Encounter with Tissahamy
Almost 22 years ago my friends and I went on a trip to Dambana. On
our way we visited several places and stayed at a large rest-hall in
close proximity to the Mahiyangana temple that night.
On the following morning all my colleagues except one, left for
Sorabora wewa and other places of interest according to the itinerary.
The elder veddha: Tissahamy
As I rested in bed I heard the unmistakable veddha lingo being
spoken, and went out to investigate. I saw the rest-hall keeper chatting
with two veddhas who were seated on their haunches under the porch of
The elder veddha was thin and had a greying beard that fell to almost
the middle of his chest. The younger who appeared just in his twenties,
was shorter but looked well nourished. Both of them carried short handle
axes over their shoulders.
The rest-hall keeper told me that their names were Gama Aththa and
Rathanala Aththa respectively and that they visit the rest-hall three or
four times a year, when they come to Mahiyangana. Rathanala was the
grandson of Tissahamy, the veddha chief. Since I had heard and read of
Tissahamy and now had a desire to meet him, I asked the two veddhas if
they would take me to Tissahamy, but they tried to put me off stating
that Tissahamy lived in Dambana, about 25 miles away, and that to reach
his abode, one would have to walk about six miles through the jungle - a
difficult and tiresome journey.
Pathway to the Veddha village
I presented them a sarong and a spring blade pen knife, the like of
which they had not seen before, and won their consent. In less than half
an hour we were in a CTB bus which was plying through Dambana. The
conductor put us off at the small Dambana junction, which had by the
roadside, just one tile-roofed house and two cadjan ones.
The pathway to the veddha village was beside a tea boutique from
which at Rathanala’s suggestion I bought a sheaf of betel, tobacco, and
chunam for the big chief. I also bought a few packets of biscuits to be
distributed among the children, and then we set off in the very hot sun,
and for a long while walked along the narrow, winding foot path.
A rabbit scampered past, an iguana dived into the bush, chattering
monkeys took to the trees, and a pelican like bird with an enormous wing
span gracefully flew right over our heads as we trekked through the
eerie forest pierced now and then by the shrill unfamiliar sounds that
only the jungles could produce.
Gama pointed to some fresh elephant dung which was evidence that the
‘honda bataya’ from the Maduru oya forest reserve had been there, and
said that occasionally bear dung too was found. To the veddhas, the bear
is a dreadful and loathsome animal. A couple of minutes later, noticing
a bee’s hive hanging from a branch of a tree, I drew the attention of my
guides to it and observed that Gama’s axe automatically leaped to his
hands as he examined the hive, but he proclaimed that it is slightly
premature to be extracted. We finally came to the end of the forest, and
climbed over a high stile which marked the boundary entrance to the
Here, Rathanala gave a loud haloo which was answered from the village
almost immediately. Another coded ‘hoo-oo’ and the message was conveyed
that a visitor was also approaching. We were then out of the jungle and
in open ground from where I saw in the distance, a few grass thatched
huts which we approached, with Gama now in the lead. Tissahamy’s was the
first hut, which had a small open veranda and a tiny room.
I was so weary and tired that on arrival at Tissahamy’s hut I sat on
the floor with outstretched legs, and revived only after gulping down
almost half of the water brought to me in a plastic can by one of the
semi-clad veddha children, who had gathered around me by now. One or two
of them smiled shyly showing stained teeth in their dark faces, while
the wind blew into their matted hair. They were talking in their veddha
langauge which was beyond my comprehension.
Some of the elder veddhas stood in their doorways watching, while the
‘kekuli’ (young women) curiously peeped through the openings of their
huts which served as windows. ‘Mokadha may hoorah?’ (Who is this
person). Tissahamy’s second son Kalubandala Aththa who came bouncing
from nowhere barked at Rathanala, fixing a stare at me.
He was taller and more muscular than the others, and was dressed in a
span cloth. His long hair was tied in a konde, and his dark oily body
glistened in the sun. Rathanala explained the purpose of my visit, and
in no time I had made friends with the veddhas and the children among
whom I distributed the biscuits.
A message was then sent to Tissahamy who was in his nearby chena and
accompanied by two women who were his wives, he arrived shortly
thereafter and stood before me. His thick long silvery hair fell below
his shoulders and his grey beard, to the middle of his chest. He was
wearing a blue striped sarong tucked-up at the waist. Although age had
caught up with him and his skin showed wrinkles, his eyes gleamed
brightly, and he walked upright in all his majesty. Here was the great
chief, the leader of the veddha tribe of whom we had heard of so much.
Tissahamy told me to stretch out my hands, then holding my wrists
firmly shook my arms three times up and down, extending to me the veddha
welcome. I presented him the gift that I had brought with which, he was
very pleased, and immediately selected a betel leaf, applied some chunam
on it, and put in his mouth.
The veddhas chew a considerable amount of betel and perhaps that
explains their stained teeth. Tissahamy went inside his hut and emerged
a few seconds later with a bow and a single arrow in his hands.
The bow was made from a tough, flexible piece of stick and was about
4 feet in length, but only one end of the string was tied while the
other dangled freely. Holding the fastened end of the bow firmly by
foot, he tied and secured the loose end and handed the bow to me along
with the arrow which had a sharp metal head and a bird’s feather tied to
Enveloped in a great feeling of pride to be carrying the veddha
chief’s bow and arrow, I strutted out of the verandah into the garden.
Kalubandala aththo who was standing just outside among the small group
of veddhas watching, asked me if I knew how to use the weapon.
I fitted the arrow to the bow string as I had seen in films, and he
nodded his head in agreement. He then pointed to a tree stump about two
feet in height and nearly 60 feet, away, and challenged me to shoot at
Bows and Arrows
My mind raced to the past when as a boy of about 8 years, I used to
play with bows and arrows made out of coconut ekels broken off the ekel
broom at home. It gave me a feeling of delight to shoot my arrows and
make them stick on papaw fruits on my mother’s trees, but changed to
shooting and sticking them on the upper trunks of plantain trees in the
garden, after she gave me a good up-braiding and pulled my ears one day.
Yet I never had the slightest of imaginations that I would handle a real
bow and arrow.
Taking up the challenge I faced the target squarely, balanced myself
evenly, extended my left hand in which I held the bow to its fullest,
drew the end of the arrow as far back as possible, took careful aim like
an experienced archer and released the arrow, watched by nearly a dozen
veddha adults and children.
The arrow flew surely and swiftly and in a flash, hit the target dead
right in the centre. I had scored a bull’s eye. It was incredible. The
onlookers were jubilant. The little girls clapped their hands in
appreciation. Rathanala seemed to be the most jubilant. He jumped up
with a gleeful shout.
Tissahamy came upto me and placed his hand on my shoulder, and
expressed his satisfaction at my performance. Rathanala along with
another boy ran to the tree stump to fetch back the arrow. From our
distance we noticed that they had a little difficulty in extracting the
arrow, as its head was embedded in the stump.
When it was finally retrieved, it was found that the tip was bent,
and had to be straightened out with the aid of a small rock stone.
Smilingly, Kalubandala handed me the arrow and requested me to shoot at
the target once again as he wanted to see if I could repeat my feat. I
fitted the arrow and began to take my stance, but just then Kalubandala
who came from behind, held the bow, turned it horizontally and requested
me to shoot from that angle. Earlier, I shot holding the bow vertically,
and although the latter position was awkward for me I complied with the
request and shot my arrow. The arrow sped, but was carried away by the
wind that was blowing across the ground at that moment, and landed about
a foot away from the target. It was Kalubandala aththa’s turn now.
Taking quick aim at the tree stump in characteristic veddha style, he
released the arrow but to the dismay of everybody watching, it landed
well away from the target, again due to the strong breeze. He did not
make a second attempt and therefore, the duel ended there. I spent a
little more time walking about the grass thatched huts talking to all
veddhas I met, and as it was time for me to return bade them goodbye and
left the village with my guides taking a different route this time.
We came to a stream flowing gently through the jungle and peering
into the water, Gama declared that there were fish in it. Demonstrating
the art of catching fish, he plucked a type of wild berries from a
nearby bush, crushed them on a stone and sprinkled them in the water
which immediately turned inky black.
When the water cleared, a small fish was floating on the top,
intoxicated by the pulp of the berries, proving the efficient art of the
veddha-style fishing. a loud splash made me turn around and to my
immense surprise saw Rathanala in the stream. His sarong and loin clothe
were on the bank. He beckoned to Gama who in a jiffy stripped himself
and plunged into the water.
Never had I heard before that veddhas bathe but before my own eyes,
these two veddhas were ducking in and out of the water, enjoying
themselves immensely. Approximately half an hour later, we were out of
the jungle, and could see the boutique from which I bought betel. Nearby
was a well to which I made a quick bee-line, drew a bucket of water and
drank as much as possible to quench my thirst.
A young veddha woman came to the well with her little son to fetch
water and spoke to me surprisingly, in good Sinhala. She explained that
she had learnt the language at the Dambana village school which she
attended upto standard five, and also mentioned with pride the name of
Dambane Gunawardena who had studied at the same school, and at that time
had qualified to enter to Peradeniya University.
Both mother and son had not had a proper meal the whole day. Taking
pity on them I bought them cooked food from the boutique, took leave
from my guides, walked upto the main road, and boarded a bus back to
Mahiyangana and the rest-hall to await the return of my factory friends
for whom I had a very interesting story to relate.