Vedda people are a minority indigenous community who is considered the oldest ethnic group in Sri Lanka. Their history dates back to the 6th century BC. Unlike the other ethnic groups and major communities in Sri Lanka, they have stayed true to their original lifestyle for centuries. They are also the last indigenous tribe in Sri Lanka.
In the present, the Vedda people can be mainly found in the south-central jungles of Sri Lanka. While they try to stay away from mainstream society, it is hard for them to totally stay away as a tribe. Hence, it can be just a matter of time until the Vedda community is extinct from Sri Lanka. Until then, the Vedda tribe will stay as an iconic community to live on this historic island. Keep reading to know every aspect of the lifestyle of the Vedda community.
Origin of Vedda People in Sri Lanka
There are several stories on the origin of the Vedda people. According to the Mahavamsa, the historic chronicle of Sri Lanka, the Vedda people have descended from the yakka tribe.
Kuveni was a princess of the Yakka tribe. She married the first king of Sri Lanka, King Vijaya, and had two children. Later on, Kuveni and their children were banished from King Vijaya to marry a South Indian princess and she was banished from her own tribe as well. So, her children started living in the jungles of Sri Lanka and Mahavamsa points out this as the origin of the Vedda people.
However, some studies have shown that their origin can be traced to times way before that. Some claim that the Veddas have been living in Sri Lanka since the stone age. Nevertheless, Veddas take great pride in their community as the first and original inhabitants of Sri Lanka.
Traditions and Culture of Vedda People in Sri Lanka
As a tribal group, the Vedda people have a unique lifestyle with interesting traditions and their own culture. Their alienated lifestyle from the main society is actually very interesting. As with many tribal indigenous groups, the Vedda people are also traditional hunters who live in primitive homes in the middle of forested areas. Here are some fascinating details on the traditions and culture of the Vedda people.
Bond with Nature
There’s an everlasting bond between the Vedda people and nature. First of all, they have their villages built inside the forest. So basically, their whole lives revolve around nature.
Originally, they used to dwell in caves but later they built homes with the things they can find from the environment such as mud, sticks, and leaves. Their livelihood is mainly hunting and gathering. Therefore, they spend a good amount of the daytime in the woods. As a whole, the Vedda people gain almost all the necessary resources from nature. Earlier, even their clothes were made out of animal skins and leaves. Likewise, the Veddas made sure to stay closely connected to nature.
On the other hand, it should also be noted that Veddas have an eco-friendly lifestyle. They totally depend on nature, and they don’t cause any harm to the environment. In fact, Veddas have so much respect and gratitude towards the environment. They believe that some natural entities can have a spiritual essence. So, the Veddas are conscious of environmental conservation which will support their survival in return. Besides, it is fair to say that Veddas are a part of nature.
Language, and Education of Vedda People in Sri Lanka
Vedda people have their own language which is influenced by Sinhala. Of course, it is a spoken language as it is used within the Vedda community. Still, it is also identified as an endangered language. However, it is very different from the Sinhala language and Sinhalese people find it difficult to comprehend the Vedda language. For instance, in the Vedda language, there is a higher frequency of palatal sounds and the addition of inanimate suffixes. Besides, many Veddas now use Sinhala for convenience.
Earlier, Veddas believed in informal education methods and the children learned about things from their parents and experience. So Vedda’s children didn’t attend school. But now, Vedda’s children also attend government schools and follow the normal education system in Sri Lanka as many of them like to pursue a career path, unlike their parents.
Beliefs of Vedda People in Sri Lanka
Most of the beliefs of the Vedda people are woven around nature. In fact, they have several ritual dance performances and ceremonies dedicated to natural entities like trees, rain, and the sun. Furthermore, they believe in demonic spirits and minor gods as well.
Apart from that, the Vedda community worships their dead ancestors. Vedda people also participate in Buddhist and Hindu rituals. So, it is clear that the Vedda community has a wide spectrum in its belief system.
Costumes of Vedda People in Sri Lanka
Earlier, Veddas used to create their clothing from animal skins and leaves. Since they lived inside jungles, they had less exposure to the fashion trends of the outside world. However, later on, the Vedda people also adapted to clothing items but still, it was noticeably scanty.
Vedda men wore a loincloth that was secured around their waist. Vedda women wore a cloth that covered them from their waist to knees. Young Vedda children often stayed naked. Such a simple garment was enough as it was easier for them in hunting and gathering. Later on, Veddas started using more covering clothes. Accordingly, the Vedda men started wearing short sarongs and women started wearing a garment that covers from their breasts to knees.
In the present also, Vedda people wear more traditional costumes. In addition, Vedda men carry an axe wherever they go. Such simple and traditional attire is the most suitable for their lifestyle. But, Vedda women wear clothes like blouses and long skirts now. They also wear contemporary clothing items more, now that they have to blend with society.
Food Traditions of Vedda People in Sri Lanka
Since Veddas obtain their food from nature around them, they can always eat fresh food. So their food is both eco-friendly and healthy.
Their diet usually comprises different kinds of meat and organic vegetables. They hunt animals like rabbits, monitor lizards, wild boar, and deer with bows and arrows. However, there is a principle system that Veddas follow when hunting. They never hunt young or pregnant animals. Veddas also catch fish using a plant-based poison. Then, Veddas gather wild plants, yams, honey, fruit, and nuts from the jungle. Nowadays, they also engage in agriculture. But it is fascinating how they don’t disturb the soil structure unnecessarily in agriculture. Veddas don’t use chemical fertilizers either. Now they mostly eat rice and curries prepared with the things they hunt and grow.
Besides, the Vedda community follows very efficient food traditions. First of all, they make sure to hunt and gather only the amount they need. Further, they will never let the excess go to waste. For example, if there’s more meat, they will preserve it for future use. Usually, they smoke the meat or preserve it in honey. As such, they still find their food using the traditional methods. Likewise, the Vedda people have very unique and interesting food traditions.
Family Culture of Vedda People in Sri Lanka
A family is an important unit within the Vedda community. There are several Vedda villages where the Vedda people live as one community. Mostly, Veddas have separate homes for nuclear families. But, there are also homes where extended families live together. The family members work together and share their meals. Anyway, as all the Vedda families live together in the same village, most of them are related in one way or another.
All children irrespective of their gender have the same rights in matters like inheritance. In some Vedda communities, a daughter’s inheritance is given to her husband in marriage but this is not considered to be a dowry. There are usually many kids in a Vedda family. Parents and siblings raise the kids and help them to socialize in the community.
Wedding Traditions of Vedda People in Sri Lanka
Wedding ceremonies of the Vedda community are highly significant among the wedding traditions in Sri Lanka. In fact, a marriage is celebrated with a simple ceremony in the Vedda community. The bride brings a bark rope to the ceremony which is hand-woven by her. She ties that bark rope around her groom’s waist. This symbolizes that she has accepted that man to be her husband.
Earlier, Veddas used to marry their cross cousins. But this tradition has changed drastically over time due to many reasons. Now, Vedda people marry non-relatives within the community and even outside the community as well. The newly married couple usually moves to their own household after marriage. They built a house close to the household of one of their parents.
Arts, Dance, and Literature
As an indigenous community, the Vedda people also have their own art forms. They usually use art in relation to their lifestyle and connection to nature.
Vedda cave drawings are considered to be historically valuable as they depict certain aspects of their lives through primitive drawings. They are often used to study the ancient Vedda people. Vedda people also have unique music and dance traditions. For example, they have a unique and interesting tone and lyrics for their music. Their dance performances are rhythmic and most of the time related to their beliefs. Now, there are mainstream music and dance performances in Sri Lanka that have been highly influenced by Vedda arts. Veddas usually perform their music and dance on special occasions and perahera festivals as well.
While there isn’t any written literature by the Vedda community, the lyrics to their songs and hymns reveal much of their creativity. One of the significant aspects of Vedda arts is that they have used the priorities of their lives such as nature, beliefs, and lifestyle as the subjects of their artistic work. All in all, the unique artistic values add more value to Sri Lankan culture and traditions.
Veddas practice different funeral rituals while hosting a simple ceremony.
When a member of the Vedda community dies, they place the corpse in a tree trunk, bury it in a grave, and then cover it with soil and leaves. The head of the tribe performs some rituals such as placing three open coconuts and a bundle of wood to mark the grave and placing an open coconut and an untouched coconut at the foot of the grave. Also, they plant some cactus species at the head, middle, and foot of the grave. The dead person’s personal belongings are also placed in the grave along with the corpse.
Besides, the Veddas in Dambana follow different rituals if a member dies of sickness. In such cases, they leave the corpse in a cave or a rock shelter without bathing or dressing the body. Then, they cover the body with leaves and branches. They also leave a stone on the chest of the corpse. So, when considering all these traditions, it is clear that their funeral rituals have been formed according to their myths and beliefs.
Life after Death
The Vedda community has a tradition of worshipping the dead. It is more like practicing a cult of the dead. According to this, they worship spirits and perform certain rituals for them. Veddas have a belief that dead spirits can bring them diseases and bad luck. So, in order to protect themselves from such crises, they invoke blessings from the spirits.
Vedda Community at Present in Sri Lanka
Now, there’s only a small amount of Veddas left in Sri Lanka. In fact, the Vedda community ranges between 5000 – 10000 members. With urbanization and modernization, the Vedda people don’t live within the walls of their villages anymore. In fact, they can’t stay limited only to their community.
With deforestation and new rules, their lives and livelihood are kind of in danger. On the other hand, now that Vedda children are receiving formal education, they are seeking employment and higher education in urban areas. So, even though the Vedda community tries to stay loyal to their traditional lifestyle as much as possible, there are moments that they have to move on with the world. As a result, the culture of the Vedda community has gone through several changes. Here’s how the Vedda people live in Sri Lanka in the present.
Where do Veddas Live?
Dambana is the most popular and the largest Vedda village in Sri Lanka. It is located in the Badulla District of Uva province. The closest major town to Dambana is Mahiyangana. This area is home to many Vedda people where they can live according to their culture.
Dambana is unlike any other rural area of the country. The homes and other buildings are created in the most primitive methods. The Vedda community is living in Dambana with nature according to their traditional roots and customs away from the hustle-bustle of the city. There is also a museum in Dambana which carries many artifacts on the history and culture of the Vedda community. Owing to these reasons, this beautiful small village is now a tourist hotspot in the Badulla district.
There are sub-communities in the Vedda community as coast Veddas, Anuradhapura Veddas, and Bintenne Veddas. The coastal Veddas live in some small coastal villages in the Eastern province. There is a belief that this community has descended from the Vedda people and also the local Tamils. However, most of them identify themselves as a caste among the Sri Lankan Tamils. Anuradhapura Veddas used to live in the North Central province of Sri Lanka. However, they are hard to identify separately as now they live mixed with the Sinhalese community. Bintenne Veddas live in the southeast of the island in Dambana which is also close to the Gal Oya National park. They also live as one community in a small village like in Dambana.
The Livelihood of Vedda People in Sri Lanka
The traditional livelihood of the Vedda community is hunting and gathering. But this has changed over time as now the Veddas can’t depend solely on such traditional livelihoods. With urbanization, the land area for the Veddas to live and hunt has been limited. Then, life inside the jungle is getting more difficult day by day for practical reasons. Now, they need to earn money to fulfill their other needs. Hence, many Veddas now engage in agriculture and trade.
Besides, the tribal villages of the Vedda community in Sri Lanka are now popular as major tourist attractions. So, they have started earning money from engaging in the tourist industry as well. In fact, some villages are maintained in the traditional manner to portray their ancient history to attract tourists.
Education and exposure to the outside society have made the younger Vedda generations more interested in mainstream society. As a result, the Vedda children have the ability to engage in various other professions with the help of education. So, they tend to alienate from their tribal lifestyle and adapt to a more normal lifestyle. Even the parents now have a more understanding of the value of education. Therefore, they encourage their children to study and go ahead with modern society. Thus, as a whole, it can be noticed that modern influences have a major impact on the current livelihoods of the Vedda community.
Leader of the Vedda Community
Vedda communities have their own leaders. They have a lot of respect towards their leader and basically, the whole community functions according to the word of their leader.
Mostly, the Vedda community follows nepotism in appointing a leader to the group. The current chief of the Vedda community is Uruwarige Wannila Atto. He lives in the Vedda village in Dambana. He is popular as an intelligent, well-traveled, and also experienced leader. As a matter of fact, he is a very famous personality not only among the Vedda community but among all the Sri Lankans. Many praise him for his humbleness and kindness as a leader.
The chief always prioritizes the tribe and their culture. He acts as the protector and the advisor of the whole community. In accordance with the current system, he acts as the voice of his people to solve their problems. The community chief has two sons who will ascend the leadership after him. Apart from the main chief of the community, the small Vedda villages also have their own leaders. These leaders help in maintaining order and stability within the community.
Visit Veddas of Sri Lanka
You must be fascinated by getting to know about the unique and interesting lifestyle of the Sri Lankan indigenous community. Meanwhile, you may be excited to visit a Vedda village. Keep calm, because you have ample opportunities to arrange a tour to a Vedda village to see for yourself how Veddas live and learn interesting facts about the indigenous community.
Dambana village in Mahiyangana is one of the best places as such to visit to get to know all about the Vedda people. It is better if you can spend a full day in the village to get the most out of the experience. On a tour to the Dambana village, you can stay a night in a village camp and witness a traditional dance performance as well. If not, you can go on a trekking tour to the scenic jungle and observe how Veddas engage in hunting and gathering. Also, if you are lucky enough, you will be able to take a photograph with chief Uruwarige Wannila Atto. Obviously, this would be an extraordinary experience that you can obtain in Sri Lanka.
Some service providers even arrange stay-ins with the tribal group. You can live like a member of the Vedda community for some days and get a quality experience on their amazing lifestyle. It is better if you can go with a tour guide as you will be able to know all the interesting facts about the community. Anyhow, always remember to behave respectfully when visiting the Vedda village as you are stepping into their homeland and not just a tourist destination.
The Bottom Line
Indigenous communities are often the original settlers of a country. Likewise, the Vedda community is the representation of Indigenous communities in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, they are also a shrinking community of the country. Still, the Vedda people are an important tribe in Sri Lanka because of their unique customs, traditions, and lifestyles. It is amazing how they have preserved their original traditions and culture for such a long time. And yes, their culture and traditions are worth exploring. So, when you arrive in Sri Lanka, make sure you visit a Vedda village to witness the simple lifestyles of the Vedda community. Happy and safe traveling!