The Veddas in the East of Ceylon in the 1950s

L.C. Arulpragasam, in Sunday Observer, 13 October 2019, where the title is  The Veddas and the Gal Oya scheme: Ultimate resettlement at Bintenne”

In the Jungles of Bintenne: In 1950 I undertook a sociological survey along with Mr. Kuda Bibile, a University colleague, of the Veddas living in the jungles of Wellassa and Bintenne in the Badulla District of the Uva Province. The only authoritative study of the Veddas at that time had been done by Dr. C. Seligmann, a German anthropologist, in 1911. I carried his heavy tome around with me on my entire journey.

We set out with a survey map dating from the 1930s that was supposed to mark the scattered Vedda settlements. But the latter were not to be found where they were supposed to be. The Veddas were hunter-gatherers, who lived partly by chena (slash and burn) cultivation. Hence their ‘hamlets’ had migrated along with their chena fields. We ultimately found that we had walked off our maps of Wellassa and Bintenne Pattus in the Uva Province, finding ourselves at Inginiyagala in the Eastern Province! We must have covered around 250 miles on foot over a period of three months, during the hottest time of the year, July-August, in the dry zone.

I carried a rusty old 303 rifle, which I had bought for the equivalent of US $1 off the pavement from old army surplus, sold as junk after World War II. I found later that it was completely cock-eyed, hitting one coconut tree while I was aiming at another! But I reckoned that I could shoot a charging elephant at close range! The rifle was supposed to serve as protection against wild animals and foraging for food. But we found that we could not shoot any animal for food since we had to carry it for the next ten miles or so to our next destination.

Since we were supposed to cook our own food, we set out with some rice and dhal and a pan for cooking. However, we jettisoned our supplies within three days because they weighed a ton by the end of each walking day! We were also supposed to boil our water before drinking; but we could not even find water to boil! Since we were at the height of the dry season in the dry zone, we had to dig two to three feet with our bare hands in dry river-beds in order to find even a bit of black-coloured water to drink. No wonder that I got severe dysentery!

We went into the jungle with no money since there was no use for cash, but only barter, in the forest. Hence we lived entirely on the charity of the poor Vedda families that we visited. We would get a ‘tracker’ from one hamlet to walk with us for the 10-15 miles needed to reach the next little hamlet. These were not even hamlets in the true sense of the term, since they consisted of only five to seven pathetic huts made of tree bark and leaves. Thus, we covered the Vedda settlements of Dambana, Danigala, Henebedde, Bingoda and Mullegama, over a period of three months.

Elephants were always a problem, especially in the savanna-type grasslands of Wellassa. Sometimes on our walk of 10-15 miles each day to a different settlement, we would encounter a herd of elephants (sometimes up to fifteen or more) right across our way. Since this was open grassland, interspersed with small trees that could easily be knocked down by elephants, we could not afford to be seen or scented by them. Since their sense of smell is strong, our vedda ‘tracker’ would always position us down-wind from them. But this meant lying in the grass for two hours or more, baked by the merciless sun, hoping that the herd would move away. We were always apprehensive that we would be benighted in the jungle, leaving us a prey to wild animals.

The Veddas in Seligmann’s time lived almost entirely on hunting and gathering. They shot game with their bows and arrows, gathered honey from the caves and trees, as well as herbs and roots from the forest. By the time of our visit, however, part of their time was devoted to chena cultivation. This involved about three months’ work in felling and burning the forest in the dry season and sowing their grains (mostly maize and millet) and manioc (cassava) with the first rains. They of course continued their hunting and gathering, which still continued to define their way of life.

Most of the Vedda settlements consisted of only five to eight households, all of them closely related. Their huts were small, measuring only about 9 x 9 feet, with sides of bark and roofs of leaves or talawa/ grass. They only had one opening for the entrance, but no door or windows. They shared this limited space with their family, their hearth and their hunting dogs. In the course of these travels, we spent three days in the settlement of Henebedde, which is described in Dr. Seligmann’s book. The group in Henebedde lived in a small clearing in the jungle, bounded by a perennial stream, which provided their water supply. The ‘hamlet’ comprised only seven or eight families, with Kaira as their head. He gave me shelter at night in his own hut, made only of bark and leaves. Since his hut was crowded with his family and hunting dogs; this left me with the choice of leaving either my head or my toes outside the hut – to be possibly nibbled by bears at night! We ate only what the family ate, which was cassava or sometimes kurakkan talappe (moist balls of ground millets), eaten with only a green chillie.

While at Henebedde, I showed Kaira a picture from Seligmann’s book (published in 1911) of the Vedda chief at that time. Kaira, who probably had not seen a photo before, was astounded to see a picture of his own father, the chief at that time. ‘Wallaha’! he cried. His father was named ‘Wallaha’ (which means ‘Bear’), because he had fought and killed a bear with his bare hands, despite the fact that the bear had gouged out his eye and tore out one arm. We depended on Kaira’s protection, food and hospitality for three days, before going on to other Vedda settlements.

Although the Veddas had their own language, which was still in use in Seligmann’s time, it was hardly used at the time of our visit in 1951. Like all the clans living in the area, they spoke Sinhala as their main language, even at home among themselves. However, as we walked eastward into what we later found was Bintenne Pattu of the Eastern Province, we found that Tamil replaced Sinhalese as the main medium of communication. Of course when the Veddas came into town for barter, they used their own language, partly to prevent others from understanding their conversation, but partly as a ‘show’ to get money from strangers who had never seen Veddas before!

Their Displacement and Settlement under the Gal Oya Scheme

The main concern at the time of our visit was that these communities had been officially informed that due to the building of the Gal Oya dam at Inginiyagala, their homes, their lands and forests would be inundated by the waters of the Gal Oya Reservoir. They were told that they would have to leave their homes and lands within the next year, since the dam was nearing completion at that time. This was not something that they could either understand or accept: for not only their land and their forests but their entire way of life was to be taken away from them. Besides, Inginiyagala was far away – and they had not seen or heard of it! Their first reaction was one of disbelief and denial: how could their lands become suddenly submerged? Didn’t they know that even the highest floods at the height of the monsoon could never reach their lands? The second reaction was one of wistfulness and despair. As voiced by a Vedda of Bingoda: ‘Ape game pas kaalath rasai!’ (even the earth of our land is tasty to eat). The third reaction was one of defiance! My last image is that of a Vedda cocking his head and saying defiantly: ‘Let them come: we will bury them before they bury us!’

Despite this denial and defiance, in two years’ time, the waters of the Gal Oya Reservoir did in fact rise to engulf their lands and did in fact force the poor Veddas out of their homes and hunting grounds. Fortunately I was not a witness to the confusion and distress of these sad people in the face of the rising waters. I remember reading in the newspapers a few months after my return from Bintenne, a government announcement that each of the displaced Vedda families would be ‘compensated’ with an allotment under the Gal Oya Colonization Scheme, comprising a brick and mortar house with tiled roof, a fenced highland allotment of two acres together with a three acre lot of irrigated paddy land.

The Government went on to proudly proclaim that the Veddas would thereby benefit from a settled life, greater food security and a higher standard of living. Needless to say, there was no mention that the Veddas themselves violently opposed their displacement and did not want the government’s ‘compensation’! Of course I knew that the Veddas would be unwilling to lose their forest freedom and would be unable to handle the transition to fenced homes and confined irrigated agriculture. But I was a humble student at that time and not in a position to affect policy. Needless to say, I later learned that their attempts at settled agriculture within a confined and organized setting did not go well – and that they ended up being completely displaced and disinherited.

Their Resettlement Back in the Jungles of Bintenne

Meanwhile back in Colombo, I had joined the Ceylon Civil Service in 1951. Six years later in 1957, when serving as Assistant Government Agent of the Batticaloa District, I was officially informed that some Veddas from the Gal Oya Scheme were being brought to be resettled among the few surviving Vedda families in Pollebedde in the Batticaloa district. This meant the government had finally accepted the fact that the relocation of the Veddas into an irrigated colonization scheme had not worked out well. With much fanfare in the newspapers, I was officially informed that the Director of Rural Development, Mr. G.V.P. Samarasinghe was going to accompany these Veddas from the Gal Oya Scheme for resettlement in the Batticaloa district among the Veddas there. So on the appointed day, I went to meet this motley caravan of important officials from Colombo bearing these miserable Veddas. I was going to be the officer responsible for their resettlement in the Batticaloa district.

I went to speak to the Veddas themselves to ascertain their own views and intentions. Sitting disconsolately in a ditch by the side of the road, they seemed a miserable lot, in ragged clothes, unkempt hair, downcast and dejected. I asked them about their past life, their problems of adjustment in the Gal Oya Scheme and their hopes for the future. Their spokesman recounted how they had been ousted from their habitation by the rising waters of the Gal Oya dam. I then asked him where they had lived. And he answered ‘in Henebedde’. Stunned, I asked him ‘Then surely you must know Kaira, their leader?’ Looking at me surprised, the man replied: ‘I am Kaira’! You could have knocked me over with a feather!

I had known Kaira, the lord of the jungle, the head of his clan, the ‘lion of Henebedde’, under whose charity and protection I had once lived. And here he was, unrecognizable, wretched and downcast, with a dirty bandage around his leg, sitting in a ditch. Looking into my eyes, he suddenly recognized me even after seven years, probably because no one else had penetrated so far into their jungle. ‘Mahathaya’ he exclaimed and fell at my feet, in the traditional manner of ‘worship’. I hastily picked him up and held his hands in mine. He looked into my eyes and wept, and wept – and wept. He wept in remembrance of his past. He wept for his position, the way of life and forest-freedom that he had lost. Like some biblical story, by a very strange coincidence, he had been delivered to me, the only person who had seen him in his pristine position! In a strange reversal of roles, whereas I had sought his protection and help in the jungle, he now sought mine, in a different position, in a different place.

The government’s grand scheme of resettlement had proved impractical. The Veddas wanted only to return to the jungle where they belonged. Unfortunately, their ‘return’ was not to their own jungle, but to a jungle that they did not know, a jungle inhabited by kinsmen whom they had hardly seen. But this is what they wanted. So I attended to their immediate needs and on the next day I took them to their chosen area for resettlement, among their kin in Pollebedde. I was able to provide them with materials for housing, rations and subsidies to tide them over till the end of the next cultivation season. I was able to visit them only once more before I left the district on transfer. I found them much happier and content to be back to their forest way of life. This was long ago, in the 1950’s. I wonder how they are now.

    ****  *****

ALSO NOTE

Lakshman IKeerthsinghe 2011  “The Veddas of Sri Lanka,” http://vedda.org/keerthisinghe.htm

Brow, James. 1978. Veddha Villages of Anuradhapura: The Historical Anthropology of Community in Sri Lanka. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Kumudini Hettiaratchchi 2011On the Vanished Trails of Coastal Veddahs,” Sunday Times, 7 August 2011, http://vedda.org/vakarai.veddas.2011.htm

Dharmadasa, K. N. 0., and S. W. R. de A. Samarasinghe, (eds.) The Vanishing Aborigines: Sri Lanka’s Veddas in Transition. Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES

Obeyesekere, Gananath. 200. Where have all the Vaddas gone? Buddhism and aboriginality in Sri Lanka,” In Neluka Silva (ed.)The Hybrid Island: Culture Crossing and the Invention of Identity in Sri Lankapp. 1-19. Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association.

Obeyesekere, Gananath. n.d. Colonial Histories and Vedda Primitivism: An Unorthodox Reading of Kandy Period Texts.

David Blundell, n. d.   Revisiting Cultural Heritage in Sri Lanka: The Vedda (Vanniyaletto),” http://vedda.org/vanniyaletto.blundell.htm

3 Comments

Filed under accountability, centre-periphery relations, colonisation schemes, communal relations, economic processes, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, human rights, irrigation, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, self-reflexivity, Sri Lankan scoiety, trauma, travelogue, world events & processes

3 responses to “The Veddas in the East of Ceylon in the 1950s

  1. Wonderful Post.
    The same tragic story is repeated and the same tragedies unfold when the encroachment of human arrogance, greed and covetousness disguised as ‘civilization’ reaches out its filthy claws to destroy the lives of powerless people.
    I cannot find a better way to describe such shameless avarice other than by quoting Brigid Brophy’s apposite phrase for human nastiness – “conscienceless despoliation”.
    What began in Eden still goes on apace in the Amazon, to the tune of fatuous fiddling even as the burning continues.

  2. EMAIL COMMENT from WILFRID JAYASUIRYA of the SL Admin-Service [who has served in the East]
    It was interesting to read L.C.Arulpragasam on his experiences with the Veddahs in the Sunday Island of the 12th Oct. He had done quite a lot of walking around in those ancient places which R.L.Spittel talks about so effectively in his books, especially in his novel about Tissahamy: SAVAGE SANCTUARY. His book emerged in around 1947/8 around the time Ceylon got independence. Tissahamy emerged from hiding after Independence was announced and he was straightaway given a pardon for the crimes that he had committed including.murder. He was sentenced to death when the British were the rulers and became a national hero after independence. Spittel showed his greatness as a writer in the novel. In my book Sri Lanka’s Modern English Literature–a case study in literary theory . I wrote a chapter on the “novel as the art form of the nation” and included 5 novels as representative of different aspects of Sri Lankan nationhood, using Savage Snctuary as the representaive of the earliest way of life. THe way Spittel wrote it I found it an exemplar of how to write a novel.

  3. READERS intrigued by Wilfrid Jayasuriya’s comment on RL Spittel may wish to visit https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2019/09/17/dr-r-l-spittel-within-the-dutch-burgher-union/

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