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Vedda Burials

(@Gamini G. Punchihewa/The Island)

The traditional burials of the rock veddas (Gal-Veddas) who lived in rock caves and hunted game were to leave them dead in the cave covered with leaves and branches and this occupy a fresh cave and return to the cave where the body was abandoned after a lapse of a year or two, according to the anthropological monograph titled 'Veddas' 1918 by anthropologists Dr. Seligmann and his wife, Brenda.

Following the opening of colonisation schemes their burials changed when they dug graves of about 4-5 feet in depth and left the body wrapped in some cloth and covered with leaves and earth.

The Veddas also scooped the trunks of the Gadumba tree and laid the body between the scopped out wood planks held together and then buried.

At the head of the grave were kept three open coconuts and a small bundle of wood, while at its foot were kept an opened coconut and an untouched coconut.

Certain plants of the cactus species (pathok) were planted at the head of the grave, the middle and the foot their personal possessions like the bow and arrow, betel pouch, were also buried. This practice varied according to the different communities of the aboriginal settlements.

The contents of the betel pouch of the deceased were eaten after his death! Never was a burial custom inherited to them.

In true Vedda burial rituals the dead body was scented or smeared with some juice obtained from the leaves of jungle trees or a lime tree. The foot or the head of the grave was never lit either with fire or wax and water was not kept in a vessel by the grave side.

Dr. Seligmann states in the above quoted book. "It should be mentioned no fire was lit near the corpse or water left there.

Apart from Dr. Seligmann there were the other foreign scholars and anthropologists who did research into the vedda way of life in 1886. Among them were Sarasin Cousins (P.H. & F. Sarasins) who wrote a paper in 1886 to the B.A.S. (CB) titled 'An outline of two years of scientific research into the Veddas of Ceylon'.

Virchow of Germany (though he never visited the Vedda aboriginal settlements wrote a paper titled 'The Veddas of Ceylon and their relationship to neighbouring tribes to the Journal of Royal Asiatic Society (CB), 1886. Other British officials domiciled in Ceylon, in early 1900, like Hugh Neville, H. W. Parker, Sir Emerson Tennent also wrote about the life and times of the Veddas.

At the turn of the century our renowned 'Surgeon of the Wilderness', Dr. R. L. Spittel wrote several books on Veddas beginning with 'Wild Ceylon' (1925), 'Vanished Trails' (1940), 'Savage Sanctuary' 1939 (the life and times of Vedda outlaw Tissahamy), 'Far Off Things' (1930).

Later in the 1960's, Dr. Nandadeva Wije-sekera wrote a book titled 'Veddas in Transition'. In recent years another publication about the present day Vedda was written by Prof. K. N. O. Dharmadasa and S. S. R. de A. Samarasinghe in all their works, there never was any mention of coffins being used for burials, or that bodies were scented or smeared with any form of liquid or fire or candles or wax being lighted over the grave.

In recent years, the late Dambane chieftain - Tissahamy's grandson, a graduate - Dambana Gunawar-dhana wrote a book on Veddas in Sinhala and it was translated into English titled 'Hunting Grounds by Kusum Dissanayaka.'

While living and working in the Gal Oya Valley from 1955-70, in the heart of the Vedda country, I was familiar with the few remaining Vedda settlements like Rathugala (Danigala Veddas), Pallebedda (Dr. Spittel's Vedda outpost).

I have witnessed Vedda burials in such Vedda settlements like Rathugala and Pollebedda. There the Veddas used the wood of the Gedumba tree - usually found in old chenas, scooped it and left the body between these scooped out logs and buried in a grave dug a little distance away from the home of the deceased.

The body was wrapped in cloth and the possession of the dead man like the betel pouch (without its contents), the bow and arrow were buried with his dead body.

In places, the Gam Veddas (village Veddas) placed three open coconuts at the head of the grave, while at its foot they placed one opened and an untouched coconut. They also planted cactus plants over the grave.

The Veddas believe in the cult of the dead. They worshipped and made incantations to their Nae Yakka (Relative Spirit) followed by other customary ritual (called the Kiri Koraha) which is still in vogue among the surviving gam veddas of Rathugala, Pollebedda Dambana and the Henanigala Vedda re-settlement (in Mahaweli systems off Mahiyangane).

They believed that the spirit of their dead would haunt them bringing forth diseases and calamity. To appease the dead spirit they invoke the blessings of the Nae Yakka and other spirits, like Bilinda Yakka, Kande Yakka followed by the dance ritual of Kirikoraha.

According to Sarasin Cousins (in 1886) and Seligmann's book - 'The Veddas' (1910).

"When man or woman dies from sickness, the body is left in the cave or rock shelter where the death took place, the body is not washed or dressed or ornamented in any way, but is generally allowed to be in the natural supine position and is covered with leaves and branches. This was formerly the universal custom and still persists among the less sophisticated Veddas who sometimes in addition place a large stone upon the chest for which no reason could be given, this is observed at Sitala Wanniya (off Polle-bedda close to Maha Oya), where the body is still covered with branches and left where the death occurred.

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