Sri Lanka’s indigenous Adivasi community—the Vedda people—have historically maintained a diet of kurakkan roti and game meat. They are also known to have various indigenous cures and treatments for their health purposes. In the past, each Adivasi person carried a pouch of indigenous health remedies—or Athbeheth—with them, along with a separate pouch for chewing betel. They lived close to nature and had a strong bond with the local flora and fauna. They hunted to appease their hunger, and never approved of excessive hunting. Even though they prepared Athbeheth from leaves, roots, and tree barks, they were never engaged in deforestation.
"Those who entered the the Maduru Oya reserve for fishing were arrested. charged for trespassing and fined Rs 30,000."
Their unique lifestyle is said to have given them an extended lifespan. The Adivasi people claim their ancestors lived for about 116 years. But their 37000-year old way of life in the wilderness remains a memory for most of them. National development projects have hampered their health and lifestyle. When living in the forests, they had few ailments or illnesses. But now many Adivasi people ail from non-contagious diseases like kidney disease, cancer, heart problems, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Traditionally the Adivasis prayed to their gods when they fell ill, believing the gods would help them recover fast. In the past, there were five Adivasi clans (Variga) in Sri Lanka: the Nabuda Variga, Uru Variga, Thala Variga, Unapana Variga and Monara Variga. But now there are just five tribes, two examples being the Udamaluwe and Malgoda tribes.
"‘Pena Gala’ The stone, which weighs about 20kg, is tied to a cord and is placed on the legs. When chanting, the stone moves, and from its movements, we discover the sickness"
Uru Varige Lokubanda is an Adivasi from the village of Henanigala. He came there in the 1980s when they were given land under the Mahaweli Development Scheme. Before that, he lived in Kandegamwala, Dambana. He started hunting when he was seven years old. He would collect sap from the Banyan tree and apply it on a stick to set a bird trap. When the birds got stuck to the sap, he would catch them. Back then, when Adivasi people needed money, they would go looking for work in the villages of Padiyatalawa. “For a day’s work we got 50 cents, which we spent on essential goods,” Lokubanda said. They would also gather honey and sell it. Hunting was not illegal back then, so elk or deer meat would be taken to Padiyatalawa. “It took a day to go to Padiyatalawa from our village. We used to sell our goods and spend the night in a village house. We would wake up early the next day and return to our village with whatever we bought from the village. We would buy betel, arecanut, sugar, tea leaves, salt and clothes for girls. Since we had enough kurakkan, sorghum, yams, meat and honey, we had to buy only a few things.”
Reminiscing his childhood, Lokubanda said when someone got sick back then, they were never taken to a hospital. The illnesses were treated with Athbeheth. “Our ancestors who are now gods, protect us from evil,” he added. The Adivasi people firmly believe their gods will protect them. Even before climbing a tree or mountain, they pray to the gods. “They are our ancestors. We also call them ‘Ne Yakun’,” he said.
The Adivasi people contracted various diseases only after they moved out of the forests, Lokubanda said. “In the forest, our gods protected us from serpents and elephants. We would whisper a chant if we came across wild elephants.”
"When someone got sick back then, they were never taken to a hospital. The illnesses were treated with Athbeheth. “Our ancestors who are now gods, protect us from evil"
He further elaborated: “When we were in the jungle, we rarely caught any disease. If anyone fell sick, we would treat them ourselves. We detect the sickness by chanting to the ‘Pena Gala’ (a mythical stone believed to have healing powers). The stone, which weighs about 20kg, is tied to a cord and is placed on the legs. When chanting, the stone moves, and from its movements, we discover the sickness.” Even though this practice is not scientifically proven, the Adivasi people firmly believe in its accuracy.
Another Adivasi, U.W. Lokki, moved to Henanigala when she was young. She recalled her days in Kandegamwala, Dambana. “When pregnant women approach their due date, they redeem a vow to the female demon in the waterfall and deliver the baby without difficulty. When someone dies, his body is buried in one day. The body is either covered in deer hide or placed inside a coffin made of tree bark. There was no competition to earn money like today. We made a living and lived harmoniously. Our people do not steal. No girl has ever been harassed by anyone. We were happier in the jungle. The world is focused on COVID-19 these days. We never fell prey to a pandemic when living in the forest. The jungle fed us. Even though we cultivated, we never added chemicals. We did not even know about chemicals back then,” Lokki said.
"A total of 109 families moved to Henanigala from Kandegamwala, Dambana. There are 600 families at present. They do not have lands to cultivate or to settle. “Since our children give up learning soon, they cannot get jobs. None of our problems was solved."
But the situation now is different. On Minister Gamini Dissanayaka’s request, they moved to Mahaweli. Most Adivasi villagers, especially the tribal elders, now have kidney disease. They seek treatment from hospitals in Giradurukotte, Dehiaththakandiya, Mahiyanganaya and Polonnaruwa. “We would not have got these sicknesses if we had remained in the jungle. After we moved, we asked permission to go to the jungle to collect medicine. But permission was not given. When we first moved to Mahaweli, we collected aralu, bulu, nelli and honey. We earned a good income by selling them. However, with the changes in wildlife laws, our freedoms has been curtailed. The tank which Gamini Dissanayaka built for us for fishing can no longer be used. If we went fishing, we would be taken to court by the Wildlife Department,” she said.
When the country was under COVID-19 lockdown for three consecutive months, six Adivasi men who entered the Maduru Oya reserve for fishing were arrested by Wildlife officers. They were charged for trespassing and fined Rs 30,000. They paid the fine with the Rs 5000 allowance they get. Earlier, the fine was only Rs 5000, but later it was increased to Rs 15000-18000, and now it is Rs 30,000.
"When we first moved to Mahaweli, we collected aralu, bulu, nelli and honey. We earned a good income by selling them. However, with the changes in wildlife laws, our freedoms has been curtailed"
There are instances when Adivasi people are arrested by Wildlife officers when they go to collect honey. In such cases, they pay the fine by pawning or selling their fields. When they were settled in villages authorities had promised to allow them to go to the forests to hunt and gather honey. But now they no longer have that permission. Instead, they are arrested and forced to pay fines by pawning or selling their paddy fields given to them by the state.
"When pregnant women approach their due date, they redeem a vow to the female demon in the waterfall and deliver the baby without difficulty. When someone dies, his body is buried in one day"
Uru Varige Sudukuma, a young mother, said they moved to the Mahaweli settlements in 1983. A total of 109 families moved to Henanigala from Kandegamwala, Dambana. There are 600 families at present. They do not have lands to cultivate or to settle. “Since our children give up learning soon, they cannot get jobs. None of our problems was solved. We do not hunt. Our people fish in the Henanigala tank. Wildlife officers interrupt them as well. We are no longer allowed to enter the jungle. We love the jungle. We protected it in the early days. Hunting was also done systematically. We did not cut trees or shoot elephants. Elephants did not harm us either. We ask permission to go to the jungle to collect herbs like aralu and bulu,” she said. “After we were moved to the villages, our needs were not met by authorities. For years we have been asking them to solve the problems of our next generation. We are settled in an illegal land. We feel like we are lost here. Non-indigenous people in Mahaweli have relatives for help. We have nobody.”
All governments in power for the past 40 years didn’t do anything to protect our community- Leader
Henanigala Adivasi leader Thala Varige Gunabandiya said he was trying to solve the issues faced by his people. “All governments which were in power for the past 40 years did nothing to safeguard the future of our people,” Gunabandiya lamented.
"All governments which were in power for the past 40 years did nothing to safeguard the future of our people"
Over 35 years ago, the folk songs of the Adivasi people known as ‘Bambara Kavi’ could be heard from within the Kandegamwala forests. But they are now heard outside the forests. Their bow and arrows and axes have rusted. They have not yet forgotten the Wedakam, Kemkam and other traditional clan practices. They are unwilling to forget them.
Henanigala has been separated from Maduru Oya with fenced up wires and boards. But even though the Adivasi people are physically away from the jungle, their spirits remain within the jungle. Authorities should no longer turn a blind eye to the issues facing the indigenous people of Sri Lanka.
No permission to enter forest reserve: Wildlife Department
When asked about the unfair treatment of Adivasi people in Henanigala, Wildlife Department officers said there was no special permission for the community to enter the Maduru Oya forest reserve.
“We have never arrested or charged the community members for entering Maduru Oya forest reserve or collecting firewood. But there is no special permission for the Vedda community to enter the forest reserve. We allow them to collect bees, honey, with written permission from our office,” Buddhika Vithanage, Warden of the Maduru Oya forest reserve said.
"We fined them for fishing in the Maduru Oya water reservoir, which is about 14km inside the forest reserve. Not just fishing nets, they even had weapons with them"
“We find them for fishing in the Maduru Oya water reservoir, which is about 14km inside the forest reserve. Not just fishing nets, they even had weapons with them. There is a stream bordering the forest reserve. That is inside the electric fence and they used to fish there. We have not charged them for that. Even though they have complained we have not done any harm to the community,” Vithanage said.