Meet the Half Million-year-old Jungle People of Sri Lanka! The Fascinating Vedda Culture
In the western world, a statue, monument, or fountain might inspire thoughts and debates about the First World War, the American Civil War, or the Protestant Reformation. What doesn’t often pop up are the ancient customs of native indigenous people, such as the Vedda culture, in Sri Lanka, that magical island off the southern tip of India. And, in our commitment to exploring our ancient origins, that is a pity; for few landmasses in the world claim to have been inhabited by humans over half a million years ago.
In this article we will explore the Vedda cultures of the Malaya Rata historical center. (Chamal N/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Peopling of Sri Lanka
The chronological progression of humans on the Indian Sub-Continent is relatively well-known, but it remains fiercely debated when the first humans arrived in Sri Lanka. According to S. U. Deraniyagalam, the Director-General of Archaeology, in his book Early Man and the Rise of Civilisation in Sri Lanka, “there is secure evidence of settlements in Sri Lanka by 130,000 years ago, probably by 300,000 BP and possibly by 500,000 BP or earlier.” It can be surmised that when the top ranking state archaeologist sets such wide perimeters, it is of little wonder why the ancient origins of the island are debated.
What is known and accepted by most archaeologists is that around the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, with iron technology, there was “a rapid transition from a geometric microlith-using Mesolithic culture to the Early Iron Age, with horse, cattle, pottery and paddy cultivation.”
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The indigenous people of Sri Lanka are the Veddas (Veddhas, Veddahs), but properly the Wanniyala-Aetto, or “forest people.” Until recently, Veddha women wore only a piece of cloth that extended from the navel to the knees and men wore a loincloth suspended at the waist with string.
A Veddah hunter with bow and arrow in traditional hunting attire. (wanni77/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
A Vedda Origin Myth
The Mahavansa, is the ancient chronicle of the Sinhalese royalty and according to the genesis myth of the Sinhala “race”/people :
“the Pulindas also called Veddas are descended from Prince Vijaya (6th-5th century BC), the founding father of the Sinhalese nation, through Kuveni, a woman of the Yakkha clan whom he had espoused. After the repudiation of Kuveni by Vijaya, in favour of a “Kshatriya” princess from the “Pandya” country, their son and daughter, departed to the region of “Sumanakuta” (Adam’s Peak in the Ratnapura District), where they multiplied, giving rise to the Veddhas.”
The original language of the Veddas is still used today in the island’s interior by communities such as Coast Veddas and Anuradhapura Veddas to communicate while hunting and during religious rituals while chanting. Sinhala-speaking Veddas still exist in the in the vicinity of Bintenne in Uva District, in the southeastern part of the country, but while Sinhalese is of the Indo-Aryan branch of Indo-European languages, the parent Vedda language(s) is of unknown origins. Another group are situated in the Eastern Province, between Batticaloa and Trincomalee, and these ‘East Coast Veddas' have adopted Tamil.
A picture of coastal Vedda person and settlement. ( Public Domain )
Vedda Culture Religion and Funerary Rites
Like almost all ancient hunting and fishing cultures, the early Veddas were animistic, in that they believed spirits existed in trees, plants, rivers, and all inanimate objects and natural phenomena, and that a range of supernatural powers organized and ‘animated’ the observable universe. The ‘Sinhalized’ interior Veddahs, however, clashed animistic concepts with Buddhist ideas, whereas the Tamil east coast Veddahs blended animism with Hinduism, know to anthropologists as 'folk Hinduism.’
Ancestor worship, called “nae yaku” (Ne yakku) by Sinhala-speaking Veddas, was a central component in worship. All four communities; Vedda, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim venerated the temple complex at Kataragama. Death was a simple affair and corpses were buried without funerary ceremonies.
A Veddah sacred space or environment being laid out prior to a ritual. (Imaadwhd/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Colonization changed Veddha burial practices and 4–5 foot (1.22-1.52 meter) deep graves were created, in which trunks of Gadumba trees were placed and dead bodies were laid after being scented with lime and leaf juice. The heads of graves featured cactus from the pathok species, three open coconuts, and a bundle of wood. At the feet were one open and one closed coconut, and personal artifacts - like bows and arrows and betel pouches, the contents of which were believed to have been eaten after death.
Being in such awe of consciousness, I believe humans have always had issues accepting that when our bodies decay after death that it’s game over. So, we have taken special action to cope with the big moment, believing in continued existence in one form or another. Resulting from this ancient coping mechanism, all modern religions offer postmortem reassurance of an eternal realm(s) achieved by the application of varying systems of ritual magic and pathways to enlightenment. This of course means that in animistic cultures not all the spirits of dead people reached their versions of Nirvana, Heaven, or whatever they called the afterlife.
In Sri Lanka, according to scholar Sarasin Cousins in 1886 and in Seligmann’s 1910 book The Veddas, the Veddas ancestor or Nae Yakka (Relative Spirit) worship was only one aspect of their religion, which was centered on a cult of the dead . It was believed that the spirits of dead people haunted villages, brought diseases , and generally caused chaos; so incantations and chants were offered to spirits, like Bilinda Yakka, Kande Yakka in a ritual dance called the Kiri Koraha.
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Photograph (circa 1970s) of the Most Prominent Vedda Chief, Late Tisahamy Aththo. (Media Jet/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
According to Seligmann, “When man or woman dies from sickness, the body is left in the cave or rock shelter where the death took place, the body is not washed or dressed or ornamented in any way, but is generally allowed to be in the natural supine position and is covered with leaves and branches. This was formerly the universal custom and still persists among the less sophisticated Veddas who sometimes in addition place a large stone upon the chest for which no reason could be given, this is observed at Sitala Wanniya (off Polle-bedda close to Maha Oya), where the body is still covered with branches and left where the death occurred.”
The cultural assimilation of Veddas with new local populations has been going on for five centuries and the term “Vedda" is not only used to refer to hunter-gatherers, but to anyone who adopts an “old school”, rural way of life. Over time, it has become possible for non-Vedda groups to become Veddas, and as such many ancient cultures are all but lost. However, by resisting change, Vedda populations are increasing in some districts of Sri Lanka.
Modern Vedda man and his child. Photograph taken in Sri Lanka in 2002. (CeylonM/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Top image: Men of the Vedda culture. Source: julien Lecollinet/ CC BY NC SA 2.0
By Ashley Cowie
S. U. Deraniyagala (1996) ‘Pre and Protohistoric Settlement in Sri Lanka.’ International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences. Available at: http://www.lankalibrary.com/geo/dera1.html
Encyclopedia of World Cultures (1996) ‘Vedda.’ Encyclopedia.com. Available at: https://www.encyclopedia.com/places/asia/sri-lankan-political-geography/vedda
Lakpura Travels (2004-2018) ‘Indigenous People in Sri Lanka.’ Indigenous People in Sri Lanka. Available at: https://lanka.com/about/indigenous-people/
Seligmann, Charles and Brenda (1911). The Veddas. Cambridge University Press. (pages 30-31).