Where have all the Veddas gone?
by Bandu de Silva

The Island /08APR2006

Where have all the Veddas gone? is taken from the title used by anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere, who wrote an article in the Socialist Scientist’s Association publication "The Hybrid Island," (2002 reprinted in 2004). However, this very question arose in my mind when I read the controversy over the so called "Cleghorn Minute" some years back, particularly, the use of the evidence of the Minute to substantiate a claim for "Tamil Homelands." That is, how a thesis which denied a place for the Veddas, who from all evidence have a greater claim of antiquity to this island than those of the Sinhalese and the Tamils, was used to buttress a claim for one of them, ie., the Tamils in this case?

Obeyesekere devoted more space to discuss the relationship of Veddas with Buddhist ritual (Vedi Perahera) at Mahiyangana temple, the "Nae Yakun’ cult and some Vedi ritual aspects in the Kataragama festival. As far as the first question was concerned, the objective seemed to be to show the infusion of Veddas into the Sinhalese society. Others writing in the same issue wrote on the same theme but also pointing to the reverse process of the Sinhalese falling back into the Vedda fold as demonstrated in the Vanni.

Cleghorn Minute*: The first denial of Vedda presence

I have myself devoted some space to discuss the Vedi chieftancies when I delivered the Hugh Nevill Commemoration Lecture at the Royal Asiatic Society, Colombo, ten years back (published in the Journal Special Number 1956). The objective there was to point to the role the Veddas played in the management of affairs in the outlying areas when the Sinhalese kingdom had lost its close grip on the periphery; and as levies in the Kandyan army.

When Cleghorn wrote his controversial Minute, commonly known as "‘Cleghorn Minute," he conceived of a finely divided land, and saw no space, perhaps for disdain and lack of sympathy towards the Veddas whose presence he had refused to recognize despite their physical presence and available evidence that they had been the major element in the population in the eastern parts of the island up to the Jaffna lagoon in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries (and even at the end of the 19th century as the Govt. Agent, Hugh Nevill saw from his postings at Vavunikulam, Mullaitivu and Trincomalee in the 1880s). That was understandable in the light of European thinking from the 16th century onwards which was still alive at the time Friedrich Engels wrote in the 19th century.

No other circumstance than Cleghom being a subscriber to the idea of the 17th to early 19th century European bourgeois idea of inferiority of indigenous people could explain his ignoring the presence of Veddas in the eastern parts of the island. The responsibility cannot be laid entirely in the hands of the former Batticaloa based Dutch official, Burnand, who provided him the information. Obviously, there were other shortcomings in the information. For example, it had not been made clear when he spoke of "two nations" inhabiting the island: one, the Sinhalese from Chilaw to Walawe river; and the other, the Malabars, from Walawe to Chilaw, why a more important reference to inward boundaries was left out.

Then how is it that the first British Civil servant in the island, Bertolacci who writing at the same time, basing his information for his more thoroughgoing study on the island from the same Dutch official, wrote that the land was inhabited by "three nations" which included the Muslims? He also did not fail to mention the Veddas who formed a major element in the population especially in the eastern and northern parts of the country? Was it because Bertolacci, who hailed from Corsica, was less prone to the influence of bourgeois English political thoughts of Harrington and Locke than Cleghorn, the former University Professor who became the first Colonial Secretary in the island (dismissed for his involvement in the pearl fisheries) obviously displayed?

Friedrich Engels when writing his "Condition of the Working Class in England’ in the 19th century" still found the memory of the average Irishman as ‘half savage, coarse, belligerent, dirty, ultra-religious, boisterous, too fond of drink’ doing the rounds. Locke even refined the ideas into a finer philosophy and applied it to many other classes. Locke wrote,"...The greatest part of mankind have not leisure for learning and logic[k], and superfine distinctions of the schools. Where the hand is used to the plough and the spade, the head is seldom elevated to sublime notions, or exercised in mysterious reasoning..." Others like Mirabeau who said that "our slaves [Negroes] in America area a race apart, distinct from our own species" [Lamis des hommes] and Le Trosne who said "I consider the Negroes simply as animals to he used for tilling the soil," applied it in relation to the Negroes. [Quoted in Michele Duchet’s: Anthropologie et historic an si ‘ecle de lumieres, Paris, 1971]. In this context, it is not difficult to relate Prof. Cleghorii’s thinking to the same school of thought.

One cannot also accuse the Sri Lankan chroniclers of the 3rd (Dipavamsa) and 6th century A.D. (Mahavamsa) for presenting the people in the island found at the time of the arrival of the immigrants from the Gangetic basin as non-human beings, (Yakkhas and Nagas?) This view of the 6th century A.D. chronicler is understandable if one looked at what the Englishmen who colonized Ireland in the 17th century A.D. and even the political thinker of the time like Harrington said of the Irishmen and others of the Negroes as quoted above. If one peeps back to the time of Rg Veda (2000 B. C.), one finds the same attitude in embryo, and less defined towards the "dark-skinned" (krsna-tvachah) people whom the Rg Vedic Brahmins met in the Gangetic valley.

It was obviously as a hangover from their Indian heritage, the same "superior" outlook of the Vedic Brahmin, that the Buddhist monks of the post Christian era displayed, when they conceived of the aborigines of the island, that the first northern immigrants met, as "non-human". The very name "Kuveni" or "Ka-vanna" (black-coloured) carry the same Rg Vedic concept of ‘Krsna-tvachach’ (dark-coloured). The idea of looking for women of equal Kasatriya-clan for the consecration of Vijaya and as wives for his followers was a further step. Whatever it may be the chronicler at least acknowledged the presence of the indigenous people. He called them "non-human" rather than ignore their presence completely as the 19th century bourgeois English Professor did.

Burnand’s contribution

What one could conclude from the attempt to use Cleghorn’s presentation of the situation, suppressing evidence of the presence of Veddas and other communities like Mukkuvas and Muslims and even the Sinhalese in the lands between Deduru Oya and Walawe Ganga, is how in the ethno-centric approach to historiography --that is giving it a too respectable nomenclature which is not deserved in this case — even a bit of misplaced information could be used as grist for the mill for present day sectarian agenda.

The Dutch official Burnand, who was the source of information for Cleghorn (as well as Bertolacci), was a man with his own agenda who had even encouraged the writing of a Batticaloa chronicle just like Maccara. Another Dutch official in Jaffna encouraged the writing of the Jaffna chronicle. The objective was to present a counter claim for northern and eastern territories claimed by the king of Kandy. He also encouraged bands of Kochin sepoys (Malabars) who were disbanded to settle in the wilds of Panam Pattu as husbandry men. He was, therefore, part of the Dutch establishment which was trying to undermine the kings’ claims to the territory of the whole land. So, one can understand how and why those territories, which were outside the pale of Dutch administration from Deduru Oya to Walawe extending towards the north and east, were perceived as being singularly inhabited by the Malabars.

As much as the Cleghorn Minute does not explain where the internal boundary of the territories he demarcated lay, the Dutch had occupied more territory in the West and the South of the maritime provinces at the time of surrender of the island to the British. In the North their hold was confined to the Jaffna peninsula, and the islands which the Portuguese had controlled. They introduced South Indian Vellalas into the peninsula in the 18th century when tobacco came to be cultivated there on a commercial scale.

In the North-West, across the Mannar peninsula, the watered lands of Mannar, Nanathan and Perungkaly, Karachichi and Musali were wrested from the Varmiyas while in the interior Vanni districts, they imposed a tributary system over the chieftains, which was meant more to secure their rear from attacks by Kandyans, and to prevent help from reaching the King of Kandy who was at war with them.

The Vanni, however, remained no-man’s land for most of the time, with the chieftains sitting on the fence on the question of loyalty. By, 1784, Leut. Nagel had also ousted the last of the Vanni chieftains, thereby ending the tribute paying relationship they had earlier established with the Vanni principalities. That relationship was a mere formality based on several "Contracts" that Governor Imhoff had signed with them as well as with "Vanniyas" of the East. These northern Vanni chieftaincies were, nevertheless, incorporated in Dutch maps under the Jaffna Commandment.

In the eastern areas stretching from Trincomalee, to Walawe, the situation was quite different. This was barren country, as the Dutch Governor Rycloff Van Goens recorded in his Memoir to his successor dated December 1663, which he said, he had, "never been able to visit [this district] as it is entirely inhabited by the King’s people, besides being barren."

In the Trincomalee area too, the Dutch had brought the Vanni chieftaincy system to an end and brought the land directly under the Dutch administration, with the exception of the Vanni rule in parts of Kaddukulam pattu, which was allowed to continue in consideration of the fact that, Sendara Segara (Sedara Unnehe to the Sinhalese?), the former Vanniya there, the father of the then Vanniya, had transferred the allegiance from the king of Kandy to the Dutch. Tampalagama and Kottiyararna were brought under the Dutch administration.

The Dutch had strengthened the fort further south in Baticaloa, then known as Puliyan-Duwa, where adjacent territory was under Dutch control. Here too Governor Imhoff (1738) had surreptitiously, signed several "Contracts" with local chieftains on the basis of which claims seem to have been made to territory well beyond what the Dutch were actually in possession. [Dutch records, nos. 2507-2508, SLNA]. That included even the interior area around the Kaudulla tank, around which the Sinhalese carried out some cultivation subject to a local Gamarala. He too was in Imhoff’s scheme of "Contracts."

Through the Treaty of 1766 with Kandy, the Dutch sought to obtain legal possession of the maritime areas extending one Sinhalese mile (gavva) inwards from the low water mark of the sea shore, but the King refused to ratify this Treaty negotiated by his Ambassadors. The Du Perron Map of 1789 includes territory beyond that contemplated in the treaty with Kandy.

The Cleghorn Minute also cannot explain why the boundary was subsequently not drawn at the Walawe river but at Kumbukkan Oya. Wasn’t that because travel from Kumbukkan Oya, marking the distance that could be covered on horse back in a day’s travel from Batticaloa, to Hambantota which was the last Southern outpost in Dutch/ later British times being more difficult. This was demonstrated from the experience of the march of the 3rd Ceylon Regiment on the direction of Brownrigg and commanded by Col. MacKay from Galle to Trincomalee travelling through Hambantota in April /May 1813, in this "thinly inhabited and little frequented part of the country." [Hugh Nevill: Notes on ‘Afilitary History of Trincomalee, ‘JRAS, 1953/4].

Veddas in the East and North

The Portuguese chronicler, Fernao de Queyroz recorded that the whole area north of Bintenna, the traditional abode of Veddas, including the Trincomalee area was inhabited by them. He wrote: "Trincomalee....lie in the midst of the most savage people of Ceylon" In another place he wrote: "There were no other neighbours save the Bedas" (Veddas).

As stated above, the Dutch Governor, Rycloff Van Goens wrote in his Memoir to his successor (Dec. 1663) that he had "never been able to visit this district [between Walawe and Trincomalee] as it is entirely inhabited by the King’s people, besides being barren." Who were these King’s people in the 18th century? Does the Cleghorn Minute provide the answer for that? In 1957, Major General Hodgson in his Memorandum to Duke of Cambridge observed that Trincomalee was destitute of people, but in the 1880s, Hugh Nevill who was Assistant Govt. Agent in Vavunilulam, Mullaitivu and later at Tincomalee, wrote in his Diaries that the area up to the Jaffna lagoon was inhabited by Veddas.

Vedda confrontation with new settlers

All our sources point to a problem which had existed when Indian immigrants arrived in the island from time to time as peaceful settlers or invaders. The first wave of such immigration according to Sri Lankan chronicles point to a problem between the new arrivals from North India and the earlier settlers who were probably the Veddas. They are presented as non-human beings. The chroniclers invented two explanations: one that they were ‘removed’ by Buddha (not a Buddhist-like idea); and that Vijaya destroyed them (which is contradicted by their presence in Pandukabhaya’s time and helping him to win the kingdom and being honoured by him.)

The problem relating to settlement of new comers continued. The South Indians who invaded the country later after settlements were established, were for the most, mercenaries recruited by adventurers from warlike South. Indian tribes who had no permanent interest in settling on land. They were lured by the prospects of plunder, loot pillage and rape. The prosperous temples of the island were the greatest attractions in this respect.

For the seafaring South Indian tribes, who may have come from time to time, prospects of settling down on land could not have provided an attraction. Only the seasonal pearl fishery could have provided a great attraction, but how many would have wanted to settle down on the inhospitable coast without much prospect of sustenance. The point is illustrated in the account of Mukkara Hatana, when the South Indian mercenary tribes came and were offered women which they refused; and when land was offered by the sea coast their chiefs said that it was their tragedy that they had always lived by the coast. Then it is said that the Sinhalese nobility considered the matter and gave them land at Ambane, Tamankaduwa and Eravur in addition to those at Chilaw and Negombo. The Portuguese settled the Paravars at the Mannar island and the Dutch, the Vellalas with their slaves in Jaffna peninsula and the weavers in the peninsula, in Mannar, Chilaw, Negombo and on the eastern coast.

The question of settling them on uncleared land had not arisen. The South Indians plundered the land from time to time or took over lands settled by the Sinhalese. Similarly, the new immigrants of the 19th century settled in Coffee plantations established by the Kandyan Sinhalese labour and periodically returned to their villages in India. As the inscriptions of South Indian monarchs record how they were impressed by the green fields, and thriving villages, in Illam, which was then the cause that attracted them to invade and plunder. A band of prisoners were also taken to build bunds on the Cauvery river.

Latter day confrontation with Veddas

The Jaffna tradition on the establishment of Vanni principalities in the peninsula (Vannippuvam), speaks of killing a Vedda chief. Similarly, the (garbled) tradition in Nadu-Kadu (south of Batticaloa), as recorded by Hugh Nevill in Tabronanian speaks of the conflict between Veddas and the Tamils. It says that the Tamil immigrants asked Rajapakse Mudaliyar (a reference to Kandure Bandara, I think), to get the Veddas to clear the land for them. The tradition in Kandure Bandaravaliya itself points to this new immigrant family establishing themselves as chieftains, over the Veddas of Bintenna-Wellassa area. The strategy they used was to marry into the Vedi families, Kandure Bandara himself taking four Vedi women as wives. However, the King had to have the immigrants removed from the East as this area formed his recruiting grounds for his army. When members of the Kanudre Bandara family were transferred to lands in Tamankaduwa, they took with them the Vedda brother-in-law. That shows how much they depended on the Veddas for clearing land.

The Hybird Civilisation

Gananath Obeyesekere and other writers in the same volume have raised the issue of Veddas (and Vanniyas) in keeping with the theme ‘hybrid civilization’. In these writings the point is made that as much as the Veddas had come under the ‘civilising’ influence of the major community, the reverse process of the Sihalese including the people of the Vanni going under Vedda influence has been surfaced. True enough. The Vanni presents a clear example of this process. In the 19th century there was very little to differentiate between the Veddas and the people of the Vanni. Both followed hunting and the life of ‘food gatherers’ rather than one of agriculture. Early British administrators found in the northern jungles these people who called themselves Vanniyas who were similar to Veddas as the practice of hunting and subsistence living; but imitated the Tamils in dress and a few other ascots though they distinguished themselves from the Tamils. These administrators wrote that the Veddas did not wish to identify themselves with the Vanniyas.

Vedda Response to Christianity

I would have liked to hear what Obeyesekere thought about the efforts made by the British colonial government with the support of Christian missionaries in the 19th century to ‘civilize’ the Veddas by converting them to Christianity, and persuading them to lead a settled life. The British even opened a Mission to the Veddas. This task was taken over by the Wesleyans, when neither the Anglicans nor the Baptists were enthusiastic. They received a government grant to start two schools. (Mackenzie schools) and the Govt. Agent of Batticaloa, Atherton, who became a Wesleyan, actively supported this work. The two Mission schools, increased to three thereafter, proved successful and attracted as many as 400 Veddas, who were baptized and settled as agriculturists in three villages. By 1843, the Mission had become a show piece. Two more villages were added later. However, the experiment lasted less than five years. With the early enthusiasm having waned on both sides, the government, missionaries and instructors on one hand, and the Veddas themselves on the other hand, the latter "returned to their old ways". They were tired of their new and settled life, and took once again to jungles. They forgot their agricultural pursuits; their crops died from want of water, and what survived were destroyed by wild elephants. The veneer of Christianity had worn thin; they had reverted to traditional cults". (K.M. de Silva, quoting from Annual Report, Wesleyan Mission , North Ceylon 1849). Later sectarian disputes between the Wesleyans and the Anglicans over the Vedda Mission brought an end to this enterprise.

I think here is a case for the anthropologist to peep beyond the Buddhism’s connection with the Veddas. Despite the enthusiasm over the early ‘success’ of the Mission to the Veddas, which was a State-and Wesleyan joint enterprise [K.M. de Silva], there was much ambiguity about the project, the same type of ambiguity that was displayed in the West towards the Negroes. The problem of the thinkers of the period in the West is demonstrated by Duchet when he quotes: "It may not be impossible to civilize the Negro, to get him to believe in principles and make a man of him: there would be much more to be gained than just by buying and selling them."

Not all Wesleyan missionaries were enthusiastic about the Mission to the Veddas. Rev. R. Scott of the Wesleyan Mission in Batticaloa who participated with Govt. Agent Atherton in pioneering the mission’s work among the Veddas, conveyed the warning two years later (1843), that in contrast to the few hundred Veddas (400 living in three new Christian settlements), the real field of operation was the coastal region near Batticaloa, where several thousand Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and ‘Papists’ awaited conversion. Rev. J. Crowther, expressed even more sarcastic comments about Atherton’s work, while Rev, R. Percival (Jaffna) said "from what I can learn, the reception of Baptism is the consequence of a general Government encouraged movement, of a few degraded and most ignorant people from a barbarous, though by no means savage to a more civil and social state. It is no doubt an interesting state of things, but how can it be the effect of the preaching of the Gospel? When and by whom was the Gospel preached`85?" [Question: How could there have been thousands of Muslims and Buddhists, as the missionaries noted, had there been a ‘singular nation,’ the Malabars, inhabiting between Deduru Oya and Walawe ganga remains to be answered?]

K. M. de Silva commenting on this situation, quoting from other writers, says, "This latter criticism focuses attention on what, as regards the propagation of Christianity, was the real weakness of the mission. The work of civilization the construction of houses, the establishment of schools and the introduction of agriculture seemed successful enough, but the work of conversions was necessarily superficial, a thin veneer over a sold core of paganism. Men were ‘converted’ to Christianity who hardly had the most elementary notion of what is meant" [K-M. de Silva: "Social policy and Missionary Organization in Ceylon": 1840/1855].

It would seem from the missionary accounts in Sri Lanka that the Veddas too liked their freedom and their old wild ways just as much as the Australian aborigines whom the missionaries and the government tried to ‘civilise’did. The Veddas had been very active in war when summoned. They organized themselves well for the hunt. They guarded the coast efficiently from very early days till later days that the Portuguese and The Dutch found them very troublesome. Perhaps, it was a party of Veddas led by the ’ of Trincomalee who held Miguel Ferdnandez and his party from landing at Trincomalee for 50 days. He finally decided to proceed to St. Thome. The Dutch found the Veddas disturbing the pearl fishery from time to time.

An Encounter with a Marginalised People

In mid 1950s on a visit to the remote jungle village of Galdebokke Matale district, I found that the people in the whole village had the ‘Vasagama’ of Vedige but protested when I asked them if they were Veddas. They claimed that they were from the royal stock! And that, they had been relegated to unhospitable, wind-swept, unproductive and inaccessible villages in the rocky outback of Matale district pointed to their Vedda origin; or their failing into the Vedda fold either after the Kandyan rebellions against the British or when the lands were acquired for European owned plantations. The whole village had a small paddy field of a few liyaadsas under quarter of an acre, which belonged to one family. Others lived by Chena cultivation and had a subsistence life based on a few crops like maize, not even with a day’s stock of corns in their ‘dum-messa’. From the miserable existence of these village people many of whom were suffering from Parangi and water-borne diseases (they polluted the only stream which flowed through the village with feacal matter), one could judge what the lot of the people in the Vanni had been after the decadence set in. The Dutch officer, Leut. Nagel, who became the Land Raad of the Vanni after the expulsion of the surviving chieftains from the Vanni, has left a heart rendering account of their condition. He calls them the most unclean people.

This is further evidence of what Obeyesekere and others call the process of the Sinhalese transforming themselves into Vedda culture. After the collapse of agriculture which remained around a few breached tanks like Kaudulla or Minneriya [Dutch and British records], and a few places in the interior of the Kaddukulam pattu (Govt. Agents’ Reports for Trincomalee] and in the Vanni [Leut.Nagel] surviving under small village- tanks where some Puaranagam of the Sinhalese, made a critical existence. The majority of the people had to go back to the primitive methods of hunting which the Veddas practiced. As such it was difficult to make a distinction between the people of the Vanni and the Veddas whom the Europeans met there.

The Situation in the East

In the East, the Veddas were not all that backward. Some leading Kandyan families were proud of their ‘Vedi’ ancestry until recent times. I have, in earlier writings brought out evidence to show all those chieftains who were listed as Veddas in the Matale Maha Disawe Kadimpola were not necessarily Veddas. They held authority over groups of Veddas as it gave them status and profit, Veddas being in much demand as recruits to Sinhalese armies. At that time I listed 16 such Vedi chieftains in Matale Maha Disawa among whom were some women (Mahage). I have since found that I had missed a few more names of these Vedi chieftains. (The Ola mss. I was reading from in the Hugh Nevill collection at the British library was not very clear). The text has been published since then by H. A. P. Abeywardene.

Back to my question, where have all the Veddas gone? Veddas went into hiding when there was too much pressure on them for war service in the time of Senarat/Rajasinha II. This was the reason for the king extending the boundaries of Matale Disawa up to Trincomalee to include the entire Vedda country. I found this tendency of the Veddas to hide in the deep recess of the jungle even as late as mid 1950s, when a group of us went into the jungles of Dambana to bring them for voting at a bye-election held for the Mahiyanganna Parliamentary seat in 1955.

The Veddas in the Eastern province are obviously now mixed with the Tamils and the Sinhalese. The Kandure Bandara story I referred to is a landmark in the process of assimilation of the Veddas into the Sinhalese society. (The Kandure family itself was foreign to the land). The Dutch and the British settled some of the Veddas on the coast as agriculturalists and some may have got absorbed into the Tamil society. How the LTTE cadres from the East led by Karuna became so effective in jungle warfare is a matter for investigation. A good many of them were probably of mixed origin. Even the cadre who was responsible for the murder of Ven. Kitalgama Seelaratana of Nimbutagala was said to be a half Sinhalese- half Tamil!

The Eastern province presents a far more hybrid culture than the Vanni land. It had been a mixed society for the last few centuries made up of Veddas, Sinhalese, Mukkuvas, Muslims and Tamils. Our Muslim friends from influential families often told us that their mothers were Sinhalese. So do many Kandyan Sinhalese who come in the season to cultivate the fields now as tenant farmers or labourers (in lands which they owned once) live with Tamil women and there is a sizable mixed population resulting from these unions. Even the more recent Sinhalese immigrant from the South during the last two centuries are with Tamils. So have many Veddas intermarried with Tamils at the lower social strata. It is really a field for the Social Scientist to investigate — what has been described in Neluka Silva’s edition of "The Hybrid Island."

*The so called Cleghorn minute, is taken from the nearly 400 page book by J Burnand. He is a Swedish soldier, in the services of the Dutch and then the British. He helps with the suppression of the revolt against the Indian amildars, administrators brought from Madras to Ceylon. He drafts another 'memoir' on the North and Northeast, in which he locates the origins of the Sinhalese in Siam and mentions that from time immemorial Sinhalese and Tamils had divided the rule of the island between the two of them. When reading this books it becomes clear, that his inspiration for this book has been non other than the 'Yalapana Vaipava Malai'. A book written in 1736 at the request of the then Dutch governor, by a member of the South Indian immigrant labour force.Then in 1799, the English translation of Burnand's memoir of 1798 becomes known as the 'Cleghorn minute'.