For the small Veddah community of Uru Warige Wanniyala-eththo-- just 375 families living in the fast expanding town of Dambana, 20 km from Mahiyangana-- it is indeed a struggle between their traditional way of life and the encroaching demands of the modern world.
Caught up in a world of commercialism, the Veddhas have virtually turned into smart merchandisers and marketers selling their culture, lifestyle and products to the ‘Huras’ and ‘Sudu Huras’ from ‘Sidadiya’.
|Gunabandiya (left) with his father Dambane Veddah Chief Uruwarige Wanniyala-eththo
Gunabandiya, son of Uruwarige Wanniyala-eththo, who is now preparing to take over the leadership of the clan from his father talked to me on ‘katha damana yamakaya’ (mobile phone) when I contacted him from Oruthota through his good friend Michael Sansoni, whom he addresses as Michael Hura.
Thusitha, one of the community boys now working in Colombo was our guide, agreeing to take us to the Wanniyala-eththo in response to Michael Hura’s request to look after ‘Aththola from kola pojja’ (guys from the newspaper).
Some say the genuine Veddahs live in the areas such as Nilgala, Rathugala and Pollebedda in the Ampara District, though Uru-Warige Wanniyala- eththo claims he is the supreme leader of all these groups.
The word Veddah is derived from the Sanskrit Vyaddha — means one who lives by chase, thus meaning a hunter. The Veddah language itself is a mixture of Pali, Sanskrit and the now defunct Elu.
Wanniyala-eththo ('forest-dwellers') as they call themselves, trace 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.
Even today, the surviving Wanniyala-eththo 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.
But the fast disappearing jungle, education and modern influences seem to be the biggest threat to the Veddah community especially in Dambana.
Their close relationship and intermarriage with their Sinhalese neighbours has contributed to the decline of the Veddahs as a distinct people and today, the Dambana Veddahs are hard pressed to hold on to their roots. The other Veddah communities, those in Nilgala in the Eastern Province and Yakkure in the North-Central Province are said to follow a more traditional lifestyle.
The traditional hunting ground of the Dambana Veddah now comes under the Maduru-Oya National Park and according to the Wanniyala- eththo, government officials have laid down strict rules and regulations, restricting their livelihood. Their leader alleges that corrupt officials have forcibly barred Veddahs from their own forests, depriving them of access to their traditional livelihood, staple diet and sacred dancing grounds.
The creation of the new Maduru Oya park on November 10, 1983, made cultural orphans of the Wanniyala-eththo. The final fringe of the forests in which they had been hunters and gatherers was made off limits for all hunting and gathering of food. Veddahs who tried to stick to the old ways ran the risk of being arrested as poachers.
Since the late 80’s, Veddah leaders have listened to official assurances that 1,500 acres within the park would be given to them as a sanctuary. In fact, mindful of the great value of cultural diversity and indigenous knowledge, high level officials in the mid-1990s recommended that urgent steps be taken to expedite the proposal. But to this day the appointed board of trustees has not met, lending credence to Veddah allegations of vested bureaucratic interest in the issue.
“We will protect our forests just as we always have. In fact, when I met Maha Hura (the President) few weeks ago, I told him of the agony we are going through. He promised to find a suitable solution to our problem,” the Chief said.
“The old people want to return and some of our children also prefer our traditional way of life. Though some go to town for various jobs they find it difficult to survive there, they always want to come back to the jungle,” said Gunabandiya, hopeful of continuing the traditional lifestyle coming down from his ancestors.
The only graduate from the community, Gunawardena teaches at the Dambana school.
The Veddah religion centres round a cult of worship of ancestral spirits known as Ne yaku, whom the Veddahs invoked for game and yams. But today, many Veddahs are Buddhists like their Sinhalese neighbours. Apart from the Dambana Veddahs, all other Veddah tribes in different areas consider Mahiyangana as their main religious base and attend the religious programmes there. The Dambana Veddahs have, however, with the influence of the Sinhalese, chosen the Dalada Maligawa as their main focus for religious activities and have been providing the annual requirements of honey to the Dalada Maligawa as a thewawa (service).
The Veddah culinary fare also deserves special mention.Amongst the best known delicacies are gona perume, which is a sort of sausage containing alternate layers of meat and fat, and goya-tel-perume, which is the tail of the monitor lizard (talagoya), stuffed with fat obtained from its sides and roasted in embers. Another Veddah delicacy is dried meat preserve soaked in honey. In the olden days, the Veddahs used to preserve such meat in the hollow of a tree, enclosing it with clay.
But with hunting restricted, nowadays more and more Veddahs have taken to chena cultivation. Kurakkan is cultivated as too are maize, yams, gourds and melons. Cattle and dairy farming is common in Dambana. “We have to survive,” Gunabandiya says.
As with other aspects of their lives, their clothing too has changed. Men wear a short sarong extending to the knees, while the womenfolk are clad in a garment similar to the Sinhalese diya-redda which extends from the breast to the knee. A few are completely modernized and wear trousers and shirts for Sidadiyato but not in the jungle.
The genuineness of the Veddah community in Dambane is no longer the question that troubles visitors, it is whether, 25 years down the line, there will be any Veddahs left in Dambana.