Veddas  or Wanniyalaetto of Sri Lanka

Colonial Histories and Vädda Primitivism

by Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere

Part Five: Hunting versus Agriculture, Structure and History


In the course of my field work it struck me that those Sinhalas who live, or used to live, in the same ecological zone with the Väddas practised similar rituals because they shared a similar form of life. The Väddas, however, did not subscribe to Buddhism; the movement from Vädda to Sinhala is part of a larger movement in Sri Lankan history whereby those who were identified as "hunters" moved towards rice cultivation. This applied to the Sinhalas as well as to the Väddas. With rice cultivation, it was possible to become more Buddhist, because one no longer needed hunting for subsistence. Needless to say hunting, like other professions that involved killing, was viewed as a low form of existence in Buddhist orthodoxy. The first and most important shift in that larger movement is swidden or hena cultivation and the raising of cattle. Swidden and cattle-raising obviously could coexist with hunting as was the case with many Sinhalas and Väddas living in similar zones; but they could also coexist with rice cultivation which then becomes a three-fold occupation most consonant with being Buddhist.

It is however a mistake to think that with rice cultivation and pastoralism there was a suspension of hunting. Prior to the colonial period the agricultural areas were surrounded by large forests and people used the resources of these forests for their livelihood, and this included hunting. Thus, in the vast area of Bintanna-Vellassa-Viyaluya-Valapane and practically the whole of Uva people to this day pride themselves as consumers of dada mas (game), "flesh from the hunt." Knox mentions that Sinhalas were not meat eaters in the agricultural areas wherein he was confined. But he simply stated an ideal. This ideal did not entail the eating of domestic animals but even Knox was engaged in selling meat from the hunt. Though the ideal that hunting was un-Buddhist is believed by those Sinhalas in my fieldwork area, they nevertheless persist in eating dada mas,
the most favorite being the flesh of the deer or sambhur. The ideal of venison as the "pure meat" is so strong that even ritual specialists (kapurālas) in much of this area will abstain from eating fish and meat before and during a ritual performance, the only exception being venison. Prior to the recent enbourgeoisment of Kataragama, venison was even given to the deity as part of his adukku (ritual meal). What happens with a greater commitment to Buddhist practice is not so much the giving up of eating dada mas but the giving up of hunting as an acceptable form of life. Yet, hunting continued even in the more Buddhist parts of the country in the last century by specially gifted vedikkārayo, "hunters with guns." The opposition between hunting and agriculture is expressed not only in Buddhist doctrinal and historical texts but also in many popular ritual texts which mention deities and culture heroes who affected shifts from hunting to agriculture and sometimes from hunting to pastoralism among both Väddas and Sinhalas.

The charter myth for this opposition is known to most Buddhists and is first presented in the Mahāvamsa which relates how the Buddhist saint (arahant) Mahinda flew through the air and landed in the mountain of Mihintale where King Devanampiyatissa (250-210 BCE) was out hunting deer. Not only was the king converted but the place where this archetypal wrong act occurred became a meditation site for the first monks and a center of Buddhist worship and pilgrimage. This event in turn is based on an earlier prototypic one of Asoka who also renounced the hunt, intrinsic to the life-style of Indian royalty, and instead substituted it with pilgrimages to sites associated with the Buddha's life and dispensations.70 But the fact remains that, in spite of this affirmation of the Asokan ideal, high caste Sinhalas were also consumers of dada mas in the Kandyan provinces of that period. And although there is an "eternal recurrence" of idealized Asokan "myth models" in Buddhist history the earlier kingly ideals also continued to exist. Thus, one of the greatest of Buddhist kings, Parakramababu I (1153- 1186), adopted the ksatriya ideal of hunting: the Mahāvamsa describes him engaged in the hunt accompanied by his chief queen and courtiers out to kill that pure animal, the sambhur, just as Devanampiyatissa did with the deer.71 It should also be remembered that the family and kinfolk of Parakramabahu were both Hindu and Buddhist, practicing both Brahmanic and Buddhist rituals including he upanāyana initiation into Hindu life, in this case whereby one became a Ksatriya. Though Buddhist kings in general desisted from hunting, we know from the evidence of both Knox and popular Kandyan period texts that the Väddas performed a crucial royal duty or rājakāriya as providers of dada mas for the royal table.

The vast rice growing areas in ancient times embraced the great hydraulic civilizations of the dry zones which in my view were colonized primarily by Sinhala-Buddhists with the hunters confined to forests or brought into the production of grain and cattle (pastoralism). After the abandonment of the old rajarata in the 14th century the Vädda presence in the region would surely have increased, such that Knox had fleeting glimpses of them when he was attempting to escape. But Sinhalas could as easily become Väddas with the decay of the agricultural civilizations just as much as Väddas could become Sinhalas with the development of agriculture in once-forested areas. In fact this is what happened in the Uva-Vellassa region: the area is studded with archeological sites of enormous significance (though almost totally neglected in archaeological studies). By the 13th century this civilization connecting Ruhuna with the rajarata went into decline and its agricultural base became a habitat of hunters and hena cultivators, some of whom became Väddas. Between the 14th and 15th centuries profound historical changes were taking place in Sri Lanka with the formation of new kingdoms outside the old hydraulic zones, especially in the Kandyan area in the central highlands; and also in the movement to the coastal areas with Kotte as a capital that captured the new sea trade with Arabs and later with European powers.

The development of these once forested areas into rice cultivation paralleled the growing outreach of Buddhism and that of the great guardian gods who were protectors of both Buddhism and the secular realm. The poetry of this period shows not only the paths that interconnected the low country but also the many great Buddhist temples and shrines for the guardian gods. With the bringing of this region into rice cultivation and subsidiary pastoralism (such as buffalos needed for agriculture) hunting ceased to be the prime and valued form of life. This shift is expressed in texts such as those pertaining to the goddess Pattini who is par excellence the deity presiding over the ritual cycle known as the gammaduva, a ritual of thanksgiving among farmers, practiced in the rice cum cattle raising areas of today's Western, Southern and Sabaragamuva Provinces. Side by side with this powerful movement leading to the growth of rice cultivation, Väddas were gradually drawn into the dominant economy. Ipso facto they were also drawn into a hegemonic Buddhism, fostered by intermarriage with the Sinhala.

The preceding discussion helps us to understand the phenomenon of Bandara Väddas and their relation to the political order and the emerging agrarian economy. Remember that Lawrie's list mentions two kinds of Vädda aristocrats: the one belonging to local Vädda royalty, like the king of Opaigala and Huwan Kumaraya; the other belonging to the Bandaras, that is, to the Kandyan aristocracy. In fact, the son of the Vädda king of Opalgala was called Herat Bandara and founded a village. In my oral histories I have four lineages of Bandara Väddas who claim to have migrated from Kandy during politically troubled times and settled in the Vellassa-Nilgala region after having married Vädda wives of lower status. The mātale kadaimpota as well as my own field notes show how Vädda variges (kin groups) became converted into Mudali peruva aristocratic vāsagamas or patrilineages, such that clan names like Tala Varige eventually became Tala Bandara and then were further transformed into such highfaluting names as Herat Mudiyanse and Disanayaka Mudiyanse - this name changing paralleling the movement from hunting to agriculture and then into Buddhism. Another group called itself Konara Mudiyanse, perhaps originally belonging to the widely dispersed lineage of the Konara Väddas mentioned in Lawrie's Gazetteer. All these originary Väddas are now Sinhala. Some of you will be surprised to know that members of the late Professor Senaka Bibile's family proudly claim their descent from Maha Kaira Vädda who was settled in the Bibile area by Rajasinha I of Sitavaka. Thus the case of Kivulegedera Mohottala mentioned earlier is not an isolated one; his was one of the many lineages of Bandara Väddas scattered throughout the Vädda country both among the wild and the tame! The preceding examples of Bandara Väddas show that they were honored by the Sinhala kings for services rendered to them and incorporated into the political structure of their respective kingdoms. According to my current thinking, the historic role of Vädda and Sinhala Bandaras was to open up the dense forested areas of the Kandyan kingdom for rice cultivation under the patronage of the Sinhala and Nayakkar kings.

End Notes

  1. See John S. Strong, The Legend of King Asoka [Asokavadana], (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), pp.119-25.
  2. 71. Mahavamsa, chapter 70, 32-45 in Wilhelm Geiger, Culavamsa, part 1, pp.290-91.

"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