Sri Lanka’s indigenous people

The indigenous Vedda of Sri Lanka are the heirs of an existence dating back to the Mesolithic (middle stone age) era of southern Asia. The island has been inhabited by stone age societies for about 30,000 years with evidence discovered in the Archaeological Survey of Ceylon 1898 under British colonial rule.

These indigenous people of Sri Lanka, the Vedda, have been recorded in the ancient palm leaf chronicle Mahavamsa (a continuous historical record of Sri Lanka, written in Pāli, going back to Lord Buddha ‘s time). The term Vedda (or hunter) is derived from Sanskrit (vyadha) and is the name given by the Sinhalese, while Vaden is the term used in Tamil. However, the Vedda people refer to themselves as Vanniyaletto (forest or nature dwellers).

 Unique Heritage and International Concern

Sri Lankan Vedda

Sri Lankan Vedda c1930
Courtesy: Lankapura Images of Sri Lanka

In ancient Sri Lanka, forest dwellers were referred to as Yakka by Chinese Buddhist pilgrims who stated they were found in the southeast of the country. Another group known as the Naga were present at the arrival of the Sinhala with Prince Vijaya in the 5th century BC. In the Mahavamsa it was the indigenous princess Kuweni from the forest dweller community who married Prince Vijaya, who became the first Sinhala king. With this marriage the Sinhalese claim partial hereditary descent from the Vedda.

The Veddas have maintained cultural traditions as a distinctive group which are different from those of present-day Sinhalese and Tamils. They believe in the transmigration of human spirit that allows for their ancestors, known as na yakku, to assist with matters of the living. Each person in the community is enabled to call on na yakku for specific assistance.

The Vedda community represents a sphere of cultural expression that requires world attention in conserving a folk diversity that is rapidly disappearing in the modern era. With the established cultural monuments in Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Galle  making international heritage rosters by the Sri Lankan government and UNESCO, the intangible living heritage that exists in Sri Lanka has been treated as a mere curiosity. Today the community has reduced to a few thousand Veddas who are divided into two classes. The Kele Weddo or jungle Veddas who still cling tenaciously to their traditional heritage, and the Gan Weddo, or semi-civilized village Vedda who have adapted to subsistence farming. The Sri Lankan government recently committed to fulfilling the indigenous community’s aspirations, recognising their contribution to the cultural identity of the country in a ceremony on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

- Material taken from the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association Bulletin 26, 2006 and other sources