Off to Visit the Veddas of Sri Lanka in 24 Hours

Visiting the Veddas of Sri Lanka in 48 Hours

Despite the unrests in Sri Lanka, I had come here for the simple reason that I had not been here before. I like travelling. But the regular comfort, the private sand beach and the plentiful food only make me want to escape further. To stay in a luxury hotel drives me crazy; it is too tame. If I seek adventure of the type not encountered between bed sheets, I must get out of here. Quickly. I must break out from the Hotel ghetto and throw myself into the wild and beautiful reality of this tropical country split and divided by brutality and ignorance.

The separatist suicide bombers, known as the Tamil Tigers (LITTE) normally attack in and around Jaffna, way to the north. At least, that is what everybody claimed until a new attack rocks Galle, at the southernmost tip of this island in the Indian Ocean, situated at the bottom of the Indian Subcontinent like a full stop at the end of a sentence

The Veddas and their Art

. A week later, after my return, all commercial flights to the tropical island will have been cancelled. But for the moment, I am on the west coast, close to Colombo, at it´s edge Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, the official capital. The airport is just around the corner and in case things get ugly I can board a plan to safety rapidly. So at least, I hastened to calm my relatives, when I let my choice of destination be known. Yet I know full well the life is never predictable. It would be a pity if it were.

By coincidence I discovered a photo. It showed two ragged shapes by the side of the road and is titled: Veddas, the natives of Ceylon. Immediately an idea sows in my mind. I decide to go in search of them and see if they are indeed all so pitiful. Surely there must be Veddas still living in the jungles, who had not been coruppted by so-called civilization. Obviously I am a romantic. With this goal in mind I purchase a map of the country and proceed to ask everyone where these people live. Nobody knows. Most have never even heard of them. Poliically they are non-grata. Finally someone takes out a pen and encircles an area far to the east of the country. "There", he announces, “maybe you can find them there…”. I am delighted. I have set myself an aim and now I know where to go. For the next morning I order a Tuk Tuk, a tricycle taxi, to take me to Negombo, rechristened „new Rome “, because of its opulent churches. I will leave the comfort of the hotel resort behind, let loose, head for uncertainty and true adventure.

Naturally, I miss the Intercity Express. “Dose not matter…”, I say to myself, mounting the local bus, which gets along without air conditioning. The door is permanently left ajar anyway since passengers are continuously jumping in and off , thus garanteeing a welcoming breeze Finding tha Veddas
Finding tha Veddas
. The trip takes an eternity. We leave the coastal region, heading past the airport, and slowly make our way inland. Curve by curve we penetrate deeper into the interior, pasting localities which either show degrees of development or disintegration, depending on one's point of view. This is a common feature in most upcoming states, formerly known as Third World Countries. Nothing seems completed. All is in constant movement. Life and death are palible. With one and the same breath I inhale creative potencial and decay. Beside the road multicoloured local fruit and colour-glad chinese plastic toys are being sold. Between the honking traffic there walks a dark skinned man, his naked torso gleaming in the bright light, an angle long cloth flapping around his bare feet, a cell phone hooked to his ear. The monsoon has left it´s mark on all forms of construction; wood is decaying, lacquer is leafing off, iron is slowly rusting in the sun.

We near the central region of Sri Lanka. The bus snakes up steep roads high into the mountains. The distances between the different settlements increases. In every village another traditional craft is practiced. At one point the edges of the road are lined with iron goods, at another time with leather products. Then we pass a village dedicated entirely to the production of  pottery. The jungle hangs sumptuously over the seam of the road. Enormous clusters of bamboo rise up 40 feet into the sky. A flat mountain rises out of the green-blue distance. We cross torrential, brown rivers. This is the road to the city of Kandy, build high in the central massif and known as an independent kingdom till the year 1815.

I will not see any other Whites on my journey, but hardly anyone seems to take notice of me. Everybody seems busy with their own problems, same as the people elsewhere in the world. The population ranks nearly 20 million and consists to 74.6 % of Singhalese, 18.1 % Tamil, 7 % Arab and 0.3 % are Malayan, Burgher (decedents of the Dutch) and others. I am in search of the aboriginal  people of this island. I know nothing about them, not even if they still exist. But, travelling into the unknown is always exciting. I have no luggage. I am travelling with only a hand bag I can sling across my shoulder. Having innumerable pockets I always open all of them, when I am looking for something, even though I have taken memorably few items along. A ball-point pen, a camera, a map, a notebook, one hair and toothbrush, my mobile phone, passport, four candles, and an umbrella (being at the end of the rainy season  this seemed an intelligent addition to my outfit.) Like this I am prepared, I truly image, to meet all eventualities in the very best of ways. In addition I have converted 70 Euros into Sri Lankan Rupees. After my two-day trip I will still have 20 Euros left.

The Roman-Catholic area lies behind us. Buddha statues throne on the hills beside the road. After all, nearly 70% of  the inhabitant are Theravada Buddhists. I also see modest Mosques on my nearly three hour trip to Kandy. There are still some days left till the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. Bearded Moslems, their turbans enhancing their noble, upright bearings, are carring home big baskets filled with fruit and bread. Every night is a feast in celebration of the hunger they bore throughout the day.

Arrived in Kandy, I change busses. I do not have the time nor the desire to visit this city, which is famous for it´s temples, monasteries and the Botani Flower Garden. The signal orange robes of the monks flash between the hustle and bustle of the street life like traffic lights. Around the buzzing centre of town large, square buildings, with Pagoda  roofs, stand soberly in the shadows. I am reminded of Portela in Lhasa, however, the monks are not half as friendly here as in the areas of Tibet, which I visited over ten years ago. Kandy is the extremely wealthy capital of  Sri Lanka´s Buddhist hierarchy. In order to travel further east I must take a bus to Mahiyangana. Will I find the Veddas once I get there? The bus circles the lake. On the surface of the water numerous elegant properties are reflected. It is very picturesque.

I cross the central mountain massif aboard the bus full of locals. The conditions at the roadside are becoming more and more primitive. Except for occasional huge bunches of bananas and selections of amber-coloured honey, lined up in assorted, old glass jars along the side of the street, there is little to buy. We pass an elefant, his hide swaying leisurly from side to side. As a sign, announcing forthcoming hair-pin-sharp curves appears, the bus driver seizes the opportunity to calmly dig his teeth into a fresh ear of corn. This is his allotted share for allowing the neighborhood boys to sell their wares on the bus

Arriving in  Mahiyangana, I know, without looking at the watch, that it must be five o'clock. It has begun to rain. Every day it rains at this time. For ten hours I  have been on the road now. Soon the sun will set. “Good, that I took the umbrella,” I think to myself as I hop across the water puddles in the broken asphalt and stare at the soldiers in camouflage suits, who mingle with the monks in bright habits under under the stalls. “Sri Lanka”, which means „radiating island “, has been standing on the threshold of civil war for the past 25 years. The Tamil, originally from south India, demand their own State, called Tamil Elam, in the north and in the east of the country. The Singhalese, originally from north India, are naturally against this. So far whichever truce has been signed was broken. And, as I write this in 2009, once again 250,000 civilians are trapped in the northern war zone.

I come upon on a row of Tuk Tuk drivers and find a sympathetic face. Rapidly verbal communication becomes a secondary matter. Sign language and smiles have largely taken their place. Siril´s Motorrickschaa is the swiftest, he claims. Indeed, from the inside it is freshly painted in red, while the windshield is decorated by a wildly sprouting bunch of pink, plastic roses. This seems very convincing. I jump aboard and quickly, building up a speed of 80 km. per hour we race into the dusk. My hair is tossed to all sides by the wind. I am nearing my destination. Finally.

We drive to Dambana. On the map a crossing is shown, which leads off into dense jungle. It fact it is but a dirt road leading into the Maduru Oya National Park. Here there are supposedly two large water reservoirs and many wild elephants. We are on the correct track. Even in the fading light I can tell. My first Vedda has just popped up out of the twilight. Then I see more and more of them. They are on their way home from work. They have frizzy hair and are mostly bearded. Their  bodies are well- rounded, muscular, totally unlike the skinny Sri Lankan, I have seen all day. Everyone is smiling. Many stretch out their hands and  wave to me. Across their private parts they wear a cloth. Over their shoulders they carry an axe. Apart from that they are completely naked.

Obviously the Veddas are a totally different race. One recognizes this immediately. Not only physically but culturally. The children are exited to see me and so are the adults. Men gaze deeply into the Rickshaw racing past and their eyes fly to meet mine like arrows. There is more to it than a differences in the size of the head or the thickness of the lips. In the eyes, which search mine directly, there lies an openess I have been seeking in vain since I arrived on the island. I see the same sparks radiating from their eyes as in those of the natives of Irian Jaya, in West Guinea, who have managed to remain unspoiled by the second-hand, discarded stuff, send to them from the civilised West. These eyes strip one down to the essence. Naturally, I cannot gernerlize and place all the  Vedas into a single drawer, but, I suddenly know that all trouble has been worthwhile. They are still there, the natives whose set of values differs so much from ours that we are left revaluating ourselves. It is a confirmation that in the breaking tidal wave of globalisation not yet everything has merged into uniform mediocrity. I inhale deeply. The air feels cleansed by the rain.

We reach the Dambana crossing, bend off onto a dirt track. The huts, Chenas, are build by pressing red balls of loam between planks of wood. Some are later pressed further to create a smooth surface. Straw roofs complete the picture. Siril, the ricksha boy,  steps on the gas pedal. We are almost there. I want to visit the King of the Veddas. But he is not home. His oldest son receives us instead. He is seated on an animal hide on the bench at the end of an open veranda. On the wall behind him framed photos, which show his father shaking the hands of representatives from different organizations, hang. In most pictures chieftain Uruwarige Vanniyala Aththo clutches the hands of attractive women from all over the globe. „Is he momentarily abroad again? “ I ask.

Communication is somewhat strained. Siril give it a go as interpreter. I sink back into the moulds of sun baked mud between the roof poles. A straw mat is given to me. I would love to fall straight asleep and spend the night right here. A gentle peace lies over clearing and the few houses, chenas, which have been  erected here. Thick water droplets hang from the leaves of the jungle. I leaf through a book describing the language of the Veddas, which the heir to the throne of the Veddas has handed to me. Carefully I try out my first Vedda word. “Where is your “Nani” (wife)”,  I ask him. The Veddas live in strict monogamy, he tells me. He has two children, he adds. “So do I,” I say proudly. The Prine of the Rain Forest smiles shyly.

Before, I am sent on my way I have been made to promise that I will return early the next morning. But first I take a short walk around the clearing. Three further Chenas stand, separated from each other according to gender. On the way to the one for the retired men, we pass a tiny Buddha statue, white as milk and half covered by tropical vines. It appears to be a symbol for the assimilation of the natural forces, these people have believed in for centuries, and the Buddhist faith. A quarter of a century ago the Veddas still lived practically entirely in caves and were hunters and gathers. They built primitive but impressive traps from wood and stones, shot deer with bows and arrows. Their cultural symbol, the axe, without which no male Vedda may venture out, is by no means an agricultural tool. Once, they populated the entire island, but after a long succession of colonizations by the Hindus, Portuguese, Dutch and British, they withdrew into very depth of the country. Others survived as seasonal workers on the fields. Today the chieftain, at least, seems be a very respected man. I note that he possesses nearly one hundred cows.

When we arrive back in Mahiyangana, Siril insists on showing me his temple. The fact that I am interested exclusively in the Veddas irritates him enormously. It is already eight o'clock. Darkest night. Before us the white Stupa of a Buddhist Temple rises. The bell-shaped structure radiates in the dark, even without electricity. Barefooted we circle the structure. The stone slabs under our soles are still warm from the heat of the day. Siril drags me to each shrine and puts coins into the donation boxes while I recognise old acquaintance from my trips to the Indian Subcontinent. I see statures depicting Shiva, his mate Durga, and Parvati, the female counterpart to the Hindu God Krishna, who is shown here with a Ceylonese elephant and not with a cow. A statue of Buddha with a tiny child by his side, catches my attention. Assimilations with the religion of the neighbour state India and the Maria cult within Christianity are more than obvious.

Next day, 8:30  in the morning, finds me sitting with Uruwarige Vanniyala Aththo drinking tea. I have brought cookies and cakes for the women and ball-point pens as gifts for the children. When I take my shoes off, in order to step onto his royal veranda, he comes towards me with open arms, taking both my hands into his. It is a most cordial greetings. This is the however standard procedure. Moreover, the King already has other guests. He offers them his betel nut mixture, which he has kept concealed in his loincloth.

The Areca and the betel nut are strong narcotics. A corner is ripped off and chewed with a piece of juicy, green tobacco leaf and white lime paste, Chunam. The blood-red liquid, which develops when chewing, drops out from between his teeth and discolours his lips from the inside. Scarlet red juice drips from the corners of his mouth. The betel nut mixture is a strong anaesthetic, making the eyes glassy and the iris red. The Veddas traditionally know how to harvest and mix a vast variety of natural drugs. Flies swarm around. I take a photo of the chieftain and his visitors from the next village. For this occasion the chief quickly places his axe on his left shoulder. I ask myself whether he works as a local jungle drug supplier.

Before, I set off with his younger son, Nuri, I drop over briefly to the women`s hut, to say hi. On the loamy soil the oldest grandchild of the chieftain crouches. Instead of going to school he chews industriously on a  betel nut. When I want to shoot a photo of him, his granddad rapidly borrows him his axe, Gal Rakki, to put on his shoulder. The phrase,” Got to make a manly impression.,” seems to have dashed across his mind.

With Nuri at my side I take a trip into the surrounding jungle. First we visit the Place of the Ancestors. Filled with reverence Nuri points out a large flat stone, under whose pointed edges tiny branches have been placed. For somebody who lives in a cave this could represent, I imagine, a magnificent toy palace. Afterwards, he shows me, with an identical show of respect, the empty space beside. Here, the ancestors from his mothers side dwell, I am made to understand. Then we continue.

Open land strips alternate with wild, close jungle, called Kala Pojja.  The air is damp and stifling. The tree leaves are wet from the last rain and we are sweating heavily. Within a few minutes the two of us are out of breath. In my case it is because I am not physically fit. In Nuri`s case it is because he is addicted to betel nuts. Again and again he stops, pretending to listen for animals. But it is only show. We discover no wild life. So Nuri turns to pointing out other things to me. He shows me a Poththi, the honey comb of an insect, which they call Kaneyya. The Veddas are large honey connoisseurs. After I slip in the river, we sit together on one of the many enormous stones which are marked by big, black spots. They practically litter the area and look much like elephant backs between the trees. Nuri hands over some bitter berries, which he has collected for me. I am totally soiled and very content. But, as we advance further into the thicket, we suddenly reach the point where he scratches his head and glances to all sides; a look of utter confusion on his face. The Vedda`s golden era as hunters and collectors seems to have definitely passed.

Suddenly I stand before the official museum of the Veddas, the Wannilaeththo Heritage Centre. I have washed the dirt from my clothes and feel refreashed. The resident anthropologist, Nalien, climbs down from his tree house. The museum is decorated with copies of the rock paintings, which were originally discovered in 41 different caves on Sri Lanka. When Seligmann & Seligmann (1911) studied the culture of the Veddas in the first decade of the past century, they maintained that the female Veddas were the ones responsible for painting the pictures. The two anthrogologists actually observed the women create the required mixture from a combination of saliva and ashes, while the men were out hunting. But, this pastime was evidentially much older than this. Inscriptions, which originate from the second and third century before Christ, have been uncovered in many parts of Ceylon. Pictures of elephants, and other animals and even outline drawings, symbolizing humans, have been discovered on the island. The most well-known ones are those known as the Golden Lizard Paintings. The longest one reaches a length of 84 cm (33 inches). Many were however only discovered, when layers of overlying Buddhist rock paintings started to flake off. This hints at yet another story in afterthought. One of religious/political manipulation.

In past days, the Veddas were also known as the Yaksha. These were divided into further sub-groups. The Indian prince Vijaya was the first foreign conqueror, to slaughter them in grand style. They fleed to the jungles, although some had inhabited the coastal regions for thousands of years, nourishing themselves of shells and turtles. The Veddas I visit still commemorate their great, grand, grand father Kalubandara, a Yaksha Gothra, from whom they are descended. But they hold the spirits of all their ancestors in honour, referring to them collectively as the Nae Yaku. Other spirits, which are inherent in stones, trees, plants and animals, are called upon in cases of illness, marriage or when preparing to hunt. To gain the spirits good will complex sacrifice dances and rituals are specified. I sit on the soil the colour of baked blood and read everything which Nalien hands to me. In response, I help him translate some sentences from German into English.

Soon I must leave. I have set myself a time limit and the time has come to start on the journey back to the north coast, back to what is called civilization. As yet nobody knows that I will presumably be the last foreigner, Hudhu Hura, to come here for some time. The sun is shining through the foilage, casting random shadows on the tightly pressed, red soil. Suddenly I see something directly in front of me on the ground. It is a delicate, yellow lizard darting in between the pools of sun light. I have just read about lizards and, looking up, the words seem to have materialise before my eyes. Magical! My personal circle has been completed. It is time to leave. At parting I shake everybody’s two hands at the same time, in the style of the Weddas. It is a farewell that makes me feel joyous and immensly sad at the same time.



Who are Sri Lanka's Indigenous Wanniya-laeto?

Wanniya-laeto ('Vedda') elders of Dambana
Wanniya-laeto ('Vedda') elders of Dambana

Sri Lanka's indigenous inhabitants, the Veddas -- or Wanniya-laeto ('forest-dwellers') as they call themselves -- preserve a direct line of descent from the island's original Neolithic community dating from at least 16,000 BC and probably far earlier according to current scientific opinion.1

Even today, the surviving Wanniya-laeto community retains much of its own distinctive cyclic worldview, prehistoric cultural memory, and time-tested knowledge of their semi-evergreen dry monsoon forest habitat that has enabled their ancestor-revering culture to meet the diverse challenges to their collective identity and survival.

With the impending extinction of Wanniya-laeto culture, however, Sri Lanka and the world stand to lose a rich body of indigenous lore and living ecological wisdom that is urgently needed for the sustainable future of the rest of mankind.

Historically, for the past twenty-five centuries or more Sri Lanka's indigenous community has been buffeted by successive waves of immigration and colonization that began with the arrival of the Sinhalese from North India in the 5th century BC. Consequently, the Wanniyalaeto have repeatedly been forced to choose between two alternative survival strategies: either to be assimilated into other cultures or to retreat ever further into a shrinking forest habitat.


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