Veddas  or Wanniyalaetto of Sri Lanka

Colonial Histories and Vädda Primitivism

by Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere

Part Two: Vädda Heterogenity and Historic Complexity

Leap or Starve
An adventure while gathering honey: Leap or Starve. The Graphic, November 26, 1887.

This picture of Vädda primitivism is not entirely false and it is no doubt the case that small groups of hunters, both Vädda and Sinhala, did live in the conditions depicted by colonial historians. Yet the popular idea of the Väddas as a homogenous primitive group of hunters and gatherers living in Bintanna, a heavily forested area when the Seligmanns did field work, would have been dispelled if they ventured into the Anuradhapura district. We now know from James Brow's pioneer study Vedda Villages of Anuradhapura (1978) that here were different kinds of Väddas, living in about sixty communities, practising agriculture, just like their Sinhala neighbors. They were also formally Buddhist and yet their self-identification was not Sinhala but Vädda and interestingly they thought that their professional identity was that of "hunter," even though hunting was no longer their main occupation.25

The best place to reexamine Vädda primitivism is Bintanne which Knox and everyone else believed was the habitat of the wild Väddas. In early British times Bintanne was a desolate place and the famous stupa at Mahiyangana was in disrepair. But let us go back into the corridors of time and memory and have another look at Bintanne in the early 17th century when it was mostly known as Bintanne-Alutnuvara in both indigenous and Dutch colonial texts. When the two names are conjoined, the term does not refer to a wilderness region but to the important city of Alutnuvara. The term Bintanna means "the plains" or "the flat country" and is etymologically equivalent to Mahiyangana. But why, one might ask, the name Alutnuvara?

Alutnuvara means "the new city" and is an alternative capital of the kings when the "the old city" of Kandy was threatened by the Portuguese and later the Dutch. The Kandyan kings had several such alternative residences such as Diyatilaka-nuvara, now known as Hanguranketa, and Nilambe near Galaha but the major alternative capital was Alutnuvara.26 Dutch accounts from around 1602 show it as a place where "the old Emperors used to hold court as it is a beautiful city where there are many large streets, beautiful buildings and wonderful pagodas or heathen temples and among others there is one whose base is 130 paces round, extraordinarily beautiful, very tall .... In it is also a beautiful and large palace of the Emperor full of beautiful buildings within. Here the best galleys and sampans of the Emperors are made. Here are also many shops but no market, stone monasteries and a great many bamboo [bark?] houses which stretch for a mile or two in distance along the river.27 Another says it is "one of the most beautiful cities of the entire island where everything that one thinks of can be obtained." Then, as well as now, Bintanna-Alutnuvara was a place where Väddas met Sinhala Buddhists, but Väddas were probably the dominant population here. Because it was an alternate capital Alutnuvara was a way station for embassies from the east coast ports, especially Batticaloa and Trincomalee, traveling to Kandy. Hence another account from such a Dutch embassy gives a vivid description of the temple rituals and processions including bare-breasted women dancers whom I suspect were Vädda women associated with the Saman devale and honoring their own deities housed therein. "The most beautiful maidens, ere the procession goes out and comes in again, perform many wondrous feats with dancing; they are all with naked bodies bare above, the arms, hands and ears half adorned with gold and precious stones; below they have handsome embroidered clothes."28 The Saman devale at Ratnapura had a tradition of dancing women which was first recorded by the Portuguese historian Femao de Queyroz in 1630; from his castigation of the "profanity of heathenism" and "that shameful practice" one might justifiably infer that the dancers were bare-breasted (which is nothing unusual because in everyday life women at that time were bare-breasted anyway).29

When the need arose the kings sent their families to Bintanna-Alutnuvara to be guarded by the Väddas of that region because of their fierce loyalty. Rajasinha II, one of the greatest of the Kandyan kings, was born here, as attested both by Knox and also in the last book of the Mahāvamsa.30 It is not likely that the Väddas, at least those who served the king, were the shirtless savages of the European and bourgeois imagination. There is at least some confirmation of well-dressed Väddas from de Queyroz writing in 1688:

Though these people are so wild, in no other has the King of Candea greater confidence, for in men left to their own nature, where shrewdness grows there grows malice. The Bedas of Vilacem [Vellassa] have in their keeping the treasure of that King, for which he chooses twelve of these men, and as a distinction he given them twelve ear-rings of silver and canes with ornaments of silver with garments different from the others, that they may be known and respected; and they come by night to speak with the King on what concerns his service. In the straits of war, as on the occasions when the Portuguese entered Candea, the Kings entrust to them their wives, and they have made for them houses in their fashion in these jungles and woods, very clean and with many flowers; and as they have little elegance, they must have done it on the instruction of the same Kings. For a space of twelve leagues of inaccessible thickets from Vilacem to the first Chain of mountains of Baticalou, they must have built about fifty houses, on thwart the other, where our arms neither reached nor were able to cause any damage, because of the careful watch they kept, and because of the incredible ruggedness of those places, sought for and varied on purpose.31

It seems that twelve was the standard number for such groupings; a Dutch account of 1762 mentions "two Adigar brothers [visiting Kirinde in Ruhuna] together with a few minor Kandyan chiefs ... were escorted by twelve Väddas and fourteen other bowmen composing the bodyguard of the Adigars."32 And other accounts substantiated Queyroz's view that Väddas had easy access to the king and familiarly referred to him as "cross-cousin" or massina:

Once a year the Vedas send two deputies with honey and little presents to the king. When they arrive at the gate of the palace, they send word to his majesty that his cousins wish to see him. They are immediately introduced. They then kneel, get up, and inquire of the king, rather familiarly, about his health. The king receives them well, takes their presents, gives them others, and orders that certain marks of respect be shown them on their retiring form the palace.33

Lest you imagine that well-dressed Vädda soldiers were an exclusive Kandyan period phenomenon let me refer you to their regiment in the army of Parakramabahu 1 (1153-1186): "He [the king] trained many thousands of hunters [vyādha, that is, Väddas] and made them skilled in the use of their weapons, and gave them swords, black clothes and the like"34

End Notes

  1. For details see James Brow, Vedda Villages of Anuradhapura, pp. 3-39.
  2. See also Valentijn in Francois Valentijn's Description of Ceylon, translated and edited by Sinnappah Arasaratnam (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1978), pp. 152-53.
  3. In Sinnappah Arasaratnam, Francois Valentijn, p. 153. There is a puzzle pertaining to the shipbuilding industry in these Dutch accounts. Donald Ferguson who translated "The Visit of Spilbergen to Ceylon in May, 1602" in JRAS, CB, vol., XXX, has a footnote on p. 398 where he says that these were "purely State and pleasure boats for local use, as they would not have gone farther down the Mahaweliganga, and certainly not upwards." Yet we do not know whether the river was not navigable downstream at that time. In fact the author of the Dutch text (p. 371) says that the king of Matecalo builds ships in the bay. Maybe there is a connection here. Alternatively, it is possible that the Dutch mistook the nature of the shipbuilding. It might have seen a sima, an area where Buddhist ordinations took place because ordinations were sometimes held in "ships." This hypothesis seems plausible when we consider that this was a place full of monasteries. The precedent for such sima comes from the reign of Parakrama Bahu I: "Every year he brought the Great Community to the river bank, made them take up their abode in a garden there while he with his dignitaries paid them respect. Then after firmly anchoring ships in the stream he had a charming mandapa of beautiful proportions erected on them. Then when he had given to the bhikkhus costly robes and all kinds of articles of use, the wise Prince made them hold the ceremony of admission into the Order." Wilhelm Geiger, Culavamsa, (Colombo: Department of Information, 1953), p.104.
  4. For more fascinating details see, Donald Ferguson, "The Visit of Spilbergen," pp.379ff.
  5. Father Fernao De Queyroz, The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon, vol., 1, trans., S G Perera, Colombo: Government Printer, 1930 [1688], p.42.
  6. Here is Robert Knox: "Thirdly, The city [after Kandy and Nilambe] Allout-neur on the North East to Cande. Here this King was born, here also he keeps great store of Corn and Salt, etc, against time of War or Trouble. This is Situate in the Countrey of Bintan, which Land, I have never been at.... In these woods is a sort of Wild People Inhabiting, whom we shall speak of in their place." The editor's note says: "Raja Sinha was born (when the Portuguese invaded Kandy, twice within six months, Sept. 1611 and March 1612) and forced his parents to flee to Alutnuvara." Robert Knox, An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon (second edition), editor, J.H.O. Paulusz, Vol., 2, Dehiwela: Tisara Press, 1989 [1681], pp.25-26.
    This is confirmed in Mahavamsa chapter 96 (Wilhelm Geiger, Culavamsa, part II, p.232 on Senarat fleeing from the Portuguese: "Then he left the city [having sequestered the tooth relic in a safe place in Dumbara]. Moveable goods, the sons of the former king and the admirable Mahesi, excellent by wealth and virtue, who was pregnant, he took carefully with him in a litter and betook himself to Mahiyangana. While he sojourned in this town the Queen bore under a particularly favorable constellation, a splendid son, dowered with brilliant marks."
  7. Father Fernao de Queyroz, The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest, pp. 17- 18.
  8. Secret Minutes of the Dutch Political Council 1762, Edited and translated, J H O Paulusz, Colombo: Government Press, August 1954, p.101
  9. Joseph Joinville, "Bedas or Vedas" In "On the Religion and Manners of the People of Ceylon" Asiatic Researches, vol., 7, pp.434-35.
  10. I chose the translation by L C Wijesinha, The Mahavamsa, part two, New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1996 [1882]. Wilhelm Geiger objects to Wijesingha's translation of sattikalambara into satti-kala-ambara, "swords, black clothes". His translation reads: "Many thousand Vyadhas too he brought together, (men) who understood their task and gave them what was fitting for them: spears, drums and the like." Culavamsa, trans., Wilhelm Geiger, 69: 10, pp.283-84. My translation of the Sinhala translation of the Mahavamsa/Culavamsa by Sumangala and Batuvantudave reads: "Having trained several thousand Väddas in [military] arts, they were given black clothes and other things they desired." The Mahavamsa: From the thirty-seventh chapter, translated into Sinhala by H Siri Sumangala and Don Andris de Silva Batuvantudave, fifth edition, Colombo: Vidyadarsa Press, 1930, pp.141-42.

"Colonial Histories and Vädda Primitivism"
by Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere
Part One: A Genealogy of Vädda Primitivism
Part Two: Vädda Heterogenity and Historic Complexity
Part Three: The Spread and Dispersal of Vädda Lineages
Part Four: Väddas and the Resistance (1817-18)
Part Five: Hunting versus Agriculture, Structure and History