ETHNONYMS: Vadda, Veddah, Veddha, Vaddo
Identification. The Veddas are a small group of people living in the center of Sri Lanka, an island off the southern tip of India. "Vedda" is a Dravidian word meaning "hunter." Contemporary Vedda culture is strongly marked by prolonged interaction both with the Sinhalese and with the Tamils, the two largest ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, but the Vedda people themselves are generally reputed to be descended from the aboriginal population of the island and to have maintained until recent times a distinctive way of life based on hunting and gathering. The Veddas are divided into three regional groups (the Bintenne Veddas, the Anuradhapura Veddas, and the Coast Veddas) whose members have little or no Contact with one another, although they acknowledge a remote kinship.
Location. Sri Lanka is located between 5° 55′ and 9° 51′ N and 79° 41′ and 81° 53′ E. Veddas formerly lived in all of the more isolated parts of the island, but today they are restricted to the arc of country between the predominantly Sinhalese areas in the west, south, and center of the island and the predominantly Tamil areas in the north and east. The Bintenne Veddas inhabit an area in the southeast of the island, inland from the towns of Batticaloa and Trincomalee and extending westward to the Verugal, Mahaweli, and Gal Oya rivers. The Coast Veddas live along the coast between Batticaloa and Trincomalee. The Anuradhapura Veddas live in the North Central Province. All three groups are located within Sri Lanka's dry zone, where the annual rainfall is normally less than 190 centimeters, most of which falls between October and December.
Demography. The Veddas constitute only a very small proportion of the total population of Sri Lanka, which was estimated at nearly 15 million by the 1981 census. There is, however, no consensus as to just how small this proportion is, because the criteria used to identify the Veddas vary widely. They were last enumerated separately in the census of 1963, at which time they numbered 400. In 1970, however, a census of the Anuradhapura Veddas, conducted as part of an Ethnographic study, counted more than 6,600 of them. The main reason for this discrepancy is that government officials have tended to treat as Veddas only those who subsist from hunting and gathering—a criterion that would have excluded virtually all of the Anuradhapura Veddas—while the ethnographer's census included all those who identified themselves as Veddas. Estimates of the size of the Bintenne and Coast Vedda populations are not available, but both are probably much less than that of the Anuradhapura Veddas.
Linguistic Affiliation. Only faint traces of what might once have been a distinct Vedda language have been detected. Contemporary Veddas speak colloquial forms of either Sinhala or Tamil, depending on which of the two main ethnic groups predominates in their local area. The Bintenne and Anuradhapura Veddas mostly speak Sinhala, which is an Indo-European language, while the Coast Veddas speak Tamil, which is Dravidian. Peculiarities in the speech patterns of the Veddas can be attributed to their relative isolation, low level of formal education, and low socioeconomic status.
History and Cultural Relations
The weight of physical anthropological evidence is that Certain groups of Veddas show stronger biological affinities with prehistoric inhabitants of the island than do any other groups in present-day Sri Lanka. This lends support to the common assertion that the Veddas are the remnant descendants of an aboriginal population that inhabited Sri Lanka before the emergence of a literate civilization in the later centuries of the first millennium b.c. The extent to which this civilization was an indigenous development and not just the creation of Immigrant settlers remains a matter of controversy, but undoubtedly there was considerable exchange—both cultural and genetic—between the descendants of the prehistoric inhabitants and later immigrants. These relations are expressed in the popular myth that the contemporary Veddas are descended from a union between Kuveni, an aboriginal demoness, and Prince Vijaya, the legendary founder of the Sinhalese nation who came from India. In historic times, however, the most prominent feature—virtually the defining characteristic—of the Veddas has been their social marginality. They have made their living on the peripheries of Sinhalese and Tamil polities, in relation to both of which they came to represent the uncivilized element in society. Thus while actual Vedda culture reveals a variable pattern that merges readily with that of the rural Sinhalese, the categorical opposition between Vedda and Sinhalese radically distinguishes the former, as a group of savage and pagan foragers, from the more civilized, paddy-cultivating Buddhist Sinhalese. A similar pattern obtains between the Tamil-speaking Coast Veddas and the Hindu Tamils. In the last hundred years, however, with the rapid expansion of Sri Lanka's population, improved communications, and increased settlement in the dry zone, embodiments of the ideal or typical Vedda, defined in polar opposition to the civilized Sinhalese or Tamil, have become extremely hard to find. Nevertheless, because of its compatibility with the disposition of nineteenth-century European scholars to discover a pristine Vedda culture that was unambiguously associated with a distinct racial group, this idealized representation of the Vedda has exercised a commanding influence over the anthropological imagination. Recent studies of the Anuradhapura and Coast Veddas have encompassed groups that deviate significantly from the ideal, but representations of the Bintenne Veddas are still dominated by C. G. and Brenda Seligmann's classic study, published in 1911, which, in its ambition to describe the pure culture of pure-blooded Veddas, depicts a way of life that was followed only by a small minority of those who then identified themselves as Veddas.
According to the Seligmanns, Bintenne Veddas lived both in permanent villages of up to 40 families and in temporary settlements, near their cultivation plots, which contained Between 1 and 5 families of varying size. The Anuradhapura Veddas occupy 32 villages and 14 satellite hamlets that are scattered among the much more numerous Sinhalese villages in the region. In 1970 their largest village had a population of 552. Their settlement pattern is similar to that of the local Sinhalese, the core of the village being a cluster of houses built close to the village reservoir. The Coast Veddas live in small villages near the sea consisting of a cluster of compounds with two or three houses to a compound. Some of the Bintenne Veddas are reported to have been cave dwellers formerly, but by the Seligmanns' time they were mostly living in huts made of wattle and daub or in more temporary shelters consisting of a wooden frame covered with animal skins, bark, and/or leaves. The Anuradhapura Veddas live in wattle-and-daub houses with floors of packed earth. Coast Vedda houses are simple huts made of plaited palm. Some Veddas have Recently received government-subsidized housing built of brick and plaster with concrete floors and tin roofs.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The distinction between "Wild," "Jungle," or "Rock Veddas," who live from hunting and gathering and sometimes also shifting cultivation, and "Village Veddas," who live in permanent settlements and subsist principally from cultivation, is long established, but already by the time of the Seligmanns' study there were very few Veddas who lived principally from foraging. The Anuradhapura Veddas until recently have derived their living mainly from shifting cultivation, supplemented where possible by wet-rice agriculture. Crops grown under shifting cultivation include millet, maize, beans, squashes, manioc, chilies, eggplants, tomatoes, and okra. Under present conditions of rapidly increasing population pressure and greater market involvement, many of the Anuradhapura Veddas now obtain the major part of their livelihood as agricultural wage laborers outside their own villages. At the same time an increasing proportion of what they produce in their own fields is now marketed rather than consumed at home. Coast Veddas put a greater emphasis on fishing, combining this with shifting cultivation and, less frequently, paddy cultivation. Fishing is done with nets cast from outrigger canoes, from rafts, or from platforms set up in the surf. Prawns are the principal catch. Like the Anuradhapura Veddas, many Coast Veddas now also work as casual wage laborers. A few individuals in all three groups hunt occasionally as a means of supplementing their income. Some Veddas also collect wild honey, one of their traditionally ascribed occupations. Veddas keep cattle, water buffalo, goats, chickens, and dogs, although the relative importance of these species varies greatly between different communities.
Industrial Arts. The Bintenne Veddas formerly made most of their own hunting equipment, such as bows and arrows, spears, axes, etc., although by 1900 those who hunted had already come to rely on metal for the heads of their spears, arrows, and axes, which they obtained through barter. Some had even begun to use guns to bring down their prey. The Anuradhapura Veddas obtain their agricultural tools in the market, as do the Coast Veddas. The Coast Veddas are, however, capable boat builders.
Trade. The Bintenne Veddas are reputed at one time to have engaged in "silent trade" with the Sinhalese. Exchange relations among the Veddas were formerly governed principally by rules of reciprocity, but in the last few decades all groups have become much more deeply involved in market Relations. Only a few Veddas, however, have successfully established themselves as traders or shopkeepers.
Division of Labor. Men do most of the agricultural work, especially in paddy cultivation, while women gather wild foods and firewood, cook, care for children, tend domestic gardens, and assist in shifting cultivation and harvesting paddy. Among the Coast Veddas men do most of the fishing. Both male and female Veddas engage in wage labor. Occupational specialization and economic differentiation between households are not pronounced.
Land Tenure. Access to irrigated land is normatively obtained by inheritance, but sales and mortgages are common. Most of the jungle land on which shifting cultivation is practiced is claimed by the state, but Veddas see it as the communal property of the village it surrounds. Rapid population growth and the shift to cash cropping have intensified Pressure on the land, resulting in increased landlessness and a dangerous reduction of the fallow period in shifting cultivation. A few Veddas have obtained land in development Projects funded by the state. Some Bintenne Veddas who claim still to live from hunting and gathering have joined a movement to have a Vedda reservation established in the region.
Kin Groups and Descent. The Seligmanns' claim that the Bintenne Veddas practiced matrilineal descent has been strongly challenged by other researchers. The Anuradhapura Veddas reckon kinship bilaterally. Above the level of the household their significant kin groups are the village Community, all the members of which consider one another to be their kin, and the variga, a largely endogamous grouping that includes all the Anuradhapura Veddas. The Coast Veddas also reckon kinship bilaterally, but they do not recognize variga as a cultural category for regulating descent and Marriage. They do, however, see themselves as related to all other Veddas in the vicinity and generally marry among themselves, forming loosely structured kindred groups. Traces of matrilineal descent and clan organization have also been noted among the Coast Veddas.
Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is Dravidian, both among the Sinhala-speaking and the Tamil-speaking Veddas.
Marriage. As is implied by Dravidian kinship terminology, the Veddas practice classificatory cross-cousin marriage. Among the Anuradhapura Veddas approximately 15 percent of marriages are between first cross cousins. The percentage is lower among the Coast Veddas, who also intermarry with outsiders more frequently than do the Anuradhapura Veddas. Almost all marriages within all three groups of Veddas are monogamous. The independent family household is the ideal. Most newly married couples, however, live for a while either in or close to the household of one of their Parents. Divorce is common in the early years of marriage.
Domestic Unit. Among the Anuradhapura and Coast Veddas the normal unit is the nuclear family household whose members work together and eat from the same hearth. Among the Bintenne Veddas, it is common to find more than one related family living in the same shelter or house.
Inheritance. All sons and daughters have equal rights of inheritance, but among the Bintenne Veddas the daughter's inheritance, usually land, is typically given to her husband at the time of marriage, although this is not specifically referred to as dowry. Dowry is not significant among the Veddas as a whole, although some wealthier Veddas in all three groups give it in emulation of higher status Tamil or Sinhalese Families living in the vicinity.
Socialization. Children are raised by parents and older Siblings. Vedda children have comparatively poor access to the educational institutions in Sri Lanka.
Social Organization. Social relations within Vedda Villages are structured mainly by rules of kinship. Apart from hierarchies of age and gender, social relations are generally egalitarian. Caste also plays a role in regulating interaction between Veddas and their Tamil and Sinhalese neighbors, at least in the Anuradhapura and Coast regions. The caste specialization of the Veddas has been identified both as hunting and as spirit mediumship, although it is also claimed that the Veddas stand entirely outside either the Sinhalese or the Tamil caste system since they lack formai structural ties with other castes. The Anuradhapura Veddas collectively constitute a single variga (caste or subcaste), but their variga court, which used to regulate internal caste affairs, has not functioned since the 1950s. The Coast and Bintenne Veddas have apparently never had any kind of overarching caste court.
Political Organization. The Veddas formerly enjoyed considerable autonomy, being located at or beyond the effective limits of Sinhalese or Tamil political power. Within the Villages leadership was provided by influential male elders. The Veddas were increasingly subordinated to state authority during the period of British colonial rule, a trend that has intensified since Sri Lanka became independent in 1948. Agricultural cooperatives, development societies, and other state-sponsored organizations have been established in many villages. In Anuradhapura and Bintenne the local officers of these organizations often are village leaders, but among the Coast Veddas the leadership is nearly always provided from among the Tamil elite in nearby Tamil villages.
Social Control. Everyday social life in Vedda villages is still largely governed by norms of kinship, although recourse is also made to state officials, and the police are a more frequent presence than in the past. Sorcery accusations can also act as an informal means of social control.
Conflict. Competition between kin-based factions has long been a prominent feature of village life. The Coast Veddas usually participate in local politics as subordinate members of Tamil-led factions. Today factional struggles typically appear in the guise of conflict between the local branches of the national political parties and focus on the distribution of welfare and development resources.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The religious beliefs of the Veddas overlap considerably with those of Sinhalese villagers, who are predominantly Buddhists, and with those of Tamil villagers, who are mostly Hindus. All worship a hierarchical pantheon of deities, to whom offerings are made in the hope of gaining favors or relief from suffering. As described by the Seligmanns, the Bintenne Veddas had no knowledge of Buddhism. Their religion was apparently based on worship of Recently deceased ancestors, various local demons, and other minor gods. In contrast, the Anuradhapura Veddas describe themselves as Buddhists, although their participation in Buddhist rites is infrequent. The Coast Veddas are more influenced by their Hindu Tamil neighbors and engage in various forms of temple worship associated with Hindu deities, as well as propitiating local deities and demon spirits. The pantheon extends from locally resident spirits and demons whose disposition is generally malevolent to powerful and benevolent, but more remote, major gods. For those who profess Buddhism, these major gods themselves derive their authority from the Buddha. The most important high gods for the Anuradhapura Veddas are Kataragama and Pulleyar. For the Coast Veddas they are Shiva, Murugan, Pillaiyar, and Valli. The Bintenne Veddas cut off the hierarchy at a lower level and attend only to more localized gods, demons, and ancestor spirits, although a few also worship the high god Kataragama.
Religious Practitioners. Among the Anuradhapura and Bintenne Veddas one of the most important religious practitioners is the kapurala, who intercedes with a god on behalf of his fellow villagers. Among the Anuradhapura Veddas there is also the anumatirala, who becomes possessed by a minor god or demon and performs exorcisms. Specialized religious practitioners are rare among the Coast Veddas.
Ceremonies. The Bintenne Veddas engage in many Different ceremonial dances in which a specialized practitioner becomes possessed by a god or demon. These dances are always a part of an exorcism or an attempt to procure favors or information from the spirit being. The Anuradhapura Veddas hold an annual ceremony at which offerings are made collectively to the village's tutelary deity. Other ceremonies, such as exorcisms, are organized by individual households. The Coast Veddas observe the Hindu festival calendar, but their most important rituals are locally organized possession ceremonies, which are conducted jointly by all concerned Vedda villagers. Personal rites of propitiation and protection are also common among all groups of Veddas.
Arts. Ritual performances, especially possession Ceremonies that include dancing, chanting, instrumental music making, and the construction of temporary shrines, provide some of the principal occasions for artistic expression among all Vedda groups. The plastic arts are otherwise little emphasized beyond acts of individual decoration. The Seligmanns noted that the Bintenne Veddas were once adept at making artifacts and utensils from animal skins and also engaged in rock and cave drawings. Singing is a popular form of recreation among the Veddas.
Medicine. Persons familiar with at least some aspects of the South Asian tradition of Ayurvedic medicine are found among both the Anuradhapura and the Coast Veddas. They use herbal compounds to adjust the balance of humors in the body. Some illnesses are attributed to demonic possession and are treated by exorcism. Among the Bintenne Veddas, almost all illness was treated through ritual ceremonies. Many Veddas now have access to the free medical care, based on Western science and technology, that is provided by the state.
Death and Afterlife. Among the Anuradhapura and Coast Veddas, beliefs and practices regarding death are shaped by Buddhist and Hindu concepts of karma, reincarnation, and the transmigration of souls. The Bintenne and the Coast Veddas also practice rituals to propitiate and communicate with recently deceased ancestors who are believed to be able to influence events in the present life.
See also Sinhalese; Tamil of Sri Lanka
Brow, James (1978). Vedda Villages of Anuradhapura District: The Historical Anthropology of a Community in Sri Lanka. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.
Kennedy, K. A. R., W. F. Roertgen, J. Chiment, and T. Disotell (1987). "Upper Pleistocene Fossil Hominids from Sri Lanka." American Journal of Physical Anthropology 72:441-461.
Seligmann, C. G., and Brenda Seligmann (1911). The Veddas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
JAMES BROW AND MICHAEL WOOST