Centenary of a classical study

100 years ago C.G. Seligmann wrote about our Veddahs
By Alex Perera

Charles P. Mountford writing about Australian aborigines in his book “The Dream Time” says “No other race has ever lived in Australia, nor present time are there people of the same stock anywhere else in the world, except perhaps the pre Dravidians of India and the almost extinct Veddahs of Ceylon who may be distantly related” (The Dream Time, Rigby Publishers, Sydney 1965. p.9). This statement proves that though the number of Veddahs are few, their importance is recognised worldwide.

The Veddahs are considered to be the aborigines of Sri Lanka. They have a pre-historical legacy. “The Veddas have been regarded as one of the most primitive of existing races and it has long been felt desirable that their social life and religious ideas should be investigated as thoroughly as possible,” said C.G. Seligmann and Brenda Z. Seligmann hundred years ago in 1911 in the preface of their book The Veddas.

Dr. Charles Gabriel Seligmann (1873-1940) was a renowned anthropologist who was the President of the Royal Anthropological Institute between 1923 and 1925. After joining the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait in Melanesia in 1898, he changed his career from medicine to anthropology and began his career as a distinguished field anthropologist.

The Veddas contains his pioneering ethnology of the indigenous Veddah people of our country. The social, political, religious and economic life of the Veddahs is systematically examined in this detailed study, first published as part of the Cambridge Archaeological and Ethnological Series in 1911. This ethnology remains the standard reference work of the social structure and material culture of the Veddas and contains views on ethnicity which were acceptable at the time it was published. A classical study, it has been used, followed and appreciated by almost all the anthropologists, scholars, researchers and writers who have had a scholarly interest in the Veddah community over the past 100 years.

Dr. Seligmann did this study following proper ethnographic research methodologies, helped by his wife Brenda. R. L. Spittel who also wrote on the Veddah community many years after Seligmann, appreciated the way he had done his field work. Spittel in page 17 0f his Wild Ceylon says, “To obtain the valuable sociological information with which his (Seligmann’s) book abounds he (Seligmann) had gained the confidence of these folk with scrupulous consideration and kindness, showering on them gifts of all kinds.”

In the centenary of this work, those engaged in socio-anthropological researches on the Veddah community should pay tribute to this scholar and his wife who did their classical study amidst many difficulties such as malaria, transport problems etc. They had no computers, no mobile phones or digital cameras. With the minimum facilities they had, they did their maximum to produce an exhaustive study.

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