The Veddas or the indigenous people in Sri Lanka are the living relict of a tribe whose ancestry dates back to over thousand years. Having mastered their skills from hunting to preparing medicine, the Veddas have a closer connection with the country and nature than anyone of us. As members of the Yaksha tribe, their rituals include offering alms to the spirits of the dead. Although we have heard about just one tribe, the Veddas have several sub-tribes namely Uru Varige, Tala Varige, Nabudan Varige, Unapana Varige, Morana Varige and Enbalawa Varige.
Today, with 375 families still in existence, the Dambana Vedda Village or the Dambana Variga Gammanaya is another peaceful neighbourhood tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city. While on a recent visit to the vedda ‘country’, the Daily Mirror explored the rituals and lifestyles of these people who welcomed us with their dialect of speech.
In an exclusive interview with the Daily Mirror, Uru Varige Wannila Aththo, the Vedda chief spoke about their rituals and customs and shared his views about the darker side of modernisation and how it has affected their lifestyles.
Q You have been living here ever since childhood. What issues are you facing in the present day?
I’m 70-years-old now and it’s in this village that I grew up. During that period people of our generation thought that we were born in the best place on Earth. We had forests, fertile lands and many other resources. But these forests have been destroyed as means of ‘development’ which has taken place over the years. During Sirimavo’s tenure, she requested the people to start their own vegetation without importing items from foreign lands. Upon that request people started cutting down forests irrespective of the habitat, in order to feed themselves and the Government didn’t regulate these procedures. By that time, in areas such as Unakirigala, Wanduragala, Nambulanwela, Rathmal E Yaya people have already started chena cultivations.
So when my father brought down an official all the way from Bandarawela to stop these activities, that official instructed my father also to start chena cultivation. So from then to now, the forests and other lands that we lived and grew food in have been destroyed by the powerful people who were elected to office. By 1983 we lost everything and today, instead of going on our usual hunting or trying to find food, the younger generation has to sing on the streets, sell items and do other odd jobs. Therefore people now say that we have forgotten our customs and norms.
People from around the country come here during weekends and on poya days. I sometimes wonder why they even come here because as you saw a little while ago, not even one person spoke to me.
Q What challenges have you faced with deforestation and other man-made disasters happening around?
We are running out of herbal plants to prepare medicine, animals have lost their habitats and my biggest concern is that our rituals, customs and norms have been forgotten by the younger generation. If they are to understand these customs, they have to walk in to the forests with the elders and learn how to hunt and do other activities. People of our generation learn from their experiences. But we can’t do that now. Another issue is that springs too have dried up. Back in the day even if there was no rain for a year, we still had water to survive with. But these too have been destroyed. So the impact isn’t only on us but on the whole country.
Q Other than experiences gathered from the wild, today school education is another necessity. Are there sufficient facilities in the local school?
There are two local schools for our children in this village. One is from Grades one to five and the other from Grade one to 11. Facilities are there, but there’s a heavy shortage of teachers.
- During Sirimavo’s tenure, she requested the people to start their own vegetation
- By 1983 we lost everything. The younger generation has to sing on the streets and do other odd jobs
- We are running out of herbal plants to prepare medicine, animals have lost their habitats
- There are two local schools for our children in this village
- Education is quite limited to its boundaries, but knowledge is like the ocean
- With the changes in environment these rituals and customs too are rapidly dying out
Q What challenges have you faced with the advancement in technology?
Nowadays people visit me to only get a ‘selfie’ and I don’t like it. (The Veddha chief points at a notice which requests visitors to refrain from taking ‘selfies’ with him). People from around the country come here during weekends and on poya days. I sometimes wonder why they even come here because as you saw a little while ago, not even one person spoke to me.
But they all took photographs and I would like to know what use there is in taking a photograph with me? When people go to a place they should explore, speak to the people and get themselves educated on what they don’t know. For instance, when I answered most of the questions during that TV programme, people thought I have either gone to school or somebody taught me before I appeared in the programme. But neither have I had any formal education nor has anybody taught me anything beforehand. Knowledge and education are two things and education is quite limited to its boundaries, but knowledge is like the ocean and you learn till you die.
Q Hunting practices are common in your group. How difficult is it to engage in them today?
If we go hunting today, officials from the Wildlife department will take us in to custody. Every year we offer bee’s honey for the first Randoli Perahera and once we were taken in to custody for collecting honey for this purpose as well.
Q We only know of a few customs such as hunting which are unique to your tribe. What are the other rituals and customs that exist in the Uru Varige Group?
In terms of hunting, people think that we only kill animals with a bow and arrow. But there are various other traps which we use to trap animals such as the ‘Rila Habaka’ which is used to trap monkeys. Hence these traps differ from animal to animal. There are other rituals such as the ‘Hakme shanthikarmaya’ which we do to chase away evil spirits. With the changes in environment these rituals and customs too are rapidly dying out and the loss isn’t only for us, but for the whole country. But on the other hand, aborigines are given a special place in other countries. Hence there are many foreigners who come to do a study on us. In terms of boosting tourism I think we have helped the country generate more revenue through tourism. Hence we have now become a tourist attraction as well. So even if we don’t have money the country is earning through us.
Q The human-elephant conflict has become a major issue today. What are your views regarding it?
People have built houses in their habitats. So what could those poor animals do other than get rid of them? We are also like those elephants today- helpless in every possible way. If those elephants could talk, they will all go and complaint to the President before any of these people do. A few weeks back we saw elephants in the sea. Such incidents have never happened before. Who knows if they thought they should swim their way to Geneva and report their unheard problems?
Q We learned that the funds allocated from the Department of Museums aren’t evenly distributed. Any reason why it has happened that way?
Yes, we aren’t getting them as expected. The funds we were supposed to receive in May were given this month. Therefore there’s no consistency in these transactions and hence we have to suffer from this end.
People have built houses in their habitats. So what could those poor animals do other than get rid of them? We are also like those elephants today- helpless in every possible way
Q What do you wish to request from the Government?
It’s up to the Government to decide if they want to feed us or kill us. We don’t have a way to do our own cultivation or find our own money. In that case our children will have to go to the city. Once they go to the city all those rituals and customs they learned will be long forgotten. Hence they won’t be as disciplined as they were when they left for the city. So they will bring back all those modern habits and behaviour patterns to the village. All this will have a negative influence on what we have been trying to teach them.
Q What’s your message to visitors and the future generation.
This country is rich in rituals, customs and traditions which have existed from back in the day. We were looked up to as people with pride, but today we haven’t been able to protect any of these customs, rituals or traditions. All these are a result of the influences from the West. You all speak foreign languages, dress like them, eat their food etc. The younger generation has to be more disciplined, respect their religion and they also have to think of their country first.
Pics by Kushan Pathiraja