A Rodi family in 1900's
|Related ethnic groups|
|Vedda and Kinnaraya|
Rodi or Rodiya are one of the widely reported untouchable social group or caste amongst the Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka. Their status was very similar to all the Untouchable castes of India with segregated communities, ritualized begging, eating off the refuse of upper castes and refusal for the women and men to cover their upper bodies.
There is a great deal of mystery surrounding their origins and their former debased status. Many sociologists and anthropologists and even linguists have documented and commented on their status. The common theory is that at one time Rodiya were like the Veddas of Sri Lanka, hunting and gathering tribe that eventually came to survive on the margins of civilized society and got incorporated as a caste.
But why as an untouchable versus the assimilation of many Veddas as Govigama or the highest castes of the land? That question is also generally answered by the alleged cannibalistic past of the caste. Either the community itself indulged in cannibalism or were propitiating their deity Ratnavali also known as Navaratna Valli with human sacrifice. Valli is the name of the tribal consort of Hindu deity Murukan in South India and Sri Lanka.
The main occupations of Rodiya are hunting.
A cannibalistic cult
As the anthropologist M. D. Raghavan pointed out in a 1950s' study, the references in these verses to the worship of Ratnavalli in a sacred grove of trees, her braided hair and frightening necklace of human skulls, together with the offering of human flesh, are all aspects associated with the cult of Kali. Significantly, the cult has its origin in the early forms of worship practiced by tribal groups in India.
Ratnavalli seems to have been a goddess worshipped in the north-central area of the island. Tradition has it that her abode was a telambu tree at Anuradhapura, and when the site was chosen for the construction of the magnificent Ruwanvali Dagoba in the 2nd century BC, the mastermind behind it, King Dutugemenu, is said to have offered sacrifices to appease the goddess. Indeed, the dagoba was apparently named after Ratnavalli, for ruwan and ratna have the same meaning - golden or precious.
If a Ratnavalli cult existed then the exile status and the stigma attached to the Rodi might be due to their membership of it. Buddhism was going though a period of consolidation during Dutugemenu's reign, and a cult that involved human sacrifice would have been anathema to the Budhist population. However, the Rodi have not worshipped Ratnavalli for a considerable time, even though the women are still able to recite the invocatory verses to their former goddess. Nowadays, the Rodi are mostly Buddhist by faith and they insist that Ratnavalli was nothing more than a princess, the daughter of king Parakramabahu, and not a deity.
During former times the Rodi entertained devotees attending many of the island's religious festivals. Even today, Rodi women travel from villages in the northwest province to the famous temple dedicated to Lord Shiva at Munneswaram, near Chilaw, for the annual festival during July and August.
Seated in a row, they ritualistically spin their plates while reciting the invocatory verses to Ratnavalli, hoping that the devotees' hearts will melt towards them, Curiously, although the myth is generally learned by both sexes, the verses are almost exclusively handed down through the female line. The women would sing hymns in praise of their legendary ancestress Ratnavalli and spin brass plates while the men played a one-sided drum known as Bum-mendiya.
However, the value of such traditions is rapidly diminishing in Rodi eyes. In a more enlightened age, with a new social and economic order, many Rodi are rejecting their former status - although they risk losing with it many of the positive aspects of their past that afforded them a distinct group identity. Now many wish to assume a new identity, mostly as crafts-persons engaged in cane-work in which they have long excelled. These changes are not new but part of a process that began in 1815 with the capitulation of the Kandyan kingdom to the British, after which the social structure, including the occupational demarcations of the caste system, began to erode. Representing far less than one per cent of Sri Lanka's population, the Rodi today are poised for assimilation.
In the past, the Rodi chieftain was known as Hula-valiya (torch-bearer), which Raghavan believes is 'a traditional institution from the days when the Rodiya was a tribe of hunters.' Today, the Rodi have lost their sense of clans.
while those in other areas also had distinct clan identities. Certain persons are still devoted to particular services, In the Kandayn Kingdom known as Villi or Villi Durea. These Villi Dureas inhabit several large and important villages such as Maduve, Malie-Elle etc., whose services to the king under Kandyan Government consisted in the supply of venison to the palace.
The Rodi are found concentrated in the up-country areas of the former Kandyan kingdom especially in the central north western Uva and Sabaragamuwa Provinces.
The last census which enumerated the Rodi as a separate community was in 1911. It returned a total of 1,572 Rodi.
- Ratnavalli’s Children, Myth and Mystery of the Rodi by Richard Boyle
- Handsome Beggars, The Rodiyas of Ceylon. 1957 by M.D. Raghavan