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The Veddha Sanctuary

(@Gamini G. Punchihewa/The Island)

Continuing the series of extracts from the author's book, 'Souvenirs of a forgotten heritage' - Veddas' section)

On my next trip to Bin Baliya to see Kombi - daughter of jungle outlaw Tissahamy of 'Savage Sanctuary', I was accompanied by Mr. Martinesz, an Agricultural Officer attached to the R. V. D. B. in Gal Oya, my land overseer J. A. C. Gune-sekera, and two other old villagers from Namal Oya who knew the jungle tracks well. The Gal Oya region after the damming of the river, Gal Oya, had been geographically changed.

Those old jungle trails have vanished, only footpaths exist now. We drove in a land rover, along those vanished trails on the old road to Uhana from Kuda Kandiya. We crossed Dambe Ella and fell into a fine stretch of paddy fields running to about 25 to 50 acres. This stretch of productive land enveloped by the vast hill-studded forest is known as Bin Balliya. It appears that in the day of yore some veddas had climbed this mountain to cut honeycombs. When they looked down, they had a bird's eye view of the whole open plains below them. Hence, they named it Bin Baliya.

Dotted here and there, were the villagers' mud-walled huts, roofs thatched with illuk. They sow paddy during the Maha rainy season (October-December). Rich harvests were reaped.

Nearing a patch of cleared land we beheld a luxurious plantation of pineapple, orange and lime. Our tracker announced pointing his finger in that direction - 'Me Thama Kombige gedera' (That's Kombi place). A newly constructed wattle and daub hut stood before us. A handsome young lad with a smiling face beckoned us to be seated. I casually asked him, "Where is Kombi?" The lad seemed puzzle, but said: "Sir, she is my mother, be seated, I'll call her". His mother appeared before us - short dark-skinned woman, carrying a child in her arms.

She looked about 45 years old I had no mental picture of Kombi earlier, except that of the description given in Dr. Spittel's 'Savage Sanctuary', and that too when she was a child. I had taken with me Dr. Spittel's photograph (an autographed one by him) which was given to me, and asked her showing the photograph, whether she could tell me whose photo it was. She looked instantly and with a smile said, 'me dostara Spittel Mahatmaya ne (This is Dr. Spittel's photograph). She pronounced his name as Dr. Spittel, very well. I told her that the Doctor was living in Colombo and that he was a friend of mine and wanted me to give her the two books, as I was living close to her place.

Author with Kombi - The only surviving daughter of vedda outlaw Tissahamy with her children (left to right) son, Kombi & daughter at Binbaliya, (taken in 1963)
When I asked Kombi about the past, she fell into a reverie of thoughts. After a while she said thus: "Sir, I cannot remember my father and his activities very well, as I was only a child of about 8 to 10 years when I saw my father last about thirty-five years ago. But I have a faint recollection of certain incidents. My father had two wives. Hudu Bandi and Valli. I was born to Hudu Bandi, my father's first wife.

My mother died when I was still an infant and I was brought up by my foster mother - Valli. By Hudu Bandi, my father had Sudu Banda, Kapuru and myself and by Valli, Tikiri and Bala Vanniya. Tikiri is now living at Bandaraduwa.

I can remember one thrilling event when as a child he left me with my brother Sudu Banda, in a cave known as Patharana Gal Ge. I was then about eight years old. My father wanted me to check his movements as he was a very vindictive boy like my own father. Sudu Banda took his gun and was setting out to some place when I asked him where he was going and implored him not to go. He gave me a thorough beating and ran away. My father later told me that his enemies had murdered him.

With this story Kombi paused and was looking quite nervous, and excited. In a humble way, she asked me why I was inquisitive to know all about her father and his life. I explained to her that I was very much interested in the life and times of Tissahamy, her father and his children. With these pacifying words, Kombi accepted my explanation readily. Kombi is described in Dr. Spittel's 'Savage sanctuary' thus: "Ten years after the birth of Kapuru, Hudu Bandi had borne Tissahamy the infant Kombi, but she (Hudu Bandi), did not long survive the event. A year later, she sickened with a feverish cold, and in spite of Tissahamy's charms and decoctions, died within a week". She also recalled the tragic death of her sister Kapuru within a few months of her (Kapuru's) marriage. Kombi was only a child at the time. She was killed by her husband Kalu Banda. To cover up the murder, he tried to bribe the coroner to say that her sister was bitten by a serpent. Tissahamy was too shrewd for that. This murder was the turning point in the life and time of her father and her brother Sudu Banda. There followed a spate of murders including the village headmen and policemen. It was these desperate adventures, romance and murder that formed the story of Dr. Spittel's book, 'Savage Sanctuary' (1941).

I then asked Kombi about her family. She said that she had married Herath Mudiyan-selage Sudu Banda, a cultivator from Bokke-bedda about twenty-five years earlier. She has lived there with him for about fifteen years at Bokkebedda. As the land was not productive there, she had come to Binbaliya with her family about five years ago. She had seven children. They were H. M. Wijesinghe 17 years old, H. M. Ran Menike 16 years old, H. M. Heen Menike 14 years old, H. M. Heen Banda 7 years old, H. M. Gunatillake 6 years old, H. M. Sudu Menika 5 years old and H. M. Kiri Banda 3 years old. It was evident that none of the children were given vedda names!

During this patient hearing a pretty damsel was seated on the ground listening attentively to my questions fired at her mother. She was Kombi's daughter Ran Menika who looked about 17 years. In every description she was a beauty and was the most beautiful belle of the jungle! It was a wonder that at the time, no young man had still fallen for her alluring and captivating figure, when her younger sister was already married and has a child.

When I asked her about marriage she blushed, and gave an evasive and bashful reply saying: "I am not in a hurry as my younger sister was!" Of Tikiri, Kombi had little to say, except like father, he sought the refuge of the jungle. He rarely visited her. There was a rumour that Tikiri's son was to be married to her daughter Ran Menika. She unwillingly told me though the lad was willing, she did not like it, as he was an irresponsible fellow.

The second lap of our journey was to meet the other character of 'Savage Sanctuary' - Tikiri Wanniya, who lived at Bandaraduwa. After my coming on transfer to Namal Oya from Uhana, I had not even met Tikiri for about six months. On this trip, I was determined to see him too. We were now on the old track to Uhana which in the past was used by the veddas of old and the Sinhalese villagers, to get to Kalmunai after crossing the ferry at Chavalakadai. We paused at Bokkebedda, once the home of Kombi, and still looked a flourishing hamlet of a few families where there were heavily laden orange trees. We passed Koteelinda, once a vedda settlement now abandoned, save for a few stretches of paddy fields, its original inhabitants having migrated to Uhana and Bandaraduwa. Dr. Spittel, when he blazed these old jungle trails has described Kotelinda thus in 1925, in his 'Wild Ceylon': "From Uhana to Kotelinda, by way of hill-girded Bokkebedda in the drenching rain. Here at a glance, we noticed crude little Vedda huts amidst those of Sinhalese villagers."

We too after a lapse of fifty years, were following the same old jungle trails followed by Dr. Spittel himself. Kotelinda was named thus as when a well was sunk there, a hollow of a tree trunk was sunk into its depth (Kote means a trunk of a tree and linda a well). The path before us was very rugged and after driving for a few miles we came upon Bandara-duwa which was once a vedda settlement, but now teeming with Sinhalese old villagers (purana). Their orange gardens were in full bloom. It was situated on a picturesque site. The silhouette of Friar's Hood (Valimba Kanda) stood sentinel like over this settlement. It was on this imposing hill that Tissahamy took refuge from the pursuing hands of the law.

From Bandaraduwa we had to deviate and take to a jungle path. Along this tortuous trail we drove with great difficulty taking dangerous serpentine bends. After almost hacking our way through the dense growth, our guide requested us to get down at a stream. I was reminded of my first visit to Tikiri about four years earlier in the company of Dr. Spittel. In the middle of a sparsely cultivated manioc and Indian corn plantation, stood Tikiri's little hut made of tree bark. There was a lad doing some gardening. I knew him. I recognized him as Neela, Tikiri's eldest son. As he saw me, he came running and asked: "Sir, dostara mahatmaya avada" (Did the Doctor come?). He was sad, when I said, 'no'. Dr. Spittel's visit was looked upon by them as a visitation of God. Tikiri as usual, was away, and someone was sent to fetch him.

Inside the hut was a women one of Tikiri's wives (I too recognized her as Kalu Kumie) as the other wife had gone with him to jungle. Whenever he went to the jungle, he took with him one of his wives, in rotation. Tikiri came. How he had changed since I saw him last, about six months earlier. His stubble of a beard was there, but he was looking a bit shrunken. I told Tikiri that we had met Kombi. When I mentioned her name, his face did not show any signs of gladness. Tikiri said that though Kombi lived close by, she had not visited him, in spite of his visiting her once. With sarcastic smile, he said, "After all why should I go to see them? They are better off and they have never come to see me as I am a jungle man".

I had heard many tales from Tikiri, but this time I got him to talk more about himself and his memories. He began thus: "I was born in the Embilenne Kumbura. My father Vannaku Tissahamy was known as Meeni-maruwa (murderer). My brother was Sudu Banda who was murdered was always out to take revenge on those who harassed him. He was like my father. I used to be with father, in all his nefarious activities. I was in remand prison in Batticaloa for my complicity in the murder of the Moorman - Peena, who was my father's worst enemy. I can still recall the visit of our Hudu Hura - Dr. Spittel, when he came to seem me at the Maha Oya Rest House soon after my release from prison. Then I was about 17-18 years old.

Tikiri is a racy raconteur. He spoke as if he was reading from a book. Tikiri must be about 60 years now. He had sung many folk songs of the veddas to me. Some of them I had recorded when he visited me or when I paid a visit to his woodland home in Bandaraduwa. One such song that was recorded has been mentioned in the opening of this chapter, as a tribute to Tikiri and in fond remembrance of him as well. Tikiri was a romantic old fellow. This I knew from the romantic story he narrated to me about his marriage.

When Tikiri was about 19-20 years old, he had a soft corner for Gama's daughter in Bingoda (now abandoned). Her name was Sellie. She was a girl of about 15 years. His mother too liked her. So he got married to her. Unfortunately, she died about fifteen years ago, leaving two sons, Handuna now about 18 years old and Neela about 22 years. I asked him whether he married again. He burst into loud laughter and said in a humorous vein: "Sir, not to one woman but to two (he showed the symbol of two, with his two fingers emphatically!). This characteristic as Dr. Spittel had said, showed that he really possessed humour.

In Tikiri's words, there was pride in his voice that he had two wives. Once Tikiri confided to me, in my intimate conversations with him about his married life that he was a virile person, where sex was concerned with. Therefore, whenever he roamed the jungles, he took one of his wives to enjoy marital bliss! Tikiri's younger children attended the village school in Bandara-duwa. They trekked through the jungle trails to school. When I saw Tikiri last in 1970, just before my transfer to Walawe from Gal Oya, he was happily rehabilitated in a mud-walled hut, roof that-ched with illuk, close to the Bandaraduwa School. I felt happy about his change of life, socially. When I told him that I was leaving Gal Oya for good, he felt sorry and wished me well."

Tikiri Wanniya - my trusted Veddha tracker and friend, sad to say, had since passed away.

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