In 543 BC a group of sailors, traders, adventures and probably an assortment of ruffians arrived in Sri Lanka after sailing down the east coast of India from the region of Kolkata. They established a kingdom in Anuradhapura, which lasted 1400 years. Eventually, due to quarrels, overpopulation and drought this civilisation began to collapse and some people moved into the jungle of the hill region to the South.
Here they came across a people who had been there for 50,000 years or more, the Vedda people. The Vedda spoke a different language and lived as hunter-gatherers; they are the aboriginal people of Sri Lanka and they are still there today. There are two groups, one in the central area of jungle and one nearer the east coast. The latter are sometimes called the Yakkha.
Language and Living
I read in a guidebook that the Vedda are so primitive that they can neither count nor smile. Actually they can do both very well and simultaneously as soon as you take out your wallet. Maybe the lack of counting myth arose because they do not have plural pronouns, i.e ‘he’ is used for ‘he’ and ‘they.’ Religion is animalistic with the addition of Buddhism. The Yakkha and are part Hindu.
Originally their way of life was hunter-gathering but this is not permitted in Sri Lanka now and the Vedda have long since adopted swidden cultivation (or shifting cultivation. That is to clear and cultivate an area of jungle for a few years then move on. They call the clearing ‘Chena.’
Not many Europeans go to see the Vedda but there is a reservation, part preservation of an ancient culture and part showpiece. The government has built a fine school for the children but it was empty when we were there. The children were all busily extracting a few rupees from the mostly Asian tourists.
As the only 2 white people there, we were given an audience with the head man who sat in his house with an axe over his shoulder as a mark of office. As we sat and talked, one of his sons tormented a toad which he had on the end of a piece of string. A small boy let me play with his bow and arrows. The bow had double strings. Afterwards he complained that I had given him only 10 rupees for the privilege.
Their houses are single rooms walled with mud and wattle and a thatched roof of leaves. The roof extends over an open living area where the walls are waist high. Neighbours lean over the wall to see what you are doing or just for a chat. There are no services.
The Hunter’s life
There followed a demonstration of jungle craft. We were shown how to make fire by rubbing sticks, how to shoot with a bow and arrow, how to hunt small game and finally how to dance to please the gods.
The Vedda, like others had watch-towers in their fields to look out for elephant. A herd of visiting elephant could destroy a year’s crop in the chena in a few minutes. In some places they rig up a high trip wire attached to a bunch of empty bottles which rattle to alert the watchman.
It was an entertaining illusion of an aboriginal life, broken when we learned that the chief, when not being interviewed by tourists, lived in a nice western style house in Kandy.
Post Series: Dispatches from Sri Lanka, by Mike Sedgwick:
- Dispatches From Sri Lanka
- Kandy Lake vs Chandler’s Ford Lakes
- Self-Employment In Sri Lanka
- Sri Lankan Wedding
- Sri Lankan Food
- There’s Some Corner Of A Foreign Field
- The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka
- This Is the Record Of John
- Tuk-tuk: My Transport Of Delight
- Life On The Road
- Commonwealth Games In Kandy
- A Temple For A Tooth?
- Dawn Train Down The Mountain To Colombo
- Traditional And Modern Medicine in Sri Lanka
- Ancient Vedda Tribe Becoming Extinct