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The story of the seven Vedda brothers

(@Gamini G. Punchihewa/The Island)

Mahamini Mahamini Ma deiya,
Goa puccha Kamu Denna,
Go badawel tika mang kanggnam,
Go akuma tika mang kangnagna,
Bimen yannata bolpinibepini,
Meema pitin yamu denna.

Oh! Great Man, Oh, Great God,
We shall roast the iguana (talagoya),
You can take the entrails of the iguana,
And I will take the liver of the iguana,
There is dew fallen on the ground,
So we will ride on the buffalo's back.
(Vedda hunting folksong)

Continuing the series of extracts from the above writer's book titled 'Souvenirs Of A Forgotten Heritage' (1990) Chapter 9 is reproduced below. This writer also a authored 'Vignettes of Far Off Things' (1997-98) containing, collection of his published articles about the Walawe basin its history, tank civilization, jungle lore, fauna and flora and adventure.

Seven vedda brothers, armed with bows and arrows and short axes slung across their sinewy shoulders had set out hunting along well known game trails of the jungle fastness. The veddas of old had their own boundaries defined by themselves, such land portions being known by old vedda laws as panguwas. These panguwas were marked by the sign of a dunugaha (arrow mark) which was tattooed on a tree. It was known to them by tradition that no one would ever transgress into another's portion of land panguwa: if there was any such infringement, the penalty was death.

These aborigines were born in the jungle. The jungle was their treasured wealth. The jungle was their only source of livelihood. The veddas could easily scent anything emanating from any far off place, whether it was an elephant on the prowl, or any bees that were buzzing around. These jungle inheritors had also an in-born sharp eyesight. As with their piercing set of eyes, they could pierce through the jungle foliage into any distant object, be it a fleeting sambhur or fleeting deer.

That day was a miserable day for these seven vedda brothers. For though they had trekked for miles through their favourite forest haunts, they were not successful in getting any game at all, not even a talagoya - their favourite flesh (thalagoya - iguana). All of them were fully exhausted. Under a spreading Nuga tree, they rested awhile. They lamented their dismal failure. A stream was boisterously flowing down where they strolled wearily and in it they quenched their dire thirst. From their pangiri kola pogga (betel pouch) made of monkey skin or from the bark of a tree called (Riti), they had a chew of betel, as the vedddas were inveterate betel chewers.

With a sigh of despondency, they cursed as they had never cursed before. They knew it was a curse of some Yakka (a devil or some evil or dead spirit) that had cast its evil spell on them. The only salvation now left was to invoke the blessings of Itale Yakka (Arrow Spirit). One of them took an arrow and thrust it in the ground, around which they danced. In this dance they had to go forward and backward, during which spell they jerked their bodies in half turns. All this twisting form of dancing was performed to a song which they sang in sonorous rhythm that echoed through the silent forest. In between they slapped their hands on their chests and abdomen, synchronizing this with their songs. On reaching the climax, they tossed their heads and finally fell exhausted on the ground.

Once they completed this dance and song, they got up gasping for breath and shouting. After a short respite, they resumed their journey fully reassured, that now they were sure to get some game.

No sooner they had invoked the spirit of the Itale Yakka and had tramped through the jungle trails, then their prayer was answered. The youngest of the brothers was the first to espy a fleeting deer bounding through the jungle and darting across the open plain of mana grass that was before them. He took careful aim and released his arrow which flew and pierced its body.

Soon after their spoil was won, all the veddas were making some mutterings mingled with howls of protest, but everybody notwithstanding these howls, ran after the blood trail of their quarry. By the side of a stream was the injured deer, lying gasping for breath. All of them set upon their victim, and decapitated it with their short axes. In the midst of their rejoicing over the killing of the game, there arouse a tirade of protest. Their leader, Maha Bandara by name, the eldest brother, with terrific howls sprang upon the youngest and yelled fiery words at them thus: "How could you have used the bow when I am the eldest, you are the youngest, and you have no right to shoot when I am here, and because of this breach of custom, I am leaving you all and leaving for some other place to make my future home."

Silence pervaded the place. Not one protesting word was uttered by anybody, but everybody was accusing the youngest. They knew that they had broken the traditional law of their tribe. With disgruntled words, the eldest who had the lineage name ('ge' name) of Mahabandara, flew into a wild rage and pointing with his finger to yonder hill said. "That's the hill called Danigala, and I am going there to build my new home". When their eldest brother had departed from them for good, the seven brothers smarting in hostility fled in seven directions and thereafter each started life anew adding his own 'ge' name (pedigree name), after.

So in this way in order of seniority of the seven brothers, the eldest who had his name as Maha Bandara took refuge atop Danigala, and his scions thereafter came to be known as Danigala Maha Bandaralage. Hanthana Bandara took asylum in Wellassa area. Pe Bandara wandered into Maha Oya, Tala Bandara went to Kappangamuwa (now nestling close to the Namal Oya tank), Punchi Banda sought a new pasture in Bulupitiya (in Bibile), Ranhoti Bandara found refuge in Badulla and the youngest who was the miscreant - Keerthie Bandara sought sanctuary in Nilgala, so that nobody could assail it!

In this way, all those veddas who came after these seven brothers, carried their lineage names as Danigala Maha Bandaralage, Pe Bandaralage, Hanthana Bandaralage, Tala Bandaralage, Ran Hoti Bandaralage, Punchi Bandaralage and Keerthie Bandaralage. To this day, any person coming of vedda stock could be known from any of these 'ge' or pedigree names. Thus, according to this hoary legend, all the veddas of the whole of Bintenna Pattuwa or the Maha Vedi Rata have descended from these seven brothers.

The veddas of old were classified into three groups: The Rock Veddas (Gal Veddas), Village Veddas (Gam Veddas) and Coast Veddas (Muhudu Veddas). The Rock Veddas or Gal or Kelle Veddas were the real true veddas who had lived in rock caves in the ancestral hills or Danigala, Nilgala, Hennebedda, Friar's Hood, and Baron's Cap. They hunted with the bow and arrow.

The coast veddas are mostly of Tamil origin. Their occupation is mostly fishing along the eastern coast, such as Batticaloa. The most known settlement is in Kalkudah and even Trincomalee. Today you find only a few of them, but they are now quite sophisticated.

The village veddas or gam veddas are those scions of the true veddas who had inter-marriages with the Sinhalese or Tamils. They are a blend of the old and new stock. Today you still get a very few of the old descendants of the rock veddas who lived originally in the famous vedda ancestral rock - Danigala, in such vedda hamlets as Ratugala (In Gal Oya Valley close to Namal Oya Settlement).

At Rathugala lives one of the finest specimens of a Gal Vedda. He is Danigala Maha Bandaralage Handuna and he is the chieftain there. His brother Danigala Maha Bandaralage Thuta, also stays there. Handuna's kith and kin also live there. These Ratugala veddas had come down to this village of Rathugala from Danigala soon after the inception of the Gal Oya Scheme in 1950/51. Those few gam veddas living at Rathugala, others living at Pollebedda (off Maha Oya, Dr. Spittel's favourite vedda outpost) and still others living at Dambana (off Mahiyangane where Chieftain Tissahamy of Dambana lived) and those living at Yakkure (off Polonnaruwa) have still preserved the ancient customs, habits and the language of their ancestors.

With the transgression of the Accelerated Mahaweli Programme (the diversion of the longest river - Mahaweli Ganga for multi-purpose schemes) into the Bintenna Pattuwa, the traditional Vedda village of Dambana, where the Veddas of the past had lived has been almost displaced. The Hoary Chieftain Tissahamy of Dambana and a few of his henchmen have refused to forsake their Vedda trappings and instead have taken the call of the wild. The other veddas have been rehabilitated in System C. (Girandurukotte) at a new settlement called Henanigala, where each of them has been given 2 1/2 acres irrigable land and 1/2 acre highland lot. Henanigala is about 25 miles from Mahiyangane.

Their old people of the past collected bee's honey or Bambara. The bee's honey they scooped out with their short axes was used as a preservative by them for preserving game flesh. They preserved the game flesh in a hollow or a cavity of a tree which was filled with honey and then was hermetically sealed with clay.

I have seen Handuna of Rathugala, preserving flesh in this manner. The bow and arrow - the weapons of their fore-fathers - are now obsolete. But they still have one or two with them to be displayed before tourists and visitors and to demonstrate how their ancestors had used these primitive weapons. The pellet bow (Gal Dunna) to shoot doves and other game birds is still in use. This is made out of a jungle tree - the bow is made from 'Kobba Vela (Allophylus cobbe) while the bow string is made of the bast of a tree called Aralu Vel (Terminalia chebula).

Even children use this pellet bow or Gal Dunna with ease. The gam veddas of today, still use hunting dogs who are considered part and parcel of their family! With their help they hunt the thalagoya (iguana) which is their favourite flesh. Monkey flesh is another delicacy.

The true veddas were physically short in stature, having wavy hair, and beard sparsely spread on the face, with a piercing pair of eyes. Chieftain Handuna of Rathugala is a true image of a vedda of the past. These primitive people to this day believe in the cult of the spirits of their dead whom they worship and in time of distress propitiate by ritual dances.

These gam veddas of today (and even their neighbouring Sinhalese who also had inter-marriages with veddas) fear their dead. Whenever death enters their homes, which are made of tree barks or of wattle and daub thatched with illuk grass, they abandon them and go in quest of new homes or build another hut closer to the original one. No sooner death stalks their homes, they invoke the blessings of the Nae Yakka (spirit of the dead relative).

Even today among the gam veddas this practice is in vogue. They do not even touch a corpse. The names of the other spirits whom they had worshipped were Kande Yakka still propitiated), Billinda Yakka. These demons or spirits do not bring calamity or illness to the family, but help them to kill game. When hunting dogs were lost and as a fillip to hunt wild boar, they make their offerings to Bambara Yakka. In time of child birth, they address their prayers and offerings to Patti Yakka in ceremonies in which strips of tree bark are taken and tied to three stout poles to which they cling swaying their legs and uttering incantations, and dancing till dawn.

But the most common ceremony to appease the spirits which have brought calamity and that is still in use is the Kiri Koraha ceremony. In this ritual, on a mortar is placed a coconut which is contained in an earthern pot (nowadays an aluminium vessel is used). Arrow heads made of wood to represent the bow and arrow are placed on this vessel. Armed with these arrow heads, they dance round the 'Kiri Koraha' to the accompaniment of beating drums and sonorous incantations.

Vedda dialect among the present day gam veddas is now almost dead. But in the presence of strangers, visitors and tourists, they pretend that they do not know Sinhalese and utter a few fragmentary vedda words. They would stare at you with their piercing eyes. The common phrase they use when meeting a visitor or welcoming him into their homes is 'Hudu Hura mang gachchuwa galagamata (White brother or Sir, you have come to our home). Then when they want money they would say: "Ridi poru, thaba poru gena de?" (meaning give us silver and copper coins and that means money).

Authorities like Dr. Seligman and Dr. R. L. Spittel have said that the vedda dialect is a mixture of an archaic from Sinhalese (a form of Elu), Tamil, Pali and even Sanskrit. The word vedda itself is borrowed from the Sanskrit word - 'Vydha' meaning a hunter or 'one who lives by chase'.

Today most of these gam veddas are commercialized in the eyes of tourists - for when they allow themselves to be photographed, they ask for money. Once Tissahamy, chieftain of Dambana demanded Rs. 20 from me to take his much publicised photo (as he had one time appeared in a film). Vedda language is now dead, yet it is rich in folk songs which the present day gam veddas still sing in their homes or chenas. vedda babies are lulled to sleep by vedda lullabies.

Dr. Seligman wrote thus, in his 'Veddas' in 1910, of these veddas: "The veddas are coming more a
more in contact with their Sinhalese neighbours and it is extremely unlikely that the next generation will remain pure."

After more than 75 years, those promising words have come true. Yet a few of the remaining gam veddas are still able to tell us how their ancestors had lived and how they continue to follow some of these quaint customs and habits.

Virchow, a scholar from Germany who wrote about our veddas in 1881, has commented thus in his 'The Veddas of Ceylon and their Relations to Neighbouring Tribes": May the zeal of the observer know no flagging, that before the utter extinction of this already much depleted race, the language and customs, the physical and mental constitution of the veddas may be in all particulars firmly established."

They came with the leopard and languor,
Ere this isle from her mother was weaned,
The ocean rolled round her in anger,
But the waters she quenched
Deep in her silvan cages,
Their haven the hunters found:
They lived here along through the ages,
While the planet went spinning around.

(The Veddas) - Dr. R. L. Spittel
Post Script: Dambana chieftain - Uruwarige Tissahamy died recently.

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