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Vedda people

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Vedda people

Vedda chief Uruwarige Wannila Aththo.
Total population
2,500 (2002),[1] Coast Veddas 8,000 (1983), Anuradhapura Veddas 6,000 (1978)
Regions with significant populations
 Sri Lanka       2,500 (2002)
Vedda (extinct), Sinhala, Tamil
Animism, Buddhism, Hindu
Related ethnic groups
Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils

Veddas (Sinhala: වැද්දා , Tamil: வேடுவர் Vēṭuvar) are an indigenous people of Sri Lanka. They, amongst other self-identified native communities such as Coast Veddas and Anuradhapura Veddas, are accorded indigenous status.

According to the genesis chronicle of the Sinhala people, the Mahavamsa ("Great Chronicle"), written in the 5th century CE, the Pulindas believed to refer to Veddas are descended from Prince Vijaya (6th–5th century BCE), the founding father of the Sinhalese nation, through Kuveni, a woman of the indigenous Yakkha he married. The Mahavansa relates that following the repudiation of Kuveni by Vijaya, in favour of a Kshatriya-caste princess from Pandya, 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 Veddas. Anthropologists such as the Seligmanns (The Veddhas 1911) believed the Veddas to be identical with the Yakkha.

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.[2]

The Ratnapura District, which is part of the Sabaragamuwa Province, is known to have been inhabited by the Veddas in the distant past. This has been shown by scholars like Nandadeva Wijesekera (Veddhas in transition 1964). The very name Sabaragamuwa is believed to have meant the village of the Sabaras or "forest barbarians". Such place-names as Vedda-gala (Vedda Rock), Vedda-ela (Vedda Canal) and Vedi-kanda (Vedda Mountain) in the Ratnapura District also bear testimony to this. As Wijesekera observes, a strong Vedda element is discernible in the population of Vedda-gala and its environs.


Malaya Rata was the historical center of the Vedda language, a Sinhala-based creole.

The original language of the Veddas is the Vedda language. Today it is used primarily by the interior Veddas of Dambana. Communities, such as Coast Veddas and Anuradhapura Veddas, that do not identify themselves strictly as Veddas also use Vedda language in part for communication during hunting and or for religious chants. When a systematic field study was conducted in 1959 it was determined that the language was confined to the older generation of Veddas from Dambana. In 1990s self-identifying Veddas knew few words and phrases in the Vedda language, but there were individuals who knew the language comprehensively. Initially there was considerable debate amongst linguists as to whether Vedda is a dialect of Sinhalese or an independent language. Later studies indicate that it diverged from its parent stock in the 10th century and became a Creole and a stable independent language by the 13th century, under the influence of Sinhalese.

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.

Veddas that have adopted Sinhala are found primarily in the southeastern part of the country, especially in the vicinity of Bintenne in Uva District. There are also Veddas that have adopted Sinhala who live in Anuradhapura District in the North Central Province.[3]

Another group, often termed [4][5]

Cultural aspects


Group of Veddas undertaking a pilgrimage from Muttur town in Sri Lanka to Kataragama in the south.

The original religion of Veddas is animism. 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, which is known as folk Hinduism among anthropologists.

One of the most distinctive features of Vedda religion is the worship of dead ancestors, who are called "nae yaku" among the Sinhala-speaking Veddas and are invoked for game and yams.[6] There are also peculiar deities unique to Veddas, such as "Kande Yakka".[7]

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 where 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.[8]

There are a number of less famous shrines across the island, which are as sacred to the Veddas and to other communities.[8]


A traditional Vedda settlement on the coast.

Vedda marriage is a simple ceremony. It consists of the bride tying a bark rope (diya lanuva) that she has twisted, around the waist of the groom. This symbolizes 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 Vedda women even contracting marriages with their Sinhalese and Moor neighbours.

a veddah ritual about to be performed

In Vedda society, women are in many respects men's equals. They are entitled to similar inheritance. Monogamy is the general rule, though a widow would frequently marry her husband's brother as a means of support and consolation (widow inheritance). They also do not practice a caste system.[9]

Death, too, is a simple affair without ostentatious funeral ceremonies where the corpse of the deceased is promptly buried.

Although the medical knowledge of the Vedda 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.


Main entrance of the inner complex of Kataragama temple, Sri Lanka.

Since the opening of colonisation schemes, Vedda burials changed when they dug graves of 4–5 feet deep and wrapped the body wrapped cloth and covered it with leaves and earth. The Veddas also laid the body between the scooped out trunks of the gadumba tree before they buried it. At the head of the grave were kept three open coconuts and a small bundle of wood, while at its foot were kept an opened coconut and an untouched coconut. Certain cactus species (pathok) were planted at the head, the middle and the foot. Personal possessions like the bow and arrow, betel pouch, were also buried. This practice varied by community. The contents of the betel pouch of the deceased were eaten after his death.

The dead body was scented or smeared with juice from the leaves of jungle trees or lime trees. 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."


Vedda villagers from Mankery in Batticaloa district wearing sarongs and other traditional attire.

Until fairly recent times, the raiment of the Veddas 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, Vedda 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.


Bori Bori Sellam-Sellam Bedo Wannita,

Palletalawa Navinna-Pita Gosin Vetenne,

Malpivili genagene-Hele Kado Navinne,

Diyapivili Genagene-Thige Bo Haliskote Peni,

Ka tho ipal denne

(A Vedda honeycomb cutter's folk song)

Meaning of this song - The bees from yonder hills of Palle Talawa and Kade suck nectar from the flowers and made the honeycomb. So why should you give them undue pain when there is no honey by cutting the honeycomb.


A native Vedda Wanniyala-Aetto village (1910).

Vedda cave drawings such as those found at Hamangala provide graphic evidence of the sublime spiritual and artistic vision achieved by the ancestors of today's Wanniyala-Aetto people. Most researchers today agree that the artists most likely were the Wanniyala-Aetto women who spent long hours in these caves waiting for their menfolk's return from the hunt.

Understood from this perspective, these cave drawings depict brilliant feats of Wanniyala-Aetto culture as seen through the eyes of its womenfolk. The simple yet graceful abstract figures are portrayed engaging in feats of vision and daring that place them firmly above even the greatest beasts of their jungle habitat.

The nimbus or halo about the human figures' heads represents the sun's disc and, equally, the sacred power bordering upon divinity that accrues not only to great hunters but to all those endowed with the vision to behold and apprehend the marvel of divinity in humble guise. Even up to modern times, the Wanniyala-Aetto used to swear oaths of truth by the divinity of the sun, saying 'upon Maha Suriyo Deviyo'.

Such cave drawings have long served as visual memory aids and as teaching tools for the transmission of ancestral wisdom traditions to succeeding generations. To this day, they provide silent testimony to the profound heights attained by Lanka's indigenous culture expressed with elegant simplicity that people of all communities may appreciate.


A Vedda family of hunters.

Veddas were originally hunter-gatherers. They used bows and arrows to hunt game, and also gathered wild plants and honey. Many Veddas also farm, frequently using slash and burn or swidden cultivation, which is called "chena" in Sri Lanka. East Coast Veddas also practice fishing. Veddas are famously known for their rich meat diet. Venison and the flesh of rabbit, turtle, tortoise, monitor lizard, wild boar and the common brown monkey are consumed with much relish. The Veddas kill only for food and do not harm young or pregnant animals. Game is commonly shared amongst the family and clan. Fish are caught by employing fish poisons such as the juice of the pus-vel (Entada scandens) and daluk-kiri (Cactus milk).

Traditional Vedda bow and fishing harpoon.

Vedda culinary fare is also deserving of mention. Amongst the best known are gona perume, which is a sort of sausage containing alternate layers of meat and fat, and goya-tel-perume, which is the tail of the monitor lizard (talagoya), stuffed with fat obtained from its sides and roasted in embers. Another Vedda delicacy is dried meat preserve soaked in honey. In the olden days, the Veddas used to preserve such meat in the hollow of a tree, enclosing it with clay.

some of the bows used by the veddahs

Such succulent meat served as a ready food supply in times of scarcity. The early part of the year (January–February) is considered to be the season of yams and mid-year (June–July) that of fruit and honey, while hunting is availed of throughout the year. Nowadays, more and more Vedda folk have taken to Chena (slash and burn) cultivation. Kurakkan (Eleusine coracana) is cultivated very often. Maize, yams, gourds and melons are also cultivated. In the olden days, the dwellings of the Veddas consisted of caves and rock shelters. Today, they live in unpretentious huts of wattle, daub and thatch.

In the reign of King Datusena (6th century CE) the Mahaweli ganga was diverted at Minipe in the Minipe canal nearly 47 miles long said to be constructed with help from the Yakkas. The Mahawamsa refers to the canal as Yaka-bendi-ela. When the Ruwanweli Seya was built in King Dutugemunu's time (2nd century BCE) the Veddas procured the necessary minerals from the jungles.

King Parakrama Bahu the great (12th century) in his war against the rebels employed these Veddas as scouts.

In the reign of King Rajasinghe II (17th century) in his battle with the Dutch he had a Vedda regiment. In the abortive Uva-Welessa revolt of 1817-1818 of the British times, led by Keppetipola Disawe, the Veddas too fought with the rebels against the British forces.

Current status

Some observers have said Veddas are disappearing and have lamented the decline of their distinct culture.[11][12] Development, government forest reserve restrictions, and the civil war have disrupted traditional Vedda ways of life.[13][14] Dr. Wiveca Stegeborn, an anthropologist, has been studying the Vedda since 1977 and alleges that their young women are being tricked into accepting contracts to the Middle East as domestic workers when in fact they will be trafficked into prostitution or sold as sex slaves.[15]

However, cultural assimilation of Veddas with other local populations has been going on for a long time. "Vedda" has been used in Sri Lanka to mean not only hunter-gatherers, but also to refer to any people who adopt an unsettled and rural way of life and thus can be a derogatory term not based on ethnic group. Thus, over time, it is possible for non-Vedda groups to become Veddas, in this broad cultural sense.[16][17] Vedda populations of this kind are increasing in some districts.[18]

A recent genetic study on Veddas has supported them as an outlier in comparison with other Sri Lankan populations [19] [20]

Today many Sinhalese people and some east coast Tamils claim that they have some trace of Veddah blood. Intermarriage between Veddas and Sinhalese is very frequent. They are not considered outcasts in Sri Lankan society, unlike the low caste Rodiyas (see Caste in Sri Lanka).

The current leader of the Wanniyala-Aetto community is Uru Warige Wanniya.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Knox, Robert [1681] (1981). An Historical Relation of Ceylon. Tisara Prakasakayo Ltd (page 195).
  3. ^ Brow, James (1978). Vedda Villages of Anuradhapura. University of Washington Press.
  4. ^ Sri Lanka's coastal Vedda indigenous communities
  5. ^ East Coast Veddas
  6. ^ Seligmann, Charles and Brenda (1911). The Veddas. Cambridge University Press (pages 123-135).
  7. ^ "Seligmann", Charles and Brenda (1911). The Veddas. Cambridge University Press (pages 30-31).
  8. ^ a b The Kataragama-Skanda website
  9. ^ Vadda of Sri Lanka
  10. ^ "Population by ethnic group, census years". Department of Census & Statistics, Sri Lanka. Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  11. ^ Spittel, R.L. (1950). Vanished Trails: The Last of the Veddas. Oxford University Press.
  12. ^ Difficulties faced by our original inhabitants
  13. ^ Deforestation, farming and encroachment on to their forests (3:10min)
  14. ^ The plea of the great chief - Vanniatho speaks (1:40min)
  15. ^
  16. ^ Brow, James (1978). Vedda Villages of Anuradhapura. University of Washington Press (page 34).
  17. ^ Obeyesekere, Gananath. Colonial Histories and Vadda Primitivism
  18. ^ Brow, James (1978). Vedda Villages of Anuradhapura. University of Washington Press (page 3).
  19. ^ Mitochondrial DNA history of Sri Lankan ethnic people: their relations within the island and with the Indian subcontinental populations.
  20. ^ Language isolates and their genetic identity: a commentary on mitochondrial DNA history of Sri Lankan ethnic people: their relations within the island and with the Indian subcontinental populations.

Further reading

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, editor Richard B. Lee. (ISBN 978-0-521-60919-7 | ISBN 0-521-60919-4)

External links

A great deal of information on them can be found at

  • Survival International profile on the Wanniyala-Aetto
  • Sri Lankan history
  • Veddas - now only a household name
  • Veddas of Sri Lanka
  • Last of the Devil Dancers
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