ALTERNATE NAMES: Veddhas, Veddahs; Vanniyalato, Vanniyala-Aetto
LOCATION: Sri Lanka
POPULATION: less than 2,000
LANGUAGE: Sinhala; Tamil
RELIGION: Traditional religion with elements of Buddhism and Hinduism
The Veddas (Veddhas, Veddahs, also Vanniyala-Aetto) are a small tribal community in Sri Lanka, the island (formerly called Ceylon) that lies in the Indian Ocean off the southern tip of India. Physically, the Veddas are of Proto-Australoid stock, associated with the earliest strata of population identifiable in South Asia. Genetic studies suggest they are related to the tribes of Malaysia. Modern Veddas are believed to be descended from the island's earliest aboriginal inhabitants, though clearly they have been exposed to genetic mixing with later groups. The name "Vedda" is a Dravidian word meaning "one who uses bows and arrows," and Veddas traditionally lived by hunting and gathering in the forests of Sri Lanka. However, the Veddas call themselves Vanniyalato or "people of the forest."
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
At one time, it is likely that the Veddas or their ancestors were distributed over much of Sri Lanka. Today, however, Veddas live in three separate areas whose populations have little contact with each other. The largest group is the Anuradhapura Veddas. They are found in Anuradhapura District in the north-central part of the island. This population was estimated at over 6,600 people in 1970. A second group, known as the Coast Veddas, occupies a stretch of the east coast of Sri Lanka extending south from Trincomalee. The third Vedda group is identified as the Bintenne Veddas. Their territory extends from the eastern slopes of the central mountains to the sea, a triangular area roughly defined by the Mahaweli and Gal Oya rivers and the coast. Estimates of the Bintenne Vedda population are not available, but it is thought to be considerably less than that of the other groups.
There is considerable disagreement among scholars concerning the definition of Vedda. There are perhaps 2,000 Veddas remaining in Sri Lanka today. These are people who call themselves Vedda, are viewed by others as Vedda, but are assimilated to varying degrees into Sinhalese or Tamil society. They may be Buddhist or Hindu, live in villages, or practice settled agriculture, but in most ways they closely resemble the rural populations among whom they live. There are no more than an estimated 200-300 individuals following the traditional Vedda way of life today. Unless otherwise stated, the material presented in the following pages is based on the Seligmanns' study of traditional Vedda culture, undertaken among the Bintenne Veddas at the beginning of the 20th century.
Veddas today speak Sinhala or Tamil, depending on whether they live among Sinhalese or Tamil populations. Evidence exists, however, of what at one time might have been a distinct Vedda language. This survives today in what some have described as a dialect of Sinhalese but that others see as a creole, a language that evolved through years of contact between the original Vedda and Sinhalese tongues.
The Veddas claim royal ancestry through their myth of origin. They trace their descent to Prince Vijaya, the grandson of a lion and the legendary founder of the Sinhalese nation (sinha means "lion" and le is "blood"). Prince Vijaya came to Sri Lanka from North India, so the legend goes. Before sending back to India for a bride of his own social standing, he had sexual relations with a local demon princess named Kuveni. Kuveni gave birth to two children, a boy and a girl. The Veddas, so it is said, are the result of the incestuous union between this brother and sister. This myth, which is widely known among the Anuradhapura Veddas and the Sinhalese accomplishes several objectives. It supports the Veddas' claim to high social status; it establishes them as the original inhabitants (i.e., owners) of the land; and it defines the Veddas as a people distinct from, but having a common origin with, the Sinhalese. In addition, it creates a link with the supernatural world, which occupies a significant role in the Vedda belief system.
This particular myth of origin is apparently unknown among the Bintenne Veddas, whose culture is characterized by a marked absence of myths. Even myths of origin of the Bintenne Vedda clans are to be found among the Sinhalese, rather than among the Veddas themselves. One relates that when the demon princess Kuveni was abandoned by Prince Vijaya, she returned with her son and daughter to her own people. However, her people killed her and the children fled into the jungle where they lived on the fruits of the mora tree (Nephelium longana) . Some of their descendants gave rise to the Morane clan.
As far as can be determined, the primitive religion of the Veddas was based on the worship of spirits (yakku) rather than of any gods. Some were the spirits of Veddas who were long dead and revered almost as heroes. The chief of these, and indeed the chief of all the yakhu, was Kande Yakka. Kande Yakka and another spirit, Bilindi Yakka, would be invoked to ensure success in the hunt. And, if they were not offered meat after a successful kill, the hunters would expect bad luck to befall them. They might even be bitten by snakes or attacked by bears. A second category of spirits was the Na Yakku, the spirits of recently dead ancestors. These are believed to live in hills, caves, and rocks. The Na Yakku, including the spirits of the deceased, are invoked on the fifth day after a death. Offerings of coconut milk and rice are made, and the Vedda shaman becomes possessed by the spirits of the deceased, who promises that yams, honey, and game shall be plentiful. The Na Yakku must obtain Kande Yakka's permission to help the living and accept their offerings.
Over and above this "Cult of the Friendly Dead," as some have termed it, the Veddas worship foreign spirits who have become naturalized Vedda yakhu. These are essentially protective of the Veddas and their help is sought in various situations. The Rahu Yakku, for example, are derived from a Sinhalese demon but have been given their own Vedda identity. They are invoked to cure sickness and to obtain success in hunting and in collecting rock honey. Another class of spirits is foreign spirits who are hostile in nature and who are to be feared. Th us, under Tamil influence, yakhu haunting rocks and hilltops are thought of as dangerous immigrants from beyond the Ocean who bring disease to the Veddas. People tend to avoid rocky mountain tops, and if they venture there, they leave offerings of honey. A less dangerous form of these spirits is the kiriammas ("grandmothers"), who are seen more as local deities than as yakhu.
Each Vedda community has a shaman (kapurale) who possesses the power and knowledge to intercede with the spirit world. The shaman presides at various ceremonial dances, such as the hunting dance (kirikoraha) and the arrow dance. He presents the offerings to the Na Yakku after a death. At such occasions, the shaman becomes possessed by the spirits and acts as their mouthpiece, promising favors and good fortune to the community. The shaman also conducts exorcisms of evil spirits. The shaman trains his own successor, passing on his knowledge to a pupil, usually his son or his sister's son (his actual or potential son-in-law).
Prolonged contact with Tamil and Sinhalese society has resulted in many Vedda groups absorbing elements of Hinduism and, especially, Buddhism. These groups worship gods (deviyo) as well as spirits. The Coast Veddas, for example, revere deities that include Hindu gods, such as Shiva, Vishnu, and Bhairava. They have their own temples and shrines where their religious observances and devil-dancing ceremonies take place. Among the Anuradhapura Veddas, the powerful Kataragama is worshipped. The Anuradhapura Veddas are in close contact with the Sinhalese and profess to be Buddhist. They know little of the higher form of the religion, but they have adopted Buddhist rituals. Some invite a Buddhist monk to their burial ceremonies and give alms to Buddhists on behalf of the dead. Such practices fit in well with their own customs relating to death and the spirits of the ancestors.
The worship of ancestral spirits among the Veddas is not subject to any fixed festival cycle. Vedda communities that have adopted Hinduism or Buddhism tend to observe the festival calendar of these religions. However, their participation in such festivals may not necessarily indicate a full understanding of the significance of the event. For instance, Veddas take part in the annual festival at the Buddhist temple at Mahiyangana in the southeastern Badulla district. They approach the temple in a procession (perahera), bringing offerings of honey, but they do not follow Buddhist observances. They pray at the temple for protection from "elephants and men."
The most important ritual events among the Veddas are the ceremonial dances, in which the shaman becomes possessed by gods or spirits.
RITES OF PASSAGE
There are no particular rituals associated with birth among the Veddas. Birth usually takes place in a cave, with the assistance of a woman of the community. The umbilical cord is cut by an arrow, and the afterbirth is thrown away. Some Vedda groups have food taboos for nursing mothers. For example, the fat of the monitor lizard and of the spotted deer should be avoided as potentially harmful to the infant being suckled. Among village Veddas, a special hut is built for the birth, as is the custom among the rural Sinhalese.
Children are named by their parents, usually within a month of their birth. Among some groups, a child's name is never spoken, apparently to avoid attracting the attention of evil spirits who might harm the infant. Children are called "Tuta" (male) and "Tuti" (female), and in many instances their real names seem to be forgotten. Typical Vedda names are Poromala, Nila, and Badena for males, and Hendi, Selli, and Badani for females.
Veddas are affectionate and indulgent parents, and children have few responsibilities during childhood. There are no puberty rites for either sex, although Vedda groups in contact with the Sinhalese or Tamils have adopted local customs, such as secluding girls for a short time at puberty. Virtually all village Veddas and those who have mixed with Sinhalese society isolate menstruating women in a specially built hut for the duration of their period.
When a Vedda dies, the corpse is left in the cave or rock-shelter where the death occurred. The body is not washed or dressed in any way but is covered with leaves and branches. Sometimes a large stone is placed on the chest of the dead person. The cave is then abandoned by the community and avoided for a lengthy period of time (estimated to be around 12 years). Some Veddas claim that if they stayed in the vicinity of the cave, the spirit of the deceased would be displeased, and they would be pelted with stones. Among the more primitive Vedda groups, no particular ceremonies or rituals are performed over the body before it is abandoned. In some instances, however, the person's betel nut bag and its contents would be left with the corpse. On the fifth day after death, ritual offerings are made to the ancestral spirits, including that of the recently deceased.
Among the Anuradhapura and Coast Veddas, beliefs and rituals concerning death have been influenced by Buddhist and Hindu concepts, such as karma (belief that one's next life is determined by one's actions in this life), reincarnation, and the transmigration of souls.
Every Vedda helps all other members of his or her community, readily sharing game and honey with them. However, a particularly close relationship exists between father-in-law and son-in-law.
Terms of respect are commonly used when addressing the elderly. Th us, although siya or mutta actually mean "father" or "grandfather," such words are used in addressing any elderly man. Similarly, elderly women are addressed as kiriamma or grandmother.
A convenient, though perhaps not totally accurate, distinction has been made by some between "Rock" (or "Jungle") Veddas and "Village" Veddas. The former are held to be closer to the "pure" Vedda culture than are the latter, who are settled cultivators and follow lifestyles resembling those of the Sinhalese or Tamil peasant.
The life of the more primitive Vedda groups is centered on the rock-shelters and caves that are their homes. In the dry season, game gathers around water sources in the lowland forests and so the Veddas are to be found in these locations. However, during the rainy season when the game scatters over the entire countryside, the Veddas move to higher elevations. A single family or several families may occupy a rock-shelter. Veddas sleep on a rock, sometimes lying on a deerskin or piece of cloth, sometimes lying on the bare rock. It is customary for Veddas to keep a small fire burning beside them all night. If living in a communal cave, each family keeps to its own area. Often one woman cooks for the entire group. In communal caves, all the men store their bows and arrows in one place rather than keeping them in their own living space.
The material possessions of people living in this fashion are clearly somewhat limited. The following is a typical list of the objects a Vedda might be expected to own: an axe, a bow and arrows, a deerskin, cooking pots, flints and tinder for making fire, a gourd for carrying water, and a betel pouch, with betel cutters and a small box for holding lime. To this might be added a digging stick, utensils for collecting honey, and the supply of cloth that most Veddas seem to have. In addition, every Vedda owns one or two dogs. The animals are invariably well fed and treated with a great deal of affection by their masters. They are "country" dogs, i.e., of mixed breed, but they are trained in hunting and are clearly of importance to the Veddas. Dogs partake of the sacrificial offerings made at the Na Yukka ceremony, are anointed with milk at the hunting ceremony, and are given as wedding gifts.
Today, few—if any—Veddas live exclusively in rock-shelters. They may construct temporary shelters of wooden frames covered by animal skins, bark, or leaves, or build huts out of wattle and daub. Among the village Veddas, of course, houses are permanent and reflect local styles in materials and construction.
The Veddas are divided into clans (waruge) that some have argued are matrilineal exogamous units (this is a matter of debate among anthropologists). Of greater significance in traditional Vedda society, however, is the community. This consists of one to five families who share the rights of hunting, fishing, and gathering honey over a particular tract of land. The community usually does not remain as a single group but breaks down into smaller units of one or two families living and hunting together.
Each family is made up of parents and unmarried children and married daughters and their husbands. Marriage takes place at an early age, though not much before puberty. The male selects his own partner, though the correct marriage for the Vedda is his father's sister's daughter. The young man goes to his prospective father-in-law with a gift of honey, yams, grain, or dried deer's flesh tied to his unstrung bow. If the proposal is accepted, the girl attaches a string she has made herself around the groom's waist and the marriage ritual is complete. The husband always wears the waist string, and when it wears out he replaces it with a new one made by his wife. Occasionally a charm is placed on the waist string to ensure fidelity. When a girl marries, her father customarily makes over a tract of land, known to be inhabited by the rock bee or bambara, to his new son-in-law. Sometimes the wedding gift is a bow and arrow, or a hunting dog. A custom, now dying out, is the gift to the bride of a lock of hair from the bridegroom.
Traditional marriage customs are less strictly followed among the village Veddas, who have been influenced by the Sinhalese and Tamil societies among whom they live. True cross-cousin marriages are less frequent, although the fiction is often maintained by "finding" kin in distant villages where no one can question the relationship. Marriages with non-Vedda spouses are increasingly common.
No Veddas can remember a time when they could not buy cloth, but they state that at one time their clothing was made from the inner bark of the upas tree (Antiaris toxicaria). Men wear a strip of white cotton some 22-23 cm (9 in) wide. They pass this between their legs and tuck it into their waist string, letting the ends hang down in front and back. Th is "white" cotton cloth soon becomes discolored to a dull brown, so it is less obvious during the hunt. Strips can be torn off this thin machine-made cloth to provide tinder for making fire when necessary. On occasion, such as before ceremonial dances, the Veddas put on a sarong-like garment called a hangala . Women wear colored cotton cloth, bought from peddlers, that extends from waist to knee and wraps around like a sarong.
Traditionally, the Veddas existed by hunting and gathering. Those who continue to do so today gather wild yams, truffles, fruits, and edible flowers from the jungle. This is primarily the work of women. The men hunt for game, mostly deer, monkeys, and iguanas. They will eat fish if it is available. Yams are roasted in the ashes of a fire, and meat may also be cooked this way. The flesh of animals is dried on a rack placed in the sun, but a fire is also built beneath it so it is smoked at the same time. Practically everything else is boiled in a cooking pot over a fire.
Honey plays an important part in the Vedda diet. June and July are the main months for collecting the honey of the rock bee or bambara (Apis indica). Men clamber up rocks or climb creepers or wooden ladders to the hives, smoke out the bees, and cut down the honeycombs using a long stick (masliya). The honey is eaten in large quantities, wax and all, and is considered especially tasty when the comb contains young bees. Honey and meat are used to barter for goods (e.g., cloth, metal axes, etc.) that the Veddas do not produce themselves. In addition to honey, the Veddas are fond of chewing. The betel (areca) nut is their favorite, and every Vedda has a betel bag with a betel cutter and a small box of lime (made from burning the shell of a snail).
The Veddas believe that formerly it was the custom for a man to carry a small piece of dried human liver in his betel bag. The reason for this was not known, but it was thought to be related to increasing a man's valor. The liver had to come from someone personally killed by the Vedda, and it would be eaten to increase the Vedda's strength and resolve.
The Veddas avoid eating certain foods, although the specific reasons for these food taboos are unclear. While they consume the flesh of most animals and birds, the Veddas abstain from eating buffaloes, elephants, leopards, and jackals. Th is avoidance might stem from the dangers of hunting such animals, but the Veddas also do not eat fowl (wild or domesticated) or pigs. It is particularly important for shamans to avoid fowl and pork before ceremonial dances.
Today, few Veddas survive solely by hunting and gathering, and most groups practice shifting cultivation (chena) or permanent agriculture. The diet of these populations is generally similar to that of the rural communities among whom they live.
Because of their lifestyle, traditional Veddas have no access to formal education. Vedda populations that are settled can avail themselves of state educational facilities. As a group, however, the Veddas can be considered marginal to the social currents of Sri Lankan society.
Ritual dances, accompanied by chanting, music, and possession by spirits, are central to Vedda ceremonial life. These include the arrow dance, the hunting dance, the Na Yakku ceremonies, and the invocation of various yakku (e.g., Bambura Yakka for the hunt, Pata Yakka for aid in pregnancy, or Dola Yakka to ensure successful honey collection). Only the men dance, usually in a circle, and sometimes beating out the rhythm of the dance on their stomachs. The shaman becomes possessed by the spirit of the particular yakka being invoked. The yakka looks over the offerings made to him and, if pleased with what he sees, pronounces success in the hunt, or a normal childbirth, etc.
The Veddas were originally hunters and gatherers, but many subsequently took up shifting agriculture or even permanent cultivation. They grow crops, such as millet, maize, beans, squashes, and eggplants. Some engage in paddy-rice cultivation. Fishing is important among the Coast Veddas who build their own boats and canoes for venturing out onto the ocean. Prawns are an important catch for the Coast Veddas. In addition, many among the Anuradhapura and Coast Veddas resort to casual labor to supplement their incomes.
Among traditional Veddas, children play very simply. Babies have toy bows and arrows made for them by their mothers. By about five years of age, young boys make their own small bows and arrows and learn how to use them. They begin to accompany the adults on hunting trips when they are around 10 years old. Children play with clay and sticks, while little girls pretend to cook using broken pots.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
The Veddas derive their entertainment from their traditional ceremonial dances and the songs that are sung to invoke the spirits. Songs are also sung as charms, as lullabies, and also for amusement. Vedda enjoy pantomime and often enact scenes, such as hunting and honey-gathering for sheer enjoyment.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
The Veddas are not well known for their folk arts and crafts. Formerly, they made their own weapons, but they have now come to rely on trade for metal arrowheads and axes. Crude drawings have been found in rock-shelters, but these appear to have no ritual significance and were probably done for amusement.
Like all tribals, the Veddas are facing problems of change brought about by contact with more "modern" neighbors. Their traditional means of exploiting natural resources are relatively primitive, and they continue to experience low standards of living. Socially, they remain isolated and often feel they are exploited by the more advanced peoples around them. Numbers of "true" Veddas are declining as a result of disease and scarcity of food. Some Veddas have opted to be resettled under government programs, adopting paddy cultivation and taking advantage of amenities, such as markets, health services, and educational facilities. Many, however, are reluctant to leave their traditional lands, arguing that they will be leaving behind them the spirits of the forests and mountains. Those that have taken to settled agriculture have adopted many cultural features of the rural peasantry around them.
Unfortunately, many Veddas have been uprooted by the pressures of modern economic growth. Development projects along the Gal Oya and Mahaweli rivers have inundated Vedda settlements and forced the relocation of their inhabitants. In 1983, Veddas were evicted from the Maduru Oya National Park in the catchment area of the controversial Mahaweli Development Program. Although they had been demanding rights to their lands since at least 1970, the Veddas had never received secure land tenure that recognized their collective custodianship over traditional hunting and gathering ranges. Neither had they been consulted or represented in any decision-making process that affected their daily lives. The creation of the park forced the Veddas to leave their traditional lands in the semi-evergreen dry monsoon forests, and they were transformed overnight into game poachers and trespassers. Barriers, guards, and outposts were stationed along the park's demarcated borders and the hapless tribals were moved down out of the hill forests to small settlements, where they were provided houses and small irrigated rice paddies. The Vedda—traditionally hunters and gatherers supplementing their subsistence by shifting cultivation—had trouble adapting to a sedentary way of life. Subsequent surveys showed they resented the lack of access to forest produce, game, and land for shifting cultivation and were fast losing their own language. Only one small group, led by the old Vedda chieftain Uru Warige Tissagami (popularly known as Tissahamy) and his kinsfolk of Kotabakinni village refused to be evicted from the land of their ancestors. Officials considered Tissahamy to be very obstinate and stubborn, for he would not budge an inch no matter how many emissaries went to speak to him. Finally the government had to concede that Tissshamy and seven families could remain on their lands as long as the old man lived. However, according to the 1987 Master Plan for Maduru Oya National Park, the day that aged chief Tissahamy expired, the rest of his kinsfolk would have to evacuate the hamlet immediately. Tissahamy finally died in June 1999 at the age of 96.
Under Sri Lanka's Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, 1993, all traditional Vedda occupations, including hunting, honey-gathering, and shifting cultivation, were prohibited within national parks but limited human activities were to be permitted within other areas, defined as sanctuaries, of 1,500 acres. There is concern that 1,500 acres may not be able to sustain more than a few families living by hunting, gathering, and shifting cultivation. As of 2008, the creation of these sanctuaries has yet to be achieved.
Some observers have said Veddas are disappearing and have lamented the decline of their distinct culture. Development, government forest reserve restrictions, the movement of settlers into their ancestral lands, and the civil war in Sri Lanka have disrupted traditional Vedda ways of life. However, cultural assimilation of Veddas with other local populations has been going on for a long time. The term 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 definitions. Over time, it is possible for non-Vedda groups to become Veddas, in this broad cultural sense. Vedda populations of this kind are increasing in some districts of the island of Sri Lanka.
Today, many Sinhalese people and some east coast Tamils claim that they have some trace of Vedda blood. Intermarriage between Veddas and Sinhalese is very frequent. They are not considered outcasts in Sri Lankan society, unlike the untouchables.
There have been reports alleging that young Vedda women are being tricked into accepting contracts to the Middle East as domestic workers, an attractive proposition for young girls who see no future for themselves in Sri Lanka, when in fact they are trafficked into prostitution or sold as sex slaves.
Given the small size of the Vedda community, gender issues are less significant than the disappearance of Vedda culture and the diminishing size of the group that adhere to it. As with most tribal peoples in South Asia, women in Vedda society are relatively free. However, it is increasingly common for women to marry outside the community.
Change is the inevitable result when a tribal society comes into contact with more advanced cultures and economic systems. In Sri Lanka, this has involved the disruption of Vedda life, the disappearance of traditional Vedda culture, and the loss of Vedda cultural identity.
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—by D. O. Lodrick
"Veddas." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/veddas
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