The forest conceals many secrets. Centuries ago, there lived a clan of people in the forestlands of Sri Lanka. The chroniclers of the Mahavamsa had reason to believe that these early citizens were members of the Yakkha tribe. After the arrival of the banished Indian prince Vijaya, it is believed that he fathered the children of Kuveni. Subsequently, the children wandered into the hills of Samanalakanda (Adam’s peak). The Sabaragamuwa Province is said to have been an abode of the Veddas as the word Sabara-gamuwa denotes village of the sabara (forest dweller). The remaining tribes are found today in the North Central and Eastern Provinces.
For generations, the Vedda showed their prowess as stealthy hunters. They followed their prey hunting only for food. Their accurate weapons of choice were the bow and arrow, hand axe and spear. They tracked down deer, wild boars, tortoises, monitor lizards, turtles and rabbits. The flesh of the brown monkey remains a prized relish. Living in the dense forests requires constant energy. The Vedda men mastered the art of stunning fish with poison taken from the cactus plants, with tiny amounts mixed into the lake. At times, the women ventured with the men to gather fruits, nuts and yams. The most desired find was a honey comb. The seasoned Vedda would release smoke and gently scatter the bees. In order to preserve meat for dry spells, they pioneered the science of food preservation, soaking venison in honey which was stored in old tree trunks. I was bestowed this delicacy three decades ago! After adapting to cultivation, kurrakkan is also part of the present diet.
The signature dishes of the original tribes are gona perume (a meat dish layered with fat) and goya tel perume (the tail of the thala goya roasted on embers). To the Vedda men, hunting is a time-honoured ritual, where they dance and make incantations under moonlit skies to seek the blessings of dead ancestors and the spirits Kande yakka, Bilinda and Nae Yakka.
Their minds were focused on pleasing their ancestors who would guide them towards their prey. The hunting party always shared their kill. Hunters often sustained deep cuts and bruises, and the Vedda used herbs and roots in the forest as simple, yet effective remedies. Oil from the deadly python (pimburu thel) was used to heal fractures.
The communication patterns of these tribes are not fully understood. There is speculation if the Vedda dialect derived from some Indian dialect or if it is loosely based on an ancient form of Sinhalese. Over the years, the hunters in the Eastern Province have incorporated words from Tamil into their dialect. Apart from language, the Vedda used a series of bird calls and hooting as communal signals. To date, there is no trace of the Vedda having written anything, though some cave drawings have been discovered. One can assume the women must take credit for this primitive art, as they anxiously sat in the caves for their husbands to return.
The folks of Mahiyangana, Bintenne and Dambana multiplied and sustained their clan often intermarrying. The wedding ceremony is terribly simple. The prospective groom returns from a hunt, bringing a rabbit or monitor lizard, at times a portion of a honeycomb. He waits outside the hut of his bride. The girl’s father leads her outside and places her hand in the hand of the hunter. She ties a cord (diya lanuwa) around his waist, a primitive vow of love. The bride’s father then presents a bow and arrow to the man. Today, the remaining Vedda have abandoned their loin cloth for a short sarong, and the once bare-breasted women wear a cloth from the navel down with a blouse that really has no form of design. Those who moved to rural villages have integrated well and adapted to a more refined lifestyle.
Robert Knox wrote about them as a tribe of ‘wild men’, when he was imprisoned in Kandy. The Vedda were used as military scouts during the reign of King Parakramabahu , Dutugemunu, Rajasinghe II and the revolutionary Keppitipola Dissawe. When a death occurred, the body was simply left behind in a cave and covered with leaves. Some had a habit of sprinkling the corpse with lime juice and keeping three open coconuts.
The dead hunter’s bow and arrow was kept by his side. The Waniyela aetto venerate the sun (Maha Suriyo Deviyo) and also journey to the temple of Kataragama. This indigenous clan will soon vanish from our nation, and be a faded memory.
Pic courtesy: www.theinfopost.org