Mahiyangana is a popular destination among Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Upon hearing “Mahiyangana”, everyone thinks of none other than Mahiyangana Raja Maha Vihara. From the religious point of view, it is one of the most sacred places due to the Buddha’s presence in the 6th century BC. But Mahiyangana is not only important due to the Mahiyangana Raja Maha Vihara but also due to its importance, being home of the oldest ethnic group on the island.
The origin of the Vedda community is going back to the Stone Age and they were the first known inhabitants of the country. With arrival Vijaya, they lost their domination as an ethnic group. Since then the Vedda community had chosen Deep South of Sri Lanka as their place of residence. They were forced over and over again by the other ethnic groups to embrace their religions, customs and traditions. Today number of Veddas is reduced in great numbers and most of the remaining Veddas have adopted the lifestyle of other communities.
Today the Veddas community is fast shrinking and they are changing their lifestyle in accordance with the other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. The future of the Vedda community, their customs, traditions, language and lifestyle is uncertain. These thousands of years of the old culture is slowly diminishing from Sri Lanka. After considering the importance of this community, recently Maduru Oya Nationa Park is declared as a Vedda’s reservation site. This move allows them to keep on their traditional lifestyle, which backed by hunting. Today children of Vedda community enjoy free education in Vedda schools. Some of the Veddas have been able to graduate and hold important positions in the state sector.
Despite all these changes, there is a number of Veddas, who stick to their traditional lifestyle. They speak their own language and have names such as ‘Kekulu’ and ‘Kekuli Pojji’. The history is still preserved in the areas such as Dolagahawela and Muthugalwela near Mahiyangana.
Vedda community has changed their traditional attire during the past several decades and wears the traditional dress of Sinhalese. What is most well preserved from their traditional lifestyle among the community is the language, songs and acrobatic dancing.
It is worth to visit the Vedda museum that showcases many ancient artefacts and traditional paintings of this community. The paintings are coloured with vegetable dye and pale in colour. There is a collection of bones and skulls of animals for demonstration at the museum. Vedda community is happy to see the visitors and arranges demonstrations for the visitors. One can see the traditional dancing of the Vedda community, which performed with bows and arrows. The museum is surrounded by tree houses and thatched roof tied together with coconut leaves. Visitors to this place feel like being in a village surrounded by thick jungle.
About indigenous people of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic multicultural country and the peoples of the island divided into several ethnic groups. Majority of the population is made of Sinhalese, Tamils and Moslems while moors, boras and was considered being minor ethnic groups.
Even though the Veddas community or Wanniya-laeto considered being a minor ethnic group, the origin of the community goes back to the 16,000 B.C or Neolithic community of the island. Some of the archaeologists believe that the origin of the Veddas community goes even far earlier than that.
English sailor (Robert Knox) who was in captivity of Kandyan king in 1681 had to live in the captivity for 20 years. It is believed that Robert has done the first accurate description of the indigenous community on the island.
Robert Knox “Of these Natives there be two sorts Wild and Tame. I will begin with the former. For as in these Woods there are Wild Beasts so Wild Men also. The Land of Bintan is all covered with mighty Woods, filled with the abundance of Deer. In this Land are many of these wild men; they call them Vaddahs, dwelling near no other Inhabitants. They speak the Chingulayes Language. They kill Deer, and dry the Flesh over the fire, and the people of the Country come and buy it from them. They never Till any ground for Corn, their Food being only Flesh. They are very expert with their Bows. They have a little axe, which they stick by their sides, to cut honey out of Hollow Trees. Some few, which are near Inhabitants, have commerce with other people. They have neither Towns nor Houses, only live by the waters under a Tree, with some boughs cut and laid about them, to give notice when any wild Beasts come near, which they may hear by their rustling and be trampling upon them. Many of these Habitations we saw when we fled through the Woods, but God be praised the Vaddahs were gone.”
Descendents of the Veddas community lives in some parts of the country even today. They still enjoy their living habitat (dry zone forests) of their ancestors. They have been careful to retain their lifestyle and pre-historic culture. Even though the meat had been their staple food, nowadays they are mainly depending on agriculture.
However, it is believed that the valuable culture of this community is depleting from the island. More and more people are embracing the lifestyle of other cultures forgetting their age-old living habits, the island and the world tend to lose a rich body of indigenous culture and living ecological knowledge that can be used for the sustainable future of the mankind.
In the last 25 centuries, this community had to face many challenges to protect the community identity. With the invasion of Sinhalese in the country, the community had been forced to embrace the new culture, living style, language and other habits. The arrival of Sinhalese (largest ethnic group) occurred in 5th century B.C and they were forced constantly to choose either the other culture or retreat even further to the forest.
Shy and retiring nature of the Veddas community has been the main reason to insulate this community from mainstream society. However, since the arrival of other community groups (Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims)on the island, thousands of Veddas community (forest-dwelling community) is absorbed into other societies. Remaining people of the Veddas community has to be able to retain the identity of their culture and traditional lifestyle against the pressure from the other dominant ethnic groups.
Veddas community operates within a unique conceptual framework, which is from the local administrators who govern the power over land and interests of Veddas community. Veddas community does not have an individual real state, instead, they believe that the people of the community and their ancestor-spirits are a part of the jungle where they live and protect.
Archaeologists believe that the origin of Vedda community goes back to the era of Balangoda man and this community is a mixture of Balangoda man and the Arians. Vedda community shows some similarities and dissimilarities to Balangoda man.