Wanniya-laetto children are bright and cheerful, Henanigala
Words: Patrick Harrigan
Sri Lanka's indigenous people, the Veddas or Wanniya-laetto (‘forest-dwellers') as they call themselves, preserve a direct line of descent from the island's original inhabitants dating from at least 125,000 BC and probably even earlier according to current scientific opinion. According to Prof. S.U. Deraniyagala, Sri Lanka's former Director-General of Archaeology, the Veddas' ancestors: "settled in practically every nook and corner of Sri Lanka ranging from the damp and cold High Plains such as Maha-eliya (Horton Plains) to the arid lowlands of Mannar and Wilpattu, to the steamy equatorial rainforests of Sabaragamuwa...Sri Lanka was, more often than not, linked to southern India by a land bridge during this period... The last separation from India would have occurred at about 7,000 (years ago)."
Beginning with the arrival of the Aryans from North India in 543 BC, Sri Lanka's indigenous community has been buffeted by successive waves of immigration and colonisation. Only a few remaining Wanniya-laetto still manage to preserve their cultural identity and traditional lifestyle despite relentless pressure from the surrounding dominant communities.
Yet even today, Vedda communities retain much of their own distinctive cyclic worldview, prehistoric cultural memory and detailed knowledge of their forest habitat that has enabled their ancestor-revering culture to meet the diverse challenges to their collective identity and survival.
The Wanniya-laetto's self-identi-fication as guardians of the forest differs radically from the definition of a ‘Vedda' that was imposed upon them by outsiders. Hence, to colonial census takers, a ‘Vedda' is a primitive human type of wild disheveled appearance, uncouth language and appearance, who resides in caves or wanders in the jungle, and who subsists by primitive means such as hunting with bow and arrows.
Wanniya-laetto operate within a radically different conceptual framework from their neighbours. They believe that they and their ancestor-spirits belong to the forests that they inhabit and protect.
Among the spiritual ancestors of the ancestor-worshipping Wanniya-laetto, the greatest is said to be Kande Yaka, the ‘Spirit of the Mountain' who is venerated by Sinhalese and Tamil people alike as Skanda Kumara or Murugan, the playful and even mischievous god of Kataragama. Traditions speak of him arriving to Sri Lanka by vessel, possibly from India. All agree that he imparted great knowledge before proceeding onward to Kataragama. A century ago, Veddas of the East Coast related that: "When He (Kande Yaka) came, he told us the names of things, trees, and animals, and how we should make offerings and dance for him when going into the jungle, and at other times. He told us everything we know."
Hundreds of families in Mankerny, Palchenai and other villages of the East Coast, though nominally Tamil speaking Hindus, identify themselves as Veddas. Their older generation still recalls hunting and gathering honey in the forest.
Among Veddas of the forest interior, since time immemorial the Danigala tribe occupied the Danigala Cave near Bibile. When the Danigala Veddas left their ancestral cave over fifty years ago, some settled at Ratugala (‘Red Rock' also near Bibile) while others migrated to Pollebedda. Danigala chief Randunu Wanniya and his wife were among the last of thousands of generations of Veddas born in that cave.
"When I was young there were 24 Vedda families living in Danigala," he recalled in 2003. "Then a generation ago most of us died from disease and within a few years we were reduced to only two families."
"We stopped hunting with bows and arrows a few years ago when Wildlife Department officials came and asked us to stop, but we still claim our right to hunt." Today, there are about 300 people who identify themselves as Danigala Veddas.
The Wanniya-laetto operate within a radically different conceptual framework from their neighbours. They believe that they and their ancestors' spirits belong to the forests that they inhabit and protect.
When they hunt, Wanniya-laetto first perform ecstatic dances to Kande Yaka who, they believe, possesses the dancers and shows them in which direction to hunt. Wanniya-laetto still conduct dances when seeking guidance from Kande Yaka and other ancestor spirits to resolve contemporary social, economic and legal dilemmas.
Today many Wanniya-laetto have adopted a survival strategy that includes taking Sinhala or Tamil names for themselves and their children, adopting the prevalent language, diet, dress and lifestyle patterns and becoming, nominally at least, Buddhist or Hindu converts, like the Ratugala and East Coast Veddas respectively. Somehow, they manage to preserve their social and cultural identity even while immersed within the outward trappings of alien cultures.
In 1983 when the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Scheme was launched, the last Wanniya-laetto hunting domain that remained upon 145,450 acres of forest was declared as the Maduru Oya National Park. Subsequently, the Dambana tribe of Wanniya-laetto, who had been occupational hunter-gatherers and custodians of that forest for uncounted millennia, were evacuated to Henanigala where they were to be settled and ‘rehabilitated' as rice cultivators.
The old Wanniya-laetto chieftain Tissashamy and seven Dambana families, however, refused to be evicted from the land of their ancestors and would not budge an inch no matter how many emissaries came to "talk sense" to him. Finally the government had to concede that these families could remain as long as the old man lived.
With such a cultural inheritance, it is not surprising that Sri Lanka's indigenous communities are keen to avert cultural extinction in the pell-mell rush to modernise.
Tissahamy finally expired in 1999 at the age of 96, by which time public sympathy and official policy had swung in the Wanniya-laettos' favour. Tissahamy's son Vanniya is today chief of the Dambana tribe, who are allowed to occupy their ancestral hamlet. After many representations that their traditional lifestyle had been affected, some Veddas have been issued special identity cards to enter the park to gather forest products, but not to hunt.
For its part, the Government of Sri Lanka has sought to bring the island's indigenous communities into the social and economic mainstream, mainly by promoting literacy and improved access to health facilities. There is even a Wanniya-laetto Heritage Centre in Dambana where cultural artefacts are on display.
For generations, the Dambana tribe has made a conscious effort to preserve their traditional language, diet, dress and lifestyle. They raise a few cattle and cultivate forest gardens, but their ancestral livelihood as hunter-gatherers is no longer economically viable. Visitors to Dambana can show their support by offering fair compensation for photographing Wanniya-laetto in their ancestral setting and for handicraft items.
However disadvantaged the island's indigenous forest-dwellers may appear in the eyes of modern-educated observers, nevertheless their sense of honour, justice and fair play is very keen. Despite centuries of injustice, even today the Wanniya-laetto people remain so gentle and patient towards younger cultures that, although they are proficient hunters, they have never been known to raise a weapon in anger, to commit theft or fraud out of greed, or even to raise their voice toward outsiders, let alone to speak untruth. Indeed, these are precisely the elements of their cultural heritage that the Wanniya-laetto are most anxious to preserve for future generations.
The more one deals with indigenous people of Sri Lanka, the more one admires them. Wanniya-laetto may speak little, but they speak the truth. Rarely do they quarrel, and they are faithful in love to a degree that is scarcely found in today's world.
With such a cultural inheritance, it is not surprising that Sri Lanka's indigenous communities are keen to avert cultural extinction in the pell-mell rush to modernise. Modern visitors need not undermine indigenous customs and values. Instead, with a smile and a heartfelt handshake, they may visit and return home with a greater understanding of how people once lived together in peace in this resplendent island paradise.
Visitors - men, women and children alike - should dress in modest attire when visiting traditional settings, including Vedda hamlets. Women particularly should dress modestly.
Out of courtesy, visitors should park vehicles some distance from Vedda homes and approach on foot. Typically, an elder may step forward to greet visitors by offering both hands in a firm double handshake with direct eye contact.
When entering a rural dwelling - however rustic it may be - remove footwear! The front verandah is where villagers customarily receive visitors. Refrain from entering other rooms unless invited.
It is customary to present a ritual offering of betel leaves with arecanuts and lime paste, the customary ‘chew' of bulath that is shared over leisurely conversations.
Don't be discouraged if you do not speak the language. The Veddas themselves often do not understand each other perfectly. But the language of intention, full of good humor, with facial gestures and hand language, is universally understood.
By age-old tradition, Sri Lanka's ‘first people' are entitled to demand tribute from those who draw upon their ancient heritage. So, if you wish to photograph Wanniya-laetto subjects, be prepared to offer fair compensation for your valued photographs.