The Wanniyala-Aetto, or “forest people”, more commonly known as Veddas or Veddahs, are an Indigenous people of Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Indian Ocean; they were never numerous and are now few in number.
According to the genesis myth of the Sinhala “race”/people, recorded in the ancient chronicle of the Sinhalese royalty, the Mahavansa, the Pulindas also called Veddas are descended from Prince Vijaya (6th-5th century BC), the founding father of the Sinhalese nation, through Kuveni, a woman of the Yakkha clan whom he had espoused. The Mahavansa relates that following the repudiation of Kuveni by Vijaya, in favour of a “Kshatriya” princess from the “Pandya” country, their two children, a boy and a girl, departed to the region of “Sumanakuta” (Adam’s Peak in the Ratnapura District), where they multiplied, giving rise to the Veddhas. Anthropologists such as the Seligmanns (The Veddhas 1911) believe the Veddhas to be identical with the “Yakkhas” of yore.
Veddas are also mentioned in Robert Knox’s history of his captivity by the King of Kandy in the 17th century. Knox described them as “wild men,” but also said there was a “tamer sort,” and that the latter sometimes served in the king’s army.
The Ratnapura District, which is part of the Sabaragamuwa Province is known to have been inhabited by the Veddhas in the distant past. This has been shown by scholars like Nandadeva Wijesekera (Veddhas in transition 1964). Indeed, the very name Sabaragamuwa is believed to have meant the village of the Sabaras or “forest barbarians”. Such place-names as Veddha-gala (Veddha Rock), Veddha-ela (Veddha Canal) and Vedi-kanda (Veddha Mountain) in the Ratnapura District also bear testimony to this. As Wijesekera observes, a strong Veddha element is discernible in the population of Veddha-gala and its environs. As for the traditional Veddha lifestyle, a number of authorities have delved on this and we can easily describe their life-style as it existed in the past, and as it exists today.
The parent Vedda language(s) is of unknown genetic origins, while Sinhalese is of the Indo-Aryan branch of Indo-European languages. Phonologically it is distinguished from Sinhalese by the higher frequency of palatal sounds C and J. The effect is also heightened by the addition of inanimate suffixes. Morphologically Vedda language word class is divided into nouns, verbs and invariables with unique gender distinctions in animate nouns. Per its Creole tradition, it has reduced and simplified many forms of Sinhalese such as second person pronouns and denotations of negative meanings.
Instead borrowing new words from Sinhalese Vedda created combinations of words from a limited lexical stock. Vedda also maintains many archaic Sinhalese terms prior to the 10th to 12th centuries, as a relict of its close contact with Sinhalese. Vedda also retains a number of unique words that cannot be derived from Sinhalese. Conversely, Sinhalese has also borrowed from the original Vedda language, words and grammatical structures, differentiating it from its related Indo-Aryan languages. Vedda has exerted a substratum influence in the formation of Sinhalese.
Sinhala-speaking Veddas are found primarily in the southeastern part of the country, especially in the vicinity of Bintenne in Uva District. There are also Sinhala-speaking Veddas who live in Anuradhapura District in the North Central Province.
Another group, often termed East Coast Veddas, is found in coastal areas of the Eastern Province, between Batticaloa and Trincomalee. These Veddas have adopted Tamil Tamil. The Sinhala speaking East Coast Veddas, are called Panama Veddas. They live just south of Batticoloa.
Religion of the Indigenous People
Animism is the original religion of Veddas. The Sinhalized interior Veddahs follow a mix of animism and nominal Buddhism whereas the Tamilized east coast Veddahs follow a mix of animism and nominal Hinduism, known as folk Hinduism amongst anthropologists. One of the most distinctive features of Vedda religion is the worship of dead ancestors: these are termed “nae yaku” among the Sinhala-speaking Veddas. There are also peculiar deities that are unique to Veddas. One of them is “Kande Yakka”.
Veddas along with the Island’s Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim communities venerate the temple complex situated at Kataragama, showing the syncretism that has evolved over 2,000 years of coexistence and assimilation. Kataragama is supposed to be the site at which the Hindu god Skanda or Murugan in Tamil met and married a local tribal girl, Valli, who in Sri Lanka is believed to have been a Vedda. There are a number of other shrines across the island, not as famous as Kataragama that are as sacred to the Veddas as well as to other communities.
Veddha religion centred round a cult of ancestral spirits known as Ne yakku, whom the Veddhas invoked for game and yams.
The Veddha marriage ceremony is a very simple affair. The ritual consists of the bride tying a bark rope (diya lanuva) of her own twisting, around the waist of the bridegroom. This is the essence of the Veddha marriage and is symbolic of the bride’s acceptance of the man as her mate and life partner. Although marriage between cross-cousins was the norm until recently, this has changed significantly, with Veddha women even contracting marriages with their Sinhalese and Moor neighbours.
In Veddha society, woman is in many respects man’s equal. She is entitled to similar inheritance. Monogamy is the general rule, though a widow would be frequently married by her husband’s brother as a means of support and consolation (widow inheritance). Death too is a simple affair without any ostentatious funeral ceremonies and the corpse of the deceased is promptly buried. Although that medical knowledge of the Veddha is limited, it nevertheless appears to be sufficient. For example, pythonesa oil (pimburu tel), a local remedy used for healing wounds, has proven to be very successful in the treatment of fractures and deep cuts.
Burial of the Indigenous People
In Vedda burial rituals the dead body was scented or smeared with some juice obtained from the leaves of jungle trees or a lime tree. The foot or the head of the grave was never lit either with fire or wax and water was not kept in a vessel by the grave side.
Cult of the Dead
The Veddas believe in the cult of the dead. They worshipped and made incantations to their Nae Yakka (Relative Spirit) followed by other customary ritual (called the Kiri Koraha) which is still in vogue among the surviving Gam Veddas of Rathugala, Pollebedda Dambana and the Henanigala Vedda re-settlement (in Mahaweli systems off Mahiyangane).
They believed that the spirit of their dead would haunt them bringing forth diseases and calamity. To appease the dead spirit they invoke the blessings of the Nae Yakka and other spirits, like Bilinda Yakka, Kande Yakka followed by the dance ritual of the Kiri Koraha.
According to Sarasin Cousins (in 1886) and Seligmann’s book – ‘The Veddas’ (1910).
“When man or woman dies from sickness, the body is left in the cave or rock shelter where the death took place, the body is not washed or dressed or ornamented in any way, but is generally allowed to be in the natural supine position and is covered with leaves and branches. This was formerly the universal custom and still persists among the less sophisticated Veddas who sometimes in addition place a large stone upon the chest for which no reason could be given, this is observed at Sitala Wanniya (off Polle-bedda close to Maha Oya), where the body is still covered with branches and left where the death occurred.”
Clothing of the Indigenous People
Until fairly recent times, the raiment of the Veddhas was remarkably scanty. In the case of men, it consisted only of a loincloth suspended with a string at the waist, while in the case of women, it was a piece of cloth that extended from the navel to the knees. Today, however, Veddha attire is more covering, men wear a short sarong extending from the waist to the knees, while the womenfolk clad themselves in a garment similar to the Sinhalese diya-redda which extends from the breastline to the knees.