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 Post subject: Veddah people - The forest dwellers
 Post Posted: Wed Sep 07, 2005 12:32 am 
The forest dwellers

By Nimashi Fernando
DM / 07 Aug 2005


Diversity within', is yet another impressive notion. The Veddah people dwelling side by side with us on this island, gracefully and subtly surrender to this understanding. They seem so different. Then again they seem so similar.

Veddah or Wanniya-laeto (forest dwellers) are the indigenous inhabitants of Sri Lanka. By definition, indigenous people are the descendants of inhabitants that lived in an area prior to colonization by the nation state. They do not identify with the dominant nation. The Veddah people are direct descendants of the aboriginal community that occupied the island before the arrival of the Aryans around 500 BC. Formally, they were hunter-gatherers but now they have merged with the dominant Sinhala and Tamil ethnic communities.

Human societies are often organized according to their primary means of subsistence. Hunter-gatherer societies, simple farming societies and intensive agricultural societies fall into this category. However, societies can also be organized according to their political structure, viz tribes or states.

Cultural Ecology, the discipline concerned of how different human groups interact with each other and how they relate to the environment to survive as an independent group, evinces four basic levels pertaining to the formation of human societies.

They are; Infrastructure i.e. the way things are set up: Domain of food production: Political economy i.e. trading and exchange: Superstructure i.e. religion and politics.

Correspondingly, a society is understood to be a group of people capable of forming a semi-closed social system, in which most of the interactions that take place are with individuals of that particular group.

The Veddah people of Sri Lanka are categorized as members of a primitive society. A primitive society, invariably consists of the following characteristics. It is of low population density. An unobtrusive and simple lifestyle is the norm of such societies. They possess no proper religion and quite often it is a set of distinctive rituals that govern the society. The mode of communication is based predominantly on face to face mutual relationships.

Apart from these sociological variation, morphologically too, the Veddah people are different from us. Typically, they have broad noses and narrow foreheads. Their faces are long and narrow. The upper portion of the body is short, while their limbs are noticeably long. They possess relatively small palms and feet, and fingers and toes have spread apart.

Since I joined a field trip organized by the Department of Zoology of the Colombo University, I was granted the exclusive opportunity of visiting these indigenous people of Sri Lanka.

We visited two populations. They lived in the vicinity of the Maduru Oya National Park, located in the Dry Zone, approximately 256km away from Colombo. One site was Dambana and the other was Henanigala. The families living in Dambana have managed to retain much of their traditional lifestyle. About 350 families reside in Dambana.

This community is administered by the son of the popular Veddah chief Urupana Warige Tissahami, since his death in 1998. He spoke in Sinhala.

A few of among the elders still retain their traditional attire which consists of the loin cloth along with an axe placed on their shoulders. Most men now dress in shirt and sarong, while the women have resorted to cloth and jacket, skirt and blouses and the like.

Before Maduru Oya was declared a national park, the Veddah people depended on hunting and gathering and also chena cultivation as means of food acquisition. Now however, they mostly depend on small scale animal husbandry including cows and hens and also on cultivated crops like kurakkan, green gram and rice. They have given up chena cultivation, but sometimes, they depend on occasional hunting.

Currently, the families live in mud huts. In the earliest stages they used to live in tree hollows and caves, and in subsequent stages they shifted to tree-bark houses. The roof in such houses is mainly of Iluk while the walls were made of milla and halmilla. The technique of obtaining the bark is quite interesting. They burned the forests for chena cultivation, and the heat emitted made the bark of such trees flaccid. Subsequently, the rains come down and soak up the bark making it more flaccid, enabling easy removal and collection. This practice is no longer in use.

The usage of money is not very common. They mainly depend on trading in of goods. The Veddah people have no proper religion. They believe in the spirits of the dead relatives and refer to them as "Naa Yakku". They perform rituals prior to hunting and to cure illnesses and to ask for blessings.

The elders take much effort to pass down the skills, knowledge and wisdom of their unique culture to the younger generation.

The Veddah population in Dambana is more or less striving to preserve their distinct culture and heritage, while at the same time, acknowledging and accepting certain elements of neighbouring cultures that infiltrate their own.

Compared to the population in Dambana, the population in Henanigala evinces many disparities. Under the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Scheme, in 1983 many Wanniyalaeto families were compelled to abandon their forest habitats and move in to resettlement villages, forcibly converting themselves to rice cultivators from conventional hunter-gatherers. The Veddah people of Hen anigala is one such resettled population. Even at a single glance, the differences in this village become quite conspicuous.

The young men had clearly shaven faces and shortly trimmed hair. They were dressed in shirts, sarong and trousers. The women wore skirts, blouses and T-shirts. Although shy initially, they proved to be easily approachable, friendly and spoke in fluent Sinhala.

Their houses were made of brick and cement. Stretches of paddy fields and tractors operating in some of them were visible in the backdrop.

The children attended school regularly. Most of the young ones have common Sinhala names. A little boy named Sanjeewa Lakruwan befriended me on the spot, and offered me a red shoe flower. I accepted it.

Almost all the subjects including Maths, Science and even English, are taught in schools, up to the O/Levels. Apparently however, schooling is not that entertained among the kids of this community.

Electric appliances like the television and radio are

common. Some even possess mobile phone. However the facility of acquiring land phones is unavailable in the vicinity.

The village elders who resent these modern practices, strive hard to remain stable amidst the rapidly changing culture. The village leader, Thapal Bandiya, spoke somewhat resentfully about the "authorities" for divesting them of their region and condemned many of the modem practices.

Much of the population have converted to other religions, Buddhism in particular, while the elders have retained their traditional practices. To entertain us, a few elderly males performed the Kirikoraha ritual around a bonfire, and blessed each of us rubbing milk on our foreheads. It was such a tranquilizing moment- a once in a life time experience. Those blessings are supposed to guard the subject against accidents and diseases.

Such beautiful and gentle people they were.

The harmless and almost inconspicuous culture prevailing among the Veddah communities, is yet another trait that corroborates the fact, that this beautiful island, although so small, is perfect in terms of spawning and nurturing the subsistence of multicultural societies. "Multi" is a stately prefix, so common in instances explaining the integrity among many a attributes distilled from anything that's "Sri Lankan". "Diversity" reigns above a vast array of topics pertaining to the multi cultural and the multi ethnic communities in Sri Lanka.

Among the many eminent communities of different cultural backgrounds, concealed is a group of gentle human beings, striving to preserve a distinct culture of their own.

In such a vein, it is incumbent upon us to assist those who strive hard to preserve difference, to preserve it, and to screen the subsistence so unique to them; For it is part and parcel of this island's distinct identity. The more diverse we are, the more beautiful our country will be!


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