An Introduction to the Indigenous Veddas of Sri Lanka

Veddas out hunting | Shutterstock
Veddas out hunting | Shutterstock
Photo of Orana Velarde
Sri Lanka Hub Writer25 January 2018

The Vedda people are the last indigenous tribe still in existence on the island of Sri Lanka. Dating back to the 6th century BC, the Veddas inhabited the forests of Sri Lanka long before the Buddhists arrived. The Vedda ‘Forest People’ are unfortunately slowly becoming extinct but there are some reservations that can be visited and where Veddas show tourists their way of life. Read on to find out more about the Veddas of Sri Lanka.

Descendants of Prince Vijaya and Stone Age descendants

Legends that tell the origins of the Vedda are not fully documented but there are two general ideas as to how long they have been on the island. The spoken legend told by the Sinhalese is that the Vedda are descendants of Pince Vijaya, who became the legendary first king of Sri Lanka. On the other hand, archaeological and anthropological studies show that the Vedda tribe is much older than that, dating as far back as the stone age.

According to scientific evidence, it’s safe to say that the first people to take over the Vedda territories were Prince Vijaya and his descendants. After thousands of years as free-range inhabitants, the Vedda started to conform to their colonizers. As time passed, the indigenous Vedda were forced to adopt the customs of the Sinhalese and Tamil settlers, losing much of their identity. Today, the remaining Vedda live in reservations in the jungle and the future state of their culture is unknown.

An antique photo of the Vedda, once called ‘wild men’ | © New York Public Library – Public Domain / WikiCommons

Mahiyangana and Vedda reservations

The Vedda were greatly concentrated in the south-central jungles of Sri Lanka, in the area known as Mahiyangana. One of the most important and sacred ancient Buddhist temples, the Mahiyangana Raja Maha Vihara, was built in Mahiyangana. Due to Sinhalese villages growing in the area, the Vedda started adopting modern customs, putting their ancient existence in danger. The Veddas that knew better moved further into the jungle and later on, the Maduru Oya National Park was named a Vedda reservation site. This is one of the only places where the Vedda can live according to their ancestral customs, albeit with some modern amenities, like brick cottages.

Not all Vedda live deep in the jungle, some live in villages interspersed with Sinhalese and Tamil villages. Only the Vedda that live deep in the jungle reservation live only from hunting and gathering. It is a complicated situation to see indigenous tribes disappear due to our modern influences.

Vedda man in a reservation | © Garret Clarke / Flickr

Hunters and gatherers

The Vedda are the real Paleo community of Sri Lanka. They live off the hunting and gathering they do in the jungles they live in. One of the staple foods gathered by the Vedda is wild honey, which they collect by climbing trees where the hives are and burning dry leaves to ward the bees away. Every year around June, they go on a two-month long honey hunt, taking only rice and chilli with them. Everything else they eat is gathered or hunted. The village Veddas might not be doing this anymore.

Most of the meat the jungle Vedda eat is venison or anything else they can hunt. The use a bow and arrow for a quick and silent execution of the hunt.

The most important natural resource that the Vedda depend on is coconut palm. Coconut palms provide them with fruit throughout the year without fail. The coconut palm doesn’t only provide food but also provides plenty of material to build huts, create shelter, make rope and even bowls to keep things in.

Vedda hunting with a bow and arrow | Shutterstock

Ancient customs

In recent years, the Vedda have adopted the Sinhalese way of dressing in sarongs. Some of the Vedda communities deeper in the jungle still wear their traditional simple fibre coverings but it is not as common anymore. Ancient Vedda song and dance are still practiced and passed on to the younger generations. They have a close connection to nature and their ritualistic songs are like a communication with the elements. Tribal shamans speak with the spirits of the dead to make decisions and advise the chief. The Vedda have their own language and some of the Vedda, who want to maintain their culture, are trying to keep it intact by teaching it to their younger children.

Visit the Vedda

If you’re interested in visiting the Vedda, there is a lodge deep in the jungle inside Gal Oya National Park. It’s called Gal Oya Lodge and it’s one of the closest places to one of the last remaining deep jungle Vedda villages. The chief of the tribe enjoys taking the occasional tourist on a walk through their part of the jungle, giving them a first-hand glimpse of the Vedda way of life.

Vedda chief climbing up a tree | Courtesy of Gal Oya Lodge

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