effect of candour, telling them that we were not gullible strangers and knew all about them. This also was without effect... gradually we won them over one by one, but despite our best efforts the conversation flagged.'

My two trackers who were jungle villagers, signalled me to give the presents I had brought with me, we were then able to break the ice. His blanched face came alive. With a flicker of an eyelid and a short smile, he accepted them. I gave Handuna some old shirts, betel, arecanuts and tobacco. To the vedda children of the forest, we gave biscuits and bread and to the women some blouses. But still he was silent, not a word did he speak. Our trackers whispered something to him. Then he looked at me inquiringly and quipped: "Hudu Hura, mang gachchuwa, galgamata". (Sir you have come to our rock home). Afterwards, he became friendly with me. I looked around his frail hut, it was made of tree bark, about five people lived in it.

The true vedda is extinct now. Yet Handuna still bore the picture of a true vedda. There were groves of jak and mango trees in their gardens together with a few coconut palms. Inside the hut there were two deer skins which served as quilts for Handuna and his wife Mah Thuthie. There were a few dried gourds in which were stored some grains and other food stuffs. Handuna now came armed with bow and arrow and stretching the bow, showed the way his ancestors had used it. Its arrow flew a few yards and fell on the ground. With pride he uttered these words, showing the bow and arrow: "Me thama morian pogga Maha-aththange". (This is the bow and arrow used by our forefathers). He had a small monkey pouch in which betel, arecanuts and tobacco were kept. A pellet bow (Gal Dunna) to shoot birds was also shown to us by one of his children. He too, like his father, was stretching it before us. George took many photos of Handuna and his family members.

In a few moments I had struck up an intimate friendship with Handuna. He knew Sinhala along with the vedda language. I dug into his ancestry. Handuna told me that his people hailed from Danigala, - a hill not far away. They had left it about 30 years ago as there was no food and wild animals were getting scarcer day by day. From the way Handuna was talking he was proud of his vedda ancestry. Maha Thuthie, Handuna's wife who looked about 50 years had borne him four children - a son, Randunna Wanniya (30 years old) and three daughters, Badini (25 years old), Heen Thuthie (13 years old) and Kairi (10 years old). Marriages between blood relations were an ancestral taboo among the veddas, but here was an exception and Handuna's own brother Maha Thutha was married to his eldest daughter Badini. But she looked very emaciated and malnourished and had some eye ailment. The children all looked ill-nourished with bloated bellies showing the scourge of malaria that was wrought there. This couple lived a few yards a away in another bark house, while Handuna's sister lived at the entrance to their settlements. Her husband had some Sinhalese admixture as he hailed from Bulupitiya (close to Bibile). His daughter looked very pretty for her age which was about 14 years. This hut was made of wattle and daub and the roof thatched with illuk grass.

Handuna lamented that he rarely now got game flesh, unless some Hudu Hura came there with the gun, with whom he used to go hunting. His dog Kadiya he said stroking its head, helped him to hunt the goa (thalagoya). During the chena season he cultivated Bada Iringu (Indian Corn) and Kurakkan in his small plot of chena. But rice was a luxury, he remarked. "Depthullan kodai there is no rice - the word for rice is depathullan, while for not available is kodai". He got his rice only on his rice ration books. The children have never been to a school because they had no clothes to wear. The school was about two miles away from Galgamuwa through the forest trails.

Rathugala was so named because of the patches of red found in huge boulders which dot this village. The names of the other hills were Mallawa Hela, (Dahula Hela), Kuttiya Hela (hela means mountain). A wealth of legends surrounds these mystic hills which will be described later.

The vedda traits and customs ranging from language to song and from traditional dances to spiritual ceremonies were all inborn in Handuna. His memory was a storehouse of traditional vedda songs. With his loud voice, Handuna sang the songs of his people and accompanied them with the traditional dances. With his axe slung on his shoulders, he danced to the rhythm of his songs. One such folk song has been recorded at the opening of this chapter.

232, Bullers' Road,
Colombo 7.

Dear Gamini,

I am glad to see you go from strength to strength as a journalist, I have read with interest your article on songs + legends of Veddas, and now this on bird legends. I have filed them both - I under Veddas the other under birds.

But the following is a thing you should do. Study about six Vedda families meticulously from elders, to schoolgoers, to babes. Describe their homes & maintain what stocks of food they have, if any: livelihood - which do the men do & what the women. Have they enough to eat and most important of all how do the Vedda school children boys & girls emerge with the Sinhalese? Are they bullied or do they hold their own? Are they despise and call V's? Are they ashame of the name? Or is the transition smooth. Go to their school and watch them in classes and playgrounds. Take their families & friends & write under the caption Veddas in transition or some such title. Take photos.

Yours sincerely,

R. L. Spittel

One of the many letters written by Dr. Spittel to the author encouraging him to meet the Veddas and write about them to the local newspapers.

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