Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Vedda people

Vedda People
A Veddah school girl
Total population

Less than 2,000

Regions with significant populations
Sri Lanka ≤ 2,000
Veddah Language, Sinhala, Tamil
Animist, Buddhist, Hindu
Related ethnic groups
Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils
The Wanniyala-Aetto, or "forest people", more commonly known as Veddas or Veddahs (transliteration of Sinhala වැද්දා (IPA: [ˈvæddaː]), are an indigenous people of Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Indian Ocean; they were never numerous and are now few in number.


Veddah man from Sri Lanka

Human remains in Sri Lanka dating from as early as 18,000 BC show a genetic continuum with present-day Veddas.[1]

According to the ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty, the Mahavansa , the Pulindas (Veddhas) are descended from Prince Vijaya (6th-5th century BC), the founding father of the Sinhalese nation, through Kuveni, a woman of the "Yakkha" clan whom he had espoused. The Mahavansa relates that following the repudiation of Kuveni by Vijaya, in favour of a "Kshatriya" princess from the "Pandya" country, their two children, a boy and a girl, departed to the region of "Sumanakuta" (Adams Peak in the Ratnapura District), where they multiplied, giving rise to the Veddhas. Anthropologists such as the Seligmanns (The Veddhas 1911) believe the Veddhas to be identical with the "Yakkhas" of yore.

Veddas are also mentioned in Robert Knox's history of his captivity by the King of Kandy in the 17th century. Knox described them as "wild men," but also said there was a "tamer sort," and that the latter sometimes served in the king's army.[2]

The Ratnapura District, which is part of the Sabaragamuwa Province is known to have been inhabited by the Veddhas in the distant past. This has been shown by scholars like Nandadeva Wijesekera (Veddhas in transition 1964). Indeed, the very name Sabaragamuwa is believed to have meant the village of the Sabaras or "forest barbarians". Such place-names as Veddha-gala (Veddha Rock), Veddha-ela (Veddha Canal) and Vedi-kanda (Veddha Mountain) in the Ratnapura District also bear testimony to this. As Wijesekera observes, a strong Veddha element is discernible in the population of Veddha-gala and its environs. As for the traditional Veddha lifestyle, a number of authorities have delved on this and we can easily describe their life-style as it existed in the past, and as it exists today.


Sinhala-speaking Veddas are found primarily in the southeastern part of the country, especially in the vicinity of Bintenne in Uva District. There are also Sinhala-speaking Veddas who live in Anuradhapura District in the North Central Province.[3]

Another, largely distinct group, often termed East Coast Veddas, is found in coastal areas of the Eastern Province, mostly between Batticaloa and Trincomalee. These Veddas speak Tamil as their primary language[4][5]

Cultural aspects


The interior Veddahs follow a mix of animism and nominal Buddhism whereas the east coast Veddahs follow a mix of animism and nominal Hinduism, known as folk Hinduism amongst anthropologists.

One of the most distinctive features of Vedda religion is the worship of dead ancestors: these are termed nae "yaku" among the Sinhala-speaking Veddas.[6] There are also peculiar deities that are unique to Veddas. One of them is "Kande Yakka".[7]

Both the sub divisions of the Veddas along with the Island's Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim communities venerate the temple complex situated at Kataragama, showing the syncretism that has evolved over 2,000 years of coexistence and assimilation. Kataragama is supposed to be the site at which the Hindu god Skanda or Murugan in Tamil met and married a local tribal girl, Valli, who in Sri Lanka is believed to have been a Vedda.[8]

There are a number of other shrines across the island, not as famous as Kataragama that are as sacred to the Veddas as well as to other communities.[8]

Veddha religion centered round a cult of ancestral spirits known as Ne yaku , whom the Veddhas invoked for game and yams.

The Veddha marriage ceremony is a very simple affair. The ritual consists of the bride tying a bark rope (diya lanuva) of her own twisting, around the waist of the bridegroom. This is the essence of the Veddha marriage and is symbolic of the bride's acceptance of the man as her mate and life partner. Although marriage between cross-cousins was the norm until recently, this has changed significantly, with Veddha women even contracting marriages with their Sinhalese and Moor neighbours.

In Veddha society, woman is in many respects man's equal. She is entitled to similar inheritance. Monogamy is the general rule, though a widow would be frequently married by her husband's brother as a means of support and consolation (widow inheritance).

Death too is a simple affair without any ostentatious funeral ceremonies and the corpse of the deceased is promptly buried without much ado. The dead don't care where they are.

Although that medical knowledge of the Veddha is limited, it nevertheless appears to be sufficient. For example, pythonesa oil (pimburu tel), a local remedy used for healing wounds, has proven to be very successful in the treatment of fractures and deep cuts.


Since the opening of colonisation schemes Veddha 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 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.

Cult of the Dead

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.


Until fairly recent times, the raiment of the Veddhas was remarkably scanty. In the case of men, it consisted only of a loincloth suspended with a string at the waist, while in the case of women, it was a piece of cloth that extended from the navel to the knees. Today, however, Veddha attire is more covering, men wear a short sarong extending from the waist to the knees, while the womenfolk clad themselves in a garment similar to the Sinhalese diya-redda which extends from the breastline to the knees.


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.


Vedda cave drawings such as those found at Hamangala provide graphic evidence of the sublime spiritual and artistic vision achieved by the ancestors of today's Wanniyala-Aetto people. Most researchers today agree that the artistes most likely were the Wanniyala-Aetto women who spent long hours in these caves waiting for their menfolk's return from the hunt.

Understood from this perspective, these cave drawings depict brilliant feats of Wanniyala-Aetto culture as seen through the eyes of its womenfolk. The simple yet graceful abstract figures are portrayed engaging in feats of vision and daring that place them firmly above even the greatest beasts of their jungle habitat.

The nimbus or halo about the human figures' heads represents the sun's disc and, equally, the sacred power bordering upon divinity that accrues not only to great hunters but to all those endowed with the vision to behold and apprehend the marvel of divinity in humble guise. Even up to modern times, the Wanniyala-Aetto used to swear oaths of truth by the divinity of the sun, saying 'upon Maha Suriyo Deviyo'.

Such cave drawings have long served as visual memory aids and as teaching tools for the transmission of ancestral wisdom traditions to succeeding generations. To this day, they provide silent testimony to the profound heights attained by Lanka's indigenous culture expressed with elegant simplicity that people of all communities may appreciate.


Veddas were originally hunter-gatherers. They used bows and arrows to hunt game, and also gathered wild plants and honey. Many Veddas also farm, frequently using slash and burn or swidden cultivation, which is called "chena" in Sri Lanka. East Coast Veddas also practice fishing. Veddhas are famously known for their rich meat diet. Venison and the flesh of rabbit, turtle, tortoise, monitor lizard, wild boar and the common brown monkey are consumed with much relish. The Veddhas kill only for food and do not harm young or pregnant animals. Game is commonly shared amongst the family and clan. Fish are caught by employing fish poisons such as the juice of the pus-vel (Entada scandens) and daluk-kiri (Cactus milk). Veddha culinary fare is also deserving of mention. Amongst the best known are gona perume, which is a sort of sausage containing alternate layers of meat and fat, and goya-tel-perume, which is the tail of the monitor lizard (talagoya), stuffed with fat obtained from its sides and roasted in embers. Another Veddha delicacy is dried meat preserve soaked in honey. In the olden days, the Veddhas used to preserve such meat in the hollow of a tree, enclosing it with clay.

Such succulent meat served as a ready food supply in times of scarcity. The early part of the year (January-February) is considered to be the season of yams and mid-year (June-July) that of fruit and honey, while hunting is availed of throughout the year. Nowadays, more and more Veddha folk have taken to Chena (slash and burn) cultivation. Kurakkan (Eleusine coracana) is cultivated very often. Maize, yams, gourds and melons are also cultivated. In the olden days, the dwellings of the Veddhas consisted of caves and rock shelters. Today, they live in unpretentious huts of wattle, daub and thatch.

In the reign of King Datusena (6th century A.D.) the Mahaweli ganga was diverted at Minipe in the Minipe canal nearly 47 miles long said to be constructed with help from the Yakkas. The Mahawamsa refers to the canal as Yaka-bendi-ela. When the Ruwanweli Seya was built in King Dutugemunu's time (2nd century B.C.) the Veddas procured the necessary minerals from the jungles.

King Parakrama Bahu the great of (12 century) in his war against the rebels employed these Veddas as scouts.

In the reign of King Rajasinghe II (17 century A.D.) in his battle with the Dutch he had a Vedda regiment. In the abortive Uva-Welessa revolt of 1817-1818 of the British times, led by Keppetipola Disawe, the Veddas too fought with the rebels against the British forces.


Their language, usually referred to as Veddah, is closely related to Sinhala, although much of its vocabulary (especially terms associated with the forest and their lifestyle) can not be traced to Sinhala and may be from a language(s) spoken before the adoption of the Sinhalese language.

Examples include the Wanniyala-Aetto word ruhang for friend, while the Sinhala word is yaluva (IPA: [jaːluaː]). There are also communities of Wanniyala-Aetto who speak Tamil in the east coast (Vetas)[4].

Current status

Some observers have said Veddas are disappearing and have lamented the decline of their distinct culture.[9] Development, government forest reserve restrictions, and the civil war have disrupted traditional Vedda ways of life. Dr. Wiveca Stegeborn, an anthropologist, has been studying the Vedda since 1977 and alleges that their young women are being tricked into accepting contracts to the Middle East as domestic workers when in fact they will be trafficked into prostitution or sold as sex slaves.[10]

However, cultural assimilation of Veddas with other local populations has been going on for a long time. "Vedda" has been used in Sri Lanka to mean not only hunter-gatherers, but also to refer to any people who adopt an unsettled and rural way of life and thus can be a derogatory term not based on ethnic group. Thus, over time, it is possible for non-Vedda groups to become Veddas, in this broad cultural sense.[11][12] Vedda populations of this kind are increasing in some districts.[13]

Today many Sinhalese people and some east coast Tamils claim that they have some trace of Veddah blood. Intermarriage between Veddas and Sinhalese is very frequent. They are not considered outcasts in Sri Lankan society, unlike the untouchable caste called Rodiyas (see Caste in Sri Lanka).

The current leader of the Wanniyala-Aetto community is Uru Warige Wanniya.