Vanishing silhouettes in our forests | Daily News


 

Vanishing silhouettes in our forests

Indigenous chiefs
Indigenous chiefs

Indigenous people are the true pride of a nation. They are the people who express and augment the natural essence of that nation. The native tribes of the Cherokee in America, the Aborigines of Australia and the Masai Mara in Tanzania represent these beautiful cultures. The adventurous Englishman, Robert Knox wrote about the Veddah of ancient Ceylon, as he was intrigued by their lifestyle. Due to their stealth in the dense jungles the Veddah were once deployed as military scouts during the reign of King Parakramabahu, King Dutugemunu, and King Rajasinghe II. It is said that the revolutionary chief Keppetipola Disawe also relied on their tracking skills. 

Centuries ago, there lived a clan of people in the jungles of this island. The chroniclers of the Mahavamsa had reason to believe that these primitive tribesmen were members of the Yakka clan. When the banished Indian prince Vijaya landed on our shores, it is believed that he got acquainted with Kuveni, the leader of her clan. Some also add that their offspring grew in number. Subsequently, these wild children are said to have wandered towards the lush hills of Samanalakanda (Adam’s Peak). The Sabaragamuwa Province is said to have been a jungle refuge of the Veddahs as the word Sabara-gamuwa denotes, village of the Sabara (forest dweller).  

If this theory is correct, these descendents of indigenous clans are found today in the North Central Province. The four main clans are Uruwarige, Thalawarige, Moranawarige and Unapanawarige. In the past five decades, descendents of the Veddah have peacefully integrated into village communities, adapting to cultivation and farming.  

The white doctor 

The late Dr. Richard Lionel Spittel or R. L. Spittel as he was known was a man who dedicated much of his life to understand these indigenous people. During his time he was a gifted surgeon, who also ventured into the forest to hunt. One day, he had an encounter in the wild that changed his focus. After shooting a deer, he found the innocent fawn nearby. He was upset and wrote a poem titled, ‘The wounded doe’. After that encounter he stopped hunting. 

He developed a passion to locate the elusive Veddah. The doctor ventured by canoe along the Mahaweli Ganga towards Dimbulagala, to the rock known as Gunners Quoin. When he met the Veddah they would have been apprehensive of this stranger, but gradually they built a beautiful bond. Dr. Spittel earned the clan’s trust and became their “hudu hura”- white blood brother. Living in the jungles had afflicted the clan with malaria which was a feared health condition then. He spent months working with them and became a lone crusader for the Veddah and wrote many inspiring books. Two of these books are Savage Sanctuary and Vanished Trails.  

The hunter’s realm 

The agile Veddah showed their prowess as stealthy hunters. They silently tracked their prey, hunting only for food. Their trusted weapons of choice were the bow and arrow, hand axe and spear. They tracked down deer, monkey, wild boar, tortoise, monitor lizards, turtles and rabbits. Living in the dense forests requires energy. The Veddah men experimented with the art of stunning fish using poison taken from the certain plants, with tiny amounts mixed into the lake. At times, the women ventured with the men to gather fruits and yams. The most desired find was a honey comb which was a treat. The Veddah men would release smoke and gently scatter the bees (this practice is also used in Brazil and Africa). They influenced the science of food preservation, soaking venison in honey. With this method the meat could be kept for longer.  

After adapting to rudimentary forms of cultivation, Kurrakkan became part of their diet. I have heard that the signature dishes of the original tribes were gona perume (a meat dish layered with fat) and goya thel perume (the tail of the thalagoya (Iguana) roasted on slow burning embers). To the Veddah men hunting is a ritual and not a recreational activity. Very often they would dance and make incantations under the night skies to seek the blessings of dead ancestors.  

The highly superstitious community venerated the spirits Kande Yakka, Bilinda and Nae Yakka. Their minds were focused on pleasing their ancestors who they believed would guide them towards the prey. Hunters often got cuts and bruises, and the Veddah used herbs and roots in the forest as natural effective remedies. Oil from the python (pimburu thel) was used to restore fractures.  

The communication pattern of the tribe is not fully understood. There is debate among linguists if the Veddah dialect derived from some Indian dialect or if it is loosely based on ancient Sinhalese. Over the years, the tribal clans originating in the Eastern Province have incorporated Tamil words into their dialect. Apart from language, the Veddah use a series of bird calls and hooting as signals. A comprehensive study of these signals would be very interesting.  

Coastal hunters 

The word Veddah is said to have derived from the Sanskrit word vyadha - meaning hunter. Today there is a small minority designated as Coastal Veddah, who live in the Eastern Province between Trincomalee and Batticaloa. They were initially identified in 1911 by Charles Seligman, a British physician. This group spoke a dialect which had many Tamil words. This clan engages in fishing and basket weaving. A small clan of these Veddah were said to have lived near Eravur (Batticaloa) and Foul Point (Trincomalee).  

In 1946 a large concentration of these clans were found in and around Vakarai. Some of these families had once lived in the village of Kokkadicholai. There is no substantial evidence to show if the Veddah members from ancient Sabaragamuwa, made it all the way to the Eastern coast and slowly integrated into a small pocket of that Tamil community. Today it is said there are some descendents of the Veddah, who prefer to conceal their roots due to the stigma associated with indigenous clans. 

Wild rituals 

The famous tribal chief in our era was the late Tisahamy Aththo, a man with an amiable disposition. The tribes in Mahiyangana, Bintenne and Dambana managed to sustain their clan numbers by intermarrying. The Veddah wedding ceremony is basic with no glamour. The prospective groom returns from a hunt, bringing a rabbit or a monitor lizard, with a freshly cut honeycomb. He waits expectantly outside the hut of his young lover. 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 solidarity. The bride’s father presents a bow and an arrow to the man. The couple leaves to begin a new chapter. Today, the remaining Veddah have abandoned their loin cloth for a sarong. When a death occurred in the clan, the body was 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 betel pouch, bow and arrow were kept by his side. Over the years they began to bury their departed clan members. The Waniyela Aththo venerate the Sun (Maha Suriyo Deviyo). They believe in animism. 

They annually undertake a long journey on foot to the temple of Kataragama which is a display of their stamina and knowledge of jungle routes. Here they make an offering of honey. The Tamil speaking descendents of Veddah (Eastern Province) worship some Hindu deities and a spirit called Kumara Deivam. All Veddah clans engage in devil-dancing where they go into a trance. Another dance ritual is the kiri koraha, which is done to invoke blessings and appease spirits. The Veddah make a tripod and placed tobacco and betel leaves in a pot. A coconut is placed with eight arrow heads. The men dance as the drum is beaten with a frenzied pulse. They chant with their axes held high. The coconut in the ritual is broken with one strike, and must break in perfect half portions for good luck. Later the coconut milk is extracted and splashed on the hunter’s bodies. These rituals may fade away within the next decade.  

With the pressure of digital influence and cultural assimilation, Sri Lanka’s indigenous citizens must not be reduced to photographs in a travel website. The robust Veddah communities are part of this country and have the right to be appreciated and protected. 


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