Veddas  or Wanniyalaetto of Sri Lanka

Colonial Histories and Vädda Primitivism

by Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere


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

I want to conclude this discussion by addressing the implications of the physical omnipresence of the Väddas, if not their demographical significance, in a tentative manner. Let me emphasize that as far as Sri Lanka was concerned there were no "indigenous peoples," no "aborigines," no "wild men" and "tribes" of the Western imagination. I am as much an aborigine as Tissa Hami and as genetically and culturally hybrid. Further, unlike in many parts of the world colonized by Europeans, there was no forcible extermination of Väddas by Buddhist and Hindu rulers. Nor, until recently, when Sinhalas have mimicked colonial practice, were the Väddas seen as an inferior group. They were feared and respected even if they were outside the pale of Buddhist civilization.72 There is no doubt that that civilization was a hegemonic one but not necessarily an intolerant one, as far as the Väddas were concerned. The kings were Buddhist and defenders of the Buddhist faith. But there has been no instance, as far as I know, of "internal colonization" through violence, or a forcible absorption of Vädda communities into the Buddhist polity.73 The presence of Väddas as different and yet similar to the Sinhalas and living in close propinquity to them is recognized in several symbolic performances in Sinhala society in the recent past. There is a short rite known as the vädi dāne or "the almsgiving of the Väddas" performed during the Sinhala post-harvest rituals of both the kohombā kankāriya and the gammaduva which recognized this separation and unity. A similar sense of exclusion and inclusion is dramatically recognized in the wonderful enactment known as the vädi perahara performed annually in Mahiyangana.74

Nowadays, we are accustomed to think that the main structural opposition in history is between Sinhalas and Tamils. Yet, this appositional relationship is a historically contingent one, that is, it depends on particular historical circumstances such that periods of Sinhala-Tamil opposition might be followed by alliances expressive of amity; or both opposition and amity co-exist in the same time span; at other times neither opposition nor amity seem to matter and both communities went on living and partly living. By contrast, as the Mahāvamsa clearly recognizes, the opposition between Väddas and Sinhalas was much more stable and permanent though not a hostile one. Right through history, even when Väddas practised agriculture, they were depicted as a different ethnic group, that is, as hunters. Though I cannot discuss the issue here, Väddas in general were not Buddhists either but practised the ancestral cult of nä yakku. Eventually they do become Sinhalas and Buddhists (and Hindus in the Tamil areas) but, according to the texts that I mentioned earlier, this is no different from the manner in which different migrant groups, mostly from South India, eventually become Sinhala and Buddhist, the more passionately patriotic being the more recent arrivals.

But the question remains that even if Väddas have been assimilated into Sinhala and Buddhism, why the drastic reduction in numbers in the 19th and 20th centuries? I am afraid the details are not entirely clear. When the British came on the scene the so-called wild Väddas or those who lived mostly by hunting and gathering were confined for the most part to the palu rata or "desolate lands," the plains of the Vanni, the Bintanna. Many had been physically decimated by an epidemic of fever (perhaps the flu) around 1809, according to oral histories. And after the rebellion of 1818 those Sinhalas and Väddas living in the vast area known as the Vadi Rata and Maha Vadi Rata died during the resistance or fled elsewhere, some to the hills and others to the Batticaloa district where many of them became absorbed into the Tamil communities in that area. Coffee and later tea took over the wild country where many Väddas lived, especially the area of Namunukula right down to Passara. What happened to them and many others living in the hill country is anybody's guess.

A final word: as with the relations between Tamils and Sinhalas it is obvious that the constant genetic and cultural interchange between communities must disillusion us against stereotying and essentializing identities constructed over a long historical period. Take the case of the Vädda-Sinhala cultural interchanges. Väddas have Kataragama who is a Hindu and Buddhist deity as one of their own; and there is the great god Saman, whom many Väddas of the Mahiyangana-Maha Oya area claim was one of their own ancestors before he foolishly invited the Buddha to these shores. Saman is also the younger brother of their own mother goddess Maha Lokuvo or Maha Kiriamma, and yet he is also a major deity of the Sinhalas. The great Vädda gods were, until very recent times, also propitiated by the Sinhalas who, at best, would substitute the word 'deviyo' (god) for Yaka. Thus Kande Yaka becomes Kande Deviyo. I have showed in another paper that the mortuary rites in the practical religion of Buddhists are very likely derived from Vädda ideation.75 These cultural interchanges facilitated movement from Vädda to Buddhist paralleling the movement from hunting to agriculture, as well as the other way around. This form of hybridity does not abolish the distinction between Vädda and Buddhist; only that at a particular historical conjuncture, the distinction becomes fuzzy such that Buddhist informants living in what was historically Vädda country even now proudly affirm their Vädda ancestry. But this affirmation of hybridity is not that of our postmodem situation where one can self-consciously affirm one's fragmented and hybridized identity. The Sri Lankan historical conjuncture is but a phase in a larger movement from Vädda to Buddhist, accelerated in our own times where the dominance and new hegemonic intolerance of Buddhism cannot be gainsaid, quite unlike in the past where Buddhists also could become Väddas. In this situation I think it is the role of the analyst to excavate the past and hold up to critical reflection the hybrid nature, not just of Väddas and Sinhalas, but of our human condition in general. In the current political situation in Sri Lanka where identities are congealed and sometimes fanatically affirmed I think it our scholarly duty to point out the historically contingent bases on which such fixed conceptions are grounded, even if many remain indifferent to what we say and turn a blind eye on such "restorative" research.

End Notes

  1. For more evidence on this subject, see K.N.O. Dharmadasa, "Veddas in the History of Sri Lanka", in K.N.O. Dharmadasa and S.W.R de A Samarasinghe, The Vanishing Aborigines, p.37.
  2. 73. I borrow the notion of 'internal colonization' from Eugen Weber who I think got it from Franz Fanon. See Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976, pp.490-96.
  3. 74. For details see my paper "Where have all the Väddas gone?" in Neluka Silva, editor, Hybrid Island, forthcoming.
  4. 75. See end note 73.

"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