Sri Lanka 1974: Among Veddas

 

 

Sri Lanka 1974-75
The Veddas were driven far into the jungle by invading Sinhalese. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

In Kandy, former capital of an ancient Sinhalese kingdom in the highlands of Sri Lanka, I board a dilapidated bus, heading east through tea plantations, along waterfalls, and through montane forest, where purple-faced langur monkeys (Semnopithecus vetulus) and grizzled giant squirrels (Ratufa macroura) roam the trees, and crested serpent-eagles (Spilornis cheela) and black eagles (Ictinaetus malayensis) soar high in the sky. To the north lies a rugged mountain chain, The Knuckles, with a maximum altitude of 1,863 metres. The bus then descends, at a hair-raising speed, through hairpin-bends on a narrow road, surrounded by rainforest.

 

Aborigines of Sri Lanka
My goal is the small town of Maha Oya, from where I hope to be able to track down the Veddas, the aboriginal people of Sri Lanka – presumably of mixed Negrito and Australoid origin. They were a wild people, first mentioned by a traveller from ancient Thebes, who wrote De Moribus Brachmanorum, c. 400 A.D. In the interior of the island, he met the Besadaeans, of whom he relates, ”This people are by far the smallest and weakest, they live in rock caves and know how to climb over the intricately massed rocks and thus gather pepper from the bushes.”  He calls them weak, but nevertheless they captured him and kept him prisoner for some time before releasing him. He was terribly frightened by their bloodshot eyes, loud voices, and savage gnashing of their teeth.

 

Invading Sinhalese
The Veddas were driven far into the jungles by invading Sinhalese, an Indo-European people from North India, who, in 6th Century B.C., conquered most of Sri Lanka and created an advanced civilization, comprising several competing kingdoms. Throughout the island, irrigation systems, with hundreds of artificial lakes, called wewa, carried water to inundate innumerable paddy fields. Many of these lakes are still present today.

The Sinhalese soon converted to Buddhism. According to legend, Buddhist preacher Arahat Mahinda arrived at Mihintale, near Anuradhapura, c. 250 B.C., where he met King Devanampiyatissa, who was out hunting. The king became interested in this new philosophy and decided to convert to Buddhism. A monastery was built at Mihintale, and a large rock out in the open was elected as ’information rock’. From this rock, monks were informing the old gods about the new thoughts.

Mahinda had many conversations with the king, once saying: “Oh, Great King! The birds of the air and the beasts have an equal right to live and move about in any part of this land as Thou. The land belongs to the peoples and all other beings, and Thou art only the guardian of it.”

Apparently, these wise words did not count for the Veddas, who were driven into remote mountains and jungles in the eastern part of the island. Around 1163, the Veddas are mentioned by King Parakramabahu, who calls them Kiratas, meaning ’wild hunters’ in Sanskrit. He employed several of them as warriors. Buddhism preaches non-violence, but nevertheless various kings fought each other viciously. The irrigation systems were destroyed, the artificial lakes turned into muddy pools, and malaria killed the majority of the population. The jungle conquered the Sinhalese buildings, and the Veddas got some of their old hunting grounds back.

Later the Portugese, then the Dutch, and finally the British took control of the island. In 1681, Robert Knox writes about the Veddas: ”They kill deer, and dry the flesh over the fire, and the people of the country come and buy it of them. They never till any ground for corn, their food being only flesh. They are very expert with their bows. They have a little ax, which they stick in by their sides, to cut honey out of hollow trees.”

 

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In 1681, Robert Knox wrote about the Veddas: ”They kill deer, and dry the flesh over the fire, and the people of the country come and buy it of them. They never till any ground for corn, their food being only flesh. They are very expert with their bows.” (Picture from N. Wijesekera, 1964. Veddas in transition)

 

 

Tissahami – a famous outlaw
Still, the Veddas were living in rock caves, but slowly they made more contact with the foreigners. It became difficult for them to make a living by hunting, as much of the forest was cut down for farming. However, several Veddas refused to succumb to the new ways of life, and foreigners and Veddas were often killed in skirmishes. In the long run, the Veddas were forced to give up their land, as the authorities always favoured the Sinhalese and Tamil settlers.

Numerous tales have been told about Tissahami, a famous Vedda, who lived near Maha Oya in the 1930s. Together with his two wives, a Vedda and a Sinhalese, he lived on a small piece of land, growing crops, which they sold to travelling tradesmen. Tissahami and his eldest son were both very hot-tempered, and in a dispute with another man they killed him. They were declared outlaws, and the family fled into the jungle, always moving about to avoid the authorities. Finally, his wives and children had enough and left him, moving to the small hamlet of Pollebedda. Only his eldest son stayed with him, and they fled into the most remote parts of the jungle. The son died, but Tissahami disappeared completely. He was declared dead, but many years later he suddenly emerged from the jungles, and lived to a ripe old age.

Today, there are probably no pure-blooded Veddas left, as they have intermarried with Sinhalese and Tamils. They now make a living as farmers, cultivating crops like maize, manioc (cassava), and chili in chenas (clearings) in the jungle. Occasionally, the men hunt sambar deer (Cervus unicolor) and wildboar (Sus scrofa), and they gather honey from wild bees. From a certain tree, they collect the sweet fruits, which are considered a great delicacy. Unfortunately, the Veddas cut down these trees to gather the fruits, and this species has become very rare.

 

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Tissahami, the famous Vedda outlaw, photographed in the 1950s. (Picture from N. Wijesekera, 1964. Veddas in transition)

 

 

Hike towards Polebedda
Mahiyangana is a small town, surrounded by fields of maize, manioc, melons, bananas, and other crops. I talk to a French/English couple who, with two Sinhalese friends, are on their way to visit Veddas near the town of Maha Oya, who are still partly living the traditional way. They kindly invite me to join them. We leave the cars in Maha Oya and start walking along a sandy track through scrubland.

Here and there are huge banyan trees (Ficus benghalensis), with numerous stilt roots. Malabar hornbills (Anthracoceros coronatus), hill mynas (Gracula religiosa), and toque monkeys (Macaca sinica) feed on their tiny fruits. In the scrubland we observe many other birds, including blue-tailed bee-eaters (Merops philippinus), Indian rollers (Coracias benghalensis), ring-necked parakeets (Psittacula krameri), brown-headed barbets (Psilopogon zeylanicus), and black-winged kites (Elanus caeruleus).

It is very hot, and we make a brief stop to ask a farmer for water. He hands us oranges to quench our thirst. We walk briskly, covering about 12 kilometres before reaching the hamlet of Pollebedda, just before dusk. We are allowed to spend the night in a small school, which is wonderfully cool, as it has only one end wall, while the other three sides are open. We enjoy our dinner, spaghetti with melted cheese and sardines. It tastes better than one should imagine – but then we are hungry.

After dark, many people from the village gather to talk with us. Four of them are of Vedda origin, and they agree to be our guides the following day, showing the way to a huge rock in the jungle, Nuwaragala, where, not so long ago, Veddas used to live on rock ledges. An old prankster entertains us with songs, which Sarath, one of our Sinhalese companions, writes down, giggling. He refuses to translate for us!

 

Sri Lanka 1974-75
On our way towards Pollebedda, we met these women, carrying water, children, and other burdens to their village. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

Sri Lanka 1974-75
We observed many birds in the open country, among these brown-headed barbets (Psilopogon zeylanicus). This one is sitting in a shrub of Spanish flag (Lantana camara). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

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Vedda children, Pollebedda. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Into Vedda country
Early the following morning, we enter the forest with our four Vedda guides. In the dense jungle, trees, bushes, and vines compete for space, and our Vedda guides spend a considerable amount of time cutting down the vegetation, which covers the rarely used trail. Colourful butterflies flutter about in the clearings, and hornbills make a tremendous noise. A beautiful Sri Lanka junglefowl (Gallus lafayetii) crosses the trail in front of us, and a sambar deer flees into the forest. In a dried-out watercourse, we find tracks of wild elephants (Elephas maximus) and Indian porcupines (Hystrix indica). Many other animals live in this jungle, e.g. wildboar, sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), purple-faced langur, and the strange slender loris (Loris tardigradus), a small primate with large eyes and long, slender limbs.

Occasionally, we make a stop to pull off blood-sucking leeches, which cling to our legs. On its head, a leech has a sucking pad, and when it senses your body heat it quickly tries to attach itself to your skin. If it goes unnoticed, it cuts into your skin with its sharp mandibles to suck your blood. You don’t feel anything, but the wound will bleed copiously, itching terribly. Otherwise, there are no effects of the bite.

Twice we pass chenas, where the forest has been burned and maize planted among the black stumps. At the end of one chena is a small palm-thatched hut, containing only a few kitchen utensils. They belong to people from Pollebedda, who occasionally come here to tend their crops. In the intense heat, we start ascending the huge Nuwaragala rock. A rope ladder is dangling down the rock face, used by Veddas, when they collect honey from wild bees, which often build their nest on sheer rock walls.

Atop the rock are the remains of an ancient Sinhalese culture, including a water reservoir, which was carved out of the rock. Here we quench our thirst, afterwards having a refreshing swim. Numerous frogs, water beetles, and other small creatures swim about in the water, and a huge pile of dung indicates that wild elephants also drink from the pool.

“Can elephants really get up here?” I ask Sarath.

“Oh, yes,” he answers, “elephants are very adept at climbing quite steep rocks.”

 

Sydasien 1976-77
The jungle was a dense mass of trees, bushes, and vines, competing for space. Our Vedda guides spent a considerable amount of time cutting down the vegetation, covering the rarely used trail. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

Sydasien 1982-83
Gorgeous butterflies fluttered about in the clearings, here a common rose (Atrophaneura aristolochiae). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

Sri Lanka 2015
A beautiful Sri Lanka junglefowl (Gallus lafayetii) cock, crossing the trail in front of us. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

Sydasien 1976-77
On our way through the jungle, we passed several chenas (clearings), in which maize had been planted. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

Sri Lanka 1974-75
Atop this rock, named Nuwaragala, are ruins from an ancient Sinhalese culture, including this water reservoir, which is carved down into the rock. It was full of water, so after quenching our thirst, we had a refreshing swim in the pool. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

On the rock ledge
While we relax, our Vedda guides discuss whether the dark clouds above the jungle are going to make us wet. They have hardly reached a conclusion, before a heavy rain storm reaches us. Packing our things in a hurry, we follow our Veddas through the wet forest, stumbling over large rocks and climbers. Finally, drenched to the skin, we reach a rock ledge, on which we can seek shelter. The surrounding landscape is completely hidden in clouds.

This rock ledge is an old Vedda dwelling, approximately 25 metres long and 10 metres wide. Along the outer edge of the ceiling, a small furrow has been carved to collect rainwater, which would otherwise drip down on the floor. From this furrow, the water drips into another furrow on the floor, from where it is directed over the edge. At one end of the ledge, rainwater is led from yet another furrow into a small pool, acting as a source of drinking water.

Our guides ignite a fire to give us some warmth, and to dry our clothes. Finally, the rain ceases, and the surrounding mountains can occasionally be seen through clouds, which the fierce wind blows upwards to our ledge – where they dissolve as if by magic. To the south-east is the ragged top of a mountain, named Friar’s Hood, and we get a glimpse of a huge lake, Senanayake Samudra, in the distance. Small Indian swiftlets (Aerodramus unicolor) zoom along the rock face, hunting for insects.

We enjoy our evening meal, huddled around the fire, while a chorus of frogs start croaking from the small pool on the ledge. Then we creep into our sleeping bags, as near to the fire as possible, as the wind is still very cold. The Veddas keep the fire going throughout the night.

The following morning, we return to the Sinhalese reservoir. In the wet forest, we find baskets and the remains of a fire, and soon we meet a few men from the village, who are out to gather forest fruits. They inform us that the previous evening they had been unable to find our rock ledge, and were forced to spend an uncomfortable night, huddled under a small, overhanging rock.

 

Sri Lanka 1974-75
My companions, gathered on the rock ledge, where we found shelter from the pouring rain. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

Sydasien 1976-77
Our guide Goompa entertains us, singing Vedda songs. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

Sydasien 1976-77
Clear morning on the rock ledge. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Malaria
On our way back towards Maha Oya, we make a brief stop at a small hut in a chena. The people here kindly invite us for tea, handing us lovely melons to quench our thirst. The previous night they observed elephants and a sloth bear with two young. They inform us that there is a shortcut to Maha Oya, so that we don’t have to go back to Pollebedda first. As it turns out, the shortcut enters a paved road quite a distance from Maha Oya, and we have to follow the steaming hot road for a long time, sweating profusely in the intense heat.

By now, our water supply is almost exhausted, and we approach a small house to ask for drinking water. The owner hands us water of a dubious colour, but we are very thirsty, so we drink it anyway. The family are settlers who have been given 5 acres of land. Maize grows well here, but, unfortunately, the area is malaria-ridden. One of their sons is lying on a mattress on the floor, sick with a high fever. We hand them malaria tablets and a little money, so that they can take the sick child to the doctor by bus. “Ayobowan,” says the man as we leave, hands cupped in front of his face.

Exhausted, we reach Maha Oya, just as ominous black clouds cover the sky. However, only a few drops of rain fall.

 

Sri Lanka 1974-75
On our hike back towards Maha Oya, we made a brief stop at a temporary hut, situated in a clearing in the forest. The farmers here gave us tea and refreshing melons. Our Vedda guides are second, third, sixth, and seventh from left. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Reference
N. Wijesekera (1964). Veddas in transition. M.D. Gunasena & Co., Colombo

 

 

(Uploaded February 2016)

 

(Revised September 2018)