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Vedda chief Uruwarige Wannila Aththo.
|2,500 (2002), 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|
The Vedda (Sinhalese: වැද්දා [ˈvædːaː], Tamil: வேடர் Vēdar) are an indigenous people of Sri Lanka who, among other self-identified native communities such as Coast Veddas and Anuradhapura Veddas, are accorded indigenous status. Most speak Sinhala and Tamil instead due to the near-extinction of their indigenous languages.
According to the 5th-century genesis chronicle of the Sinhala people, the Mahavamsa ("Great Chronicle"), the Vedda are descended from Prince Vijaya (6th–5th century BCE), the founding father of the nation, through Kuveni, a woman of the indigenous Yakkha whom 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 (Sri Pada or Adam's Peak in the Ratnapura District), where they multiplied, giving rise to the Veddas. Anthropologists such as Charles Gabriel Seligman believed the Veddas to be identical to 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.
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. The very name Sabaragamuwa is believed to have meant the village of the Sabaras or "forest barbarians". Place-names such 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.
The original language of the Veddas is the Vedda language, which today is used primarily by the interior Veddas of Dambana. Communities such as Coast Veddas and Anuradhapura Veddas, who do not identify themselves strictly as Veddas, also use Vedda language 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 the 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 among 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 inanimate suffixes. Vedda language word class is morphologically 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 Province. There are also Veddas that have adopted Sinhala who live in Anuradhapura District in the North Central Province.
The parent of Vedda language is of unknown linguistic origin, is considered a linguistic isolate. Early linguists and observers of the language considered it to be either a separate language or a dialect of Sinhalese. The chief proponent of the dialect theory was Wilhelm Geiger, but he also contradicted himself by claiming that Vedda was a relexified aboriginal language.
Veddas consider the Vedda language to be distinct from Sinhalese and use it as an ethnic marker to differentiate them from Sinhalese people.
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 due to Brahminical sanskritsation , 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. There are also peculiar deities unique to Veddas, such as "Kande Yakka".
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.
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 endogamous 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.
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.
Death, too, is a simple affair without ostentatious funeral ceremonies where the corpse of the deceased is promptly buried.
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 practice a 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."
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 women clad themselves in a garment similar to the Sinhalese diya-redda which extends from the breastline to the knees.
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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.
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.
Veddas were originally hunter-gatherers. They used bows and arrows to hunt game, harpoons and toxic plants for fishing and gathered wild plants, yams, honey, fruit and nuts. Many Veddas also farm, frequently using slash and burn or swidden cultivation, which is called "chena" in Sri Lanka. East Coast Veddas also practice sea 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).
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.
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.
A recent genetic study has found Vedda people to probably be earliest inhabitants of Sri Lanka. The Vedda people’s mitochondrial sequences were found to be more related to the Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils than to the Indian Tamils.
According to Ranaweera et al (2013) :
"From the phylogenetic, principal coordinate and analysis of molecular variance results, the Vedda occupied a position separated from all other ethnic people of the island, who formed relatively close affiliations among themselves, suggesting a separate origin of the former. The haplotypes and analysis of molecular variance revealed that Vedda people’s mitochondrial sequences are more related to the Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils’ than the Indian Tamils’ sequences."
"It has been hypothesized that the Vedda was probably the earliest inhabitants of the area ... dated tentatively to 37 000 YBP, were discovered from the cave site, Fahien-lena,8 on the island, with their association with the present-day Vedda people proposed on a comparative anatomical ground ... Vedda population has the lowest proportion of shared haplotypes among their subgroups (63%) indicating their greater genetic diversity among subgroups ... Vedda people had the lowest frequency of haplogroup M (17.33%). It is quite astonishing to see such a lower frequency of M haplogroup in the Vedda population ... This is probably due to the effect of genetic drift in the smaller population of Vedda ... Vedda people ... showed relatively high frequencies of haplogroup R (45.33 ... Haplogroup U was mostly found in Vedda (29.33%) ... Low frequency of M haplogroup and high frequencies of R and U haplogroups were found to be the unique characteristics of Vedda ... All the island populations, except some subgroups of the Vedda, form close genetic affiliations among themselves and with majority of the groups from the mainland suggesting the origin of the majority of the island population on the Indian mainland."
|Population||Language||Haplogroup R||Haplogroup U||Haplogroup M||Haplogroup G||Haplogroup D||Reference|
|Veddas||Isolate (Vedda)||45.33%||29.33%||17.33%||5.33%||2.67%||Ranaweera et al (2013)|
|Source:Department of Census
Data is based on
Sri Lankan Government Census.
Some observers have said Veddas are disappearing and have lamented the decline of their distinct culture. Land acquisition for mass irrigation projects, government forest reserve restrictions and the civil war have disrupted traditional Vedda ways of life. Between 1977 and 1983 under the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Project and colonization schemes, approximately 51468 hectares were turned into a gigantic hydroelectric dam irrigation project. Subsequently, the creation of the Maduru Oya National Park deprived the Veddhas their last hunting grounds. In 1985, the Veddha Chief Thissahamy and his delegation were obstructed from attending the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations. 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.
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. Vedda populations of this kind are increasing in some districts.
- Exotic Tribes of Ancient India
- Kingdoms of Ancient India
- Origins of Indian ethnic groups
- Charles Gabriel Seligman
- The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Vedda people.|
- Seligman, Charles Gabriel and Seligman, Brenda Z. (1911). The Veddas. Cambridge University Press. Digitized here: https://archive.org/details/veddas__00seliuoft
- Knox, Robert  (1981). An Historical Relation of Ceylon. Tisara Prakasakayo Ltd (page 195).
- Brow, James (1978). Vedda Villages of Anuradhapura. University of Washington Press.
- Nira Wickramasinghe. "Sri Lanka's conflict: culture and lineages of the past". Sri Lanka Guardian. Retrieved Feb 20, 2016.
- Sri Lanka's coastal Vedda indigenous communities
- East Coast Veddas
- Van Driem 2002, p. 227
- Dharmadasa 1974, p. 81
- Seligmann, Charles and Brenda (1911). The Veddas. Cambridge University Press (pages 123-135).
- "Seligmann", Charles and Brenda (1911). The Veddas. Cambridge University Press (pages 30-31).
- The Kataragama-Skanda website
- Vadda of Sri Lanka
- Prehistoric time line of Sri Lanka - amazinglanka.com Accessed 2015-12-5
- Survival international - Wanniyala-Aetto
- Mitochondrial DNA history of Sri Lankan ethnic people: their relations within the island and with the Indian subcontinental populations.
- http://www.nature.com/jhg/journal/v59/n1/fig_tab/jhg2013112t2.html#figure-title Table 2. Haplogroup frequency in Sri Lankan population
- "Population by ethnic group, census years" (PDF). Department of Census & Statistics, Sri Lanka. Retrieved 23 October 2012.
- Address of Warige Wanniya to the UN, vedda.org Retrieved 4-12-2015
- Spittel, R.L. (1950). Vanished Trails: The Last of the Veddas. Oxford University Press.
- Difficulties faced by our original inhabitants
- Deforestation, farming and encroachment on to their forests (3:10min)
- The plea of the great chief - Vanniatho speaks (1:40min)
- Sri Lanka's Indigenous Wanniya-laeto: A Case History, vedda.org Retrieved 4-12-2015
- Brow, James (1978). Vedda Villages of Anuradhapura. University of Washington Press (page 34).
- Obeyesekere, Gananath. Colonial Histories and Vadda Primitivism
- Brow, James (1978). Vedda Villages of Anuradhapura. University of Washington Press (page 3).
- "The pholcid spiders from Sri Lanka: redescription of Pholcus ceylonicus and description of a new genus" (PDF). pholcidae.de. Retrieved 6 May 2016.
A great deal of information on them can be found at Vedda.org